Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Bin Laden and his tape recorder

So, there you are, a journalist at the Al-Jazeera TV station, feet up on the desk, having a nice cup of coffee and a nap between assignments, when what pops through the post box but another tape from Osama Bin Laden? Hurrah! What's he got to say this time? Well, all sorts of things about war and peace, but what is interesting to the student of language is the debate about whether or not the tapes are authentic: is this really Osama Bin Laden's voice? Remember the article about the call-girl blogger (see "Linguistic fingerprints" below if not...)? Well, we're back to forensic linguistics again, only this time we're analysing recorded speech, not written text.

The CIA claim that they are certain the tape is authentic. Hmmm, a bit like Tony Blair claiming he was certain that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction pretty much primed and ready to fire at Big Ben, because likewise, the scientific community upon whose evidence these political statements are made are a whole lot less certain. Yes, the linguists have highly sophisticated human and computerised systems for very precise analysis of spoken data, but the task is complex and certainty almost impossible - particularly with the kinds of lo-fi technology Osama Bin Laden (or his looky-likey) is using.

Nonetheless, it is interesting to know just how they decide whether or not tapes like these are what they purport to be. And if this one isn't, it prompts the question, is Osama Bin Laden dead, or merely hiding out with Elvis?

Check out how forensic linguists and/or the CIA do it, and post me a note with your thoughts. Career at MI5 anyone?

How do you authenticate a sound recording?


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