The exegesis section
Linguistic crackingBy Trubert
23 December 1998
A mighty first stab to a subject that has an INCREDIBLE importance on a web that
is getting more and more
"pseudoanonymized"! You'll find similar thoughts on an essay of mine on the Advanced enemy tracking section:
Stalking people on the web: reversing language patterns. Obviously we need
more linguistic oriented work and, especially, more web-related essays by real experts
in "compared linguistic" matters. They wont be easy to find, though... I remember an (old) book by
Friedrich Diez (...Trubert will now use this to nail me as a sort of teutonical 'Mensch' :-): "Etymologisches Wörterbuch
der romanischen Sprachen" (Bonn 1853), there you have an incredible compared
etymology bonanza, which can also be pretty useful for this kind of reversing... Unfortunately
most of my readers are probably unaware of the incredible treasures of (linguistic and
exegesis-related) reversing knowledge hidden
inside these linguistic masterpieces of the XIX century...
This essay, my first, is the product of a variety of influences. Above all,
I am impressed and fascinated by Fravia's reality cracking lab and the
resource of knowledge (the greatest power there is) it represents. It also
encourages independent thought on a variety of issues, and I wish it the
very best of success. Society is terrified of those who dare to be
different, and does its best to crush them - which we must prevent at all
The topic is the result of my studies - I am a student of modern (and
medieval) languages and literature, both of which should be a fundamental
part of the process of beginning to think for one's self - poetry in
particular can become a stimulating passion, and one I recommend. My
inspiration here came from a few observations about the grammatical style of
many contributors to +Fravia's site, including +Fravia himself. You are a
truly cosmopolitan bunch, and at times, your language, even when you do not
use non-english words, betrays your mother tongue. Even discounting the
non-english words used by +Fravia (you appear to be quite a linguist
yourself), there is a great deal of both grammatical and thematic evidence
to suggest that he is a native German speaker, and likely German as opposed
to Swiss or Austrian. More on that later, though.
As I am sure you have all noticed, when someone speaks or writes a language
other than their native tongue, this becomes immediately apparent. The
accent or grammar may be unusual or confused. Even the style of speech; the
level of emotion expressed, may be different. But what does this mean?
Okay, so you can recognise a French accent, or a German, as clearly as an
Australian or an American are different from an Englishman. There is more
than that available, however, and not all of it requires the specialist
knowledge of a foreign language this demands. I intend to look at both
sides of the coin: the principles of how to identify country/mother tongue
from speech or writing, and to some extent building on this, and to be used
in conjunction with the excellent essays on body language, the less overt
messages carried by language, spoken or written. Please remember, though,
this essay is not intended so much as a case study of a particular text or
individual, but rather as an example and starting point for your own reading.
I shall begin, then, with a quick look at regional analysis of the english
language, in particular, using excerpts from a reality cracking essay on
+Fravia's site (which you should in any case read). First, "wrong"
language - note, by the way, that dictionaries have only been around for a
couple of hundred years; writing for thousands, and language for longer
still. There are or should be no hard and fast rules; writing is just a
written form of speech, which makes the whole thing about the reform of
spelling in german something of a joke. Anyway, no offence intended where I
pick on somebody's english: this is not a proof reading, but an exercise in
Looking at Maxine+'s essay on consumer trend cracking, you will come across
the following text:
"What should you learn from people that prefer to buy a (relatively very
expensive) box of frozen tasteless "fishsticks" for their kids instead of
preparing a (much more economical and tasty) real fish for them?"
While "fishsticks" do exist in english, these usually refer to the strange
white things with red bits on top and bottom that were a briefly popular
import in the '80s, and this is more usually written as "fish sticks".
What is meant is of course fish fingers - a very language-specific term.
So, +Maxine is not a native english speaker... not too difficult, is it?
To actually identify the country, though, you will need to know something
of the writer's native language. If you speak german (I know +Maxine asks
you this in the same essay, as well as making obvious references to life in
Germany, but for the purposes of the exercise, this is irrelevant), you
will know that the word for these small breaded strips of low-quality fish is
"Fischstaebchen" (please excuse my non-german keyboard), which when
literally translated, without even separating the component words, is
"fishsticks". This is not, on its own enough, though. Many among you speak
a smattering (look, dialect word - I'm a native english speaker!) of various
languages, and it is quite possible, that stuck for the english term,
you will simply reach for one you know in a similar language (such as
french, german or dutch) and translate that directly. So we now look at the
grammar, having been given this very big pointer.
"but it won't seem silly any more once you have for instance collected,
as I have done in 1997, 23 (twenty-three ;) pocket calculators from the
Hmm...something sounds a little odd about that "as I have done in 1997".
Ah...a perfect tense, where we didn't expect it (sorry to get
linguistic-technical here, but for this stage of the analysis, it is
necessary - the later (more important) sections will need little if any
knowledge of "linguistics" or foreign languages). Of course, in the UK,
we would say "as I did in 1997". We also wouldn't bother saying "the"
before "Reader's Digest". What does this mean?
Try translating the text into german. In german, the perfect tense
("as I have done") would be the correct and natural tense for this clause.
And of course, "from the Reader's Digest" would become "vom Reader's
Digest" - in german, the article also fits.
I therefore suspect you are a native german speaker, +Maxine, and I must
compliment you on your english. My german is good, but likely not as
good as your english. The key to identifying a native language you know
from an english text is to look first of all for the odd marker, such as the
"fishsticks" which both identifies the author as a non-native speaker of
whatever language the text is in, and may give you a further clue to the
language of the author. It is nevertheless vital to continue the analysis
to the grammatical level...unusual sentence construction and a good working
knowledge of the grammar of several languages is the only way to be sure
when attempting to identify a native language from a text written in
You have already seen something of this in the above example...the
"fishsticks", together with some knowledge of German, were our first clue.
There are several more important, and easier clues to find, though, which
can not only identify the author's native language, but even the precise
region and some local features. Simply for the sake of keeping to a text
you know already, I shall now return to +Maxine's text (I really don't mean
to pick on you, but yours was by chance the essay I was reading when I
"The 'institutional' recycling plans, like the compelled sorting of glass
and plastic from food-rests common in Germany"
Aha...we just found a really BIG regional clue! How many non-germans know
about the sorting of refuse? I've been in Germany for 5 months, and still
have problems with what belongs in which class of rubbish! Yet this person
know the system well, and even that it is a requirement. What else can we
trawl from the other seemingly unimportant remarks on the side?
"a good beer costs the same as a silly lemonade"
This is of course true...but there are very few countries in the world
with beer as good as german beer, and even fewer where said good beer costs
almost exactly the same by volume as coke or lemonade. Moreover, few countries
make quite the same social/traditional issue of drinking beer or have as many
"If a great mall (say Ikea)"
Ahoy there, oh mighty Clue! A chain of stores, well advertised and so well known
in Germany! Choosing to mention this particular name instead of that of another
store, if any at all, suggests familiarity with the store, or at least with its
advertising. Another reference to living in a city combines well with this to suggest
that +Maxine lives in a city with an Ikea (okay, so there are loads), and
has therefore probably shopped there at some time or recently seen Ikea
advertising...why else would that particular chain be on someone's mind?
Okay, I guess that's enough for this essay, though I hope to write more on
other topics, including a reverse-analysis of my own writing at some point
soon. To summarise, the basic points of linguistic cracking are reverse
translation - spot something odd, try to translate it into a language you
know, if it fits, then look for other clues to confirm. If none of the
text's linguistic oddities fit any language you know, then go learn some
more! And of course, you can use the often more important technique of
looking for subconscious markers - like the mentions of beer and Ikea - to
get a feel for what the author was thinking when he/she wrote the text...and
so to get something of a feel for what kind of society they are living in.
Read between the important stuff...the unimportant stuff is the "body
language" of writing, the subconscious expression of myriad facts about
(Again, hope you don't mind my using your text, +Maxine. Frohe Weihnachten.)
Is reverse engineering illegal?