Robin Tolmach Lakoff PhD

robin-tomlachScholar defended standard linguistics in high profile Unabomber case

Robin Tolmach Lakoff earned her A.B. magna cum laude in Classics and Linguistics at Radcliffe College, M.A. in Linguistics and Classics at Indiana University, and Ph.D. in Linguistics at Harvard University (1967). She was an NIMH Postdoctoral Fellow at MIT in 1968-9, was a Fellow (1971-2) at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University; and has held a Guggenheim Fellowship (1975-6).

Dr. Lakoff has been especially interested in the comparative syntax of Latin and English; the relation between linguistic form and social and psychological context; language and gender; discourse strategies (e.g. indirectness and politeness); discourse genres (e.g. psychotherapeutic and courtroom discourse). Her research includes the examination of the connections between the politics of language and the language of politics, e.g. in the media treatment of the Hill/Thomas hearings, Hillary Rodham Clinton, the O.J. Simpson trial, and the impeachment hearings of President Clinton.

Dr. Lakoff was an Assistant Professor of Linguistics at the University of Michigan (1969-72), Associate Professor of Linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley (1972-7), and since 1977 Professor of Linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley. She has edited or written ten books, including Abstract Syntax and Latin Complementation, Language and Women’s Place (1975) which pioneered the field of language and gender in linguistics, Face Value: The Politics of Beauty, When Talk is Not Cheap, Talking Power: The Politics of Language, Father Knows Best: The Use and Abuse of Psychotherapy in Freud’s Case of Dora, and The Language War. Additionally, she has authored about 100 articles. Currently, she writes for the Huffington Post blog.

During the Unabomber case, whose investigation lasted eighteen years, bombs were being mailed and detonated, injuring 23 people and killing 3;  recipients were often associated with universities or airlines (hence the name Unabomber). A break came in the case when the Washington Post and New York Times published the Unabomber’s Manifesto, “Industrial Society and Its Future”, a long and Luddite justification of the bombings.  David Kaczynski, through his attorney, informed the FBI that he believed his brother Ted authored the manifesto. When Ted Kaczynski’s isolated cabin in Montana was searched, a carbon copy of the manifesto was discovered. The issue then was not whether Ted Kaczynski had authored the Manifesto, but what kind of linguistic evidence could be reliable forensic linguistics and admissible in trial. FBI Agent James Fitzgerald produced a forensic stylistics examination. Professor Donald Foster, a Shakespeare scholar at Vassar College, reviewed and supported Agent Fitzgerald’s report. Both prosecution reports used forensic stylistics for determining the authorship of the Unabomber Manifesto.

Professor Lakoff was asked to review the prosecution witness reports, as a linguist. In her review, Professor Lakoff documented how an authorship identification method based in stylistics or literary criticism makes crucial errors in the analysis of language, making erroneous assumptions about language use without any benefit of corpus linguistics and sociolinguistic norms. In the midst of a very high-profile case, where universities had been targeted, Professor Lakoff showed tremendous courage in presenting an analysis based in linguistics rather than stylistics or literary criticism.

The Association for Linguistic Evidence honors Professor Lakoff for her integrity and courage. Her work is a model for forensic linguists of how we must stay true to our training in linguistics, and develop methods that are truly based in linguistics, using our standard methodology and analytical techniques.