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!


Language in the News, Second Language Experiences

Finding the Humor in Language: A Pun Example

Humor is a tricky thing. Language-related or –dependent humor is even trickier. It relies on understanding the double meanings of words, or using pronunciations in a novel, unexpected way. Here’s a fairly classic example:

Knock Knock.

Who’s there?


Lettuce who?

Lettuce in, we’re cold!

If you search for “knock knock jokes for kids” you’ll see many examples of these types of jokes, where there’s misdirection in the pronunciation (i.e. lettuce sounding like “let us”). I’m betting their popularity with young children has to do with this new concept that words and sounds can mean something other than the obvious.

There are many examples of this type of linguistic-based humor, but understanding the joke can be tricky if you’re less than fluent, not only in the language, but the culture as well. In an article from The Guardian about language and humor (Warning: this article contains some strong/NSFW language), there’s quite a discussion about humor in different languages, and how working jokes into a classroom lesson, or acknowledging unintentional humor due to mispronunciations, can be a chance to enhance language learning. Jokes can be used to lighten the mood when students are frustrated, or it can point out certain words, phrases, or sounds that can be tricky if mispronounced or misunderstood and help to reinforce the lesson. And when a language learner gets the joke, it can be a strong positive reinforcement of their hard work.

My own experiences with language-related humor come from a group project I did for my Intro to Linguistics course. My partner and I recreated an experiment where bilingual speakers of varying abilities were asked to read puns on a screen and click through to the next one when they understood the punchline. We had several interesting findings. But first, we had to get creative in figuring out how to conduct the actual experiment. Although there are plenty of computer programs that can run these types of tests, we had neither the access nor the time to figure out how to use them. So we improvised and used the timings feature on Powerpoint. We would meet with our volunteer test takers (friends, fellow students—our subject pool was the very definition of a “sample of convenience” and was discussed as such in our final report), set up the presentation and timings feature, describe the experiment, and let them proceed through the 30 or so pun examples.

What we discovered was that our test takers took the most time figuring out puns where the first half of the pun set up a joke one way, but the second half (the punchline) was only understood if the first half of the pun meant something different. I’ll give you an example:

Two men walk into a bar. The third one ducks.

Understanding the joke means that the reader has to shift their understanding of the phrase “walk into a bar” from “entering a place that sells alcohol” to “move in a way that they hit a metal rod that is perpendicular to their body.” Since the first line is also a common way to set up a joke (at least in American English), the “getting” the humor comes from being able to quickly adjust one mental picture to another, based on multiple meanings of the word “bar.” Our test takers who did not identify themselves as native English speakers took longer to process these types of puns, since it required time to mentally activate the different meanings of words until the one that gave sense to the joke was hit upon.

It seems that jokes and humor are among the most difficult aspects of language to learn, since they require a level of cultural comprehension and nuance that goes beyond knowing the vocabulary and pronunciation. But as The Guardian article concludes, there’s always physical humor. Just don’t hurt yourself as you slip on that banana peel.


On an unrelated note, I’ve recently updated my work samples to include an animated video I created to describe what linguists do for a younger audience. Feel free to let me know what you thought, about the video or today’s blog post, in the comments below!

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.


Language in the News, Names, Recommended Reading

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles–an example of preferred adjective order in English

My inner nerd is really going to make an appearance in this post.

The other day, I caught a short preview of the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. Since I was an impressionable child when “TMNT” first appeared, I’m rather attached to the original concepts, both the cartoon version and the movies. Kids who watched TMNT picked their turtle soul mates without the help of a Buzzfeed quiz (mine was Donatello). We had the action figures. You get the picture.

But there was something in this particular preview that caught the attention of the linguistics nerd part of my brain. Here’s the preview, via YouTube, and the part I’m talking about starts at :10 seconds. There’s a short transcript below the video…


April O’Neil (Megan Fox): “Ninja…Mutant…Turtle…Teenagers?”

Donatello (Jeremy Howard): “Well when you put it like that it sounds ridiculous.”


Clearly a joke, since the basic concept of the main characters is bizarre no matter how you describe them. But it struck me as true that there’s something more fluid about saying Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I was concerned that maybe that’s a result of being introduced to the name when I was young. But then I found a article that talks about the preferred order of adjectives in English.

To summarize: while in English, it’s not incorrect to use adjectives in any particular order, there does seem to be a preference, and some linguists have broken these adjectives down into regions. Here they are in order:

General Opinion or Quality

Specific Opinion or Quality







One professor emeritus of linguistics and philosophy, Barbara Partee, also “observes that the modifiers most likely to sit right next to nouns are the ones most inclined to serve as nouns in different contexts.”


So when we take      Teenage   Mutant     Ninja                                           Turtles,

We have                      Age             Origin*      Noun in other context        Plural Noun


The joke version         Ninja         Mutant     Turtle       Teenagers

We have                         Noun         Origin       Noun         Plural Noun


It seems that the official name is a better fit, according to the suggested explanation for adjective preference. And phonetically, the official name is easier to pronounce, due to the separation of the two T’s by the M and N, in the same order as they appear in the alphabet, and with the tongue in same place to first make the N and then the T sound. If you say it out loud slowly, you’ll see what I mean.

Of course, the joke version in the preview is an example of how the language can intentionally be changed, which according to the article can require more cognitive focus. At the very least it makes us pay close attention to the phrasing, and at the most it can change the whole meaning of the phrase.

Who knew seven seconds of a movie preview could say so much about word order?


*Not sure if “Mutant” should be considered a Specific Quality (in which case it’s out of order) or Origin—weigh in by leaving a comment below!


Language in the News, Language on TV, Recommended Reading

How do we Know if an Apology is Sincere?

This week I’ve been thinking about apologies. It started when I looked at Facebook’s “Trending” list the other day, and saw Jonah Hill on The Tonight Show apologizing for using an offensive term when a member of the paparazzi angered him. If you haven’t seen it, you can watch it below:



As I watched the clip, I started thinking about public apologies. My first reaction to the video was that this was something Mr. Hill thought was difficult, but necessary, and that his words, his tone, and his body language all made me feel he was being sincere. Many people who commented on the clip agreed, although there was the occasional dissenter (as there always is).

Being linguistically trained, I started to wonder why exactly I believed he was sincere. I thought of a few specific moments:

  • At the beginning, Mr. Hill tells the story of the incident in a clear and succinct way, which implies that he’s thought about what he wants to say and has planned it. But at around the 1:00 mark, he pauses, says, “I think that,” stops talking briefly, says, “Sorry, I think that” and pauses again. He also pauses at several other points later in the clip. These pauses and repetitions are more conversational in tone, rather than part of a carefully planned speech, and imply “spontaneous and heartfelt” rather than “planned and calculated.”
  • At 1:56, Mr. Hill lifts his eyes directly to the camera to address those watching the show on TV (or the computer). About 15 seconds later, he looks at the camera to say, “Use me as an example of what not to do.” For most of the clip he avoids looking up at the camera, and so this deliberate shift seems significant.

But these are just my quick thoughts, based on what I know about body language, repetition, and pauses in general. Wouldn’t it be great if a linguist looked at apologies in greater depth?

As if in answer to my thoughts, today I discovered that a linguist has in fact done this very thing! Edwin Battistella, a linguistics professor at Southern Oregon University, has written a book titled Sorry About That, which looks at the language of public apologies, based on many hours of reading transcripts (and other written documents) and watching YouTube videos very much like the one I talk about above.

I’m adding this book to my reading list, and will discuss it in a future blog post. And FYI: the article states that this book is “written in layman’s terms” because the author, “really like(s) the idea of professors writing for the general public, as well as for one another…” which is an idea I wholeheartedly agree with!

Language in the News, Language on TV

Young Women Are Changing What It Means To Be Called a “Slut”

Last Friday, the 23rd, Elliot Rodger went on a killing spree near the University of California, Santa Barbara campus. As an explanation for what drove him to such violence, police turned to his YouTube channel and a written manifesto, which revealed a hatred for women who had rejected him (and by extension all women) and men who seemed more sexually successful. In the days that followed, a hashtag appeared on Twitter, #YesAllWomen, which was used to draw attention to the fact that many, MANY women have had to deal with men who felt that they were entitled to a woman’s attention and who react with anger when told no. From cat-calls, to policies regarding appropriate clothing that are biased against women, to rape, to honor killings by family members, many women know the feeling of being objectified.

Yes, sexual persecution of women by men exists, and hopefully #YesAllWomen will help start a dialog, and this horrible tragedy in California will be a catalyst for change. But what about persecution of women by other women? As the great Tina Fey says in Mean Girls:

“Ok, so we’re all here ’cause of this book, right? Well, I don’t know who wrote this book, but you all have got to stop calling each other sluts and whores. It just makes it ok for guys to call you sluts and whores. Who here has ever been called a slut?”

Source: (IMDB:


I found a very interesting article about this very topic in Slate this week, titled, “Are You a Slut? That Depends. Are You Rich?” The study conducted by two sociologists interviewed women from one dorm at a Midwestern University over the course of their college careers. Part of the study examined how the term “slut” is utilized and interpreted (the term “slut narrative” is used), and they determined that it has more to do with social class and money than sexual activity. Calling other women a “slut” was “more about policing women’s looks, fashion, and conversational styles than criticizing the notches on their bedposts. And the vagueness and ubiquity of the term “slut” on campus allowed these women to effectively police each other without denying themselves actual sex.”

I’m always interested in how social systems affect the language (vocabulary and conversational style) of the members of that particular society. In this study, there are two groups separated by class, each with their own rules for behavior and language use relating to sexuality: calling someone a “slut” had more to do with the social status of a girl’s romantic partner, and less to do with the number of sexual partners.

I think Tina Fey was right. And I also think that some women have found a way to change the understanding of what terms like “slut” and “whore” mean when used by female peers, and to deprive them of their power when it comes to female sexual choices. But outside these gender specific groups, these negative connotations can come roaring back, and I wonder if anyone over the age of 13 still believes that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

Cognitive Linguistics, Language in the News, Second Language Experiences

How Languages Can Change Our Choices

Recently, there’s been a study into how language appears to affect morality based decision-making. I’ve seen this story covered by several sources, so it’s possible you may already be familiar. If not, the basic idea is discussed below, or you can read this more comprehensive version from The Economist.

The Study:

Researchers asked study participants to make a hypothetical decision about sacrificing a life to save five in two different ways (either pushing someone on to a train track to save five people OR throwing a switch that will definitely kill the one man, but save the five people—sacrificing yourself is not an option). They randomly posed the situation to half of their study subjects in their self-described native language (which was, for the most part, English). Then they asked the other half in a second language (either Spanish, Korean, English or French). These were all languages that the study subjects knew, but they were not native bilinguals.

The Results:

The researchers found that when asked in their native language, only a few subjects said they would push one man to save five people. But when asked in their second language, more people chose to push the man.

The Possible Explanations:

The article mentions that the reason behind this may have to do with how the brain makes decisions, and how this ties into how languages are processed. In their second languages, the subjects’ brains use their logical “cognitive system” to make a decision, because speaking a less-known language requires more conscious thought. In their native languages, the speakers’ brains could rely on their more intuitive decision-making system, because speaking required less conscious decision-making and awareness

I can’t say what the right explanation might be, although the one put forth by the article (and summarized above) makes sense to me. I’ve experience the sensation of my brain being “maxed out” when speaking in a second language. When I lived in France, I found myself taking almost daily afternoon naps before dinner, just because I felt so tired of thinking so much all day. I also used the brain power excuse for eating so many delicious French desserts, because, I argued, the sugar recharged my brain.

I will say this, however: logical decisions are often considered more reliable, because they’re based on reasoning and time. But I’ve read several books that argue that in some situations, decisions based on intuition are just as good, sometimes more so, because they’re based on personal experience. And any skill, like learning a second language, that helps a person develop both types of decision making models sounds like a good thing to me.

Cognitive Linguistics, Language in the News

Words: A Window to the Mind? Yes. Sort of…but maybe not.

I’ve created a Google alert for language related articles, so that instead of searching for something to write about each week, the stories come to me. Sometimes if the articles are interesting, but I really have nothing to add, I’ll just share them on LinkedIn or Facebook. But several times a week, I’ll come across something that I felt needs an extra comment (or two. Or ten).

The point of that explanation has to do with the topic of this week’s article. Last week was about babies’ sound preferences, this week is about the words different languages use to describe pregnancy: “Do the words we use to describe pregnancy reveal our feelings toward it?” from Public Radio International.

The article talks about how in some languages, there are several words that can be used to describe pregnancy, and that these words sometimes have alternative meanings. For example, in Russian, beremenaya can be used to mean “pregnant,” but it literally translates to “burden.” And in Chinese, the characters that make up “pregnant” individually mean “to have” and “happiness.” Ultimately, there’s a discussion about whether these differences in language give insight into how different cultures view the concept of pregnancy, and how language shapes thought in general. According to a well-known linguist, John McWhorter, this doesn’t really hold true. He uses the various meanings of the word “pregnant” in English as an example (having a child, or full of meaning, in the case of “a pregnant pause”).

But in my opinion, this comparison is missing something. Several of the examples mentioned early in the article are different words that can be used to describe the condition of pregnancy, and also mean other things. By only describing how the word “pregnant” can mean multiple things, they’re not making a true comparison. Pull out your handy thesaurus, and you’ll see that common synonyms for pregnancy in English include words like “expecting,” or “with child,” plus euphemisms like “bun in the oven.” So English speakers can say things like “I’m expecting” or “I’m expecting someone” and have them mean completely different things.

(Plus I’m sure several cultures may have something to say about comparing an unborn child to a baked good!)

I for one believe that in certain circumstances, word choice CAN be a clue to a person’s way of thinking, on an individual level. Expand beyond an individual, however, and the waters get a bit muddier.

Language in the News

Learn, Baby, Learn!

Last week I finally got to meet the 6-month old son of two of my dearest friends. As I held him, I kept saying, “your brain is such a sponge,” which is, admittedly, a rather odd thing to say to an infant. But it’s true—his brain is soaking up information and making connections at an astounding rate, including sounds that he will ultimately recognize and use as his first language.

Language acquisition is a field with abundant theories, and where the idea of language being an innate concept for humans (meaning, the human mind is born with the capacity, and possibly the need, to have a language) is often debated. A recent article from LiveScience summarizes a study that used brain scans to show that a group of Italian babies, at only 2 days old, seemed to prefer certain syllables over others. These syllables were the same as those preferred by adults: “blif” and “oblif” were preferred over “lbif” and “bdif.”

What struck me in this difference is that “blif” and “oblif” contain consonant clusters that occur in several languages (in English, they occur in words like black, and lift; in French, words like bleu or obtenir). The other syllables contain consonant clusters that occur more rarely in languages. The combination of an “l” followed by a “b” is tricky to produce, and not usually found at the start of words, at least in English (I’m thinking of the word “bulb” here as an example). Same with starting a word with “b” followed by a “d.”

The other part of this article that I’d like to delve into (because if grad school taught me anything, it’s to not blindly accept statements and to question anything that seems like it has an alternative explanation) is the idea that babies’ hearing develops in-utero, and they spend a great deal of time listening to various sounds well before birth. As far as I know, no one’s been able to figure out exactly what babies’ ears can hear, but isn’t it possible that certain language sounds, or types of sounds like consonant clusters, are repeated often enough that they become familiar, and therefore preferred?

I’m not arguing for or against innateness as a theory, I’m just open to pursuing any and all possibilities.

Language in the News, Language on TV

#CancelColbert: Why Context is Important, and So Can You

Recently, there was quite the Twitter backlash to a tweet sent by @ColbertReport. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then read this, or just Google “#CancelColbert, because if this whole kerfuffle has taught us anything, it’s that context is important.

Sociolinguists know that context matters. It helps us make sense of what we hear. If someone uses a pronoun, but hasn’t made clear that the pronoun refers to a specific person at some recent point in the conversation, then you might have this kind of exchange:

“She told me that the skirt was too expensive”

“Who’s she?”

“Oh, Amy told me”

Not only is this an example of repair (where there’s a problem with understanding that needs to be addressed and fixed before the conversation can continue), it’s also an example of a mental mismatch between the people talking.

(((Side note: Isn’t it amazing (and awesome, in a lingustic-y, nerd-tastic way) how much there is to be studied in just three lines?)))

Back to context and #CancelColbert.

Without knowing that the @ColbertReport tweet was an intertextual reference to something that had happened earlier (intertextual in this sense means that interpreting what was said requires some prior knowledge that the speaker–or in this case writer—expected the reader to know), then it’s easy to see how the basic text, taken out of this context, could incite such backlash.

Of course, this all relates to the problem of sentiment analysis in online communication. It’s why we use emoticons, emojis, exclamation points vs. periods vs. no punctuation, “okay” vs “k”—we want to give “non-verbal” cues in our online communication, because while texting and tweeting may sound more conversational than traditional written text, it’s missing those vital clues to interpretation that we take for granted when we interact face-to-face.

Colbert may have apologized for the tweet, but I highly doubt it’s the last time that lack of context causes so many misunderstandings.


***If you read the title and description of intertextual references, and recognized that I was referencing Colbert’s book, then bask in your intertextual awareness!***