Not quite sure what got me hooked on this New Yorker article (sadly the full article is behind a paywall), but I was gripped. Using linguistics to help solve crimes seems pretty counter-intuitive – but the Unabomber was caught by analysing his manifesto – as was Joyce Meyer security chief Chris Coleman who was found guilty of killing his family.

One of the key linguistics scholars who helped to convict Coleman is a controversial figure, by all accounts – Robert Leonard. But for anyone interested in how language works, the article quoted a powerful little thought experiment that Leonard uses for his students at Hofstra university.

According to Leonard, words serve as catalysts, setting off sparks of potential meaning thatthe listener organizes into more specific meaning by observing facial expressions, body language, and other redundant cues. We then employ another powerful tool: prior experience and the storehouses of narratives that each of us carries – what linguists call “schema”. To every exchange we bring unconscious scripts; as any given sentence unspools, we readjust the schema to make better sense of what we are hearing.

One afternoon at Hofstra, Leonard explained to the twenty students in his introductory course how this works. He wrote a sentence on the board:

John was on his way to school last Friday and was really worried about the math lesson.

“So we can just close our eyes and imagine John the schoolboy on the bus,” Leonard said. “But are we all imagining John with the same height, the same hair color?” Nothing in the sentence signals any of that information, yet each of us supplies our own variant, which awaits further verbal data for confirmation.

Leonard wrote another sentence beneath the first:

Last week, he had been unable to control the class.

Who is John now? “A teacher!” someone shouted. And how is John getting to school? “A car!”

Leonard wrote a third sentence:

It was not fair of the math teacher to leave him in charge.

Instantly, the students revelled in John’s new identity as a janitor or a substitute teacher. Meaning, Leonard noted, is constantly bent by expectation, and can be grossly distorted.

This is important, if rudimentary, stuff. A nice illustration to make a crucial point.

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This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Emma

    Hi Mark, we do a similar experiment using the opening description of Dick Driver from Tender is the Night, when teaching GP trainees in order to expose the assumptions doctors make as short-cuts (ie putting people into stereotypes) when assessing patients. We when follow it with 2 clinical scenarios where information is reavealed line by line to illustrate the importance of keeping an open mind when making assesmnets and then ultimately decisions. It’s all part of our decision making module.

    1. quaesitor

      That’s fascinating, Emma – thanks for commenting

  2. Emma

    Well if you’re interested there has been a lot of work done by Prof Celia Roberts into the linguistics of consultations-partly this was done to help UK doctors to communicate better with non-UK patients but has been extended into work with non-UK graduates in medicine. It was found that despite having post-grad training in the UK, non-UK graduates were still more likely to fail exams which tested consultation skills. They did all the “right” things but UK graduates still performed better. It is thought that UK graduates pick up linguistic capital just by socialising and being brought up in the UK and this allows them to present information in a culturally acceptable form, but it is seen as being so obvious it doesn’t get taught it’s just assumed people will know to do this. An example is “sunny pairing” where most British people will automatically link a piece of bad news “it’s raining” with a piece of good news “but the olympics are on”. UK graduate doctors do this naturally when breaking bad news and so score more highly than a non-UK person who may break the bad news sensitively, but not do this pairing and come across less well. The more I learn about linguistics the more fascinating I find it!

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