Everything seemed pretty quiet in France over recent months regarding the position and status of the French language. It has been a good few months since the most recent hullabaloo over the insidious role that the English language had been assuming in France, courtesy of wily Anglo-Saxons or short-sighted, unpatriotic French men and women. And so the first controversy of 2017 breaks as Paris’ bid to host the 2024 Olympic Games chooses an English-language slogan ‘Made for Sharing’.
Seemingly determined to cement its reputation in the Anglophone world as opposed to the English language in all aspects of French life, the Académie française has issued a statement noting the use of ‘Made for Sharing’ by such un-French giants as Burger King, Cadbury’s, and Quality Street chocolates, and unanimously expressing their disapproval of the language chosen. The Académie also notes that the official languages of the Olympic Games are French and English – in that order in Article 23 of the Olympic Charter.
The launch of #madeforsharing took place on 3 February, and since that time, over on the webpages of Le Monde, readers have been making full use of the comments sections of newspaper articles to rage against the choice of language for the slogan. ‘Shame’ is a popular theme of the responses, with individuals lamenting in strong terms the national disgrace and the financial cost of France’s capital city bid team using first and foremost an English-language slogan. The concession of second, French-language slogan – Venez partager – is little consolation to those who are frustrated by the use of English in something that is supposed to exemplify Paris in particular and France more generally.
Bound up in this linguistic storm (in a tasse de thé?) is the co-option of the Eiffel Tower into the Paris bid and its use as the screen onto which the English-language slogan was projected for the formal launch of the bid. The Paris 2024 campaign crafts the ’24’ into a representation of the Eiffel Tower, and supporters of the bid – from schoolchildren through to politicians – are called upon to replicate the image using their fingers as a sign of support. We have seen elsewhere how the use of the Eiffel Tower has been emblematic in France’s understanding of itself and its on-going creation of an identity.
So what is going on here? It almost goes without saying, but the Paris 2024 bid team are speaking to multiple audiences simultaneously. Given the diffusion of English across the globe, the choice to deploy it is clearly pragmatic. On Twitter, @Paris2024 deploys a range of English- and French-language hashtags, addressing those who might not speak English, and given that Los Angeles has been the bookmakers’ favourite amongst the bidding host cities, Paris 2024 needs to do all it can to win over members of International Olympic Committee, who will vote in Lima in the autumn to award the Games.
At the same time, Paris 2024 could have predicted (and in all likelihood did predict) the backlash that has been initiated in France. There is nowhere in the world that language is nothing more than a medium of communication. Language is never neutral, and in France, the values attributed to English, especially in domains of life which represent, exemplify, and embody the country, are invariably contested. The tension lies on the one hand in the understandable desire to speak to the widest possible audience and to demonstrate a global (as opposed to local or parochial) outlook, and, on the other hand, to convey all the intangible but fundamentally important French things that the French language clearly does for some – if not all – Frenchmen and women.
There is enormous potential to discuss the sociolinguistics of Brexit, from the campaign and its slogans, to the language attitudes uttered by voters, and even to the claims made about language policies ‘imposed’ by Brussels. Much of this I have found far too depressing to consider, and I’ll declare my interest at the very outset, namely that I did not want the UK to leave the EU, I voted to remain, and I still hope that there’s a chance that the country won’t actually quit. However, the recent discussions about the possibility of Brexit to change the British passport have prompted me to consider this unexpected consequence of the EU referendum outcome.
August is occasionally referred to as the silly season in journalism, and the start of the month heralded two initiatives relating to the design and nature of a British passport. Let’s consider first the campaign by the newspaper The Sun to have British passports ‘returned’ to their ‘true blue’ colour. The Sun called on the UK government to reintroduce blue passport covers, ditching the ‘EU-approved burgundy passport’. From the outset of these discussions, a thread of anti-French sentiment can be detected – although less explicit in this campaign than the second one. The so-called EU-approved burgundy passport is dark red, in a colour identified with the wine of the French region of Burgundy. Not all EU countries have the exact same colour of burgundy for their passports, and Croatian passports are black, but the passports of EU candidate countries such as Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Turkey are already burgundy, almost as if the colour of one’s passport demonstrates enthusiasm to be a member of the EU. Non-EU states Norway and Switzerland have red (rather than burgundy) passport covers, and Iceland has blue.
Some noise has been generated by the blue-passport campaign, with The Sun selecting some supportive statements to back their campaign. Conservative MP Andrew Rosindell is reported to have told the newspaper that ‘having the pink European passports has been a humiliation’. Regardless of whether individuals might identify the deep red as pink, the intention to hint at effeminacy (and thereby the emasculation of the virulent British passport and, by extension, people) is not difficult to discern. Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan is also reported to have supported The Sun’s campaign that a blue passport country ‘would be a visible sign that we are an individual country’, suggesting that burgundy, or the pan-EU choice of burgundy, limits the extent to which the UK can be seen as individual. Given that most of the world’s passports are blue, from Afghanistan to Yemen, and including Australia, Brazil, Canada, India, Iraq, the USA, and the world’s newest country South Sudan, it would seem that yellow might be a more ‘individual’ choice. Clearly, though, colour is important to identity; Kieran Braim, 26, of Croydon told The Sun that blue passport covers would ‘help bring the nation together as well as show the world that we’re patriotic’. At 26, Mr Braim is too young to have had a blue British passport, given that they were not issued after 1988, but his perspective points to myth-making on the basis of the symbols of shared identity. Although he never crossed an international border using a blue passport, Mr Braim engages with the idea of a ‘lost’ marker of British – rather than European – identity.
The other campaign is the one that seeks to use the mechanisms of direct democracy, namely the UK Government and Parliament’s Petitions website, to remove ‘French words’ from the cover of the passports. Initiated by Richard Bernden, this petition – which would require 10,000 to prompt a response from the UK government – makes no mention of burgundy/pink/blue covers but instead targets two mottos on the cover of UK passports. On social media, @RadarNvrSleeps grappled with the etymology of the petition to demonstrate the extent to which the English language has borrowed extensively from French and Norman. The Huffington Post did its own research and highlighted not only the French origin of the word ‘passport’ but also the usage of the two offending terms, namely ‘Dieu et mon droit’ (the motto of the British monarchy), and ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’ (used by the Order of the Garter, which is Britain’s highest order of chivalry). Much of the noise on Twitter centred on the extent to which the English language has absorbed French (and other) words into common usage, with the implicit challenge to the petition’s creator to communicate using words that were not of French origin. In one sense, this rather misses the point, since the petition sought to remove what its creator deemed to be French words on the passport cover, as if the EU had imposed these upon a submissive British government. In fact, the two mottos long predate the European Union, and are British expressions par excellence given their identification with the British monarchy and the honours system.
In other words, the real significance of the two French-language expressions has been lost and their meaning ignored or overlooked. To those seeking to take back control of the UK (whatever on earth that means), the idea that something ‘in French’ should stain a British passport is just the kind of reason why so many people voted to leave the EU. Over 400 people have signed this petition which is argued on the basis – as stated in the wording of the petition – that an EU language (such as French) has no place on a UK passport. This is not, therefore, about removing words of French (or, more accurately Middle French, Gallo-Romance, Late Latin…) origin from usage – although that is a quick way to deride the petition’s creator and signatories. More profoundly, there is a perspective that wishes to remove perceived ‘EU languages’ from British daily life. It’s easy to ridicule this position; Costa will need to rename its panini, Sainsbury’s will have to return to calling baguettes ‘French sticks’, and we can only imagine what Pizza Express will have to do about its business name, let alone what it serves. More seriously, this seems to amplify a strand of insularity within Britain, which plays on attitudes to languages other than English and, to my mind, diminishes the UK. So I take comfor from the fact that only 419 people wish to remove the French-language mottos from the British passport. Honi soit qui mal y pense – indeed!
Thinking about the responses to violence from a sociolinguistic perspective is a sensitive matter; it has only been a week since a man drove a lorry into a crowd celebrating Bastille Day on the seafront at Nice, killing 84 people and injuring over 300. The magnitude of the shock, grief, and loss is still being felt in the city, across France, and beyond. Part of the role of the researcher is to use their skills and knowledge, to take a step back, and to try and understand human phenomena. I am not an expert in terrorism, or psychology, and the only analysis I feel vaguely qualified to offer is on the sociolinguistic response to what happened on the Promenade des Anglais. Nice is a city I know relatively well, not only as a gateway to Corsica where I have spent a lot of time, but also because I considered the role that Nissart, the city’s regional language, has played in the life of Nice. Some of these findings have been discussed already, and in this post, I would like to reflect on the ways in which people have used language, symbols, and signs to answer the horror of mass murder.
Already, we know that the contexts for this violent act are deeply symbolic. The people on the Promenade des Anglais were commemorating France’s Bastille Day, the national holiday that marks the start of the French Revolution. Those gathered together were enjoying the traditional fireworks display, as many thousands of people were doing across France that evening, but it is worth recalling that Nice has not always been the emblematic French city that some consider it to be. Although Nice is the fifth largest city in France, it has only been part of the country for just over 150 years. Until then, if the city was identified with any nationality, it would have been what we now understand to be Italian. Nice, therefore, has become an emblematic French city over a relatively short period of time, and its French-ness has been heavily emphasized since the Bastille Day attack.
The sociolinguistic response to the violence has been particularly rich, and draws on a range of linguistic and semiotic resources that merit closer examination. The act of extreme violence in Nice has, in public discourse, been entered into a litany of outrages that France has endured since January 2015 when the office of the satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo was attacked; this list includes the killings at the Porte de Vincennes on 9 January 2015, and the attacks across Paris on 13 November 2015. The response to the Nice killings echoes the swift public reaction to the Charlie Hebdo attack, as attested by the flyers circulating around Nice this week. White text, produced in the font used for Charlie Hebdo’s masthead, is set against a black background, replicating the placards used in early 2015 to proclaim ‘Je suis Charlie’. Local colour is injected into the signs distributed by the image of a broken palm tree, appropriating an informal index of the city and its Mediterranean waterfront, but acknowledging the pain of the violence. Most striking is the use of the regional language, Nissart, to name the city – Nissa, rather than the French version of the toponym, Nice – and to conjugate the verb in the visually dominant expression ‘Sieu Nissa’ (‘I am Nice’).
Nissart is not usually considered as one of France’s ‘main’ regional languages, and is often described as merely a variety of Occitan, a prestigious language with a long literary tradition. Its use is limited, in particular in its written form, although it can be heard whenever the city’s unofficial anthem – Nissa la Bella – is sung. Where is can be found is in the material culture associated with ultras, the particularly dedicated subset of football fans, identified with Nice’s football team OGC. Their use of Nissart, including the expression ‘Pilhas garda, sieu nissart’ (‘Watch out, I’m from Nice’) is appropriated for the Charlie-Hebdo style flyer and recontextualized not as a warning to rival football fans but as a statement of solidarity with the suffering of Niçois. A translation is provided in French, but it is emplaced below the French, and in a smaller font, creating an unquestionable visual hierarchy.
So this use of regional identity, based on the regional language, meets the more national and/or republican icons drawn upon to grieve and to respond to this violent attack. The colours of France’s tricolour, deployed already in earlier outrages, are reimagined as blood on the Promenade des Anglais; red, white, and blue lights have been projected onto the façade of the Negresco, Nice’s most famous hotel. These gestures coalesce as a projection of a shared identity that transcends the limits of the city and encompasses all of France, highlighting a perceived sense of unity across the country. This meshing of ‘national’ colours, a regional language, and a visual trope – ‘Je suis Charlie’ – adapted to a local setting are clearly ways in which individuals and groups try to make sense of and respond to what happened at the end of a fireworks display on a warm July evening in Nice.
If you are in the UK, there are two things that you are undoubtedly aware of at the moment: the forthcoming EU referendum and the 2016 UEFA European Championship, referred to in popular shorthand as the Euros 2016. Both events are underpinned by the relationship between the UK and its European neighbours, and both have prompted the rehearsal of well-worn stereotypes. From the perspective of this blog, the football tournament is closer to my own research interests, but explicitly not because of my (lack of) interest in the game, but because the championship takes place in France. This has provided advertisers, broadcasters, and journalists with ample scope to dust down their French-language clichés and stereotypes, and it is what these ideologies say about us, the British, that interests me most.
One particular ‘campaign’ leaps to mind, broadcast by the BBC, in the run up to the tournament. Witty, glossy, and playing directly into widely-held British tropes and imagery about France, the French, and the French language, the BBC clip has already been deemed the best ad of the week by media magazine Campaign. The BBC’s clip was devised by advertising agency Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R, entitled ‘Liberté, Egalité, Footé’. We’ll come to the title in a minute, but the 90-second video is set, seemingly, in Ancien Régime France, under some kind of football monarchy, with the BBC’s pundits dressed like members of the Bourbon court. The exception is French former footballer Thierry Henry, whose tricolour sash makes him look more like a post-Revolution functionary than a loyal courtier. But I am no expert in dress, and will leave commentaries on the attire to those more qualified than me.
I’d like to focus on the language and the other semiotic resources used by the ad agency to convey French-ness and football. The theme of the clip is the importance of the football championship whose significance is such that it should be venerated – as represented by the ranks of courtiers bowing deeply as the Henri Delaunay trophy, or more accurately a representation of it, is born majestically through the rooms of this mythical palace. Other icons of football include the klaxon and football rattle – both ornamentalized for the purposes of this clip – and the golden football atop the sceptre carried by Gary Lineker. So far, so straightforward: the beautiful game is so important that it is worthy of reverence. If we turn our attention to language, there is no speech in the clip, and the only text (in its traditional sense) visible comes at the end of the video, where the motto of the French republic appears; liberté is followed by égalité but the normal trio of concepts is disrupted with the final term: footé. We won’t dwell here on the clash between royal and republican France, with the setting and dress connoting the former and the motto the latter.
Footé is fun and memorable because it fits in with what some (but not necessarily all) know about the republican architecture of the French State. It sounds like footy in English, and alliterates with fraternité from the original French motto. Here we tap into what my colleagues Philip Seargeant and Barbara Mayor from the Open University refer to as ‘writing with a foreign accent’. Nobody thinks that footé is French – or if they do, they need to revisit their French GCSE notes. The idea is that footé conveys a sense of French-ness, through its acute accent on the final -e, and makes the viewer – in this case – think of France. This writing with a foreign accent is something we are all used to: think of Häagen-Dazs ice cream that was an American company but whose brand name was conceived to convey the idea of Danish-ness. Places such as restaurants often draw on collective knowledge of languages and fonts to reinforce through imagery the sense and authenticity of the food they serve. We all know of a Greek restaurant that uses Greek-style lettering whilst writing in English, or an Indian restaurant that deploys a style of Brahmic scripts to underscore how Indian the food really is.
Back at the BBC, married to the images of the Court of Gary Lineker, with Gabby Logan as a twenty-first century Madame de Pompadour – Louis XV’s favourite mistress – the term footé, alongside the repeated images of tricolours, palaces akin to popular imaginings of Versailles, and powdered wigs, play with our understanding of French-ness. We remember this campaign in part because of Rio Ferdinand wearing a cream frock coat, and in part because it makes us think of football – or footé – in France, or in what our collective imagination depicts as a mash-up between football, republicanism, and France’s former royal court.
It might just be an impression, but it seems like Mexico has never been so widely discussed as it is at the moment. For example, one thing that many people know about Donald Trump’s bid for the Presidency of the United States of America is his attitude to Mexico: first, there is the plan for the construction of a wall on the border with Mexico, to be paid for by Mexico, and second his views on the kinds of Mexicans who migrate to the USA. Mexican cultural icons, such as sombreros, feature in the news, with talk of a ban on their distribution by the students’ union at the University of East Anglia, whilst a frat house at the University of Texas faced a formal investigation because they hosted a ‘border patrol’ party, where guests wore ponchos and construction workers hard hats featuring Spanish-sounding names. More positively, the UK and Mexico are developing increasingly close diplomatic relations following the 2015 State Visit to Britain by President Pena Nieto.
A colleague recently found two posters in Liverpool’s Baltic Triangle featuring six members of a Mariachi band, identifiable by their unmistakable costumes. The artist responsible for these posters is, according to his Instagram and Facebook accounts, known as Face the Strange, whose signature motif is the replacing of heads of human forms with foodstuffs, animals, and – in this case – Mexican semiotic resources. For this poster, Face the Strange adds a short caption, “Enfrentar el extraño”, or ‘Face the other’ or ‘Confront the other’.
As can be seen, the heads of the Mariachi band members are replaced by a range of commodities associated with an idea of Mexico, namely (from left to right) tequila, a burrito, a chilli pepper, a tortilla chip, a maraca, and a cactus. There are a couple of things to consider here from a socio-linguistic or semiotic perspective. To a British audience, the Mariachi band is, in all probability, relatively widely recognised, not least courtesy of North American culture (such as the 1986 Chevy Chase & Steve Martin film ¡Three Amigos!). The ‘Mexican’ items are possibly viewed as clichés of Mexican culture, especially those identified as material culture – the tangible things that we associate with a given community. There is a tension here that is more acute in places such as Western Europe than in the Americas. In Mexico, Mariachi bands have high value; they are widely enjoyed by people from the broadest spectrum of social classes, political ideologies, and education. On this side of the Atlantic, there is a perception of cheesiness around these musicians, whose performances are dismissed as trite and staged.
Where we encounter the overlap between sombreros and a Mariachi band – plus the tortillas, cactuses, maracas, and tequila – is the consideration of these aspects of material culture as, in some way, discriminatory or stereotypical language and imagery targetting a specific group. Face the Strange’s posters are art, and not presumably intended as offensive, but the reduction of a particular group – in this case, an entire nationality – to its material culture can be subverted, as feared by the students’ union at the University of East Anglia and the University of Texas. Of course, all of us can be represented elsewhere using symbols and signs that others ascribe to us – and Scotsmen in kilts springs immediately to mind. What is curious here is the use of a Spanish-language slogan at the bottom of the poster. Spanish is not a language in wide circulation in Liverpool, even in the hip Baltic Triangle, so the extent to which the public understand the caption is probably quite limited. To this end, it is more likely that the Spanish text reinforces the Hispanic nature of the image, rather than explaining the image to its audience.
It might well be the week of the Cannes Film Festival, but from a sociolinguistic perspective, more interesting is the revelation this week is the landing of a major Nollywood film role by a white-British former air steward from Basingstoke. The primary interest of the story is not that Claire Edun is white – which she undeniably is – or that she is working in a film industry in Nigeria, but rather that she has taught herself Nigerian English, referred to widely in the press as ‘pidgin English’.
Various UK media outlets, such as The Guardian, The Daily Mail and BBC Radio 4’s PM programme, presented this as a human interest story, with the BBC categorising it in their Entertainment News section. As with most news items posted on-line, a range of responses from readers was uploaded to various sites, with emphases on different issues including the labelling of Nigeria as “fantastically corrupt” by Prime Minister David Cameron, cultural appropriation, and the predictable smattering of racist trolling. Very little space has been devoted to the issues around the acquisition and use of Nigerian English – and I will explain why I refer to it that way shortly – by someone who is not Nigerian.
First, the question of terminology. A pidgin is widely considered to be a variety of a language that has been simplified in some grammatical way (usually by the loss of exceptions such as irregular verb endings or plural markers) and that is heavily influenced by a second language. Normally, pidgins emerge in circumstances when two or more groups of people, inhabiting a particular territory, do not share a language but accommodate to each other to communicate. As time progresses, if this pidgin is taught to new generations as a first language, it becomes a creole. For this reason, as well as the sense in which pidgins are often dismissed as inferior to ‘languages’, I prefer to talk of Nigerian English, although that itself is not perfect, not least because it suggests a single, codified language.
Second, and more interestingly, are the ideologies that are betrayed in the discussions around Claire Edun’s acquisition of Nigerian English, and her use of the language in both stand-up comedy and in the forthcoming Nollywood film. Here, a number of issues coalesce and are worth exploring. One key question seems to be why would anyone learn Nigerian English? Implicit in this question is the value attributed to Nigerian English, especially in relation to British English, which Edun already spoke. Western dominance of thinking about languages, dating back to the nineteenth-century and notions of nation-building, contribute to the negative perceptions – or the lower value – of languages such as the pidgins and creoles, on the basis that these are sub-standard forms of more prestigious languages. By this reasoning, Nigerian English is less important than British English, so why would anyone learn it? This was articulated in particular by the director of Erdun’s film, Lancelot Oduwa Imasuen, who told the BBC that “most people here [in Nigeria] don’t feel proud to say that they can speak pidgin English”. This linguistic resource, namely the ability to communicate effectively with large numbers of Nigerians, is undervalued.
Ethnicity is clearly a factor here, hence the discussions of cultural appropriation and even ‘verbal blacking up’ on some comments pages. Not only is it seen as unusual for someone who is not Nigerian to learn Nigerian English, but it is even more striking when that language-learner is white. Edun talked about her experiences of using Nigerian English out and about in Lagos, where one woman she encountered burst into tears, crying “amazing” to hear Edun speak the language. This acquisition of Nigerian English by a white British woman challenges some of the entrenched perceptions about the value of Nigerian English; in Edun’s case, mastery of Nigerian English in part landed her a role in a Nollywood film.
The other issue worth considering is how Edun learnt Nigerian English. Whilst she is married to a Nigerian, she put her acquisition down first to Nollywood and her enjoyment of the films. She highlighted how there is no dictionary of Nigerian English – I don’t know whether this is the case, but I would be surprised if no-one has got to some lengths to record the details of the language. However, this throwaway line does point to one belief about language learning, namely that it requires textbooks and formal processes rather than the less traditional method of picking up a language from films.
Overall, what is exciting here is the challenging of preconceptions – both in Nigeria and in the UK – about languages, their values and importance, and how you might start to learn something that for many is seen as unusual as Nigerian English.