Coulthard, Malcolm. “By Their Words Shall Ye Know Them.” Identity Trouble: Critical Discourse and Contested Identities. Ed. Caldas-Coulthard, Carmen Rosa and Rick Iedema. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. Print.
Well, if academia doesn’t work out, I think I found a backup job: forensic linguistics seems awesome. Fighting crime, one word at a time!
In this chapter, Coulthard, a forensic linguist working largely with written texts, looks at a number of ways in which people’s language use acts as an identifier.
First, he discusses the use of linguistic stereotypes as a rough tool for making judgments about a speaker or writer—for instance, Rebecca Lakoff’s infamous 1975 study where she claimed that women’s communication has some features that clearly distinguish it from men’s—except that later studies found that these features tend to be common to “powerless” speakers of both genders. And for stereotypes to be useful at all, the meaning of cultural markers must be shared (Coulthard points to the decision to allow Australian Aborigines court interpreters, since, for instance, in Aboriginal culture silence following a question is a mark of respect whereas in white Australian culture it is a mark of shiftiness.)
Coulthard also mentions idiolects, or the patterns or word choice a person develops from their vocabulary—choosing to say “lovely” instead of “beautiful,” for instance—and discusses how although an individual sentence may seem as though anyone could have said it at any time, in reality most sentences have never (or at least rarely) been uttered except by this particular individual. Someone should tell all those monkeys busily writing Shakespeare.
As with the last selection, this chapter is totally fascinating but not particularly useful to my project. It does make me wonder, though, whether there might be a linguistic way to tell the difference between a troll and a person who just genuinely disagrees with the direction of the conversation. Given a big enough sample of a person’s writing, is there a way to tell when they are trying to be disingenuous? Or given big enough sample of a community’s writing, is there a way to tell which people don’t belong based on the ways that they compose their comments? Anyway, Coulthard himself seems a little tentative about how to tie his practice into the theoretical conversation, and I that’s okay, I was just hoping for a little less “how to identify language” and a little more “how to language identity,” you know?