Sunday, May 07, 2006

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.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have occasionally heard stories of linguists who can tell where a person comes from (and assorted other facts about their background) just by hearing them speak a few sentences. Supposedly, there are linguists who can tell where a person comes from right down to the town, or towns, they were brought up in, where they moved and at what age.

I guess such skills would count as forensic linguistics. I find these stories fascinating--reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes. Unfortunately, I have no idea how plausible they are. Maybe it's only Henry Higgins who has the skill to that degree. Anyway, I am hoping you have something to say about them. Personally, I would be amazed if somebody somebody could figure out my background from a few sentences.

10:32 PM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

I've been thinking of a story for you all day:

A famous author is kidnapped. The kidnapper makes him/her work on a novel that the author is writting on deadline (A sequel). The kidnapper forces the author to write & send pages a few at a time to the Publisher (To pretend everything is O.K.) Somehow the author dies in the kidnappers care.(murder, naturally) The kidnapper continues to write & send pages to the publisher in the Authors name of course.
The clever & handsome Forensic Linguist proves the time of the famous Authors death & the identity of the killer by the manuscript.

12:46 AM

Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

L>T, isn't that kind of a variation on that story by Stephen King...can't remember the title...amputated foot in a brazier, Author brains Nurse Kidnapper ("I'm your number one fan!") with a typewriter? (What was that called?)

It'd be great if the Famous Author were Dan Brown.

No, wait...then there'd be no way for the Clever & Handsome Forensic Linguist to detect the change in style (how do you tell one rank amateur from another?)! Strike that.

Never mind.

(Ptarmigan: I seems to me such "Sherlock Holmes" linguists would have to assume that the person whose speech they were analyzing had not moved from their native dialect area until late in life or had not lived for any extended period of time among speakers of another dialect.)

3:46 AM

Blogger Eric Dutton said...

Story idea:
A rogue linguist (call him Mike)turns to a life of crime and uses his knowledge to throw a rival linguist (Ike), recuited for the case, off of his trail. Over time the two linguists develop a deep respect for one another even as they continue to play cat and mouse. Ike even cuts Mike a little slack one occasion. But when Mike starts framing Ike, Ike starts feeling the need to withhold evidence until he can find enough to remove any suspicion of him, especially given the fact that he did deliberately let Mike slip by that one time.
I'm not sure about the end. Maybe the whole situation drive Ike a little crazy and he decides he must kill Mike. With this new covert motivation, he solves the case, but rather than turning Mike in, he kills him. Ike is arrested for murder. Mike's guilt is discovered but Ike goes to jail for murder.... or something like that.

3:55 AM

Blogger concerned citizen said...

Damn! I'd forgotten about that movie.
If the author were Dan Brown, the forensic linguist would know it was the killer, because the Novel would suddenly have real historical facts.

9:54 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

ptarmigan, I once and only once identified the city someone was from. I was single and tired of being single and had been told that an interesting woman was coming to the Lingusitic Society of America's yearly summer school at the University of Illinois where I taught. At a meeting and greeting affair, I asked someone if she knew this woman and she said she did, pointed off in a certain direction, and said she was wearing green. I walked in that direction, saw a beautiful young woman standing in a group of four that included a guy I had gone to grad school with. She was wearing green. Since I knew the woman's prof I had an easy introduction and after a few minutes, I told her, "You're from Houston." She was and that was the beginning of a relationship that lasts til today. As it turns out she wasn't the right woman in green.

I think there are dialect experts who can make good identifications. I am not one of them. Except for one very crucial time. (This is a true story.)

11:07 AM

Blogger Full Metal Attorney said...

Good post! It seems to me that forensic linguistics would be a lot more plausible (or at least more interesting on a running basis) than the show Numbers.

12:40 PM

Blogger Steve Tilley said...

Out of interest there's a TV programme going out in the UK this week about the 'Ripper Hoaxer.' At the time of the Yorkshire Ripper case a few years back the police received hoax tapes taunting them. Eventually they traced the accent back to a very small area of Sunderland, Wearside. I was amazed that our accents could pin-point our home so accururately. Is the UK unusual in this sense?

12:54 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

I fear that the forensic linguistics we see on TV is no more credible than the mathematics on Numbers. However, it is a good thing that academics are given some nice roles on a show. I suspect the forensics on the CSI and NCIS shows are similarly suspect.

All of it is surely grounded in mathematical or linguistic or trace evidence science, possibly to coin a term. But the shows are an hour and there are bad guys to catch.

The idea of using math to help solve crimes is an old one. A Brit used the same sort of math used in an early Numbers show where data points of crimes wre shown to cluster in ways that helped to identify the "comfort zone" of the killer, the principle being that killers want to know the territory but not live too close to it.

A recent Fire in the Mind or some such show starting Robson Green, who is great in everything he does, used such plotting to identify the likely location of an impending crime.

12:55 PM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Actually, st, the UK is te perfect place to hone in fairly exactly on the location of an accent. It is stunning how different accents can be of Brits only a few miles apart. Must go back to the old days before people routinely traveled about.

When I tought at Brighton, I began to suffer sensory overload from hearing so many different accents. I felt I was going nuts. One day, walking down a street in Brighton, I heard an American accent and rushed up to talk to them awhile just to recover my sanity. I think Brits are so familar with the variety around them they become less sensitive to it. With us watching shows on BBCAmerica, a given copper show might have people speaking four or five different accents from Belfast to Edinburgh to Birmingham to London. It gets a bit tough adjusting to it.

I am amazed at a new BBCA show called "Murder Prevention Unit," in which the coppers, or, at least one of them, is as brutal as the worst on our show, "Shield."

1:01 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm Rob Leonard's brother, George. You don't have to write a lot of "seemingly" and "apparently" -- just email Rob, if you have questions about forensic linguistics. I'm sure he'd be happy to hear from fellow linguists. Robert.A.Leonard@Hofstra.edu
He's very proud of the way he's developing the forensic linguist concept, for the honor of linguistics, I'd have to phrase it. I think the way he put it was, when he talks to the FBI guys, they're excited to hear what he has to say because they're like marksmen getting a chance to talk to a physicist. Something like that. Best wishes,
George J. Leonard

4:01 AM


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