Being a Linguist, Forensic Linguistics, Language in the News

Part 2 of I Could Do THAT?!?! Jobs that Linguists Do

It’s time for another example of the different kinds of work that linguists can do. The background of this example involves the terrorist group known as the Islamic State and the murder of US journalist, James Foley, which unfortunately has shown to be the first in a string of violent beheadings. This post is about the role that a linguist is playing in helping to identify the IS representative in the video depicting the murder of Mr. Foley.

Dr. Claire Hardaker, a lecturer at Lancaster University (in the UK), was asked by British and US security services to use her linguistics training to try to help identify the masked man in the video based on his speech. She was also asked to analyze an email sent to Mr. Foley’s family. Her analysis suggests that the speaker is most likely a native speaker of British English, and from the south of England. Furthermore, that whoever wrote the email is also a native English speaker, due to their use of creative metaphors, dependent clauses, and proper use of the possessive form.

This type of analysis falls under the category of “Forensic Linguistics,” i.e. language and the law, and covers everything from analyzing written threats or ransom notes to incidences of possible trademark infringement.

Forensic linguistics is a fascinating field. I’ve always been drawn to criminal investigative work (it was my fervent wish to be an FBI agent for a long time), so when I saw that an entire course on this topic was being offered my first semester, I eagerly signed up. At some point during the first few weeks of class, we were told the following story to demonstrate the kind of work forensic linguists do:

Roger Shuy, a sociolinguist (and emeritus linguistics professor at Georgetown University) was asked to analyze a ransom note from a kidnapping. The note featured several misspellings and the phrase “Put it in the green trash kan on the devil strip at corner 18th and Carlson.” Realizing that “devil strip” is an uncommon way to describe the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the street, Shuy referred to the Dictionary of American Regional English and discovered that that phrase’s use was limited to the area around Akron, Ohio. Shuy shared his findings with the police, who already had a suspect who hailed from that geographic region. When they confronted the suspect with Shuy’s analysis, the suspect confessed to the kidnapping.

A longer version of this story can be found here–Linguistic Profiling from “Do You Speak American.” I also encourage you to check out the website of Roger Shuy.

While this example is rather satisfying from a crime-solving point of view, I want to point out that when you’re dealing with language it’s rarely that straightforward. With this type of forensic linguistic work it’s very difficult to provide definitive answers regarding things like threat assessment or authorship.

But due to their unique perspective and training, linguists can help law enforcement officials, judges, attorneys, and juries better understand evidence or arguments, such as the likelihood that two similar trademarks will be confused by consumers or the reliability of ear-witness accounts (like an eye-witness, except ear-witnesses have heard rather than seen something of possible interest).

If you’d like to learn more about forensic linguistics, I encourage you to check out some of the links above. And if you’re still curious, leave a comment below—I’m happy to answer questions, give more examples, or offer suggested reading!


Being a Linguist, Language in the News, Recommended Reading

When “Meaningless Words” is a Misnomer

Earlier this month, Mark Liberman, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, decided to look at “um” versus “uh” usage along gender lines. His post is interesting, if a tad bit technical. Luckily, Melissa Dahl at wrote a piece, “Dudes Say ‘Uh’; Ladies Say ‘Um'” which nicely summarizes the findings. I encourage you to check out the article, but here’s a quick TL;DR summary:

Woman tend to use ‘um’ 22% more than men, and men tend use ‘uh’ 250% more than women (nope, that’s not a typo). Also, men tend to use ‘um’ or ‘uh’ 38% more than women in general, and overall older people (men and women) use ‘uh’ or ‘um’  less often.

As a bonus, one of my grad school professors, Deborah Tannen, gets in on the conversation when Ms. Dahl contacted her for possible explanations for what these findings might mean. She’s careful to point out that since this study was based on a database of words and therefore doesn’t take the context of each of these usages into account, we can’t really do more than speculate. But she does say that the explanation offered by one commenter on the original post does sound plausible:

that “men use /uh/ as a place-holder. Women use /um/ as a backchannel indicating, “that’s interesting, I’m thinking about it.”


Some linguistic research (including some of Dr. Tannen’s own work) has examined how men and women use these filler words to accomplish different tasks in conversation, either to prevent someone from interrupting by making a noise to hold the floor (place-holding), or providing feedback that demonstrates attention and understanding (backchannel).

This story was also picked up by the Washington Post who, in addition to mentioning the original UPenn blog post and the story, tie in some other research done by the University of Texas at Austin that studied the use of not only ‘uh’ and ‘um’ (filled pauses) but also ‘I mean,’ ‘you know,’ and ‘like’ (discourse markers). According to the abstract of their paper, they found that while the filled pauses seemed to be used by both genders and all ages “at comparable rates,” the “discourse markers…were more common among women, younger participants, and more conscientious people.” (I’ll be adding the full article to my ever-growing reading list).

For linguists every word, every sound, every instance of rising inflection at the end of a sentence, has the potential to reveal something interesting about human communication. These linguistic choices can be elusive, ever-changing, unconscious, or deliberate, but they can rarely, if ever, be called meaningless.


Being a Linguist

I Could Do THAT?!?! Jobs that Linguists Do

I’m going to try something a little different this week, and I’d love to hear some feedback on whether or not to make this a more regular type of post:

I found an interview with the linguist who created several languages for the Game of Thrones television series, and aside from being an interesting article for both language nerds (like myself) and GoT fans (heck yes!) I thought it was a great example of different jobs that linguists can do.

For this kind of work, where the task is to create an entire language–vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation guides–it’s pretty obvious to see how linguistic training would be useful. I’d like to find even more examples where the linguistic connection might not be quite so obvious.

So if you’d like to see the occasional post where I highlight an example of the wide variety of work that linguists can do, let me know in the comments, and I’ll happily make it a more regular feature!

In the meantime, I encourage you to check out the Career Linguist Website and Blog of Dr. Anna Marie Trester, the Program Director of the MLC (Master of Arts in Language and Communication) at Georgetown University. She has several wonderful career-related resources!

Being a Linguist, Language on TV

“House of Cards” and the Art of Interviewing

I’ve started watching House of Cards on Netflix again, and several recent episodes have reminded me of some of the ways in which Journalists and Sociolinguists are a lot alike. Primarily it’s because both groups often use interviews to gain insight and information, but what really struck me is that usually the most interesting information isn’t always what they were searching for.

Sociolinguists (i.e. those who study language in the context of culture) often conduct interviews in the course of their research.

We can do ethnographic interviews, because if you want to know how language is used, you have to understand both the language AND what cultural information is relevant to fully appreciate and comprehend what’s being said.

We can also do sociolinguistic interviews, where we try to elicit various examples of a particular word or sound. These interviews can range from asking people to read pairs of words (think ‘cat’ and ‘bat’), to reading paragraphs, to recording a conversation between the interviewer and subject, or recording conversations between the subject and other people without the interviewer being present (making sure everyone knows they’re being recorded—ethics and personal rights are a big deal!).

If you’re not a journalist (like me), your understanding of journalistic interviews probably comes from being a media consumer. So I’m going to make some assumptions here, and say that journalists use interviews to explicitly ask a subject about something specific, and record their answers for later publication. Or sometimes interviews are used to gain a deeper understanding of a topic so that what is written or reported on is more comprehensive or correct.

Either way, Journalists and Sociolinguists seek out interview subjects, and approach them with a certain agenda, whether it’s questions they want to ask, or sounds/sound bites they want to hear.

But as I mentioned above, sometimes our subjects surprise us. Sometimes they don’t interpret the question the way we assumed they would. Sometimes they refuse to answer a question that we thought was innocuous. Sometimes, they tell stories or ask questions in return. Anytime this happens to me, what the subject says is always WAY more interesting than if they had just answered my prepared question. I saw this happen several times in the last few episodes of “House of Cards.” Yes, I know, it’s a scripted show and they’re doing it on purpose. But it’s based in reality, because if it’s happened to me, it must happen to lots of other people.

So what’s the lesson here?

If you do any kind of work where you interview people (as a journalist, a linguist, a market researcher, etc) and you come in with an agenda or list of questions, be wise enough to realize that going “off-topic” isn’t always a bad thing. That maybe “off-topic” is exactly where you want to be.

Being a Linguist

Back to Basics: What Do Linguists Do?

I belong to a LinkedIn group that focuses on Sociolinguistics, and a recent question submitted to the group was, “What’s the difference between linguistics and sociolinguistics?”

I figured this might be a question that many people have, along with what other branches of linguistics exist, how the fields differ, and what are the various jobs that people in these fields can do. So here’s a quick and dirty breakdown of some of the branches of linguistics I’ve come across. Of course, if you’re a linguist then the ideas in this post will be familiar to you already, in which case please let me know if there’s anything you’d like to add!

In general terms, a Linguist is someone who studies language—how it works, how language is structured, how the various languages differ or are the same, and how we learn language(s). Although most linguists are interested in more than one language, that doesn’t mean we speak multiple languages fluently. However, if you do a job search with the word ‘linguist’ most of the results will be for someone who speaks a certain language (ex: Japanese Linguist, Spanish Linguist). However, translation work is only one small, specialized part of linguistics, and doesn’t fully represent the work that we do.

Theoretical linguists study the building blocks of language: phonology (sounds), morphology (word structure), syntax (sentence structure), and semantics (meaning). Theoretical linguistics also looks for linguistic universals. Many people in this field of study get PhD’s with the expectation that they’ll end up teaching or doing research at the university level.

Computational linguistics is concerned with creating computer programs that can recognize and handle natural spoken language. A perfect example is Siri on the iPhone: voice recognition software that can handle a lot of the variations in pronunciation (though not perfectly). I’m sure there are otehr areas of specialization in this field, but to be honest it’s the one I know the least about. However, I DO know that many of the jobs in this field, like those dealing with artificial intelligence or machine translation, are by far the most lucrative linguistics jobs available.

Sociolinguistics is the study of language as it relates to culture. Although sociolinguists learn about phonetics, morphology, and syntax, they’re mostly interested in how people use the language(s) they know to interact with others and make sense of their world. There’s some overlap with anthropology and sociology, as far as the methodology that sociolinguists use and the kind of work they do, whether in academia or in the “real world.”

Applied Linguistics is, generally speaking, the taking of linguist concepts and finding ways to use them to improve things like language policy or language teaching (like ESL and EFL courses). The Center for Applied Linguistics (or CAL) in Washington, D.C. is a great resource for anyone interested in learning more about this branch of linguistics.

This is only a basic list of some of the fields of linguistics. And there are several kinds of jobs I didn’t talk about that are normally mentioned in conjunction with linguistics, like speech pathology (where there’s some overlap with linguistics, but these positions require different coursework and certification). Either way, this is just a taste of what linguists do. To learn more, I suggest you start with the Linguistic Society of America—when I was first learning about linguistics, they were a very helpful resource!

Being a Linguist, Uncategorized

My Business Card Complex (or how I stopped feeling weird about it and started telling people I’m a linguist)

One of the toughest and most interesting courses that I took in grad school was called “Multi-Modal Interaction in Cross-Cultural Communication” (or MMI, as I took to calling it after a while). Quite an intimidating title, for a class that focused on how video recordings often give analysts a more complete picture of what happened during a conversation (versus an audio-only recording).

When you think about it, this seems rather obvious, since so much of what we use to figure out what’s going on in a conversation comes from non-verbal cues (like body position, eye gaze, gesture, etc.). But videos also capture things like entrances and exits, or activities that someone is doing when they’re not speaking, and sometimes these non-verbal actions stimulate a verbal response.

On audio recordings, these non-verbal actions come across as long pauses, and the verbal responses may not make sense. If we’re lucky, someone who was involved in the recording remembers what happened and can fill in the missing information. Or maybe we can figure it out because we know the people being recorded, and we can make an educated guess. And sometimes we can figure it out because we’re really familiar with the language, and some responses are only triggered by certain actions (i.e. greetings when someone enters a room).

But what happens when you don’t know the language being spoken, or anything about the people being recorded?

In MMI, we learned to recognize how easy it is to rely on our own knowledge of a language, rather than basing our interpretations on proven linguistic aspects, when analyzing a conversation. To help break this habit, we talked about things that are universal in all languages. Things like how every language has some way of repairing confusion in a conversation. And we also talked about the importance of gathering information about the unique participants and their specific culture. Then, we were asked to analyze videos of completely unfamiliar languages and cultures, and to back up our statements with linguistic knowledge.

So why am I blogging about this class now?

Because I felt that this class was the turning point, after which  I truly became a linguist. Not only did it open my eyes to the fact that I needed to be aware of when my interpretations could be relying on knowledge that was language and/or culture-specific, but it reminded me that my job is to be able to back up my interpretations with linguistic knowledge, and not just intuitions.

Being a Linguist

Moist, Word Aversion, and the Start of a New School Year

First of all, my apologies for being a day late. I am visiting family in Vermont for a few days, and spent most of yesterday eating and drinking delicious samples of cheese and beer 🙂

Lately I’ve been pondering word aversion, specifically my own dislike of the word “moist.” I think it came up in a conversation I recently had (plus there is a great episode of How I Met Your Mother that has a character repeating the word over and over, just to prove a point). The point is, I decided to search for reasons why people don’t like the sound of certain words. The article I found on Slate had some interesting points, but what it really got me thinking about was the first day of school.

Stick with me now, because I promise this makes sense in my head.

One of the people interviewed for this article, a linguistics professor at the University of Chicago, said he’d be interested in a methodical examination of this phenomenon, especially the hypothesis that people who are more aware of the arbitrary aspect of language (multi-linguals, linguists, writers) are less likely to have a problem with certain words.

What does this have to do with the first day of school?

In grad school I took several courses where final projects were discussed on the first day of class. Not in a “here is the syllabus, you have a final project due” kind of way, but in a “you should have a final paper topic in mind already and probably should be gathering data starting next week” kind of way.

So, for all my friends who are in that boat right now,  here is a paper topic for you: examine word aversion.

Maybe watch episodes of Inside the Actors Studio, where James Lipton asks all his guests what is their least favorite word, and then look for patterns? Or do a survey of multi-linguals to find out if they are, in fact, less word averse?

And if anyone knows of an existing paper on the subject I’d love to read it!

In the meantime, I will try to cultivate a non-judgemental attitude towards “moist” (because right now just typing that word makes me feel icky…).

Being a Linguist

“So are you doing your linguist thing as I’m talking?”

It’s a pretty well-known phenomenon that when you first start telling people that you’re a linguist, most people ask what languages you’re studying. Although not an unreasonable question, since many linguists DO study several languages, one of my professors likes to say that we study language with a capital L, meaning how language works as a concept.

When I met my first linguist, I had a slightly different reaction. I began to become very conscious of my grammar. And my inner monologue went something like this:

“oh my god, she’s listening to everything I’m saying and how I’m saying it.”

“She’s judging how I talk…wait…did I just use that word correctly? I don’t know! Oh great, now she thinks I’m an idiot…”

And so on and so forth.

Since that was MY first reaction, I’ve begun anticipating that others might be wondering the same thing. And so today’s post is about putting that fear to rest.

1.  Linguists are generally interested in descriptive language use, rather than prescriptive language use.

What does that mean? To quote a pretty popular slideshow (at least among my linguist friends), we are “language hippies.” We’re more interested in looking at how people actually DO speak, rather than telling them how they SHOULD speak.

So no, we are not all grammar freaks.

2. It is REALLY difficult to study a person’s speech while you’re engaged in conversation with that person. 

Conversations are hard work, and require a lot of attention to keep up with what people are trying to tell you. Asking someone to pay attention to specific things like pronoun use or intonation patterns while you’re also trying to converse with them would be like trying to count cracks in the sidewalk while you’re biking over them AND listening to a lecture that you KNOW will be included on the test. You’re gonna miss something, somewhere. This is one of the reasons why we love recordings. Sometimes patterns are only obvious after listening to them 5, 10, 50 times, or spread out over several minutes, days, or even people.

Now, this isn’t to say that we don’t occasionally notice things, but linguists are trained to listen differently, and to be aware of what these different choices might mean. But most of the time, we’re just enjoying talking with you.

3. This might just be me, but if we ARE listening to anyone while engaged in conversation, it’s probably ourselves. 

It’s the classic “don’t think of a white elephant” command. If you start talking about body language, it’s very easy to become aware of how you’re standing or moving. And then you can’t NOT think about it.

So I hope this helps all of my friends out there, who I’m sure at one time or another have wondered if I’m silently judging them because of how they speak. I promise you, I’m not. But I AM wondering if I should put my hands in my pockets…or just let them hang…or maybe on my hips…or…