Monthly Archives: August 2011

Twanging with Lynne Murphy aka Lynneguist

A conversation with University of Sussex linguist Lynne Murphy. An American in Britain, Murphy maintains the Separated by a Common Language blog, where she goes by the moniker Lynneguist.

Murphy’s accent is soft, but that doesn’t stop Brits from mocking it and labeling it twangy. If she has a twang, then the guitarist in the painting is Dolly Parton.

Among the many observations noted in her blog, Murphy has seen British English lose some of its status among Americans. We talk about that, along with the changing accent patterns in Britain surrounding social class, and pronunciation of the word water.

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Photos: Wikicommons


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Britain Today: Hoodied Looters, Language Tests, and a Cuss Box

London’s burning, again. There was the Great Fire of 1666. There was the Great Tedium, as documented by Joe Strummer and The Clash (“London’s burning with boredom now, London’s burning, Dial 99999”). And now there is the Great Looting Spree, in which the city is vandalized by people often described as “hooded youths”.

No-one in Britain seems satisfied with the state of the nation. There’s finger-pointing galore: at the looters, the police, the Murdoch press, the politicians, the footballer-celebrities. And, of course, at the immigrants.

As of late 2010 the UK requires applicants for some immigrant visas to take a proficiency test in the English language. If you want to settle in Britain, the logic goes, you should learn the language. Cities should not be multilingual mosaics. Everyone should speak the common language.

Try telling that to the 58-year-old Indian husband of Rashida Chapti. Chapti, a naturalized British citizen, was born in India. Her husband still llives there. Before the language requirement came into effect, securing a resident and work visa for her husband would have been virtually automatic, as it is in the many nations that have family reunification immigration policies. But in Britain, Chapti’s husband must now prove that he has a basic command of English.

Chapti’s husband lives in a remote village, more than 100 miles from the nearest city, where he could take English lessons. In any case, she says, he wouldn’t be able to afford the lessons. Chapti is suing the British government under the European Convention of Human Rights.

Also, in Britain, the town of Barnsley has starting fining people for swearing in public. Heck, yeah. Not sure how widely that’s being enforced amid the riots and looting (which, I hasten to add, have not spread to Barnsley).

In Alaska, meanwhile, no-one’s too worried about swearing. (I briefly lived in Alaska, where I learned a great deal about American English expletive usage.) Some Alaskan children are learning a language. But not English, which they already speak.

These kids are the American-born children of  Sudanese refugees. They  are learning their parents’ native Nuer language. Some may end up speaking it at home. Some may use it if they visit their parents’ homeland. Some may never use it outside their Anchorage classroom.

Finally in the pod this week, a conversation with Greg Barker, director of  Koran by Heart.This is the story of three children who take part in a competition to memorize and publicly recite the entire Koran.

Hearing the interview reminded me of an encounter I had a few years ago in Bangladesh. I visited a  madrassa, a religious school.  The school building was essentially a countryside shack.  Inside were a few tiny classrooms, each with a dozen or more students crammed inside.

I talked with several students, including one who told me of his primary educational goal: to memorize the Koran. He recited a lengthy segment of it for me– in Arabic, not his native tongue, Bengali. He’s the student on the far left in the picture below.

I talked to the head of the madrassa. He said that although this was a religious school, most parents who sent their kids here weren’t especially devout. The choice, like in so many parts of the world, was between underfunded, sub-par government schools and religious school like this one.


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The Words that Armed Anders Breivik

How much we should blame extreme political rhetoric for the actions of Anders Breivik? Did words help pull the trigger so many times? Is it accurate to describe him as a lone madman, existing outside Norway’s civilized society?

What of Glen Beck who likened Breivik’s victims at a political summer camp to the Hitler Youth? And what might the late Stieg Larsson have thought about this?

This week’s pod attempts to answer some of these questions with a series of reports and interviews culled from the BBC and the Big Show.

Among those featured:  Nottingham University’s, Matthew Goodwin who studies fascist groups;  former Norwegian diplomat Jan Egeland;   Andrew Silke who advises the United Nations on terrorism and has written The Psychology of Counter-terrorismNick Fraser who edits the BBC’s Storyville series of international documentaries and wrote The Voice of Modern Hatred, a book about the far right in Europe.

And two more people, each with interesting back stories: Maajid Nawaz, who co-founded the UK-based think tank Quilliam which studies Islamic extremism. Nawaz himself was a self-confessed Islamic extremist: for 13 years, he was a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir.  Hizb ut-Tahrir is a global group dedicated to uniting Muslim countries in a caliphate governed by Islamic law.

Lastly, there is Lars Gule of Oslo University College. In the wake of the Norwegian atrocity, he was interviewed by many news organizations including the BBC piece that’s in the podcast.  Gule tracks right wing extremists in Scandinavia, and believes that he was in communication via web chat with Anders Breivik. The Big Show also interviewed Gule, but decided against broadcasting the interview because of concerns about Gule’s own past.

In the 1970s, Gule spent several months in a Lebanese prison after being convicted of illegal possession of weapons. The weapons were explosives. Gule was carrying them on behalf of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The intended targets were Israelis.

When asked, Gule was happy confirm these details with us; he’s not trying to hide anything. But it seemed awkward and distracting to have him analyze violent extremism in his own country when he himself had been convicted in part because of his own link to violent extremism in another country.  A counter argument might be that Gule, like Maajid Nawaz, has a special insight into such activities. With that in mind,  I decided to run the BBC’s interview with Gule. It’s a pity that the interview itself doesn’t make note of Gule’s past.

To round things off,  we have a profile of New York-based Ghanaian rapper Blitz the Ambassador. When he moved to the US, Blitz didn’t need to learn English; it’s widely spoken in Ghana. But he says he did have to “learn the lingo of rap.” Which makes Blitz a linguistic as well as a musical ambassador.

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