August 29, 2007

Intelligence analysis: football vs. law

I was impressed by a Washington Post article that describes the painstaking labor facing today's college football coaches. The University of Maryland's coach, for example, refers to tapes as his "textbooks." Coaches fill their off-field time analyzing tapes. A new industry of videotaping practice sessions and games has created jobs called "video coordinator" and at least big-time teams  are now cooperating with each other by sharing their tapes with opposing coaches. Football tape libraries are springing into existence. This is a far cry from the old days, when teams were forced to have scouts armed with clipboards gather useful intelligence for their upcoming games. But this is Language Log and there has to be a reason why I'm talking about football. So here it is. I see a relationship between between taping naturally occuring physical activity (football) and taping naturally occuring language, which may be even more fleeting and harder to capture for later analysis.

Sociolinguists who study language in its natural context know full well how difficult this task can be. We used to audiotape interviews and conversations with people (calling them 'subjects' sounds demeaning somehow). After we got the sample we wanted, we spent hours and hours doing serious analytical work on them. Every sound, morpheme, word, phrase, clause, pause, and false start were  potentially important indicators of information about such things as a speaker's regional background, social status, education, race, gender, age, and attitude. As technology developed, we turned to videotapes because they provided even more information, such as the distance between speakers, non-verbal signals, and other things.

Taking advantage of the same technology, law enforcement began using audiotapes in undercover sting operations in the late seventies and continued to do so for the decades following, finding that this practice provided more convincing evidence of the willingness  (sometimes unwillingness) of suspects to commit language crimes. As the technology advanced, these agencies also began to use videotapes. They too found that this was a lot of work. But their main problem was less in gathering intelligence than in analyzing it.

Football coaches have a distinct advantage over law enforcement officers and lawyers. Like linguists, coaches are trained to be experts in their jobs and they are willing to spend night and day analyzing their own and their opponents' skills and strategies. The big difference between analyzing football tapes and analyzing law enforcement tapes is that the police and prosecutors are not trained experts in the very language that the tapes provide them. But linguists are the real experts in this kind of intelligence analysis,  explaining why more and more of them are being called upon to analyze the language evidence in criminal and civil cases.

Posted by Roger Shuy at August 29, 2007 02:12 PM