Meaning, Authorship, and Originality: Insights from Forensic Linguistics Presentation to Association of Document Examiners, November 8, 2009
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.
Whole lotta shruggin’ goin’ on: Observations on a most peculiar literary quirk
“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).
Letter to the Editor of the New Yorker
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.