The Prodigal Tongue

Book cover for 'The Prodigal Tongue'


Lynne Murphy, Professor of Linguistics’ book The Prodigal Tongue looks at the myths and realities of English and how the past 400 years have given us two Englishes with which Americans and Britons understand and misunderstand one another. The book examines why our Englishes are different, why they’re not more different, and whether they are becoming more alike in the age of mass media. (The answer: not as much as you might think.) 

On both sides of the Atlantic, the view persists that the British “invented” English and that Americanisms are degradations of the language. Americans generally attribute greater intelligence and social status — not to mention sexiness — to anyone who sounds like they might be from the mother country. And the British hold these prejudices in reverse, resenting the mindless, ugly corruption of “their” language. These attitudes are born from prejudices and misapprehensions about how language works and about how the histories of these countries have affected English. They prevent accurate understanding of what English is and how much there is to celebrate about our common language and its differences. 

This project is founded in a career that has repeatedly focused on how beliefs about words and language (which are subject to cognitive biases) prevent language users from knowing the facts of language and how linguistic research in turn can be biased by such beliefs. Public communication to undermine such beliefs is central to Murphy’s academic ethic. The Prodigal Tongue builds on the research and success of Murphy’s ongoing Separated by a Common Language blog, founded in 2006.