Alan Perlman’s work as forensic linguist has included everything from analyzing the Son of Sam writings to providing an expert opinion of plagiarism of song lyrics involving the rock group, The Who.
Cool job, yes?
Yesterday, we began exploring this fascinating world of forensic linguists. These are professionals who apply the tools, concepts and techniques of linguistics to matters involving law and jurisprudence.
Perlman is such a professional. And today, he shares insight into the field.
And this skill did not come overnight. He has a Ph.D. in linguistics and 20 years experience as an expert in forensic linguistics. According to his website, this expertise “represents a unique combination: a deep theoretical understanding of the workings of the language…together with extensive experience in the application of linguistic principles to the analysis of language samples in order to assist attorneys, other legal profession, law enforcement personnel, and others in understanding the linguistic issues that bear upon particular cases.”
It’s good that such people can be turned to. For instance, when a man suffered damages from malfunctioning rental equipment, he had no clue that he had signed a contract releasing the company from liability. Perlman studied the contract and, after statistical analysis of the prose, opined that it was “too complex to understand.”
We’re happy to have him share his thoughts:
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If anyone would know a lot about words, it is you and your fellow forensic linguists. What an amazing field. Can you tell us a bit about it?
Forensic linguists’ concerns go well beyond words and word choice. People who specialize in words and their history are called philologists (older term), etymologists, and lexicographers.
Forensic linguistics is the application of the tools and techniques of linguistics to a wide range of legal issues. These include:
- Phonetics of spoken language in legal situations to glean information about the speakers(s) and their attitudes and emotions.
- Semantics: interpretation of intended and inferred meanings in legal documents, testimony, depositions, and other legal discourse.
- The language of the law.
- The language of the courtroom.
- Veracity in testimony, witness statements and other accounts of events.
- Interpretation and translation in a legal context.
- Minority language rights.
Do you have a specialty?
Yes, I specialize in the following five additional areas: document interpretation, plagiarism, protectability of copyright/trademark, libel, and authorship.
Can you explain document interpretation for us?
In document interpretation, I examine contracts, wills, or other binding documents. I analyze specific words, phrases, clauses, sentences, and other units, including the entire document, to offer informed judgments on clarity, comprehensibility, and (un)ambiguity.
And what about plagiarism? Is that difficult to ascertain?
There are many forms that a plagiarism case can take. I examine texts to determine the likelihood of plagiarism. Here’s an example. The creator of an online course found it stolen and being offered by someone else. On the basis of similarities between the two courses phrased their questions, I helped substantiate his charges.
Some observations: A spurious plagiarism charge is often leveled as part of a fishing expedition or to “get” someone by impugning their honesty. A charge of plagiarism requires the intent to deceive – inept quoting doesn’t count. Example: A college student was – inappropriately, in my view – accused of plagiarism because his footnoting mechanics were erratic. He knew he had to attribute; he just didn’t do it perfectly. Somewhat less common is honest error: the person was unaware that he/she got an idea somewhere else.
Some cases of paraphrase may be evidence of plagiarism, though most plagiarists aren’t skilled enough to create complete paraphrases. In such cases it is obvious that the original language has been tampered with. Other suspected cases of plagiarism may be examples of independent creation (it does happen) or separate borrowing from same source.
With so many brands on the market, copyright/trademark infringement must be a challenge. Can you tell us about it?
For protectability of copyright/trademark, I help attorneys define the semantic points at issue, and I offer informed judgment on the genericity, specificity, and/or protectability of contested material. I consult dictionaries and other sources to determine the degree to which a given word or phrase is already part of the language. I also assess the similarity of names/marks and offer informed judgments in infringement litigation. For example, by comparing phonetics, orthography and frequency of consonant clusters, I demonstrated that another marketer’s brand name was, on several linguistic levels, similar to that of the Plaintiff.
And what about libel? How do you determine that?
I evaluate the accuracy and appropriateness of language. In one case, a candidate’s campaign materials referred to his opponent as a “convicted racketeer,” and his lawyers produced complex legal precedents to show how the words could actually apply to the other politician, who was a “convicted racketeer” only by a most implausible stretch of the conventional meanings of those words. I argued that the real issue is: how will the phrase be understood in context, by native speakers of English?
And can you actually determine authorship through your work? How?
I analyze two or more language samples — the grammar, lexicon, and other features (MANY other features) — to offer informed judgment on the authorship of anonymous, forged, or otherwise disputed documents.
Although it employs the methods and concepts of modern linguistics (and sometimes makes use of statistical analysis and computer databases), forensic linguistics as stylistic analysis is at least 200 years old.
According to Gerald R. McMenamin (Forensic Linguistics: Advances in Forensic Stylistics), “hundreds of studies — in the form of journal articles and books — have been done on style, stylistics, and questioned authorship. German studies of Old Testament authorship date back at least to the middle of the 19th century. In addition, evidence has been presented in multiple court cases, and numerous judicial opinions have been documented based on evidence of forensic stylistics.
These cases date as far back as the 1728 Trial of William Hales in England and the 1846 Pate v. People case in the US (pp. 86-7).”
Our blog is focusing on words this month. Are there particular words that you look for in your analysis that tend to be a clue or are all words equivalent in helping you reach your conclusions?
A speaker/writer’s word choice is only one of dozens, if not hundreds of features that forensic linguists look at in authorship and other studies. Individual words are important insofar as they reflect larger patterns. If two documents each consistently use two different synonyms, there would be grounds for suspecting different authorship. Or a writer might use shut in a variety of contexts, whereas another might use different words in the same contexts: turn out [not shut] the light, close [not shut] the windows, etc. Occasionally a writer will overuse a word so egregiously that it becomes a marker of his/her style. One writer I identified repeatedly used puke as a noun, verb, and adjective.
As of course you know, there are words that are unique to regions. For instance, on the East Coast, people use the word, “hero,” to describe a submarine sandwich. Also back East and in the South, people call toll roads “turnpikes.” Here, in California, they are simply called toll roads. Is there a resource for word selection by region that you reference?
I thought referring to freeways by the plus interstate highway number (There’s an accident on the 405.) was distinctly Californian. In any case, the definitive reference book is the Dictionary of American Regional English.
Are there any individual words so unique to a particular locale, that you can actually pinpoint where a person comes from? In San Diego it might be fish taco, for instance?
There may be, but there are so many words and so many contexts in which they are used that a forensic linguist, who can only take what the text gives him/her, rarely has the opportunity to use a single word as evidence in identifying an anonymous speaker/writer. Also, the geographic origin of an anonymous writer/speaker has never been a significant question in any of my authorship analyses. Rather, the question is always: Did the person write the suspected/anonymous document or not? (Note also that people can pick up local vocabulary items even though they grew up somewhere else; this possibility further weakens the likelihood that an individual word can be a clue as to the anonymous individual’s identity.)
From what I understand of your work, all of us give clues when we write? Sort of like fingerprints?
Yes. The “fingerprint” metaphor has been a topic of controversy among forensic linguists for some time. I contend that producing a text involves so many spontaneous (and often simultaneous) decisions that the combination of them, if the quantity of data is sufficient, can indeed reveal an individual style (even allowing for spell-check, auto-capitalization, and other “noise factors”).
And we are not aware of this?
Correct. Think how long you have lived in blissful unawareness that your writing differs in many subtle ways from someone else’s. Most people are absolutely unaware that they have a writing style, probably because everyone is taught to write, and the goal is presumably the same, so they assume the output (i.e., the way they write) is the same. Some may make observations if the matter is brought up (“I tend to use a lot of exclamation marks.”), but such observations are rarely helpful and, more often than not, wrong.
If I were really, really careful, could I disguise my identity by choosing different words?
You could change individual words but not necessarily disguise your identity. What’s required is not “really, really careful,” but the knowledge of which words to replace – and with what. You’d have to know which ones are replaceable, replace them with exact synonyms, and do it consistently. Even then, you’d still be using your own distinctive patterns of word formation (dreamed or dreamt? leaped or leapt?), idiom, orthography, and syntax.
You’ve done all sorts of work in this field from trademark infringement to the plagiarism of song lyrics involving The Who. What was your most interesting case?
There are many candidates. In one authorship case, the writer took the trouble to steal signature stamps from the various people she was purporting to be, but her writing style was as distinctive as if she herself had signed it. She didn’t use hyphens even with prefixes, and she always included the addressee’s name somewhere in the email, as I’m doing now, Michael (this is called a “vocative”).
In a contract interpretation case, I compared the writing of a rental contract with that of People magazine and the Chicago Tribune and was able to show exactly, quantitatively, how legal language is complex – in this case, too complex for the contractee to understand (he wasn’t aware that he’d agreed to indemnify the manufacturer and rental company even if the equipment killed him!)
In addition to doing civil work, you’ve also helped law enforcement with your expertise. For instance, you did an analysis of written letters involved in the Son of Sam case. What was that like? Chilling?
Mostly I’ve been consulted long after the fact, just to confirm (or refute) someone else’s analysis. In Son of Sam, I opined that the writings associated with the case came from different authors and that the copious writings of the Zodiac killer came from the same person. I try to keep my emotions out of it and focus on the text.
Do some concerns purposely try to confuse us by creating hard-to-understand and complicated wording? How can we protect ourselves?
Absolutely. Here is an article I wrote on the subject : http://blog.gothamghostwriters.com/2012/02/guest-post-malicious-obfuscation-by.html
The only defense we have is to know where the malicious obfuscation is likely to occur – and insist that it be recast in simple terms before we evaluate or agree to it.
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Thank you Dr. Perlman for your input on this unique field of work. And for our readers, the next time you need to solve a crime, check the words. They may have someone’s fingerprints all over them.
Mike Stetz, Senior Writer
Collaborative Services, Inc.