Saturday, July 17, 2010

Talking like a spook

It was a question nagging at me ever since I heard about the FBI's arrest of a network of alleged Russian spies earlier this month - but, like, how could you not know? Did they use speech coaches?

Apparently, this has been baffling also to linguists and phonologists, as an item in the July 12 & 19th issue of The New Yorker reports - b/c in fact, the alleged spies did not use speech coaches. Instead, they claimed to be from Belgium or from Quebec.

Which sociolinguist Joshua Fishman described as rather a smart move: "Being a spy, all you have to do is count on American ignorance," Fishman said. "They were trying to use something the Americans don't know how to pigeonhole."

Belgium plays well into this blindspot. Arguably, Flemish (a variation of Dutch) would sound like Greek to most Americans. Canadian French, too, in that it has the reputation among American speakers of French as being "different" and "harder" to understand than the kind of French, so-called Parisian, that is taught in U.S. schools as "correct."

Societal monolingualism and linguistic stereotypes: Threats to national security, ce n'est vrai?

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