Terry Zink's Cyber Security Blog

Discussing Internet security in (mostly) plain English

Do people talk this way in real life?

Do people talk this way in real life?

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One of the things that amuses me (amuse being a relative term, when you analyse spam the bizarre can be amusing) is the way 419ers speak.  At least, it used to amuse me.

In the spam world, 419 is a short-hand way of classifying a particular category of spam.  419 is the section of the Nigerian criminal code that is used for prosecuting people who send out scam emails asking for money.  Basically, a 419 is a message from somebody overseas (usually located in Africa, especially Nigeria, Sierra Leone or the Ivory Coast) who has a dead relative who is only recently deceased but left them the sum of a large amount of money.  For one reason or another, the government has frozen the funds and they need your help in order to unlock the funds.  All you have to do is send them a small amount of money relative to the total amount of funds, and then the two of you will share in the profits once they unlock the money.  These are scams 100% of the time, of course, and at no time should anybody ever respond to these.

What I find interesting is the formal structure of the language used by the spammers/scammers.  I sometimes see sentences like "Greetings to you in the name of our Lord!" (religious language), or "Dear Sir, I apologize for the inconvenience and you may be surprised to see that I am contacting you in this manner" (very formal).  I guess if I wanted to be precise, I would say "DEAR SIR  I AM CONTACTING YOU..." (all uppercase and poor grammar).

I used to think that the religious language and very formal structure of the language were dead-giveaways that the message was spam.  Nobody in real life actually speaks like this to other people. This is especially true in North America; even if somebody wanted to use formal language they would never speak as uptightly the way 419ers do.  However, my view actually changed when I came across several real business messages written by people living in countries along the African equator (Nigeria, Equitorial Guinea, etc) and it turns out that they actually speak in very formal tones and use religious language.  They insert superfluous words into their sentences and use religious overtones in the way they speak.  Thus, it appears that 419ers are simply using the English language the way everybody around there uses it.

So, the answer to my question in the title is yes, people do talk that way in real life.  I guess they are not just trying to appear extraordinarily polite but instead have been taught that this is how we speak English in North America (which is not true).

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