RIP Philip Roth, prophet of political correctness

One of my favorite authors, Philip Roth, died recently, leaving a magnificent body of work. Unlike other personal faves, Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud, who composed mostly in the key of J (for “Jewish”; Malamud’s The Natural is an exception), Roth’s versatility was truly impressive.

In Indignation (2008), a young man bucks the system of compulsory college “convocations” (which I underwent). He stands on principle, and it all ends badly for him.

In The Plot Against America (2004), a charismatic, demagogic, rightwing ignoramus with 100% name recognition – Charles Lindbergh – is elected President. Sound familiar?

A single word

Calling (out) my fellow linguists

Our society is divided by many conflicting forces, but two of them are in our face almost all the time, roiling America like the whirling blades of the old MixMaster – and causing just as much confusion.

Both are related to the field in which I was trained – linguistics. Both center on language – not surprising, since language is a multi-purpose tool without which we would not be human.

I think of them as two mega-issues, each with a constellation of sub- and intersecting issues.

Hate speech and fighting words

What ABC could — and should — have said

Draft ABC press release — full-page ads in all print media; also release to all online news outlets (alternate universe):

New York, NY – June 1, 2018.

To all our advertisers, our staff, our viewers, and all the citizens of our great and FREE country….

We at ABC have experienced a firestorm of criticism for the on-line behavior of Roseanne Barr. To those who are apoplectic with politically-correct rage, we say: calm down.

We will not fire Roseanne or cancel her show over her behavior outside the workplace.

As offensive as her tweet was, it was just words. I repeat: just words.

Forensic linguistics featured in New Yorker piece

To introduce the next post, here’s my response to a New Yorker piece on forensic linguistics. The article is in the print version and at .

Dear Editor,

As a practicing forensic linguist, I thoroughly enjoyed your article on the profession – but with mixed feelings.

It was gratifying to see forensic linguistics, which is not as sexy or yucky as rape kits and maggots but provides valuable information and deserves its own CSI segment, getting long-deserved respect.

The forensic linguist and the Artful Dodger: Can people deliberately fake their writing style?

Perhaps 25% of the cases I handle involve the authorship of anonymous, disputed, or forged documents.  The client wants to know who’s writing those nasty, threatening emails or letters.  I typically ask the client for writing samples from the suspected author.  Sometimes there’s more than one suspect, and I have to decide which of them may be the author of the anonymous document(s).

I don’t use computers or statistics (what do they give you but numbers and probabilities, which still require interpretation?).  I analyze the text in the traditional manner, which involves the tools and techniques of the discipline known as “stylistics.”

“Google” goes generic

Some years ago, right around this time of year, a geek site, as an April Fools prank, launched a new product — unicorn meat – which it called “the new white meat,” and lawyers for the National Pork Board issue a cease-and-desist order, because they’ve gone to great lengths to copyright “the other white meat” as a synonym for “pork,” and the new product might cause consumer confusion (or “trademark dilution,” as they sometimes call it).

I’m not going to tell those lawyers to lighten up – they get paid big bucks to defend their trademark vigorously, by which I mean they make sure it is associated with their product and no other.

Stylistic analysis/stylometrics – a concise statement

The following description is taken from an affidavit by Gerald R. McMenamin, one of the leading scholars in the field; the affidavit – from Case 1:10-cv-00569-RJA -LGF Document 50 Filed 06/02/11

As part of his expert witness statement, McMenamin describes the theoretical and practical foundation of the method by which he examined documents and determined that they were not written by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerman. See, :

These are the principles I apply to my authorship analyses

Principles of stylistic analysis

When a lawyer needs a linguist

When does a lawyer need a linguist?

As Roger Shuy, one of the most pre-eminent forensic linguists, has observed, the interpretation and application of the law are overwhelmingly about language.  Thus, there are many situations in which the expertise of a linguist – someone trained in the precise description and analysis of language (but not necessarily a person who knows many languages) – can make substantial contributions to a case, providing evidence one way or the other or simply clarifying the linguistic principles, problems, and processes that the case involves.

Here are some of legal specialties in which linguistic expertise can prove valuable to the attorney:

Basis forensic skills: How text-sensitive are you?

A forensic linguist must be exquisitely sensitive to nuances of text.  Where a synonym exists, the very choice of each word represents a decision on the part of the author.  Superimposed upon that is the way toward is spelled, abbreviated or capitalized. Truly, a text is a tangle of choices.

The following are intended to test your potential as a forensic linguist. There are two exercises from Forensic Linguistics: An Introduction to Language, Crime and the Law, by John Olsson (New York: Continuum, 2004).

(1) From page 193:

Note ALL peculiarities in the following text.

I was wrong: p.c. can go even lower

Just when I thought the absurdity of political correctness/perceived insult exemplified by the contrived controversy over the “lighter is better” beer commercial could not be topped, along comes p.c.’s most ludicrous artifact yet: new pronouns.

A couple of days ago, I watched in shock and awe as Tucker Carlson interviewed a woman who explained them:

As a linguist, I am as liberal and objective as possible about language change.  (Even I have my own annoyances: I will continue to say home in on and not hone in on till my dying day, just as I will cringe when somebody says “proverbial” about something that is merely familiar, but not in an actual proverb, as in “It’s just another case of the proverbial sour grapes.”)

Trump, Trump, Trump: desperately seeking synonyms

Charles Dickens is famous for giving his characters whimsical names that often reflect their personalities.  “Scrooge” is probably the best-known, unmistakably conveying a grasping miserliness in almost tangible terms.

If Dickens had written about a vulgar, aggressive billionaire intent on seeking power, crushing his enemies, and emblazoning his name around the world, he could hardly have chosen a better name than “Trump.”

But we’re not talking about a literary character.  Trump is a real person who makes sure his name is repeated 24/7 in every possible mass-media outlet.

“Lighter is better”: Political correctness hits a new low

I have been bitching about political correctness for decades (e.g., “Why we love to hate p.c.,” Toastmaster magazine, June 1996; copies available on request) to no avail, and it keeps getting worse.  The list of offensive words has grown and grown.  New terms have appeared – “trigger words,” “hate speech,” “micro-aggressions” — as grievance groups continuously refine their exquisite sensitivities.

A recent example: you can’t refer to America as a “land of opportunity.”  Because not everybody has (or had) the same opportunities?

Forbidden words

For a quick — but accurate — summary of political rhetoric, read this

This is as good a summary of political rhetoric as I’ve seen:

“Political speeches are rarely occasions for truth-telling. But the good ones combine a description of shared reality with the expression of a vision, or with words of celebration. The mediocre ones consist of platitudes—well-intentioned but lacking the force of inspiration or recognition. And then there is the genre of the thoroughly insincere pronouncement that is all empty ritual. This is not normally observed in countries with functioning democratic institutions, because hollow words are the very opposite of accountability. These kinds of speeches are usually given in dictatorships: their intended audience is not the public but the tyrant. This is what we observed in Washington on Wednesday, and it’s the scariest part of Trump’s big tax triumph.” (Masha Gessen, The New Yorker.)

Is Stephen Miller making policy decisions?  Who is Stephen Miller?

The answer to the second question is easier than the answer to the first.  Miller is from Santa Monica and, by whatever circuitous paths speechwriters’ careers take (and there are some weird ones), he is writing the President’s speeches.  At least, that’s the only source for Trump’s formal rhetoric that I could find.  Usually by this time, we know who’s writing the President’s speeches and where they come from.

At least, I do – I look for these things.

She judges you when you use poor grammar

Amazon just informed me of a book, by Sharon Eliza Nichols, entitled I Judge You When You Use Poor Grammar: A Collection of Egregious Errors, Disconcerting Bloopers, and Other Linguistic Slip-Ups (Paperback – September 29, 2009).

In fact, there’s a whole series of books around the “More Badder Grammar” rubric. Of course, I’ll order the book and review it more extensively (if such extensiveness is merited; it may not be).

But I already have an idea of what it’s about. Here’s the blurb on the site…/0312533012/ref=pe_375410_246941470…

So, like, what’s up with this new use of “so”?

I like to watch language change the way many people like to see the seasons change – in fact, I like them both. Language change is the more unpredictable, yet, like the eternal revolution of heat and cold, it is inevitable and inexorable.
English existed as a language as early as the 5th century AD, with the arrival (make that “invasion”) of three dialect groups from the German mainland. But it sounded thoroughly Germanic, with lots of suffixes we lack, no pronoun “she,” and minus all the thousands of French and Latin words that came in during the Middle Ages.
Over the centuries, there were, for numerous reasons, profound changes in syntax and pronunciation. I would say that the earliest English we could understand would come from the late 17th century, and even then there would be a lot of unfamiliar vocabulary. Just remember that when you see a film set in the Middle Ages (or, even worse, in the time of King Arthur, when nobody spoke English), and they‘re all talking with modern British accents. It’s a copout! In fact, the English of the 1200s would be so different from Modern English that we would need subtitles.
Recent changes in English
The dawn of my consciousness as a linguist establishes sort of a baseline; it’s when I really started paying attention. Back then, “February and “library” had two “r”’s each, there as only one “u” in “nu-CLEE-ar” (not “nu-cu-lar”).
“Go” was reserved for animal sounds (“Pigs go ‘oink’”). Now people can go, as in “He arrived at ten, and I go, ‘You’re late!’” Other verbs of speech reporting have appeared, noted below.
“Like,” formerly a preposition and clause introducer (the latter usage was controversial: does anyone remember “Winston tastes good like [it should be AS] a cigarette should”?), is now a verbal hiccup which enables the speaker to distance himself from his/her/statement, e.g., “Like, I couldn’t tell him that, like, I’m like so bored.” “Like” in this usage is a syllable of non-commitment. It is the near-ubiquitous “as-if” signal of people unwilling to stand behind what they say or perhaps unable to find a more accurate word.
“They” has taken over, at least in colloquial speech and writing, as a pronoun for an indefinite antecedent (“A doctor might use the new drug on their patient.”). I see it in print.
We’ve acquired new syntactic speech mannerisms, e.g., postposed NOT to convey irony, as in ”I’ll be there tomorrow – NOT”…or postposed interrogatives, e.g., ”And you would be…?” or “”So you are here because…” as if the speaker is saving the hearer the trouble of deciphering the inverted English question syntax (”Why are you here?”) and providing an easy, fill-in-the blank way to respond.
“Home in on” – what a missile or homing pigeon does – is being replaced, rather quickly, by “hone in on,” with its connotations of sharpness and focus. I see that one in print, too.
With all of this as background, I consider a linguistic item brought to my attention by Steve, the friend of a friend.
“So” — what???
He asks: “Is anyone else annoyed by all the people answering every question with the adverb ‘so’? Example question: ‘How deep is the ocean?’ Example answer: ‘So, it depends where you measure.’ Is this new verbal cliché confined to academics and political analysts on NPR (where I just heard it in virtually every answer on Science Friday) or has it infected young people everywhere? Seems to be joining, ‘I was like…,’ she was all…’ and other verbal sludge in our language. Harrumph!
“I’ve noticed it and wondered. It’s not the traditional connective you might have expected meaning “therefore, as a result of.” It’s more of an enclitic, like “well,” a pause, a way to regroup and go on with an answer. [Not quite: an enclitic is a reduced word at the end of a word, like the “r” at the end of “yes’r,” a contracted form of “yes sir.” – AMP]”
 “Mistake” = change in progress?
As always, when we see a “mistake” or an innovation that pisses people off, it is evidence of change in the language system, and we gotta chill out and try to see what’s going on. Language is, in the title of John MacWhorter’s new book, always “on the move.”
People don’t know that until recently, “transpire” originally meant ‘to become known’ (trans + spire = “breathe across”), rather than ‘to happen.’ Happening vs. becoming known – important difference lost.
The verbal mannerism Steve notes is new to me but not unrelated to the other meanings of “so,” in this case continuative (“The store was closed, so we left.”). “So” apparently now means ‘thus, in order to continue the discussion.’ But it may mean nothing at all, beyond being a boundary marker, like sentence-initial “now” in many contexts (“Now, if we turn to the next topic…”). And of course, any innovation that spreads through a social group like NPR Nation can become definitive of group membership – “So, I’m so cool, I start sentences with ‘so.’”
One final example for Steve: In the last century, the progressive passive (“The house is being built”) was ridiculed as verbal sludge. But it moved in and is now fully accepted, even though we already had “the house is a-building.”
Of course Steve and I wouldn’t say “I’m all…” and “He goes…” — we’re over 15. We very consciously adopt age-appropriate expressions. But the word “cool,” in an area of language that changes very rapidly – terms of (dis)approbation – seems eternal and sounds fine, no matter who says it. And that’s cool.

Reply to student: suggested authorship project

This rarest of all things — a legitimate letter from Nigeria (at least, I think — it didn’t ask for money) landed in my in-box:
Hello Dr. Alan. I am N__________from Nigeria. I am a student of Stylistics at the University of Ilorin, Nigeria. My professor requested for a term paper on ‘Forensic Stylistics’ and I happened to stumble on your website while searching for useful materials.
Sir, I must confess that I am at a dead end and I would appreciate whatever help you can render.
[In fairness to the professor, he/she might well have assigned reading materials, but getting from there to a paper is another matter. You can’t just recycle what your sources say. And original insights about new, sophisticated material are very hard for a beginner. So how about a project, an application, a demonstration that you know the methods and that they work? My reply:].
Dear N_______
For this project, you will need six classmates, to provide enough data. Ask each of them for 5-6 emails, preferably of several paragraphs in length. No text messages. All writing in English. The emails don’t have to be identified by writer, just by number or letter. Or you can use their names. Then ask one (you won’t know which one) of the six to give you another sample, unsigned. (Variation: provide a seventh sample, from a completely different person.)
Your task is to use stylistic analysis to determine who wrote the anonymous email. Your term paper will explain all of the above, plus an assessment of the success/failure your analysis — hopefully, you guessed the mystery writer. This is very similar to many of the authorship cases I do.
Best regards and best of luck,
Alan Perlman

PS: Language judgments and prejudices

A PS to the previous post:

We judge people by the way they speak, by which I mean we apply to them the generalizations we have gleaned from past associations with people who speak that way. I caution against being too hasty with these snap judgments. There are very good reasons why a non-stupid person would not be able to keep the homonyms straight. Maybe the writer is a bright, well-educated foreigner who is still learning English. Maybe there’s some kind of language disorder in an otherwise intelligent person. You can think of others – and you should, in order to avoid pre-judging people.

Linguist looks at 2nd Amendment

One thing I understand about New Hampshire, after eight years here, is that the state’s bold and famous motto, “live free or die,” refers mainly to the second half of the 2nd Amendment.

A few years ago, its (not my) Legislature was considering laws that will make concealed-carry easier and (this one really make me roll my eyes) allow guns at sporting events and other places where alcohol is available.

They recently passed a new concealed-carry law: now you don’t have to have a license with you.