In the July 12 & 19 issue of The New Yorker, there’s a nice little piece by Ben McGrath called “Spy vs. Spy: Say What?” that starts out, “Count linguists and phonologists among those bewildered by last week’s Russian spying scandal, in which the F.B.I. arrested a network of presumed Muscovite spooks who appeared to be living ordinary American lives, gardening and Facebooking and selling real estate under assumed identities.” (Never mind the problematic presupposition signaled by the conjunction ‘linguists and phonologists’.) Only an abstract of the article is in the accessible online issue, here. For the full article you need hard copy or a subscription to the digital online version.
The linguistic issue is that one of the spies explained her accent by saying she was Belgian, and another by declaring herself to be Québécois. Maria Gouskova, a UMass Ph.D. now an assistant professor at NYU and a specialist in Russian phonology, gets extensively quoted and does the profession proud, including showing that linguists and phonologists can have a sense of humor; and Ben McGrath seems to have done a fine job of writing it up, also with good quotes from Stephanie Harves and Joshua Fishman.
Gouskova and Harves briefly describe some differences between a Russian accent and French Canadian, Flemish and Walloon accents, and were surprised at the choices of ‘cover’ identities. Fishman suggested that the choices worked all right because (a) French-related accents are often perceived in the West as “high-status” and “acceptable”, Slavic ones as more suspicious, and (b) Americans don’t actually know how to place accents. “Being a spy, all you have to do is count on American ignorance”, Fishman said. Many Americans don’t even know what the native languages of Belgians are, let alone be able to recognize accents of Belgians speaking English. So if you have an unrecognized accent, and you declare yourself Belgian, you may well get away with it among most Americans, and you'll be regarded with less suspicion than if you declare yourself Russian or anything else Slavic.
I like the last paragraph and will quote it in full.
Gouskova, who was born in Moscow but has lived in the United States for almost seventeen years, said she is sometimes confused for a native Dutch speaker. “Once, I convinced somebody I was from Antarctica and got away with it for two weeks,” she said. “This was in the Midwest, and she was pretty naïve. I was an undergraduate, and my accent was a little stronger than it is now. I told her my parents were scientists, and my dad had this big beard because it was so cold. But then I started feeling sorry for her. I said, ‘I’m not really from Antarctica. Nobody lives there permanently. I’m from Russia.’ She took it well.”