Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

I have an instant messaging (IM) problem. I’m always on AIM or Yahoo Messenger, and pretty frequently, I’ve got a few different “conversations” going at once. It’s a great method of communication, but there are a few difficulties inherent to the medium. Perhaps the most frequently exploited difficulty (at least, among the young and drama-prone) is the fact that you never can be 100% sure that the person talking to you is who they say they are. However, there’s one, frequently overlooked means of partially overcoming this trouble.

E-Dentity Theft

First, let’s introduce some terms, this time, from Cryptography. In cryptography examples, they frequently use a short list of recurring characters. Alice and Bob are two people trying to communicate a secret message with one another. Alice wants the message to get to Bob and only Bob. Eve is a third party, trying to break into their communications and read that message (A truly great cartoon involving Eve). So, for our examples here, Bob will be trying to get in touch with Alice, and Eve will be trying to get information from them.

Every messenger service has some safeguards (usually passwords) to try and make sure that unauthorized people don’t get on your account. This will keep Eve from signing on at her home computer and pretending to be Alice. However, once Eve has physical access to Alice’s machine, this breaks down. If Alice runs down the hall to use the restroom, closing her existing conversation, Eve can sit down and start a conversation with Bob. At this point, Bob is completely vulnerable, as he still thinks he’s talking to Alice, and will share information as such. There might be a warning sign, though.


Some while back, I discussed the idea of Idiolect, or the patterns of usage, meaning, and sound that are specific not just to a group, but to a single individual. In spoken language, this might be expressed by specific turns of phrase (for instance, I’ll say “w00t” in conversation) and sound changes (I usually put a slight hint of “L” in the words “walk” and “talk”).

However, people tend to have an online idiolect (I prefer E-Diolect) as well. In email, some people tend to include a full “Hello Alice” at the start of every email, and end with a “Love, Bob”. Others will just type out the message with no formalities at all. Similarly, when quoting a message, some will split the quote with their responses, and others will just respond at the top, and leave the quote at the bottom.

Over Instant Messager services, the E-Diolect really shows up nicely, and tends to express itself in many different ways:

  1. Emoticons (“Smilies”): Does the person use them at all? If so, which ones? It’s rare that people will use all the different ones available, and most people stick to a comparatively small set. That set can be used to identify them. Also, do they make the smilies using an “=” or a “:” [”=)” or “:)”]?

  2. Capitalization: I capitalize pretty obsessively in IM, whereas other people will never hit the shift key. Some are a mix, capitalizing “I” and some names, but never the first letter of a new thought/sentence. aLsO, sOmE pEoPlE are prone to varying their capitalization.

  3. Contractions: sum ppl r rly obsessd wit makin cntractns on im. wut bout ur friendz? (Some people will use only specific ones (like “brb” (be right back) or “ppl” (people).

  4. 1337-5p34k: Pronounced “Leet Speak”, a sociolect in which people replace certain l3tt3r5 with numb3r5, among other changes. (Check out the 1337 translator)

  5. Line break habits: Some people put line breaks/between every/other word, just/hitting return as/they go/writing in a/stream of/consciousness. Others prefer long messages.

  6. Correction: When somebody sends a typo in IM, do they correct it? If so, how? Do they just retype the word? Do they usually put a *star in front of it?

  7. Actions: When expressing taking an action via IM, some people will put it in stars, others use IRC markup (/me writes a post), and some even ~*~get creative~*~.

  8. Punctuation: Few people use periods (.) in IM, but question marks and commas aren’t uncommon, everybody has their habits.

Applied E-Diolect Studies

So, Eve is on Alice’s computer. Bob gets a message:

cryptogeekalice: hey bob, wut did u get eve 4 xmas
cryptogeekalice: i want 2 know so i dun g3t her teh same thing ;P

If Bob paid attention, he’d quickly notice that Alice capitalizes, hates contractions, never uses any smilies but :) and :D, and uses Question marks. He’d smell a rat, and likely withhold any information about Santa-related activities.

However, it’s not always that easy. Eve might know Alice’s style too, and try and make some adaptations. However, it takes a lot of observation and skill to mimic somebody online in all of the above factors, while still maintaining a natural, conversationally believable tone. Finally, Eve will have to mimic Alice’s communicative style, making sure not to use her own catchphrases, conversational norms, and other such things.

The last words

Bob and Alice are never really safe. With enough research, observation, and planning, Eve will be able to imitate either of them, and it would be very difficult to detect without a webcam or some biometric device. However, a little observation and awareness of E-Diolect goes a long way towards discouraging Eve and people like her from engaging in a little bit of E-Dentity Theft.

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