You are what you speak

On contested phonemes and the politics of suspicion

2 minutes to read
Max Spotti


Some time ago, The Herald reported that 'A man who claims to be a Syrian refugee  has been denied asylum because the Home Office believes his accent does not sound sufficiently like it comes from the war-torn country.' This is quite astonishing in that it shows that people are categorized uncritically by how they speak.

Let us dive right into this matter: identities and how they are institutionally framed on the basis of a direct correspondence between the language one claims to speak and the country one claims to be coming from. This may seem normal in Europe, where every nation-state thinks it has this neat correspondence between language and identity among its 'homogeneous indigenous' population legally residing on its territory. 

Judging somebody’s language use has a long-standing record in social inclusion and exclusion. It has characterized human beings since the beginning of time. Take for instance the biblical story of the book of Judges, where the pronunciation of the word ‘shibboleth’ was used as proof of authenticity of somebody’s origin, and thus as a means of exclusion. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be a thing of the past. Rather, the more we venture into a world characterized by either willed or forced globalization-led mobility, the more we see that nation-states are gasping for security. Testing the language of an asylum-seeking applicant is one of the favored means of securitization, and is all too often used as tangible proof that these fellas at the door are not to be trusted.

The feeling of security that language testing is claimed to give to some stands in sharp opposition to the chances it denies to others. It strengthens the politics of suspicion that seem to accompany globalization. As presented in 2012 by Lawence Abu Hamdan & Janna Ullrich in their somewhat unorthodox yet breathtaking artwork exposition entitled Conflicted Phonemes, we see that the politics of suspicion in asylum seeking procedures are so dense that they deny the fine-grained idiosyncracies of somebody’s language- somebody’s accent or word usage. Accent tests appeal to the mechanics of how words and sentences are uttered without considering the geographical and political meanings that are often attached to how something is pronounced. A phoneme may give away a misplaced identity of its user.

The politics of suspicion toward asylum applicants

deny the fine-grained idiosyncracies of somebody's language.

Take the case of Somali refugees, or the ‘Syrians’ of these days. Back then accent testing showed that the vast majority of Somali applicants were to be pinpointed as coming from the South of Somalia rather than from the troubled North. It is, in fact, in the South of Somalia that there were small pockets of safe and habitable regions. But then again, places like Somalia and Syria  – that is places witnessing war, places characterized by imposed political movement - have an impact on people, their ways of living and also on their ways of speaking. Dialect maps are abstract cartographic products that do not reflect the complex micro-politics of speech and identity . Yet, when we use these tests, we forget that voices and biographies do not always match the Mercatorian linearity of maps.  

Call them asylum seekers, refugees, foreign bodies or social security seekers if you like, we are still dealing with human beings, who have a need for relocation. Language to them is not solely an emblem of ethno-cultural affiliation. To them, during their migratory movements, language has meant a lot and still is a means through which one can flag off an identity that does not get him into trouble. I would not be surprised to hear sometime soon that someone wants to ban an accent, on the argument that those funny foreign accents never did sound quite right here, did they?