The key to a well balanced and sane life is to have multiple obsessions. Apart from boring the arse off my relatives about the need for Scottish independence – a project in which I’m making slow but steady progress – I’ll also bore the arse off you about obscure languages spoken by 5 elderly folk and a parrot up a valley somewhere in the Andes. I’m a geek, an anorak, a nerd, the linguistic version of the guys who stand on the ends of station platforms obsessively jotting down train numbers.
Not that any of this has ever proven of much practical use in daily life, although when watching Pointless I did once get 3 pointless answers when the category was “official languages of India”. Mind you, it’s not that hard really. You can also get 3 spectacularly pointless answers when the category is anything to do with Westminster politics. Just yell at the telly “Magrit Curran, Ian Davidson, and Jim Murphy” and you’re sorted.
But back to linguistics, forensic linguistics to be precise, and its usefulness in the Scottish independence debate.
Forensic linguistics is the science of gleaning information about people’s backgrounds from their linguistic patterns. Language is like fingerprints, it follows repeating patterns, but each of us have uniquely identifying traits. In certain Sherlock Holmes stories, our pipe wielding cocaine snorting hero is able to say with confidence that a particular suspect comes from the north side of a particular street in a small district of a particular town. In real life, you can’t be so precise, but people’s speech and language patterns do reveal a lot of information about their background.
I’ve posted previously about watching Unionists who post obsessively in the comments sections of newspapers. I’ll mock them en-masse, but wouldn’t ever single out an ordinary individual who seems to be who they claim to be. They’re just opinionated punters like the rest of us, they have no more power or influence than anyone else, and they’re entitled to their wrong opinions.
But there is a significant, albeit small, minority who are clearly not who they claim to be. Suspiciously well briefed, they post lengthy comments. They’re sock puppets, party hacks who have created false identities in order to manipulate a debate in their own interest.
I’ve searched for similar examples amongst Yes supporters, but have failed to find any. Those Yes supporters who are also SNP activists are up front about it. The Yes campaign has genuine, and massive, popular support online, it has no need for sock puppetry. Sock puppets are a Unionist phenomenon. What’s interesting is that the Unionist camp has so little confidence in what it has to offer that it feels the need to lie about the sources and providers of their message.
Better Together has form for this sort of behaviour. Wings Over Scotland has highlighted a particularly staged looking leafleting session Better Together held in Edinburgh on the day of the Rally for Independence.
Better Together does the same in the online comment sections of newspapers. One poster who pops up regularly in the Herald and the Guardian claims to be a disinterested foreigner from a small European country, who is simply concerned enough to point out all the terrible problems with the practicalities of becoming independent, and so we really shouldn’t do it.
If you click on a poster’s user ID in the Guardian, you can see their posting history. This individual only ever posts on threads about Scottish indy. Never on the (few) threads relevant to the small European country from which they claim to come. That’s interesting all by itself.
And this is where forensic linguistics comes in. This person’s posts are lengthy and copious. Actually they’re bloody tedious, but they do form what linguists call a comprehensive corpus. I read through it. See how I suffer for the cause?
What was interesting was not the content, it was the total absence of a single grammatical, syntactic, or semantic indicator which would point to the writer’s mother tongue being that of this particular small European country. Anoraks who jot down grammatical information at the ends of train platforms know what to look for.
I noticed another person in the Guardian had obviously pointed this out to our mysterious European, only to be subjected to a rant. It was racist to assert that people from this small European country could not learn English properly, apparently. But it’s not racist to point out the universals of human linguistic behaviour, and speaking as a former professional translator, I can assure you that professional translators only ever translate INTO their mother tongue. You never translate into your second language, you never write for professional publication in your second language. Those who do have the assistance of native speaking sub-editors. No matter how fluent you become in your second language, there are always tell tale signs that give you away.
The reason for this is that many of the rules of a language are triggered by some words but not others, and there is often no logical basis for deciding which is which. You just have to know. So in English the words ‘leaf’ and ‘herb’ are count nouns, and must appear with a determiner, you have to say “a leaf”, “a herb”, or “an herb” if you’re American and talk funny. But the word ‘grass’ is a non-count noun, and can appear without an article, it’s just “grass”, not “a grass” – unless you mean a wee clype. I’m a grass just now, because I’m grassing this poster up.
Definite and indefinite articles in English are used differently according to whether a noun is a count noun or a non-count noun. There is no logical semantic or grammatical reason why leaf is count but grass is non-count. It’s just one of the many wee quirks of English. All human languages have wee quirks like these. Learners of the language just have to learn them individually, and it’s impossible not to make the occasional mistake because there is no rhyme or reason to them.
So you can imagine that if your mother tongue doesn’t have definite or indefinite articles, learning how to use them correctly 100% of the time in English is no mean feat. This person claims to be a native speaker of a language that lacks definite and indefinite articles.
There are other linguistic give-aways, but I’m not going to say what they are. I’m not about to explain to Better Together how to make their sock puppets more convincing.
The person making all these posts is clearly someone whose dominant language is English. They do not display any of the signs of a person who has learned English as a second language, and who still resides within the milieu of their mother tongue. The only possible conclusion is that the person is a native English speaker who lives amongst English speakers.
Even more intriguingly, this person’s user ID is the translation into this south central European language of the name of a gay festival held in the neighbouring (German speaking) country. It’s a festival which attracts visitors from all over Europe, including Scotland.
Despite the fact that the Guardian newspaper regularly publishes stories of LGBT interest, including stories directly relevant to LGBT people living in small East European countries, this poster has never commented on any of them. They only comment on stories about Scottish independence.
So I am breaking my own rule here, because this person is not an ordinary punter who is telling the truth about themselves, their background and their motivations. Jezerna Roza is a Gay festival which isn’t in Slovenia, and neither is “Jezerna Roza”. “Jezerna Roza” is no more Slovene than I am. He, and it’s most assuredly a he, is a gay man who is also a Labour party activist. He is more Lothian than Ljubljana, more Motherwell than Maribor. I can think of a number of suspects.
Jezerna Roza’s posts deserve no further consideration. After all, if you’re misrepresenting yourself, just why should we believe anything else you have to say?
This is the lesson that Better Together and the Unionist campaign have signally failed to learn. Don’t lie to people. You’ll get caught out, and it will be your undoing.