I just finished “The Kingdom of Speech,” by Tom Wolfe (2016, Little, Brown), author of “The Right Stuff” (about the first astronauts), “Bonfire of the Vanities” (a shot at NY’s elites), “A Man in Full,” (about the vulgar wealth of the New South), and many others I enjoyed immensely. Apart from his stylistic peculiarities, Wolfe brings the informed layman’s perspective, which he fills in with rich detail and tells you things you weren’t aware you didn’t know, e.g., in “Right Stuff,” that ”burned beyond recognition” is often a sanitized way of saying “barbecued into a human turkey,” which Wolfe describes in detail.
An intro to the blog. What is a linguist? To a lot of people, it’s someone who knows multiple languages. But to many other people, including most who call themselves “linguists,” it is somebody who is fascinated by language.
That’s the first prerequisite. That’s why George Carlin, with his exquisite ear for language, is a linguist, despite not having a PhD, while Noam Chomsky, with his tin ear for how people actually speak, is just a wannabe.
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.”
All of a sudden, Plagiarism Rand Paul gets over 40 MILLION Google hits. But the charge is somewhat bogus.
Plagiarism, in my experience, is one of those charges that is meant to question someone’s basic integrity. Whether true or not (and it’s hard to decide; see below), the mere accusation brings stigma. I have more than once been consulted about a plagiarism charge, groundless upon investigation but meant to be part of a general moral attack. Let’s throw everything against the wall and see what sticks.
By Alan M. Perlman.
A geek site, as an April Fools prank, launches a new product — unicorn meat – which it calls “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).
By Alan M. Perlman.
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.
June 13, 2004, Sunday
A LINGUAL PARADIGM SHIFT
By Amy Joyce
Susannah Rast got a letter from her employer at the beginning of the year that said the company was “implementing a reduction in force to your position.”Not only did her boss not say she was being let go, but it was additionally laughable because this “reduction in force” was in an office of just 12 people. And she was the only one let go.
If we can set aside, just for a moment, our passions about “The Passion,” we can view it as a movie with some really good linguistic special effects.
Below is the full text version of an article entitled “The Jesuit scholar who translated ‘The Passion'” (by Nathan Bierma, Special to the Tribune. Chicago Tribune, Mar 4, 2004). The footnote numbers refer to my comments at the end.
Obscured by the furor surrounding Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” is one relatively mundane bit of trivia: Last week’s debut marked the widest release ever of a subtitled film in North America.
THE WAY WE LIVE NOW: 8-10-03; Sexed Texts
By Charles McGrath (NYT) 1113 words
Men — as we know now, thanks to investigators like Dr. John Gray — are from Mars, women from Venus. On our respective planets we, or our ancestors, learned to do certain things differently: shop, argue, deploy the TV clicker. To this ever-expanding list we must now add writing. Not writing in the literal sense of making marks on a page — though clearly there are vast differences there as well (legibility must be more prized on Venus) — but writing as linguistic expression. This is slightly different from conversation, in which, as Deborah Tannen, another of the scholars in the Venus-Mars debate, has taught us, the differences between men and women are so vast as to be almost unbridgeable without years of therapy.
(from Forensic Linguistics: Advances in Forensic Stylistics, by Gerald R. McMenamin, CRC Press, 2002).
Q: What is the role of the analyst’s intuition?
A: Intuition is the analyst’s use of his or her own judgment to discover linguistic variation and suggest initial hypotheses to investigate. As a speaker or writer of the language and as a linguist, the analyst uses introspection to start the process of analysis. Lakoff comments, on the use of introspection and informal observation that, “… any procedure is at some point introspective…” (Lakoff, 19705:5). A good discussion of the methodological role of intuition in linguistic research can be found in B. Johnstone, Qualitative Methods in Sociolinguistics, Oxford University Press, New York, 2000.
Although it employs the methods and concepts of modern linguistics (and sometimes makes use of statistical analysis and computer databases), forensic linguistics is at least 200 years old.
According to Gerald R. McMenamin (Forensic Linguistics: Advances in Forensic Stylistics), “hundreds of studies — in the form of journal articles and books — have been done on style, stylistics, and questioned authorship. German studies of Old Testament authorship date back at least to the middle of the 19th century. In addition, evidence has been presented in multiple court cases, and numerous judicial opinions have been documented based on evidence of forensic stylistics.
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 the word 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 suppose I should not be shocked by the trivialization, in the popular view, of the discipline to which I devoted so many years of my life and still consider myself a practitioner: linguistics — the objective, scientific study of language. I’m not surprised because many sciences get trivialized. The ongoing search for knowledge of nutrition spawns health fads and new diets galore. The data of biology and astrophysics are twisted to support crackpot theories of creationism. The bewilderingly complex study of climate change is as polluted by politics and emotion as the environment is itself polluted with human, toxic waste.
It’s not often that forensic linguistics makes the news. It’s not nearly as sexy or yucky as the forensics that originates in the pathologist’s lab or at the murder site. There’s actually a scientific book, called Men, Murder, and Maggots, that tells you how to determine when someone was killed, on the basis of the type of parasites that are now feasting on the corpse.
When does a lawyer need a linguist?
More basically, what is a linguist?
There are many different kinds, dozens of areas of emphasis. Ultimately one becomes one’s own kind of linguist, depending on where one’s interest and preferences lead.
I’m always interested in real data – not interested in voguishly Chomskian sterile theorizing. My honors thesis was a study of African-American dialect in the fiction of Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and others.
My doctoral thesis was an analysis of actual speech data (Hawaiian English), recorded, as spontaneous as it could be with an observer present. The social sciences are a clear case of observer influence – you don’t have to resort to quantum physics to see it.
“Epithets, like pepper / Give zest to what you write; / And if you strew them sparely, / They whet the appetite: / But if you lay them on too thick, / You spoil the matter quite!”
Lewis Carroll, “Poeta fit, non Nascitur,” 1869
“A good style should show no signs of effort. What is written should seem a happy accident.”
W. Somerset Maugham, “The Summing Up,” 1938
Leave it to a linguist to obsess over the use of a single word…but, well, that’s what we do. I could write an entire article on the appearance and evolution of interjections like Duh! and meh, or new conversation-stoppers like what-ever (pronounced with falling intonation).
The latest New Yorker has a very informative and thorough piece on forensic linguistics, in the print version and at
The following is my letter to the editor:
As a practicing forensic linguist (since 1979; I have a PhD in linguistics from the University of Chicago and bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Brown, also in linguistics), I thoroughly enjoyed your article on the profession – but with mixed feelings.