The Language of the Wire Room – No Place for the Squeamish - Translation Skills Training

The Language of the Wire Room – No Place for the Squeamish

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If you are considering working as an Analytic Linguist, you should be aware that you will be listening to court-ordered oral communications intercepts (private phone calls), that is, conversations in which the participants are suspected of criminal activity.  We hasten to clarify that a criminal is an individual who has been tried in a court of law and convicted.  By contrast, the people whom Analytic Linguists listen to only have been determined by a court of law to be suspects of criminal activity.  Additionally, not every person whom Analytic Linguists listen to are even considered suspects; for instance, children could be using that particular phone.

You should be forewarned that much of the language you would hear as an Analytic Linguist is not rated G or PG.  It can go as far as one can imagine, even beyond the Hollywood movie rating system.  To put it mildly, the wire room is no place for the squeamish.

Such conversations vary widely and can be of the sort that would likely burn a Sunday School teacher’s ears.  Since this blog could be read by minors, we’re not going to use any language like that, or even provide examples – except for one word in an example of ciphered speech taken from a novel.  Our intention is actually to interest you in the work Analytic Linguists do by assuring you that if you have the fortitude to leave your sensibilities at the door of the wire room, you are guaranteed to always be linguistically and intellectually stimulated.

So, we repeat: the wire room is no place for the squeamish.  This is true for reasons that go beyond the certainty of encountering vile language.  To give one example among others of why this is so, participants in these calls also may be blasé when speaking of violence because they are desensitized.

We have chosen this topic because a few people who have thought they could handle the types of language heard in calls have left because they discovered they were unable to withstand the vulgarity.  So, take the advice from a famous scene with Yoda in Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) and consider how it might apply to your tolerance level for “colorful” language – and other possibly discomforting aspects of the topics and vocabulary typical of criminal underworlds.

In addition to obscenities, we wish to mention and describe briefly other features of such speech Analytic Linguists routinely encounter.  We shall avoid the complications that would be necessary when using formal, academic distinctions employed when examining, analyzing and describing linguistic register, in this Blog we will consider a handful of features as they often are commonly known:  normal, slang, idiomatic expressions and proverbs, word play (i.e., coded speech and ciphered speech, described below) and regionalisms (dialects).

Conversations heard by Analytic Linguists can be as normal in content as any other conversation you could hear at random in a public place or in your own home – in other words, they can be mundane and even boring.  However, when Analytic Linguists encounter language that sounds normal, they must keep both ears open, listen critically and take context into account.  Analytic Linguists must never lose sight of the fact that a veneer of normalcy could be masking an intent to obfuscate.  In other words – surprise of surprises – the participants in conversations of this sort can be cagey.

Some forms of obfuscations can actually be mildly amusing because they make clever use of language.  They may be laced with slang, idiomatic expressions and proverbs.  These three categories are not synonymous, although some features of them may overlap.  Slang is generally understood to be “words and phrases that are not part of the standard vocabulary of a language and are used very informally, especially by a particular group of people.”  Idiomatic expressions have also been defined by Savaiano, Eugene & Lynn W. Winget in their vademecum of such expressions, Spanish Idioms as “almost any expression that consists of (1) at least two words in one or both of the languages involved, and (2) is expressed differently in the two languages.”  Finally, proverbs are best understood as “a short pithy saying in general use, stating a general truth or piece of advice.”  Thus they are fixed expressions of long standing in a language, often across all or most dialects, although their universality within a given language is unquestionably compromised by generational differences and educational disparities.

In a manner similar to that of teenagers who wish to hide what they are talking about from adults, the speech of participants in these calls may contain a lot of word play (as in coded speech and ciphered speech).  Plays on words include more than puns, although they are the form of word play familiar to most people.  Regardless of who uses them or why, plays on words of any kind can be hermetic; that is, their understanding is closed to outsiders and thus may be limited to members of a group.  They may be generational or regional as well.  It is also important to distinguish between two forms of verbal obfuscating strategies under the general umbrella of word play:  coded speech and ciphered speech.

Although these two categories often overlap – and drift into the mainstream if they are used for many years – the simplest example of coded speech consists of a simple substitution whereby one word really is to be understood as meaning something else, usually less innocent.

Ciphered speech, on the other hand, consists of changing elements of an expression so as to be not immediately understood.  The simplest examples in English are Double Dutch (not to be confused with Double Dutch’s other meanings, such as a popular game of jump rope) and Pig Latin.  The corresponding Spanish example is vesre, of which there are many forms.  One example is found in Gabriel García Márquez’s novel Cien años de soledad: “Esfetafa – decía – esfe defe lasfa quefe lesfe tifiefenenfe asfacofo afa sufu profopifiafa mifierfedafa” (Fragment 11).  This form consists of syllables, beginning with f and followed by the last vowel of the preceding syllable, inserted after every syllable of the original word.  Thus libro becomes, in this form of vesre, lifibrofo.  In the “classical” form of vesre, libro becomes broli.  Although vesre is commonly found coupled with coded speech, whereby playa > yapla … but stands for Miami, rest assured, participants in such calls will be more clever in their obfuscation strategies.

Finally, the features of all of these expressions can be poetic inasmuch as they depend on rhetorical devices of whose names the speakers are almost certainly unaware.  That said, Analytic Linguists would do well to study poetic devices (such as metaphor and metonymy vs synecdoche) so as to understand how they function and thus be able to put a label on the kind of language they are hearing and figure out the intended meaning of a particular expression.

The conversations Analytic Linguists hear also may be highly regional and contain accents, vocabulary and expressions of a dialect that may not be the one a particular Analytic Linguist on a particular call grew up with or has been otherwise exposed to.  This leads to questions about how an individual Analytic Linguist can take charge of his or her own continuing education – or how an aspiring one can begin to come up to speed with regard to the categories of language they are certainly going to encounter.

The best advice that can be given to aspiring or practicing Analytic Linguists is succinct: read, listen and watch a wide variety of popular books, magazines, TV shows and movies.  The more popular the media, the more likely one is to encounter the types of language Analytic Linguists hear in intercepted oral communications.

Eric Vogt
Eric Vogt
Eric W. Vogt, Ph.D. is accredited by the American Translators Association and is a Subject Matter Expert Consultant for Translation Skills Training™ (TST). For full bio, see: or

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