Adventures in forensic linguistics and the art of sock puppetry

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.

0 thoughts on “Adventures in forensic linguistics and the art of sock puppetry

  1. Fascinating.

    I know a lady who is half Polish, grew up in England, lived in the Netherlands and married a Frenchman there. They moved to France and she works between Dutch and English, mostly Dutch to English but is registered to provide French to English, French to Dutch and vice versa of legal documents. It is hard work she says and machine translations, not google, do a fair job but still need quite some tidying up, sometimes making it more difficult to produce the final document. For most general instructions stuff they seems to acceptable.

  2. Hi there wee dug.

    I too did a forensic analysis of the mysterious Jezerna Roza some time ago and reported my suspicions on the Herald comments pages. For my pains I got put into moderation for casting doubt on the identity of another poster (I have still not been permitted to emerge, hence the strange lateness of some of my posts – not many mods about at the weekend).

    I had a correspondence with the mods
    via email and after rapping my knuckles they asked me to report back if I acquired any evidence. I pointed out the strangely good English, the somewhat odd posting times and the incredible rapidity of response, often with amazing detail. One might almost have thought that this lone Slovenian woman had access to the Labour Party rebuttal unit’s computer software(!)

    I shall now forward them a link to your post . . .

  3. I would tend to agree with the conclusions in general, but isn’t it possible that this person could be bi-lingual. I lived in Ukraine for some time and I’m familiar with a lot of the slavonic grammar structures coming out in translation to English, plus the clear difficulty with articles. Not sure how similar Slovenian and South Slavic languages are to Eastern Slavic, but I have no doubt the writer is not using English as a second language. The person in question would definitely appear to live in an English environment. I didn’t read a lot of his/her comments but they didn’t seem to be affected by a lack of awareness of contemporary/modern English. I had assumed they were a half Slovene living in the UK. Isn’t it possible?

    • That’s always possible and if it was just the use of language in isolation then OK. However anyone who knows of this poster will confirm that there is a total refusal to provide any personal details, not even of the most tenuous character. E.G. If challenged on something Jezerna never replies as others often do, “Well, I know it’s true because I worked at such and such a place or I lived in such and such a country for so many years”.

      His/her personality is a total blank and if challenged on what his/her interest is in Scottish politics to the exclusion of all else, reply comes there none. If you push it any further, the response is to accuse you of racism or report you to the mods.

      He/she posts around the clock and frequently responds to a detailed technical point with reams and reams of obscure data often culled from obscure sources. It’s almost as though he/she has a computer program which in response to certain keywords searches a vast database of sources for relevant rebuttal material.

      We know that the Labour Party has such software.

      OK, this is all circumstantial but compelling. The other odd thing is that he/she, rather like OBE seems to operate without ever incurring the interest of the mods, although he/she tends not to go in for the manic ranting which characterises OBE’s posts.

      One thing I am prepared to stick my neck out on. The day after the referendum (possibly after a valedictory post), the mysterious Jezerna Roza will vanish into the shadows never to be heard from again.

      PS it occurs to me that she vanished from the ether for a couple of months this summer, I wonder who in the Labour Party or Better Together had an extended holiday this year?

  4. Andrew, I think I’d reveal myself to be pretty naive if I didn’t think all that you’re saying is possible, even likely. I found out quite recently about water gangs (hope I’ve got that right) in China; how sophisticated internet posting is there with companies paying to have people praise their service or product, with competitors paying people to criticise (a bit simplistic but that’s the gist I think). I would also imagine that if newspapers haven’t caught on to the advantages of a good barny in the comments page, they’re very very slow to catch up with internet business. If they’re shrewd they’ll be actively encouraging, even paying the people themselves (only flaw in that logic is that the comments often contain far more information than the articles, which are often poor and not worth reading). My reaction to Jezerena, and OBE after reading 4 or 5 of their posts was 1) they’re clearly not who and where they say they are but so far, that’s nothing shocking (my real name isn’t crisiscult ha ha) then, 2) they have access to a lot of information that would take a bit of time obtaining – conclusion they are unemployed or this is their job, 3) is their contribution adding anything – in the case of OBE, usually not so skip over, in the case of Jezerena, sometimes yes, sometimes no – skim.

    More importantly, is this damaging the debate? I think the problem in this country is people are far too trusting of the media and if the last year and the next year don’t achieve independence, they’ll at least create a ground zero for our media because even those against independence are starting to catch on that they’re not getting much of value from the press.

  5. only just come across this so sorry about the late reply. I have cross swords with Jezerna Roza on the Herald several times, and have had my own suspicions about “her” somewhat less detailed than you have set out here but in a similar sort of direction (had my nuckles rapped by Calum too) .
    There was though one particular spat with “her” – cant remember all the details but it had something to do with a criticism that I made of the work of a particular Edinburgh Uni Prof – just an aspect, and not even the whole thing. This drew a particularly rude response from her which included “You must think the University of Glasgow is rubbish”, which I took offence at on several levels. First I have both my degrees from the University of Glasgow, Secondly I was hardly damning the work of the Prof in question in general, but on a specific point, never mind the work of an entire University. Thirdly I am quite clear that the University of Glasgow is not the University of Edinburgh and vice versa – something I would have thought someone from the UK would have been very familiar with. While its a relatively trivial error, it doesnt seem to me the kind of error someone from the UK would make.
    As a result of this spat “she” disappeared for a bit, but then came back bold as brass, making life difficult for us and throwing around offensive comments like she had some sort of get out of jail free card from the mods (something I would say OBE must have in his possession as well), and then she disappeared again, other than for a couple of weeks sometime in the last three months. Now she seems to be strutting her stuff on the Hootsmon where her lack of manners wont be as noticeable.
    Re OBE, I reckon he is just the sort of guy who likes to mix it – probably a consultant on the Python’s book “How to be really irritating”. If only the mods would issue a rule forbidding the use of “project” and “vanity” consecutively, and that the words “Alex” and “salmond” could be used consecutively no more than twice in any post, he would have practically nothing to say. I did actually have a reasonable conversation with him one night – night of the Champions League final when Barcelona murdered Man U. I got the impression of someone who was a bit lonely, maybe retired and has nothing much to do with his time but do what he does on the Herald. Doesnt stop me getting at him on the Herald though. I just wonder what he’s going to do after the referendum?

  6. Just found this post… very interesting, even though i’m not really up to date on indyref troll history. Trouble is; the forensic lingüistics thing caught my attention, and now it’s got me deconstructing every post i read, in search of those tell-tale signs. As if i didn’t spend enough time already ploughing through the online debate!

    Theoretically, i guess the first giveaway in text should be misplaced apostrophes and basic spelling mistakes, but lately that doesn’t seem to count for much on the internet: theirs’ no problem if there over they’re, if you no what I mean?

    But the details are beautiful: grass/leaves is a great example. Makes me think of sheep/sheeps and the difference between getting in a car, and getting on a bus or a train..

    And searching for clues in the grammar structure of someone else’s native language is more fun than any Times crossword!


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