Language, identity and a political hot potato

Penelope Gardner-ChlorosThis post was contributed by Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros, of Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication

Blogs do not usually start with quotations from the Bible, but this one epitomizes the link between language, identity and danger that I want to discuss:

Gilead then cut Ephraim off from the fords of the Jordan, and whenever Ephraimite fugitives said, ‘Let me cross,’ the men of Gilead would ask, ‘Are you an Ephraimite?’ If he said, ‘No,’ they then said, ‘Very well, say “Shibboleth” (שבלת).’ If anyone said, “Sibboleth” (סבלת), because he could not pronounce it, then they would seize him and kill him by the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites were killed on this occasion.

—Judges 12:5–6, NJB

Applied Linguistics, as distinct from more theoretical branches of the discipline, addresses real-life problems in which language plays an important role. As a linguist, I can attest that no day goes by without such an issue coming up in the press. I have several box files full of cuttings of articles which I use in my teaching, on topics ranging from the apparently inoffensive – e.g. the revival of ‘dead’ languages such as Manx or Cornish, to the highly political, such as the relationship between the use of minority languages, such as Catalan, and political separatism.

All of us are identified – and often judged – on the basis of our language, dialect or accent. The gruesome ‘beheading’ videos recently released by members of Isis were doubly chilling for Londoners, because the executioners in black hoods had unmistakable London accents, and sounded like the young people you hear on the bus on the way to work.

I want to talk about another recent example which has been in the news, and which shows how language interacts with some very practical issues with serious human consequences.

No-one in the UK needs to be told that the issue of immigration has been in the news on a daily basis for the last few weeks or months. Oddly, this is not because of any drastic change in the situation, but principally because the issue has become a populist rallying cry for politicians who, though they might not put it that way, wish to convince British people that they are going to ringfence the country’s wealth for those same British people – and prevent undefined side-effects like ‘overcrowding’ in the process. This ‘promise’ has proved so popular that politicians from all the main parties have jumped on the bandwagon. Despite clear evidence that immigrants in fact contribute positively to the economy, nothing wins votes like telling people they will get a bigger slice of the cake.

The detailed arguments, and the distinctions between different categories of immigrants, become obscured in this rhetorical assault. This is not the place to rehearse them, but there is one category of (potential) immigrants who deserve some special attention: asylum seekers, i.e. people who come to this country because they claim to be in direct danger, or subject to persecution, in their country of origin. Basic humanity dictates that such cases are dealt with quickly and fairly, and that such people are distinguished from, say, economic migrants, who come for a better life but who are not actually in fear of their life.

But how do we decide whether the asylum seeker is to be believed or not? An important aspect of the decision involves finding out where they actually come from. Do they come from South Somalia, for example, in which case it is beyond question that they should be granted protection, or North Somalia, in which case protection is not automatic? Since such people rarely have any documentation when they arrive, linguistic agencies  are employed by the Government to judge their region of origin on the basis of an analysis of their speech. So far, you may think, all well and good – this could be an effective method.

Unfortunately it has now emerged that these agencies employ people who are not qualified to take these specialized decisions, and who in some cases are totally bogus. Amongst other problems, they ignore Lesson 1 in Sociolinguistics, which is that national and regional frontiers rarely coincide neatly with languages; Lesson 2, that in circumstances where they are being judged, people will speak the way they think they are expected to speak, not the way they speak naturally – so in this case, they may try to use a standard or a national language instead of their own dialect; and Lesson 3, which is that each individual has more than one way of speaking, in fact a ‘repertoire’ which may include different registers, different dialects, and different forms of mixed or intermediate varieties. In such a delicate matter, with life or death consequences hanging on the decision, a very high degree of linguistic expertise is required to do this job properly, and several other factors need to be taken into account apart from the linguistic analysis. Imagine the outcry if we employed food inspectors with bogus or insufficient qualifications to vet the food which we import.

If you would like to read more about these issues, the links below may be of interest. And next time you yourself are in some way judged by the way you speak, think of those who are being sent back to war zones, or to face FGM or worse, because a bogus or under-qualified linguistic ‘expert’ decided they did not come from the region they claimed.

Other blog posts by Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros:

Other blog posts about linguistics:

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