Rock and Roll and Forensic Linguistics
My morning Dispatch had a story on Robert Leonard, a co-founder of Sha Na Na, who morphed himself into a forensic linguist. This group played at Woodstock, apparently at the invitation of Jimi Hendrix. Why he morphed into a forensic linguist I don't know but it seems to have worked for him. He is a professor at Hofstra and seems to have a forensic linguistics business Robert Leonard Associates. I haven't been able to figure out who his associates are since they are not identified, nor have I found a Long Island or New York City address. I think he may pick up hired guns for particular cases. Hey, if he wants me as a hired gun on a trademark or death penalty or deceptive advertising case, I'm available. I could live out my childhood cowboy fantasies of being the gunslinger brought in from out of town to vanquish the bad guys. I never ran across Leonard in my ramblings through forensic linguistics but wish I had. I really liked the song, "Teen Angel," which doubtless gives evidence of my sappy side.
Given the popularity of the three CSI shows and NCIS it is clear that forensics is the flavor of the day on TV. So, why not forensic linguistics? That's what Benjamin Zimmer, writing in the Language Log, thinks as well. I found his particular post while doing a search on the unabomber case. I was hunting for Roger Shuy's story about the FBI's James R. Fitzgerald's observation that
[Ted Kaczynski] used the phrase "You can't eat your cake and have it, too," instead of the usual form, which is "You can't have your cake and eat it, too." Like most people, Mr. Fitzgerald thought Kaczynski had made a mistake. But examination of other letters by him contained a similar feature, which, Mr. Fitzgerald says, "is actually a traditionally middle English way of using the term. He technically had it right and the rest of us had it wrong. It was one of the big clues that allowed us to make the rest of the comparison and submit a report to the judge who signed off on a search warrant."Roger Shuy is an old friend and forensic linguist, as well. In fact, I'm pretty sure that he was the first to give a conference paper in my presence on a forensic linguistic case. An unbelievable number of linguists have gotten involved in cases involving a wide variety of issues. The list given at Robert Leonard Associates' web side by no means covers the field.
The question of authorship of documents has always seemed to me to be a bit dicey. In the unabomber case, a single unique phrase gave the villain away. More commonly things are not so simple. I was asked to try to determine whether the author of some letters to the editor of a newspaper was also the author of some letters to a business. I rapidly decided that the sample size was too small to say one way or another and that I would never take another such case. I did take one plagiarism case but that was a lot easier. When you have two relatively large documents with a number of identical passages in it, you have plagiarism.
Sadly, I did have students who forced me to worry about academic plagiarism. One kind of problem is students copying from each other. Not so smart students who haven't been working very hard will sometimes turn in identical prose answers to questions where the answers are not just wrong, they are off-the-wall wrong. Three kids giving exactly the same correct answer may have cheated but you can't prove it; three kids giving exactly the same incorrect answers don't realize just how easy it is to tell that they have cheated.
Coming back to forensic linguistics and TV let me ask you for story ideas. I'll give you full credit when I go to Jerry Bruckheimer to give my pitch for "CSI Linguistics." The Unabomber case would have been a hell of a first show. Naturally, all the linguists on our show would be hot women and studly guys, just like real life.