Forensic linguist and language expert: unique experience and skill set

Alan M. Perlman, an academically trained career linguist, is a forensic linguist and language expert who offers clients exceptional quality, experience, and expertise.  He is one of a small number of linguistics experts who assist the legal professions — and perhaps the only one who also has a lifetime of practical experience in the real-world use of language.

He has a PhD in linguistics and more than 35 years of experience as an expert in those areas of forensic linguistics to which his varied experiences are best suited (see Areas of Specialization)

His expertise represents a unique combination: a solid theoretical understanding of the workings of language, along with extensive and intensive experience, shared by few if any other linguists, of decades of examining, analyzing, transcribing, editing, composing, and teaching others to compose thousands of real-life, real-time texts and documents of all kinds.

Tools and techniques of linguistics applied to legal issues

Dr. Perlman is thus highly qualified to assist attorneys, other legal professionals, law enforcement personnel, and private clients in understanding the linguistic issues that bear upon particular cases.

Like other forensic linguists and language experts, Dr. Perlman applies the principles and methods of linguistics to the language of legal proceedings, disputes, and documents.

The “Lay Witness”

Regardless of which side hired him, Dr. Perlman will never compromise his integrity.  He delivers sound, honest judgments.

Dr. Perlman provides counsel and  produces reports, affidavits, depositions, and testimony.  He is a court-qualified “lay witness” as described in the legal definition — an individual whose breadth and depth of knowledge and experience in the matter at hand can be of assistance to the trier of fact.  This is in contrast to the “expert witness,” who has published in peer-reviewed journals and employs empirically repeatable methods.

Dr. Perlman is a court-certified lay witness, per the Federal Rules of Evidence, ARTICLE VII. OPINIONS AND EXPERT TESTIMONY › Rule 701. Opinion Testimony by Lay Witnesses:

Rule 701 says that the lay expert’s opinions are admissible if they are “rationally based on the witness’s perception, helpful to…determining a fact in issue; and not based on scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge within the scope of Rule 702,” which sets out the criteria for expert witnesses.

Here are Dr. Perlman’s comments on the issue:

“Well, first of all, ‘lay’ is a little lame.  It calls to mind the difference between clergy and laity, as if the former were in possession of a truth unavailable to the latter.  They are not.

“There is more than one path to truth about language.  The very fact that the client has retained me says that he/she believes in my expertise.  And I wouldn’t take the case unless I believed the same.  So all we have to do is convince the court.

“The Federal Rules of Evidence say that the lay witness may call upon technical expertise that is not within the purview of the expert witness — so really, I’m an expert too, and we should do away with the second-class-sounding ‘lay witness.’ But there’s no undoing precedent, and ‘lay witness’ gets me qualified to take the stand and share my expertise.

“Anyway, the rule works in my favor:  I can infer from the third provision that the very fact that my expertise does not overlap with theirs is a strong argument for qualifying me, along with the other two.

“Expert” (?) witnesses

“Insisting that an expert’s research method be ‘repeatable’ is setting the bar too high.  Unfortunately. as I just read in Tucker Carlson’s book Ship of Fools, the results of as many as half of all scientific studies were not repeatable.

“Also, the expert witness’s computers can process huge quantities of language, but all they can do is count and segment.  Check out  John Searle’s famous Chinese Room thought experiment.  Computers will never be able to view language in the same way as humans, because they do not have consciousness.  And that is not likely to change.

Over-relying on machine data 

“I caution against over-reliance on machine data. A blatant example: I have defended numerous plagiarism cases in which the demonic search engine turnitin flagged material that wasn’t plagiarized, including bibliographies.  These cannot be copyrighted; they’re in the public domain!  Yet findings like these led to severe academic discipline.  Inexcusable.  In a recent case, the student’s conclusions and discussion were not flagged — because, of course, they were original.

The centrality of language 

“I got into linguistics because it seemed the central humanistic discipline, anchoring psychology, physics, fiction, economics, and everything else.

“I figured that whatever happens in human affairs, it happens because of language.  So if I could understand how language works, I could understand how these other disciplines organized their knowledge. And — unexpected benefit —  I could tell when the language became detached from reality and turned into BS, a form of half-lying to which language-unsophisticated people are susceptible (worst offenders: clergy, politicians, and marketers): .

“Another advantage: my explanations are phrased in everyday language and are clear to judges, attorneys, and juries. I’m not saying Carol Chaski and colleagues can’t communicate their dense, arcane statistical findings (even three eminent linguists couldn’t understand her method) to a jury, but they’ve got quite a hill to climb.

Human judgement

“I will NOT tolerate accusations, from people who should know better, that if there’s no computer or statistics, then no conclusions can be drawn, that there is no place for the linguist’s informed judgment.

“OF COURSE what I do is scientific: I observe data, which, in authorship cases, is usually hiding from the layman in plain sight (now there’s a more appropriate use of lay).   I attempt to interpret the data in terms of its frequency and patterns.

And OF COURSE there is an established theoretical foundation (Labov’s theory of language variation) and an established procedure, forensic stylistics, repeated and validated for centuries and used in legal proceedings in the US and UK.

“For example, there are many individual patterns in the use of hyphens with prefixes and compound words.  If there’s enough data, hyphenation patterns are, as far as I can tell, largely idiosyncratic, thus a reliable style-marker.  Qualitatively, I assess whether a particular feature is rare enough to be part of the individual’s idiolect.

Writers have habits and quirks

Some writers have a habit of addressing their recipient in the middle of a text: Debbie, I just didn’t know….  Most people do not, so when I find two texts that contain this feature, I’m inclined to put that particular data point in the ‘did write’ column.

“In authorship identification, the qualitative method may not be statistical, but it is probabilistic. when similarities of pattern and feature accumulate, at a certain point, I’m ready to declare a degree of certainty.  That’s all a lot of people want — ‘evidence did write.’

Linguist as umpire: forensic linguist and language expert 

“I arrive at such decisions the way human beings do countless times every minute: through informed judgment.  Sports officials learn to make the instant call.   They don’t have to watch 500 videos of the same pitch before they call a ball or a strike.  In fact, people of every kind, from cabdrivers to brain surgeons, make decisions based on experience and judgment.  Why not linguists?

“The same kind of expertise pervades all of my areas of specialization.  I apply the analytic concepts and tools of linguistics to the resolution of language-based legal questions —

  • –author identification;
  • –interpretation of documents (here’s where I call on my studies of grammar and semantics);
  • –plagiarism (in which I do research to assess the originality of the source material, among other factors); and…
  • –trademark infringement (often a lexicographical exercise to determine the extent to which the disputed term — a phrase, word, or word-part — is already established in the language, thus not protectable).
  • Lay witness and expert witness — and a wealth of real-world experience

“I consider myself the equal of the expert witness in every way.  It’s been said that the best measure of an expert witness is his ability to explain what he does.  That is one of my strengths.

“I am fascinated by language in its many dimensions (structural, semantic, social, pragmatic, and others) and bring a wealth of experience that the peer-reviewed folks have not had.

“As regards the accuracy of my stylistic analyses, for example, which of them has been in the high-pressure situation of getting a style analysis right the first time and every time and producing a speech text that sounds as if the speaker composed it?  I did that successfully for 20+ years.  For six years, I wrote speeches for the CEO of General Motors, among others.  Failure at style analysis would have gotten me fired.  Who says I don’t have a success rate?.

“Along with my forensic experience, I have been a ghostwriter, linguistics professor, scholar, researcher, English composition instructor, professional editor, professional writer, and lecturer.  I offer unique personal experience in applied linguistics — linguistics in the real world — and I provide educated judgments and clear, readable reports to litigants and legal professionals.

PS: Academics and sharp knives

“Human judgment, combined with experienced analysis of the data, is not to be disparaged as ‘unscientific.’  Nor is it to be deemed irrelevant to the understanding of language, which is, after all, humanity’s crowning achievement.   Carol Chaski and her colleagues dismiss  forensic stylistics, which they portray inaccurately,  because that’s what academics do: they go after dissenters with sharp knives.

“Chaski’s insistence, in her “Best Practices” article, that forensic linguistic analysis be ‘litigation-independent’ is, well…nuts.  What part of ‘forensic’ does she fail to understand?   If there were no litigation (actual or pending), then I would have no business.  Does she doubt my ability to be impartial?

“And then Chaski goes and does something profoundly stupid: she gets her data from assigned writing!  She asks students to make up communications they would produce in various highly stressful situations.  If they were really in these situations, the data would be completely different.

“Ground-level data”???

“How can this possibly be ‘ground-level’ data?  Did she never learn, as I learned directly from Labov,  that the presence of the observer compromises the data, much more so if the writing ‘sample’ is assigned?

“I’ve seen this before.   It’s early Chomsky all over again.  As in the 60s, it’s another attempt by linguists to assure themselves that their field is ‘scientific.’ The Great One’s advocates were withering in their criticism of their predecessors — structural linguists, who were portrayed as idiots blind to the enlightenment of generative/transformational grammar.

Chomsky offered nothing really new!

“But in one of my publications, I showed that Chomsky’s ideas weren’t as new as claimed.  They were well understood by a 19th-century grammarian, Samuel Greene, and probably, from Greene’s citations, by past grammarians as well.  Greene alludes to a very old understanding of the connection between single thought and multiple forms.

“Chomsky initially got a lot of mileage out of a new way to diagram sentences to show paraphrase relationships with an imaginary ‘deep structure.’  A new way to express an old idea.  BTW, conventional grammar did allow for recursion and embedding — even old-fashioned sentence diagramming could do those things.

…but he took all the credit

“But Chomsky took all the credit for making linguistics ‘scientific’ (‘a grammar of a language L is a theory of L’ — what does that even mean?), and by the time my article appeared, the Chomsky juggernaut was in high gear, and The Great One could do no wrong.

“(Disclaimer: I too disavow ‘literary forensics,’ with its speculations on what the writer was thinking or where he/she had previously encountered a particular word or phrase.’  I stick to the data.)”  #forensiclinguist


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