Rule one: Never go to a lecture running on zero sleep. Rule two: Never go to a lecture running on zero sleep if it will most likely be held in an air-conditioned room. Rule three: Never go to a lecture running on zero sleep if it will most likely be held in an air-conditioned room located someplace completely unfamiliar to you.
The scenario? All three rules I violated in attending the lecture by Dr Isabel Picornell entitled “Words on Trial: Linguistics as Evidence in a Forensic Context” last Saturday at the University of Santo Tomas. It’s uncharted territory, but look I didn’t get lost! *pats self on the back*
Despite my zombieness and the threat of possible residual rains by super typhoon Yolanda, I pushed through. Hey, it’s not everyday that an esteemed forensic linguist visits the country to generously lend her time to discuss a topic that’s not getting as much scholarly attention as it deserves here in the Philippines. Carpe that frakking diem, I say.
Remembering the entirety of the lecture is a bit of a haze, literally and figuratively. Literally because my recently purchased hipster frames still don’t have graded lenses, and my contact lenses hurt my eyes because apparently a tiny part of the left one has been torn. Seeing the world in bokeh ang peg. When I would squint, it’s like shooting in macro mode. Figuratively because I must have been half asleep half the time, trying to focus on the silhouette where the voice was coming from while scribbling away semi-coherent strings of words on my index card.
A bit of a background on linguistics, forensic linguistics, and Dr Picornell, lifted from the handout given in the lecture:
The language we use is both influenced by and reflects the rich micro and macro cultures in which we live, and we tailor our communications accordingly. This deliberate but largely unconscious selection conveys something of our identity to others, as well as the linguistic fingerprint of the context in which the communication was produced. Properly analysed, this provides valuable information which can be used as evidence in a socio-legal context.
The role of the forensic linguist … involves highlighting discriminatory linguistic features which may distinguish one author’s text from another, a fabricated from a real written confession, an imagined from an actual verbal recollection of a conversation, a deceptive from a truthful witness statement. It involves explaining why words are used in a particular way, how linguistic encoding is to be interpreted, and commenting on the rarity and frequency of linguistic features.
Isabel Picornell is a forensic linguist living in the British Channel Islands who has been involved in numerous investigations, from the analysis of covert telephone conversations to authorship attribution and profiling involving whisteblowing, blackmail, and threat documents. She became a fraud investigator in 1999 and subsequently established QED Limited in 2001, which offers linguistic analysis as part of investigation services to the finance, corporate, and intelligence industries in the UK.
Now for obvious reasons, what I have here to share are just snippets* that my zombie brain managed to absorb (future sorry if they don’t make any sense). Behold.
- Forensic linguistics has made some progress in the last twenty years, but it is slow and steady. Dr Picornell said that her part in the investigations where she’s involved is very small. Most of the cases don’t go to court, and when this happens, she doesn’t often get informed whether her findings were valid or not and/or if it contributed in any way. Feedback is still scant.
- In light of the above, Dr Picornell clarified that reports gathered and constructed using forensic linguistics should not be used as principal evidence in court — for now — but only as supporting evidence.
- Individuals with diverse cultural and linguistic background pose a challenge. One participant in the open forum raised this when he asked how forensic linguists might handle circumstances involving individuals such as himself, being a native english speaker from Australia who has been living in the Philippines for a while. Dr Picornell admitted that it is very difficult. In a previous case, what she did was to characterize the language of the text and present this to the client, who was then able to identify a “suspect” from the “caricature.” Think of it like this: Based on the language, the author is someone tall, dark, and handsome, and it just so happened that among the roster of suspects, there was someone tall, dark, and handsome. Oh shush, you ;>
- Men and women do communicate differently. This is studied under Language and Gender — but “gender” in terms of the socially constructed man and woman instead of the biological male and female. While men seek to provide information, women seek to establish relationships through the use of language.
- In everyday discourse, we reveal ourselves through our unique semantic tics. We are all essentially linguists so this goes the other way around — we examine other’s so-called semantic breadcrumb trails while communicating. Both process is largely subconscious. In a manner of speaking, forensic linguists are specialists stepping out from the academe into the real world to apply their knowledge and expertise.
In fact, forensic linguistics got a bit of attention recently, when Robert Galbraith was revealed to be the nom de plume of J.K. Rowling. Patrick Juola applied his knowledge on the subject of authorship attribution in investigating the matter. He used a computer program to unmask Rowling as the author of The Cuckoo’s Calling, a crime fiction novel. More about the technical nitty-gritty here.
Prior to the lecture, my overly excited self did some research on the Internet and came across this article on forensic linguistics by Jack Hitt. And I’ve been scouring Booksale branches all over for the July 23, 2012 issue of The New Yorker ever since. The online version is no more than a sneak peek, and the full copy of the story is behind a pay wall; thus my quest to grab hold of the printed magazine. On that account, no happy ending for me. Yet.
I need more intellectually stimulating days like this <3* I hope I did not get anything wrong! If any of the bullet points is inaccurate, just holler. I’ll sit corrected.