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Roger W. Shuy's picture

A Chat With Roger W. Shuy

Date:Nov 7, 2005, 7 PM Pacific (GMT -8)
Topic:Forensic Linguistics
Duration:One hour

(Chat transcript below)

Roger W. Shuy is the world's leading authority on forensic linguistics. He is Distinguished Research Professor of Linguistics, Emeritus, at Georgetown University. He is also president of Roger W. Shuy, Inc. founded in 1982 which specializes in providing forensic linguistic services to legal professionals.

His latest book is Creating Language Crimes: How Law Enforcement Uses (and Misuses) Language. Previously he has authored numerous other books including:

Transcript of the chat

Anu Garg
Welcome to the 18th online chat at Wordsmith.Org!

Today we're delighted to have with us Prof. Roger W. Shuy, professor emeritus at Georgetown University, author of numerous books, and a consultant on forensic linguistics.

Welcome, Prof. Shuy!

Roger W. Shuy
Thanks, Anu. And thanks for inviting me to be here.

Anu Garg
The topic of today's chat is forensic linguistics. Participants are welcome to send their questions.

Anu Garg
In your book, you have various examples of misuse of language. Is there an example that stands out for you?

Roger W. Shuy
There are lots of these but one that stands out for me is the case in Texas where the undercover cop never brought up the topic to the target's face, but rather waited until he got out of his car to talk into his hidden mike.

LilyPond - Shanghai
Hi Roger. Why do you think such 'mis-use' of the language occurs? Is it common among native speakers?

Roger W. Shuy
I work only with native English speakers these days. The mis-use I refer to is the way people block the other person from saying what they want to say.

weezy -- central PA USA
Could you elaborate on the Texas situation?

Roger W. Shuy
The Texas case was 25 years ago. Texas v. T. Cullen Davis. He was accused of soliciting the murder of his wife. The cops had an undercover operative tape record him and try to get him to say as much on tape. They failed, largely for the reason I cited. A good linguist can analyze such conversations and show how the language is misused.

There are lots of ways to do this. My book cites 11 of them in 12 different cases. Using ambiguous language, the hit and run strategy (bringing up a topic and then changing it before the target can answer, scripting the target in what to say, interrupting the target when he looks like he might say something exculpatory, overlapping his speech, not taking no for an answer, creating static on the tape in crucial places, camouflaging the illegality of what is being presented, etc.

Oliver Butterfield - Kelowna
I have been a criminal lawyer for 25 years, and have had an interest in linguistics for double that time. I have never heard of "forensic linguistics". What is it?

Roger W. Shuy
Oliver, forensic linguistics is simply applying linguistic knowledge, theory and research to the legal setting, whether criminal or civil. Linguists analyze both spoken and written language. In civil cases it's often a matter of ambiguity. In spoken language, especially in undercover tape cases, it often gives clues to the intention of the speakers.

Joey of Pensacola
Do you mean, they were being so obvious or something, the man knew he shouldn't talk?

Roger W. Shuy
Joey, sometimes the undercover cop is not that obvious. If he is, the target might catch on and clam up. It's the non-obvious cases that are interesting.

Barrett - Toronto
Would a forensic linguist be able to analyse an individual's personality, say by choice of words and vocabulary, similar to how a graphologist can map someone by their penmanship?

Roger W. Shuy
Barrett, forensic linguistics deals only with the language, not the psychology of a speaker.I often work with psychologists but I don't do what they do.

Oliver Butterfield - Kelowna
Do you testify as an expert witness in criminal cases? If so, what jurisdictions have you been qualified? Ever in Canada?

Roger W. Shuy
I've testified as an expert witness in over 50 criminal and civil cases, as well as before the US Congress and the International Criminal Tribunal of Rwanda. About half of the cases were US federal cases and the other half state cases (in some 30 different US states). Never in Canada though.

weezy -- central PA USA
I once took on an indigent defense case -- the guy had confessed without advice of counsel after about two hours of interrogation -- which was on tape -- it was horrendous -- what they told him.

In indigent cases, one can't always afford a linguistics expert -- are there ways that counsel can present the analysis without an expert witness?

Roger W. Shuy
I've seen that happen too, weezy. I've had cases where the target confessed on paper. The cops didn't make a tape so I got a good sample of his speech and was able to show in court that it was the cop's language in the confession, not the target's. The target claimed that he never said the things in the confession, even though he signed it. He was only semi-literate, 13 years old, and very upset. I wrote about this case in my book, The language of confession, interrogation and deception, in 1998.

weezy -- central PA USA
Must say I have not read your book. I will look for it.

Jack - Wisconsin
Is it hard at times for you to understand accents or regional phrases/slang?

Oliver Butterfield - Kelowna
Never in Canada? Pity!

Roger W. Shuy
Oliver, I was never asked to testify in Canada. I did work on the LOKI bomber case in PEI some years ago. My analysis never reached trial though because the bomber, when confronted with it, confessed.

weezy -- central PA USA
We had a contract case once -- did six mock juries -- one jury had an English teacher as the foreperson. Five of the juries gave us a defendant's verdict. The English teacher would have given away 12 million of our client's dollars hinged on her feeling that our client's contract was ambiguous. We settled the case.

Roger W. Shuy
Weezy, in cases involving contracts, such as insurance policies, if the wording is judged to be ambiguous, the verdict usually goes to the person suing the insurance company. I guess the theory is that the insurance company should have been more careful with the language. "Or," for example, can mean several things, including alternatives. Policies sometimes get in trouble over little words like that.

weezy -- central PA USA
It also seems to me that the composition of the jury has a lot to do with the way counsel phrase and state their questions and arguments.

Agreed about the ambiguity being construed against the drafter -- but we had NOT seen the ambiguity issue even coming -- the plaintiff did not raise it -- the JUROR did -- that's why we settled.

Tony Shaw - Pasadena
Can you help us distinguish between linguistics and semantics?

Roger W. Shuy
Good question, Tony. Linguistics is the scientific study of language at all levels: the sound system (phonetics and phonology), the way words are formed (morphology), the way sentences are formed (syntax), the way sentences go together to make larger units (discourse analysis), the dictionary meaning of words (semantics), the way meaning is conveyed in other ways (pragmatics), the relationship of language to society and culture (sociolinguistics), language learning (psycholinguistics) and the history of language changes. Semantics is an important part of linguistics, but only one part.

Roger W. Shuy
Weezy, good lawyers use language very effectively. If they're smart, they'll size up a jury first in voir dire and then watch their reactions during the trial. However good they are with language though, they can't analyze it the way linguists do.

weezy -- central PA USA
I would agree with that -- but can lawyers learn to be better at analyzing language?

Oliver Butterfield - Kelowna
I haven't studied this, but my guess is that Canadian courts would not permit a forensic linguist to testify as an expert. Judges here (and I believe in England) like to think that they themselves are the experts in the English language. I know of several cases which have turned on the ambiguities of the words "or" and "and" and "and/or". How are you in a better position than an educated English speaker, knowledgeable in the law, to interpret words and phrases?

Roger W. Shuy
Oliver, forensic linguistics is more prominent in England and Australia than it is in the US. The courts accept forensic linguists there regularly. In fact the International Association of Forensic Linguistics is housed in Birmingham, England and the most recent conference of that organization was held there last July. Linguists don't need to know law. That's up to the lawyers we work with.

Roger W. Shuy
Weezy, I write my books to help lawyers learn to analyze language the way linguists do. But I fear that lawyers don't have time to learn everything. Sometimes it's easier and faster to just get a linguist to help them.

biffo
Mr. Shuy: pardon late arrival. I would think of forensic linguistics as the analysis of written or spoken communication. perhaps to determine country of origin, age, profession, educational level, existing psychoses, etc. I would see it as a tool for the investigator to achieve some sort of picture of the person who executed the writing or spoke the particular words. Am I wrong?

Roger W. Shuy
Biffo, you're quite right. Most of the cases I've worked on for the government were to help them narrow down their suspect lists. Often in cases like bomb threats, you don't get enough data to be able to be certain about anything much. But if there are even a few clues to the dialect region, the gender, the age, or the occupation of the threat writer, it can help the police greatly. But I'd never want to testify in such a case since there just isn't enough to be certain about.

weezy -- central PA USA
Since "or" and "and" and "and/or" cause so much confusion, why do we keep using them? -- why can't we come up with alternatives?

Roger W. Shuy
Weezy, most of the time we have no trouble understanding these words. Why? Because context tells us what is intended. But in legal documents, insurance policies, contracts, and other things there is a greater burden to be accurate and to make your intent clear. That's one reason that legal jargon is necessary internally. It gets problematic when used outside of the law but it's just fine most of the time inside.

Brandon - Michigan
Roger, I'm in the middle of your Trademark Law book--it's very interesting, especially since part of my legal practice involves trademark prosecution. From the advice you include in your book, I get the idea that some of the attorneys with whom you have worked have had inflated confidence in their own linguistic capabilities. Do you find that attorneys are generally responsive to professional linguistic interpretation as it affects their case?

Roger W. Shuy
Brandon, I've worked with all kinds of attorneys in the 500 or so cases I've worked on over the years. Most are very intelligent. They have to have confidence, so I don't fault that. They also have to learn heaps of new stuff in every civil case they try. And they usually do this very well. I hope I didn't give a bad impression of most of the lawyers I've worked with, for I respect most of them highly. There are a few, however...

weezy -- central PA USA
Have you encountered any English words that are not susceptible to ambiguity.

Roger W. Shuy
Weezy, the human condition is highly ambiguous and language is no exception.

Tony Shaw - Pasadena
Can linguistics help us understand Donald Rumsfeld?

Roger W. Shuy
Tony, I don't know if anything can disambiguate Donald Rumsfeld.

Barrett - Toronto
Furthering biffo's thoughts, would a linguist be able to notice a slip in someone's speech that might give them away, similar to a "forger's tremor", are there examples, of this?

Roger W. Shuy
Barret, linguists notice everything about speech. I had a case once in which creeky voice seemed to be the best clue to a telephone speaker's identity. Slips of the speech are not my territory but I'm sure that if they are somehow patterned or characteristic of a given speaker, they could be used in a law case as evidence.

weezy -- central PA USA
My question was prompted a while back when Anu was talking about prime numbers -- I wondered if there were any English words that could be considered prime -- that is having only one meaning and pronunciation.

Roger W. Shuy
Weezy, math may have an advantage over language in this. Language keeps changing all the time. Otherwise it would be dead. This change is dynamic and actually very exciting, but it doesn't lead us to anything like prime numbers. I don't even have the same pronunciations for the same words at all time in my own speech. Something like the snowflake theory.

Brandon - Michigan
There always are. I'm sure you have some tales. Maybe your next book could be just war stories.

Roger W. Shuy
Brandon, most of my last five books have been filled with, as you put it, war stories. The John DeLorean case, the Abscam cases and many others frame my books. I use speech act theory in my 1993 book, Language Crimes, to frame the cases there. Other books use different linguistic frames.

Faith - CA
Mr. Shuy, college is right around the bend for me and I have thought about choosing linguistics as my major or minor. What convinced you that linguistics was right for you?

Roger W. Shuy
Faith, I love this question. I started out my college career in English literature. When I took a course in Middle English, however, I got bitten by the wonderful dialects and changed to linguistics. I love variability and became first a dialectologist (I did the interviews for the Linguistic Atlas in Illinois 50 years ago), then a sociolinguist (at Georgetown U, where I started the sociolinguistics program in 1969). Language is central for me. I love it.

Oliver Butterfield - Kelowna
Roger, is "disambiguate" a word of your own creation, or have others used it before you? Is it a linguistic term of art?

Roger W. Shuy
Oliver, linguists use 'disambiguate' all the time. I didn't even realize that it sounded unusual. Sorry.

biffo
Prof. Shuy: My orientation is in the area of Criminalistics. I tend to think in terms of physical evidence. So if I am examining a document and I notice that the number 7 has a cross bar, I would immediately think of an origin other than the USA. Common at least to German and many Latin American countries. Years ago I listened to a radio program where four people claim to be a certain person with certain accomplishments. The persons..( three of them liars ) claimed to be an individual from Colorado. As I was born and raised there, I spotted the true person immediately. The others all pronounced the a in Colorado differently from people who actually grew up there. The vocabulary used. Perhaps words that have fallen out of use and are now almost anachronisms, might tell us something about the age of the person. I picture your field something like this rather than sparring over the legal meaning of words.

Roger W. Shuy
Biffo, language variation is certainly part of forensic linguistics. You can pretty well be sure that person who calls the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the curb a "devilstrip" is from Akron, Ohio. People who get drinks from a "bubbler' are likely to be from Milwaukee.

Tony Shaw - Pasadena
When President Clinton responded to a query "It depends on what your definition of 'is' is" was he ambiguating?

Roger W. Shuy
Tony, Far be if from me to defend Clinton, but he wasn't all that far off when he said that. His own definition of sex, as it turns out, did not include oral sex. Thus, his answer depended on what the "is" meant here. He wasn't exactly forthcoming, but he had at least a small point. I suspect that he knew what the question intended though and it doesn't really let him off the hook.

weezy -- central PA USA
I am not exactly sure -- just wondering if Prof. Shuy has noticed anything he can generalize as to how the linguistic patterns of one area versus the linguistic patterns of moving around can affect people.

Roger W. Shuy
It's a big question, weezy. Children learn their language patterns mostly from their peers (not as much from their parents). When they move to another area or climb a social class or two, they tend to take on whatever language they find useful, and that doesn't make people laugh at them. Women seem to change their speech more readily than men, although not always.

weezy -- central PA USA
It seems also to me that TV has had a profound affect on language.

Roger W. Shuy
Weezy, people like to think that TV affects language. Maybe it does in some ways but I used to work with non-standard speakers who watched TV all the time and it didn't do anything to make them standard speakers. Why? Probably because TV isn't interactive. We don't hold conversations with the TV (well, not usually anyway). It seems to be the group that we look up to and want to be like that makes us change our speech.

weezy -- central PA USA
I am thinking more of TV being able to quickly spread a "bad" construction -- eg -- "us Tareyton smokers would rather fight than switch".

weezy -- central PA USA
And the valley girl speak.

LilyPond - Shanghai
Weezy - what do you mean exactly about thought patterns in people who move a lot or don't?

Roger W. Shuy
LilyPond, I grew up in a poor working class community where even my teachers said "He done it" and other such expressions. It wasn't until college, when someone looked down on me, that I got this one straight. Now you'd never know I was from that background. But it has some down sides too, since "you can't go home again" once you've changed that much. That's one reason why some advocate not wiping out a kid's non-standard speech. Rather, they say, teach him to be bidialectal, using one dialect for school and another on the playground, where it will ensure some social respectability. We all pick up words in the new areas where we move. I've now lived in Montana for nine years (the rest of my life on the east coast) and I'm now hearing myself drink "pop" and say "krick" (creek), both local norms.

LilyPond - Shanghai
The bidialectal is interesting - I've never heard that before. Is it common?

It makes sense as people from home are always telling me that my speech sounds very 'high-falutin' now! And, I'm starting to use 'Chinglish' in certain circumstances...

Tony Shaw - Pasadena
How helpful is linguistics in helping judge the credibility of children who testify in court?

Roger W. Shuy
Tony, this is a big issue. Let me recommend an article I just had published in the Montana Law Review. Better yet, look at the book by Anne Graham Walker, Handbook on Questioning Children: A Linguistic Perspective (ABA Center on Children and the Law). One thing we know is that when you or the judge asks a child the usual question about telling the difference between the truth and a lie, they usually get a useless answer, largely because the question is something like "If I told you I was wearing a red tie, is that a lie?" (He's wearing a blue tie) The problem is that the kid knows that the judge's answer is wrong. But is it a lie? Is he color-blind? The difference been a fact and a lie is not held constant in most cases. As for lying in general, I don't know any way that linguistics can inform you. Nor can non-verbal communication. Ekman's research lab on the latter comes to the conclusion that you could do as well flipping a coin to detect lying.

Roger W. Shuy
LilyPond, bidialectal is based on the term, bilingual. One is for dialect-switching and the other for language-switching. The term is common in linguistics and, as far as I know, in education.

weezy -- central PA USA
When does bidialectical become two separate languages?

Roger W. Shuy
Weezy, dialects don't become languages. The usual difference between a language and a dialect is that the latter are mutually understandable while the former are not. Dialects are made up of vocabulary, pronunciation and sometimes grammatical forms that are systematic within that dialect but not shared by speakers of other dialects.

weezy -- central PA USA
Ok -- I grasp that -- but to me as a linguistic layperson -- it seems that people spoke the same language and then drifted apart -- eventually it would be dialectic differences -- but over time, the difference could become so great that it is no longer the same language.

biffo
Weezy's question is interesting. I have no doubt that there are differences between mobile vs static population language patterns. Just go to middle Georgia where family continuity in one place spans many generations. Listen and then compare with Atlanta or St Simons Island which has a much more cosmopolitan mobile population. Then I think of what I would call linguistic flexibility. Some people can learn other languages with relative ease. In my mind I generalize; Swiss, Hungarian and perhaps other peoples who live in close proximity to other cultures seem to pick up languages, dialect, etc. readily. Others can never quite get the hang of a different language.

weezy -- central PA USA
Not mutually comprehensible any more.

Roger W. Shuy
weezy, you're right. In the long run, continuing dialect change, especially with space and time separation, can lead to different non-mutually understood languages, like German and English, French and Spanish, etc. which once were the same. I was speaking about a more contemporary use of dialects.

Anu Garg
That was our last question for today. Thanks to all who participated.

Anu Garg
Thank you, Prof. Roger Shuy for being here today.

weezy -- central PA USA
Thank you.

Anu Garg
Prof. Shuy, I'm enjoying your latest book, Creating Language Crimes. It makes fascinating reading.

Joey of Pensacola
Thanks Prof. Shuy. And thanks to you too, Anu!

LilyPond - Shanghai
Thank you!

Tony Shaw - Pasadena
Thank you very much. A terrific 90 minutes!

Brandon - Michigan
Thank you both, Anu and Prof. Shuy. That was extremely enjoyable.

Joey of Pensacola
Bye! (This time I'm not weird for saying that :-) Have a great night, and thanks again!

Faith - CA
Thank you, Professor! Maybe I'll get to be a student of yours someday.

biffo
Nice listening to you all thanks

Anu Garg
For more, visit Prof Shuy's Web site.

biffo
I hope that I can meet you all again.

Anu Garg
See you here next month!


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