Language Research, Recommended Reading

Updates on Previous Posts!

Recently a family member shared some passages from a book about Tolkien
(J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century by Tom Shippey) that talked about how he considered himself a “philologist” or someone who studies language in written historical sources (thanks, Wikipedia!). Although I haven’t read The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings books, I am familiar with the fact that language plays a HUGE role in Tolkien’s works.

Then I found a few articles and links to pages that talked about Dothraki and Klingon—two languages created for works of fiction. I’ve already written about Dothraki in a post, but these new findings were too interesting to keep them to myself. So I’ve decided that this week’s post will be about some recent updates on past posts.

As I mentioned above, I found two great links that talk about Dothraki (and one also talks about Klingon).
The first is from Wired: How the Klingon and Dothraki Languages Conquered Hollywood. The link is about a podcast episode, where you can listen to a discussion with Lawrence M. Schoen, who is the director of the Klingon Language Institute, and David J. Peterson, co-founder of the Language Creation Society and the linguist who created Dothraki and Valyrian for the Game of Thrones TV series. Or you can just read the highlights of the podcast in the article.

The second link is a video of Peterson, along with a few other actors,  performing examples of Dothraki  to promote the new Dothraki language course offered by Living Language. I love the part where Peterson discusses what kind of conversations he thinks would occur during a boring day for a Dothraki horse lord.

Then there’s the link that offers another theory on the nationality of the ISIS member featured in a propaganda video. I’m not sure why “Inside Edition” decided to contact Phillip Carter, a linguistics professor at Florida International University, but since this article offers perspective on the ongoing investigation I first talked about in this post, I though I would share it. The article is short, but if you’re in a real hurry, the short version of Carter’s theory is: the terrorist is either Canadian-born or Canadian-educated.

Finally, here’s an update on an older post about the efforts of Jessie Little Doe Baird, a linguist at MIT, to revive the Wôpanâak language. Unfortunately, the charter school planned by the “Wôpanâak Reclamation Project (WLRP) was not one of five charter schools approved by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to advance to the next stage of the 2014-2015 charter school application process.” But as the article mentions, the WLRP can review the feedback they received on their proposal, make changes that will strengthen their case, and then decide if they want to resubmit a proposal next year.

Since seeing the PBS special on Baird’s efforts to revive Wampanoag culture and recreate a language that hasn’t had any native speakers in several generations, I’ve been interested in the project. I hope that this decision not to approve the charter school doesn’t deter the WLRP from their goal.

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!