• Interview with Lynne Murphy, Author of “The Prodigal Tongue”

    On August 24th, 2019 we featured our latest speaker in our Speaker Series, Lynne Murphy, discussing “The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between British and American English.”  I had the opportunity to ask Lynne a few questions about her background and British and American English. Here’s what she had to say…

    Tell me about your linguistic and academic background.

    I was good at languages at school, so when I looked at colleges I looked for ones that had programs in Chinese and Linguistics. I didn’t know what linguistics was, but I was pretty sure it was something to do with the things I liked to think about. And it was! (I only took one semester of Chinese.) I got a BA in Linguistics and Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and a PhD in Linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. From there, I went on to teach and research at University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and, since 2000, the University of Sussex in Brighton, England.

    How did you become interested in the difference between British and American English?

    Being an American linguist in England was enough for that. I specialize in issues to do with words and meanings, and there is a lot to think about when you’re constantly faced with different words, different meanings, and different combinations of those. I’d been in the UK for six years when I started the Separated by a Common Language blog—by that time I was very aware that the differences went far beyond the simple lists of “French fries are chips and potato chips are crisps”. There are enough differences that I’ve now been doing a “Difference of the Day” every weekday on Twitter for more than ten years. Once you start publicly writing and speaking about British and American English, you get a sense of all the strong opinions and attitudes about them. I wrote The Prodigal Tongue in service of challenging some of those preconceived notions.

    What is your favorite British and American colloquialisms that don’t exist in the other type version of English?

    Probably the most useful British one is the insult numpty, which I use about myself when I’ve done something idiotic, which is often. Today I am a numpty for leaving my library books in a women’s room in a building I’m now locked out of. The Americanism I tend to think of is snit—as in The librarian got in a bit of a snit about my library books. I really feel that those words’ sounds go well with their meanings. At this point, my own English is so mixed up that I often get confused about whether I’m using Britishisms or Americanisms—till someone points out that I’ve said something foreign to them.

    What is the origin of the “Lynneguist?”

    It is a pun on my name and my job. I love a pun.

    Is there anything else those attending the Speaker Series should know before coming?

    I really hope that they’ll learn a little and laugh a lot. We will have some copies of The Prodigal Tongue for sale (cash only!) and I’m really happy to sign copies for anyone who’s bought one already.


    Remember, the Speaker Series is a free event with free parking at the Council Chambers in College Park, MD. For more information and to register, please follow this link. We hope to see you there!