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.