On baby talk and language change
Linguistics is concerned with who says what to whom, and why. Why do groups of people adopt their own manner of speaking? There are many answers.
Is sloppiness in speech caused by ignorance or apathy? I don’t know and I don’t care.
I admire John McWhorter so much for the breadth of his accomplishments, his accessibility to the media, his eloquent lectures.
I recently saw a video clip in which he pegged Trump’s speech as characteristic of primitive humans just getting their “language chops” together.
On baby talk and language change full post
(1069 words, 1 image, estimated 4:17 mins reading time)
Words, maps, territories, and the political abuse of language
From mind to thought (and from there to the speech and auditory organs)
The truth is what most people believe. And they believe that which is repeated most often.
Paul Josef Goebbels
Here is the text of a letter I sent to the Manchester NH Union-Leader (published 6/21/19):
March 19, 2019
Let me add my voice to the chorus of people outraged by Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s comparison of immigrant confinement to concentration camps. This is worse than obscene and ignorant. It is an utterly irresponsible use of language. As a linguist, I am appalled by the deceptive reducing of two vastly different entities to a single point of comparison — confinement.
Who’s got the sexiest accent? Not me.
Dialects unite and divide us.
I just read an article on “who’s got the sexiest accent?’, and when I Googled the article, I discovered that “sexiest accent” generates over four million hits.
As Trump said about health care, who knew there were so many surveys?
The ones I skimmed through seemed mostly intended as tourism boosters, at least for the places with accents people like.
I didn’t see a survey conducted by any linguistics scholar I ever heard of. In the latest survey, from Big Seven Travel (Katey Psencik, The Columbus Dispatch), there are 50 accents — just like we have 50 states! Some of the accents are associated with cities, so presumably not every State was represented.
Who’s got the sexiest accent? Not me. full post
(1395 words, 1 image, estimated 5:35 mins reading time)
The difference between code-switching and pandering (pay attention, Hillary)
“…style is intrinsic and private, like…voice or gesture, partly a matter of inheritance, partly of cultivation. It is more than a pattern of expression. It is the pattern of the soul.”
Think of language as haberdashery: you have a closet full of clothes for every occasion. Your clothing choice expresses yourself in a particular context, for a particular audience. In the same way, barely aware of it (or not aware at all), you change your speech to what you think (though there are no conscious thinking processes) will be effective for a particular situation and audience.
Biden’s plagiarism alone disqualifies him
Stopping plagiarism is as hard as defining it. As long as certain ideas, themes, personages, etc., remain in the public domain, there will be accusations – but not necessarily dishonesty. Biden’s plagiarism is at a whole different level.
Don’t forget why God made your eyes — plagiarize!
Tom Lehrer, “Lobachevsky”
I’m involved in a fair number of plagiarism cases. In non-fiction allegations, I typically represent a student who has omitted quotation marks, possibly because he/she was lifting what appeared to be basic background information. There are very few ways of saying some things with the appropriate degree of precision (especially in legal and scientific writing).
Biden’s plagiarism alone disqualifies him full post
(577 words, 1 image, estimated 2:18 mins reading time)
Political language 2019: simpler but no less devious
Political speech – simpler, but no less devious
Definitions of “politician”:
An eel in the fundamental mud upon which the superstructure of organized society is reared.
(One who) divides mankind into two classes: tools and enemies. That means he knows only one class: enemies.
[Someone] who identifies the sound of his own voice with the infallible voice of the public.
Joseph K. Howard
A set of men who have interests aside from the interests of the people and who…are, taken as a mass, at least one step removed from honest men.
“You have the right to remain silent…”: On understanding the Miranda warning (it’s not so easy)
The famous Miranda warning – “you have the right to remain silent…” — is actually very difficult to understand, especially for non-native speakers, who often give up their rights without knowing what they are.
1. You have the right to remain silent.
2. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.
3. You have the right to talk to a lawyer and have him present with you while you are being questioned.
4. If you cannot afford to hire a lawyer, one will be appointed to represent you before any questioning, if you wish one.
(After the warning and in order to secure a waiver, the following questions should be asked and an affirmative reply secured to each question.)
1. Do you understand each of these rights I have explained to you?
2. Having these rights in mind, do you wish to talk to me now?
Examples from the Forensic (Linguistic) Files
Forensic linguistics – what’s that?
Is a contract provision binding if its meaning is indeterminate or ambiguous?
At various places on this site, you’ll find somewhat abstract descriptions of the services I offer. But what kinds of cases do I actually get involved in? Examples follow (current cases excluded).
In three of my specialties, I’m about equally divided between Plaintiff and Defendant. In cases of alleged academic plagiarism, I represent the Defendant, who typically has not committed plagiarism, even by the university’s own rules. In cases of literary plagiarism, I represent Plaintiffs who believe that their work has been copied.
Language and the “Catfish” Scam (“It’s the Grammar!”)
The tongue of man is a twisty thing
There are plenty of words there
Of every kind
The range of words is wide
And their variance
— Homer, Iliad
If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.
I’ve spent a lifetime learning about language. As I pay attention, I continue to learn. Here’s a true story about something I recently learned about language. I call it “It’s the grammar, stupid.”
Dr. Phil hunts online love-scammers
RIP Philip Roth, prophet of political correctness
Philip Roth produced a tremendous volume of work, on a machine like this. In “The Anatomy Lesson,” he writes of a man tortured by neck pain – possibly from all the typewriting.
“He had learned the worst lesson that life can teach – that it makes no sense.”
“You put too much stock in human intelligence, it doesn’t annihilate human nature.”
― American Pastoral
A 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.
The weaponization of language
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.
1. Hate speech and fighting words
The weaponization of language full post
(1167 words, 1 image, estimated 4:40 mins reading time)
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
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?
Can people disguise the way they write?
Can people deliberately fake their writing style?
By way of background…
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).
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.
“Google” goes generic full post
(1191 words, estimated 4:46 mins reading time)
What is forensic stylistics?
Each writer has a distinctive pattern of linguistic features.
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 http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/24/opinion/sunday/24gray.html .
These are the principles I apply to my authorship analyses.
Principles of stylistic analysis
What is forensic stylistics? full post
(342 words, 1 image, estimated 1:22 mins reading time)
When a lawyer needs a linguist
When does a lawyer need a linguist?
Linguists and lawyers
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.
When a lawyer needs a linguist full post
(1013 words, 1 image, estimated 4:03 mins reading time)
Basic forensic skills: How text-sensitive are you?
A forensic linguist who practices stylistic analysis 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:
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.”)
I was wrong: p.c. can go even lower full post
(1185 words, estimated 4:44 mins reading time)