The sociolinguistics of Brexit: passport covers and colours

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.

Burgundy/pink passport cover vs. the ‘true blue’

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. Passport 2 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!


Vive le footé!


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.

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A screen shot of the Henri Delaunay trophy revered as it passes by in procession

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.

Playing with fonts and colours at Port Talbot

In recent weeks, the Welsh town of Port Talbot has, in the UK, become synonymous with its steel plant to the extent that it might be felt that Port Talbot has become the steelworks. In linguistics, this can be referred to as a synecdoche, and can be used in the same way that ‘Number 10’ refers to the office and person of the Prime Minister. Port Talbot, as an industrial town in south Wales, has endured all the difficulties associated with deindustrialization, although data from the Office for National Statistics suggest that the unemployment rate is very close to the national average.

All this sounds a long way removed from discussions about languages, words, and images, but the satirical website The Poke published an image earlier this month of what they claimed to be a ‘hacked’ safety sign from the Port Talbot steelworks. The image has been shared on Facebook almost 9000 times, and there are dozens of tweets featuring the sign, or a cropped version of it. Given that it’s hard to find any other discussions or publications of this sign beyond The Poke, it’s safe to assume that this has been photoshopped by the website and subsequently distributed widely to raise a smile during rather tense industrial negotiations. The Poke

The veracity of the image is not really the point. What is interesting is the use of fonts and colours to suggest one thing and, at the same time, playfully do something else. The constants in this sign are the (majority of the) icons on the left, the arrangement of the texts, and the fonts used. The subversion of the text takes place at the same time that the font, the colours, and most of the images are retained from the original sign. What makes us, the viewer, appreciate the sign is its similarity to the kinds of signs we see in daily life and, at the same time, the distance between the normal tenor of the message and the quips conveyed in the ‘hacked’ sign. The hacks inevitably work better if they resonate widely amongst the public, and so the reference to PR visits by government ministers taps into a widely held belief that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is unusually fond of wearing high-visibility jackets and hard hats.

This sign is not the first time that less-than-humorous life experiences have been lightened by creative uses of recognisable fonts. A growing body of images exists of mocked up signs from the London Underground which call upon the shared misery of commuting on the tube. Again, the font, the colours, the icons are all familiar – but the message is sublty (or less subtly in some cases) different and clearly designed to be witty.

The Easter Rising centenary: An téacs i nGaeilge le teacht

The centenary of the Easter Rising in Dublin has been marked on both sides of the Irish Sea earlier this week, and the celebrations / commemorations have been an opportunity to examine critically what an independent Irish state, free from British political and cultural imperialism, has come to mean.

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A screenshot from the Ireland 1916/2016 website

Visitors to the official Ireland 1916/2016 website might be forgiven for thinking that the Irish-language motto of the commemorations is An téacs i nGaeilge le teacht, given its frequent appearance across the website. Every few clicks, the site throws up this slogan, one which in its subordinate position to the English-language text literally underpins every headline, event report, and strapline across the site. Of course, the text in Irish means ‘Irish text to follow’ – or, in other words, this site is under construction and a fully bilingual version will appear in the fullness of time. Is this a laboured metaphor for the vitality and use of Irish in Ireland in 2016? Is it unkind to blame those responsible for a single website for this relegation of Irish to a secondary position both in a visual hierarchy of languages and a communicative pecking order? More accurately, perhaps, this arrangement of languages accurately reflects the practices of the majority in twenty-first century Ireland.

The next question is does this matter? There has been much spoken and written about Ireland’s self-confidence, recent economic upheavals notwithstanding. The thorny question of language use in Ireland, itself a topic for debate as part of the Ireland 1916/2016 commemorations, is articulated through Ireland’s explicit commitment to the Irish language. Ireland’s constitution identifies Irish as the national language and the first official language; the value, reach, and significance of language articles in national constitutions is much discussed by specialists of language policy. On the one hand, the legal weight of the constitution buttresses a language that is accorded status in such a landmark text; on the other hand, the promise of such an article does not automatically translate into language practices. Irish is the first official language of Ireland, but in the country’s official website for the centennial celebrations, the language is emplaced beneath English, and often the expression An téacs i nGaeilge le teacht is cut-and-pasted to make a mark and say to the reader that Irish is recognised as official, but we just don’t have anyone to hand who can translate this page.

The Irish language was largely absent from festivities and ceremonies of the centennial weekend. The dramatic reading of the Proclamation of the Republic outside the GPO on O’Connell Street in Dublin on Easter Day 2016, opened with the title in Irish, but the language fades from view as quickly as it is uttered – the authors of the proclamation placed little emphasis on the Irish language beyond its symbolic value. For communication, in 1916 as in 2016, to speak to most audiences in Ireland, recourse to English is needed. This might go some way to explain the use of other semiotic resources to underscore the Irishness of the commemorations. Of particular note during the past week has been the significance of the colour green, and most specifically in the (re)painting of pillar boxes. The Irish postal service, An Post, has repainted ten letterboxes red, returning them to their colour during British imperial rule, as part as a multimodal re-enactment of the Easter Rising; short video clips which recount one perspective of the insurrection as witnessed from the location of that pillar box can be downloaded to a smartphone using a freetext link. Not everyone liked the reminder of British rule, and this approach was quickly subverted in nationalist west Belfast, with red pillar boxes repainted green – but not part of an official commemoration. The interest piqued by the changing of the colour of pillar boxes is another example of the significance of non-linguistic matter to convey meaning.

#jesuisbruxelles #ikbenbrussel

A cursory glance at a range of on-line media highlights the ways in which individuals create – or curate, to borrow from some media sources – a response to this week’s terrorist attacks in Brussels. The choice of images, words, slogans, and even colours point to interesting patterns in the ways in which we view ourselves.

Instagram posts - #ikbenbrussel
Instagram posts – #ikbenbrussel

There is one school of thought that this kind of on-line response is a bit lazy and derivative, but for those interested in how individuals, communities, and groups respond to events and simultaneoulsy shape their own identities, Instagram offers an interesting insight into how Belgium – as an entity – is viewed. The kinds of resources that Instagram users and others draw on are linguistic – in that they often use language – and visual, including icons that resonate as particularly Belgian.

The use of colours is particularly striking, and identity is, at moments of heightened emotions (such as terrorist outrages), clearly linked to national flags. The use of black, yellow, and red to connote Belgium or ‘Belgianness’ was quickly adopted. Interestingly, this elides the distinction made in Belgium between Flemish- and French-speakers, but I’ll return to language choice in a moment. The black-yellow-red tricolore chimes as explicitly ‘Belgian’, in the way that blue-white-red meant France or French after the attacks in Paris in November 2015. French cartoonist Plantu explicitly draws on both tricolores to demonstrate sympathy between France and Belgium, but articulated as the French and Belgian peoples, rather than as two nation States. French authorities, and it would be interesting to find out who exactly takes this decision, illuminated the Eiffel Tower in black-yellow-red. This appropriation of colours is not the preserve of the West (however unweildy and helpful that is as a term), and in a development worthy of satirical websites, discussion and outrage has emerged over a purported ISIS on-line poll asking supporters to vote for the next colours to light up the Eiffel Tower.

Monuments and statues are also co-opted to respond to the attacks in Belgium, most notably the Manneken Pis, the seventeenth-century sculpture of a boy urinating into a fountain in Brussels’ city centre. The act of urinating onto something is a widely understood trope or visual device for expressing contempt, and satirists play with the icon of the statue to have him pissing on guns, explosives, and even hooded ‘terrorists’.

Finally, language is drawn into the response to terrorism. The popular ‘Je suis…’ motif has a second dimension in linguistically-divided Belgium. ‘Je suis Bruxelles’ is also expressed in Flemish – ‘Ik ben Brussel’ – thereby acknowledging the officially mandated bilingual nature of the Brussels capital region. Both expressions appear in social media, and if we were to take a quantitative approach to trying to understand the on-line response, we might think that French is much more ‘popular’ (however we choose to understand that) than Flemish, with currently 920 posts on Instagram for #ikbenbrussel in comparison with a staggering 30,253 posts for its French counterpart, #jesuisbruxelles. It’s here that we need to be cautious about reading very much into this kind of quantitative data. I don’t think that this means that French is more widespread / important / significant than Flemish amongst Instagram users. It’s clear that the ‘Je suis…’ slogan, created in response to the gun attack on the offices of French magazine Charlie-Hebdo, has wide currency – so wide, in fact, that it is now subverted to show solidarity with a range of causes. To this end, I would argue that ‘Je suis…’ has ceased to be French in the sense that it is a French-language expression; it has transcended the boundaries of one language to exist and be used quite happily in others. What is more interesting to note is that, in a country where language choice is a very clear act of identification with one region and not another, a counterpart has emerged that is paradoxically inclusive and exclusive. In other words, a ‘translation’ of a sign of solidarity at the same time highlights linguistic division.