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Linguistics and the Law
(Released September 2001)

  by Colleen B. Brennan  


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Acoustic analysis: determination of component frequencies and their intensities.

Acoustic phonetics: study of the physical characteristics of speech sounds. Dependent on the use of instrumental techniques of investigation, particularly electronics, primarily the sound spectrograph.

Acoustic spectrum: a graphical representation of a (typically complex) sound in which amplitude is plotted against frequency. Resulting graph shows the relative contribution of the overall sound made by every component frequency.

Acoustics: the scientific study of sounds and sound waves.

Agent: grammatical term for the "doer" of an action. In English sentences, the agent is most often the grammatical subject.

Amplitude: movement of an air particle from its rest point in a sound wave; most directly related to the acoustic correlate intensity and the perceptual correlate loudness.

Auditory perceptual analysis: analysis based on (human) listener perception.

Discourse analysis: analysis of speech units larger than the sentence and of their relationship to the contexts in which they are used.

Forensic speaker identification: the use of auditory analysis, acoustic analysis, and/or computerized techniques to recognize, identify, or discriminate among human voices in police investigations or courtroom trials.

Formant: component of the frequency spectrum of speech sounds. The interactions of the three lowest formants (F1, F2, and F3) are highly diagnostic, producing the distinctive sound quality of vowels and many consonants.

Frequency: the number of cycles of vocal cord vibration per second as measured in Hz. Generally speaking, the higher the frequency of a sound wave, the higher the pitch of the perceived sound.

Haitian Creole: native language of some 4 million people in the Caribbean; primarily French-based with influences from West African languages Wolof, Mandingo, and Ewe.

Intensity: amount of energy carried by a sound wave as measured in decibels; the acoustic correlate of the perceptual-auditory correlate loudness.

Modals: auxiliary verbs that modify the meaning of the main verb by suggesting possibility, probability, necessity, permission, obligation, prohibition, or ability. English modals include can, could, may, might, will, would, shall, should, must, and ought to.

Phonetician: linguist specializing in phonetics (i.e., the study of speech sound production and perception).

Pitch: perceptual correlate of the frequency of a sound wave. In general, the higher the perceived pitch, the higher the frequency.

Prosody: term used to refer to speech elements such as intonation, pitch, rate, loudness, rhythm, etc.

Reported speech: a grammatical construction in which reports are made of something that was said, written, or thought (e.g., She said she was going home); also called indirect speech.

Speaker identification: the use of auditory analysis, acoustic analysis, and/or computerized techniques to recognize, identify, or discriminate among human voices.

Speaker profiling: the process of analyzing and identifying the auditory-perceptual and acoustic characteristics of a given voice sample.

Spectrograph/spectrogram: used interchangeably to refer to either (1) the instrument used in acoustic phonetics to provide a visual graph of acoustic features representing a given utterance or (2) the graph itself.

Tag question: a statement followed by a type of reduced question (e.g., You saw him that day, didn't you?).

Voice comparison: the comparative analysis of two or more voice samples in an effort to ascertain whether, and to what extent it is likely, they are the same speaker.

Voice pitch frequency, also fundamental frequency: refers to the lowest frequency component in a sound wave.

Definitions provided with the assistance of the following sources:
    Campbell, George L. Compendium of the World's Languages. London: Routledge, 1991.

    Colby, Anita (Ed). Thesaurus of Linguistic Indexing Terms (2nd ed.). San Diego, CA: Sociological Abstracts, LLC, 1998.

    Crystal, David. CEncyclopedia of Language (2nd ed.). Cambridge U Press, 1997.

    A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics (4th ed.). Oxford: Blackwell, 1997.

    McArthur, Tom (Ed). Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. Oxford U Press, 1996.

    Trask, R. L. A Dictionary of Phonetics and Phonology. London: Routledge, 1996.