Words have always fascinated me. Alphabets, glyphs, and etymology… I will be posting interesting tidbits of linguistic knowledge and forensic linguistics in this section. My degree was in Sociolinguistics and Second Language Acquisition, but much of my studies were in Conversation Analysis, Code Switching, and comparison of gender in speech. I’ll be including word puzzles, my favorite newly discovered words, etymology, linguistic facts, different areas of linguistics, and anything fun to do with words. #nanthewordfan and #LinguisticsLover for Twitter.

So, what exactly IS linguistics?

If you answered that it has to do with the study of words, you’re right! Etymology (origins of the word): Latin. lingua / tongue, language.

  • It’s the scientific study of language. Linguists study what language is and what it does.
  • They are polyglots (speakers of many languages), word-lovers, and grammarians.
  • It’s not simply the study of foreign languages, nor the analysis of spoken, and not written, languages. It’s not the study of living languages, ignoring those that are now extinct.
  • Linguists aren’t interested in evaluating “good” versus “bad.” A microbiologist, as an example, doesn’t look through his microscope at amoebae and declare one to be ugly and another beautiful (Charles F. Meyer, Introducing Linguistics).
  • When did spoken language begin? Most probably between 100,000-50,000 years ago.
  • When did written language begin? Most probably around 5,000 years ago.

My own favorite areas of applied linguistics are:

  • Sociolinguistics

  • Discourse Analysis

  • Forensic linguistics 

  • Second Language Acquisition

  • Markedness and codeswitching

A question for all eavesdroppers:

Do you ever overhear a conversation at the next table in a restaurant?
Do you pay attention to how the people speak?
Are there varying tones of voice? Indications of interest? Boredom? Interruptions? Incomplete phrases?
Of course, you do… and of course, there are! And, even pauses with no words spoken at all… can give one clues to intriguing interactions! And, by the way, eavesdropping is exactly how those linguists, studying discourse analysis, learn and analyze speech.

For instance, here’s something I read today that I found interesting. It deals with conversation analysis, or in this case, lack thereof … here it is:

From Seinlanguage:
There two types of favors, the big favor and the small favor. You can measure the size of the favor by the pause that a person takes after they ask you to “Do me a favor.” Small favor, small pause.
“Can you do me a favor, hand me that pencil.” No pause at all.
Big favors are, “Could you do me a favor…”
Eight seconds go by.
“Yeah? What?’”
“…well.” The longer it takes them to get to it, the bigger pain it’s going to be. Humans are the only animal that do favors. Animals don’t do favors. A lizard doesn’t go up to a cockroach and say, “Could you do me a favor, and hold still. I’d like to eat you alive.”
That’s a big favor… even without a pause.
Seinfeld, J. (1993) Seinlanguage. Bantam Books.

Test it out and think about it.
More linguistics… soon!

And forensic linguistics… what does that mean?

Forensic linguistics has to do with language, crime, and the law.
More formally, it is the application linguistic knowledge and methods to the forensic areas of law, language, crime investigation, trial and judicial procedures.

How can it be used? What does a forensic linguist DO?

A forensic linguist can be used for many legal issues, such as:

  • Trademark and intellectual property disputes.
  • Author identification (to determine, in anonymous texts, who might be the author of threatening letters, ransom notes, emails, mobile phone texts, ‘snail mail’ letters, journals, books and articles.
  • Discourse analysis (to analyze written or spoken utterances in order to determine meaning and criminality).
  • Suicide notes
  • Wills (to determine authenticity).
  • Police and witness statements, and interview records.
  • Plagiarism

Does each individual have a completely unique manner of speaking?

Yes and no.
Language is not inherited, as eyes, hair, facial feature might be. Rather, it is socially acquired. And it changes continually throughout one’s life. Therefore, one’s idiolect (an individual’s unique use of language) can encompass grammar, punctuation, pronunciation, idioms, and vocabulary. Degree of education can affect language use, as well. So identifying a particular speaker or author with 100% accuracy is not possible. It IS, however, possible to narrow the speaker or author down from a relatively small set of suspects.

We all, often, have certain words or phrases we use frequently, more so than many others, that pinpoint us. It could be an exclamation: Brilliant! Wicked! Easy peasy! Or an idiom: “We’re just like peas in a pod.” “I’m hanging on by a thread.” “She’s sharp as a tack.” I might use one, often; others, never. That could distinguish me from other suspects.

A dialect is a common set of linguistic features shared by a group of people.

More linguistics… soon!