Friday, May 05, 2006


David Beaver over at Language Log wonders how misspellings on a senator's ballot for speaker of the Italian Senate can be unambiguously taken to indicate weakness of support for the candidate. He writes:
"But the fact that the manner of expression departs from the norm does not in itself tell us what that departure signals, only that something is being signaled. The logic of the implicature seems to be: if I can't be trusted to spell the name of your favorite candidate correctly, I can't be relied on for anything."
But it seems pretty transparent to me: If a senator was wavering in his support for the prime minister and his candidate for speaker, and if said senator knows that misspelling the name of the candidate on a ballot is grounds for voiding said ballot (upon challenge from the opposing party), then that senator's (deliberately) misspelling the name of the candidate is a conscious attempt to render his ballot technically questionable, while not actually voting against the candidate overtly—thereby communicating 'I'll vote for your candidate but I don't really want to, and if the other guys are smart enough they can annul my ballot.'

That's assuming that the Italian public is right in assuming the misspellings are deliberate—that the candidate's name is not in fact so obscure as to be easily accidentally misspelled, and that after the second vote, any previous honest misspeller had paid attention to what was going on and corrected his error on the third ballot.

But this brings me to a new version of the Nigerian spam letter that I received a couple of days ago. Excerpted text is below. Note in particular the bolded bits:
Good Day:

I am Tony Fred Williams I am 14 years old I live in Manchester(UK) before my father die, now I live with my mother in Scotland. my late father Mr. Fred Williams was a Contractor in Manchester(UK) before he die in a car accident last years July 25th 2005. he left £50Million (Fifty Million Pounds) in his account before he die. The £50Million is in (First Union National Bank UK)...

I could have tell my mother to assist me to collect the £50Million for me but my mother and father has devoured before my father die and my father told me to not have anything to do with my mother I don’t even want her to know because what my father told me before he die was true...

...The MD CEO (First Union National Bank UK) told me to look for some body that is honest and old enough so that he can send the £50Million to the person account immediately.

I will give you is contact so that you can contact him to enable him send the £50Million to your provided account immediately...

Best Regards
Tony Fred Williams
This is one of the less plausible versions of the letter I've received, and not just because it offers me millions of pounds free and clear. It's because of mistakes in the English. They're not the mistakes that a 14 year old from Manchester might make. (There are some of those too—absence of punctuation and capital letters in some places, a space between 'some' and 'body' rather than 'somebody' in a couple of places, and failure of 3rd person agreement in other places (mostly in the excised bits—lack of agreement could well be the norm in some dialects).) Rather, they are mistakes that practically scream 'non-native English speaker'. In particular, failure to use the appropriate tense with 'before he die', the wrong participle form in 'could have tell', absence of infinitival 'to' in 'enable him send' (if a 14-year old English speaker knows how to appropriately use 'enable' he knows it takes an inifinitival complement). Also a couple of other weird things: use of 'devoured' for 'divorced' (probably spell-checker error--but a weird one not to catch, for a native English speaker), and use of parentheses around "(First Union National Bank UK)" with no apparent motivation—it's like the author had an acronym in there at first and then took it out without remembering to take out the parentheses—but that's implausible because it happens twice in the email.

From the widow of a deceased Nigerian Finance Minister, these kind of mistakes really add plausibility—they're clear ESL errors, and communicate appropriate degrees of foreignness for that backstory. But from an orphaned 14-year old purportedly in Manchester, I think they're just weird, and communicate 'Fraud!'.

But really it's the millions of pounds that's the key tip-off.


Anonymous The Tensor said...

Hmm, "Italinan". I can only assume you're using this misspelling to communicate something...but what? I'm stumped.

1:15 AM  
Blogger hh said...

dingdangalingdang! :) mighta known.

fixing it now.


2:18 PM  
Blogger language said...

I agree about the misspelling, and I'm surprised such an obvious explanation didn't occur to David -- it's the first thing I thought of.

8:40 AM  

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