Back of the line/the queue.

Questions of language erupted unexpectedly in the on-going debate on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union. However, this wasn’t a furore along the lines of other EU myths such as the banning of curved bananas or the criminalization of eight-year-olds blowing balloons. In other words, this wasn’t something like ‘the EU wants to force all British citizens to switch from speaking English to speaking French’ – although that would certainly be a boost to French teachers and to modern languages departments in Britain’s universities.

This language uproar centred on the intervention in the referendum campaign by the President of the United States. President Obama, on a short visit to the UK (which included afternoon tea with Her Majesty the Queen and a supper party with the Cambridges at Kensington Palace), was invited to comment on the negotiation of possible trade deals between the USA and the UK in the event that the British public vote to leave the EU on 23 June.

President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron discuss language matters. Photo: LA Times

The US President was drawn on questions surrounding the future of ‘the special relationship’ should the UK electorate vote to leave the EU. Whilst not ruling out the possibility of a UK-USA trade deal, President Obama pointed out that the focus of the US would be negotiating with a large trading block rather than a single nation state, ending with the words “and the UK is going to be in the back of the queue”.

The leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, Nigel Farage, MEP, has shown hitherto unknown interests in language and phrasing, suggesting that because the US President referred to a ‘queue’, understood as British English, instead of ‘line’, viewed as ‘American English’, he wasn’t the author of his own words and, as such, this is a line planted in his briefing notes by the British government, rather than his own thoughts.

Americans don’t use the word ‘queue’, they use the word ‘line’. He’s come over here to parrot the Downing Street line – Nigel Farage

There was less excitement (for which read none) when President Obama’s article in The Daily Telegraph was published in which he uses British spelling conventions, such as ‘candour’ rather than the American English ‘candor’. It is, of course, possible that a sub-editor on The Daily Telegraph changed the article from the Oval Office in order to comply with British English spelling conventions, so let’s focus instead on what Mr Obama said.

Obama 02
A line from President Obama’s article in The Daily Telegraph

Alas, Nigel Farage did not seem to complete his undergraduate sociolinguistics course. As any student of this fine discipline will tell you, there is the distinct possibility that the US President was accommodating to his audience. Accommodation theory suggests that, consciously or sub-consciously, when communicating with another, an individual will change their language to accomodate to their interlocutor. Normally, we do this for emotional reasons, to change the relationship with our audience for the better by the way we speak as much as the content of our communication. One frequent motivation for accommodation is persuasion – surely something that President Obama was interested in doing in his press conference. Rather than coming over to London and behaving like an American telling the British electorate what to do, he subtly modifies his language and slips in a common British English term, associating himself with his audience and their language choices.

We all accommodate to others. I know that I accommodate to taxi drivers, especially when I’m running late and don’t fancy a detour via the city’s less direct routes. In this case, though, accommodation suffers at the hands of politics. It doesn’t help the cause of those who think the UK should leave the UK to consider that the US President is trying to persuade the electorate to do something. So accommodation theory is ignored, and language is used not to persuade but to betray the hand of Bremainers in President Obama’s speech.