Saturday, August 3, 2013

On language, linguistics and new beginnings

A recent decision I made was to pursue further education in the form of a distance learning program in forensic linguistics. What is forensic linguistics? I’ll come to that soon enough. First I'll summarize my academic background to show how I came to be interested in this burgeoning field of study.

At university I studied law and society and sociocultural linguistics. I must admit from a relatively young age I thought I was hearing a call to the bar, but as the financial realities of such aspirations became more evident, specifically in a post financial crisis economy, I found other ways to make a living. To say that I learned about the law and language would be oversimplifying. I learned about how people use them while considering their unique backgrounds, experiences and motivations and how all that could be used to explain certain actions or phenomena. I’ve constructed a dialogue of how Henry David Thoreau, Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau would respond to the Weather Underground movement and I’ve analyzed a conversation between four university students wherein the female and male participants refer to one location with different terms, namely ‘the market,’ and ‘the store,’ and which linguistic devices were used to argue in favor of one term's liegitimacy over the other across the two genders. Incidentally, it was after writing the paper on that conversation I decided to add linguistics as a second major after receiving encouragement from someone who would eventually become my favorite linguistics professors.

I can remember a moment of clarity in my third year when my seemingly unconventional double major choice suddenly made sense to me. Sitting in a human rights law class, listening to the professor (another one of my favorites) talk about the then newly waged ‘war on terror’ along with ‘enemy combatants’ and ‘enhanced interrogation tactics.’ At the time, lest they appear unpatriotic, it seemed to me that people were more invested in supporting the troops than questioning the way information was gathered, how detainees were being treated or whether the military’s conduct complied with the Geneva Conventions. But more than that, the language used was such that it made the actions described thereby seem mitigated. Using these words, which were not previously a part of our lexicon, provided a new framework for people to use to evaluate what was happening. This war is unlike any other war in that it is not being fought in a single location, but rather the world over, even at home. There is no one identifiable group, but rather a widespread network of individuals that are being dealt with. 

In that context, it would appear to follow that such new circumstances would also facilitate the use of new words to classify what was going on and who was doing what to whom. In that moment I realized how integral language is to shaping an individual's perception. What seems more troubling is how this principle is not only recognized by some in influential positions, but how it can be manipulated to achieve a desired reaction to something without you even being the wiser. As an example of this you need look no further than a commercial break the next time you watch TV.

Linguistics as a discipline involves a number of subfields. There’s phonetics and phonology, how sounds of a language are articulated (using the tongue, teeth, lips etc.) and how these sounds come together to create meaning in a language. There’s morphology which, crudely described, is how words are assembled within a language. Take for example the English suffix –ed, which by itself has no meaning until attached to the end of a (regular) verb, thus creating the past tense. To further highlight phonology, consider the difference between walked and waited: both end in –ed but are pronounced differently. If you’re interested in seeing how other languages work, check this out. There’s syntax, which studies how sentences are formed within a language. Semantics deals with meaning-consider the words “a heavy metal detector.” Is it a device that detects heavy metals or a particularly weighty metal detector? Did you just re-read those words placing different stress on heavy and metal? There’s another example of phonetics. Pragmatics deals with context and its ability to infuse meaning into a phrase which, on its surface, has little to do with what’s going on. Imagine you and your friend have just finished a nice lunch, the check has arrived and your friend looks in their bag then says “Oh, I seem to have forgotten my wallet.” Without even knowing it, you understand this declaration to be an implied request from your friend to cover the bill this time due to their absent mindedness. There are other subfields but I think that list will suffice for now. 

Sociolinguistics is a form of descriptive linguistics, which means it examines and analyses how language is used and what its affects are within a population considering such factors as race, age, gender, socioeconomic status, educational background or religion; all while considering the norms that govern social interaction and structure relationships within society. In my last upper division class at UCSB, Asian American experiences with language, I wrote a paper analyzing the use of a particular variety of English, technically referred to as African American Vernacular English (AAVE), more widely known as ebonics. I took into account the recognized associations with that particular variety of English. These associations are manifold and contain both positive and negative connotations. From the hypermasculinity and coolness of hip hop culture and rap music, to its perception by many as a bastardized form of standard English and ties to criminal activity through the aforementioned music, films and representations of those who speak it. My paper dealt with analyzing the use of so-called tokens (examples) of AAVE being used in the film Better Luck Tomorrow, which boasts a mostly Asian American cast and is based on actual events. I argued (with considerable help from the work of other linguists) that these examples served a greater purpose than just Asian dudes trying to sound black. Whether it was dropping g's, yo mama jokes or use of the ever-controversial "N word," (though it should be noted in this film it was the version with an "a" at the end, not an "er") these tokens served, in my opinion, to construct an identity that challenges normative expectations and understandings of the experience of Asian American boys in high school given their [AAVE tokens'] previously mentioned social connotations and the absence of an Asian American variety of English. Of course I recognize that the dialogue I was analyzing was entirely scripted, thus lacking a certain degree of authenticity. However, I still think that representations in film and media are relevant to sociological inquiry and their role in shaping the linguistic practices, and perhaps by extension the consciousness, of speakers cannot be overlooked.

Forensic linguistics is is the application of linguistic knowledge, methods and insights to the forensic context of law, language, crime investigation, trial, and judicial procedure. The field’s origins can be traced to a case from the 1950s in England (John Olsson, 2009, Introduction). A more recent example caught my eye with the announcement that J.K. Rowling had published a novel under a pseudonym.

I acknowledge that after all that I have barely come to scratch the surface of what forensic linguistics is. This is because I am still a novice to the field. I have been reading more and more trying to familiarize myself with other cases and applications, but this is only the beginning of the process. Given the increasingly technological aspect of daily life and the various social media that is being used to document it in an unprecedentedly public manner, the field is becoming more and more relevant, providing opinions that play a part in the decisions rendered in judicial procedings. I look forward to beginning the program in October, as well as an upcoming week-long conference to be held here in Germany next month. Perhaps I’ll have more to talk about then!

Below is a list of works cited in my paper on the use of AAVE and its social implications in the film Better Luck Tomorrow.