Who has silenced the workers of Borsetshire?

The debate about the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union is, belatedly, underway, according to France’s former Ambassador to the Court of St James, HE Sylvie Bermann. In theory, this should be prompting a wide-ranging discussion around what it means to be in the UK in this period of intensified globalization, including questions of migration, freedom of movement, and economics.

At the start of the summer, the journal Language, Society and Policy was launched at the British Academy, with the Baroness Coussins – a long-standing advocate of modern languages in the life of the UK – calling for greater prominence for multilingualism in British life. In particular, she called for a recognition of the value of multilingualism, and an acknowledgement of it as an everyday, lived reality for British citizens. At the journal launch, the scope for the representation of multilingualism in British cultural life was highlighted.

As someone who doesn’t watch soaps, I can’t comment on the visibility and audibility of multilingualism on British television, but now is the moment for me to reveal myself as a close follower of The Archers, BBC Radio 4’s drama set in a fictional farming community in the county of Borsetshire. The issue at stake is not the ethnic diversity of the characters – a question that has been raised with regards to EastEnders. Here, the debate turns on the extent to which listeners to The Archers (and other cultural products that punctuate people’s viewing and listening habits) are exposed to languages other than English.

The Archers – “contemporary drama in a rural setting”

The Archers has engaged with Brexit and the consequences of the ending of subsidies – implausibly, enlightened Adam Macy (who has long advocated a more creative approach to farming) was a Eurosceptic, whilst equally implausibly, conservative and cautious David Archer was a Remainer. More pressing for Adam and all at Home Farm is the free movement of labour, since the soft-fruit enterprise is almost entirely dependent on east European workers.

And here’s the worry about the workers from Bulgaria, Romania, and Poland: they never get to speak in their first language. Clearly, in a multilingual community in the countryside outside Birmingham, the working language amongst the pickers of different nationalities is going to be English. However, no matter how closely I listened, not a single exchange took place in Polish, Romanian, or Czech. It’s true that Lexi – the Bulgarian picker given a short but not insignificant role – took us through the challenges of learning English and mastering idioms that characters suddenly started to use in her presence, as if seeking to remind her that The People have voted to leave this kind of multilingual funny business. However, there were plenty of opportunities – at the annual barbecue for the pickers that the Brits pack out to signal to the workers who is boss, or at the village fête where things turned ugly and those dreadful incomers from the housing estate were given the space to air their racist views – for the non-British characters to say a few words in Lithuanian or Slovakian.

I appreciate that there is a technical challenge here – radio can’t do subtitles – but I’m not suggesting that entire plot-lines are conveyed in any language other than English. And I fully acknowledge that a dusting of Polish or Bulgarian might disorient the listeners – but in part, that’s the point. I often ask why these things matter, and in this case, there is a need to take opportunities (even just greetings between Latvians arriving at The Bull for a post-work swift half) to present multilingualism back to the British public. Wherever we’re going in post-Brexit Britain, it’s not back to a mythical monolingual past, and the soaps – including The Archers – have both the chance and the duty to present the realities of multilingualism to their audiences, even if that means a moment or two of not knowing exactly what Konstantin or Pawel are saying.


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!

Singing in English? Nul points


“Is this old news?” was the question I asked myself when the BBC first reported that France’s minister for Development and the French-speaking organisation, la Francophonie, had tweeted his disapproval about France’s official song for the Euros 2016 football competition and the country’s Eurovision entry. The calibre of the songs was not the source of M. Andre Vallini’s disquiet, but rather the fact that they are, in his words, in English. Haven’t we been here before? Or is just the impression we in the Anglo-Saxon world get, whereby it seems that the French go through a relatively frequent crise about the use of English in places where clearly some think that French should be used?

In the name of this blog, I endured both the Eurovision entry and the official Euro 2016 anthem for France, and what is striking in the first instance is the fact that there’s probably as many lines in French as there are in English in the Eurovision entry by Amir. This oversight by M. le Ministre has been seized on by those who have seen his tweet; his argument is clearly undermined once it transpires that he patently hasn’t heard the song himself, and not even wondered whether – given that its title is in French – it might include some lyrics in French. In response to this criticism, Vallini has issued a statement, qualifying the proportion of the Eurovision entry that is in English. Amir himself is presented by Eurovision as ‘multicultural’, which we might redefine as transnational – his father is Tunisian, his mother Moroccan-Spanish, and he’s lived in Israel, having been born in France. Apparently, he has a ‘warm and generous Mediterranean voice’, whatever that means.

A screen shot from Amir’s French- and English-language video clip


The debate centres on why someone, in this case the Minister for Development and Francophonie, thinks that these songs should be in French. Why is the fact that they are (in part) in English ‘alarming and unaccceptable’, as per M. Vallini’s tweet? Perhaps some of the explanation lies in the fact that both these songs are part of a competition between nation States, where France is up against its anglophone neighbours such as the UK and Ireland, and its anglophile allies in Scandinavia and northern Europe. Under these circumstances, we see how the connection between the French language and France becomes particularly significant. Since the Revolution, the French language has been a defining characteristic of being French; before royal heads rolled, the French language was ‘owned’ by the King and the aristocracy, and they had no desire to see the wider population speak French. Republican values in particular prize the French language as a marker of the French people and part of the democracy that is France.

M. Vallini’s subsequent statement clarifies some of the ideologies at play in this debate, where he writes about how these two competitions should be used to showcase France and, by extension, the French language. In this narrative, French and France are effectively one and the same. Another theme of M. Vallini’s communiqué is the popular nature of the two events, tapping back into the rhetoric of the French language as owned by the people. The Minister’s concern, where he fears the French language is waving the white flag of surrender in the face of its (English-language?) opposition, is that these two events see a fracture between the people and French.

One of the exciting dimensions of Twitter is that it allows ‘the people’ to engage directly with this stance, and to engage with the language ideology under discussion. One of the first responses to M. Vallini’s original tweet suggested that Eurovision viewers could not be expected to vote for a song whose lyrics they do not understand, and so the part-French, part-English entry is a ‘wise’ choice. Here, @safai8787 argues that comprehension is the governing principle in enjoying and/or appreciating music, a position adopted by others, such as @SayYouOuOu. Others argue that the minister surely has other fish to fry (or, to use the French idiom, other cats to whip), such as unemployment.

By the end of the day after the infamous tweet, nothing seemed to be quite as it was originally presented: Amir sings only the chorus in English, and the ‘official’ Euro 2016 anthem is actually one of the French football team’s main sponsor’s anthem, so not technically the song that carries the weight and significance of the team representing France. Nevertheless, let’s not allow the accuracy of the facts get in the way of a sociolinguistic debate: France’s élite still argue publicly that France – from its Eurovision entry to its football anthem – should be presented to a wider world in French, rather than in English.

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.

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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.


This tweet is also available in French

Much is made of the Canadian Prime Minister: he’s a repeatedly-avowed feminist; he’s appointed a gender-balanced cabinet with experts occupying each role; he’s able to explain quantam computing at the drop of a hat (although the reality of this last skill has been queried). Justin Trudeau is also a fluent French speaker who was educated in a French-medium school in Montreal. In officially bilingual Canada, this is more than merely a useful skill; almost one third of Canadians (almost 10 million people) self-identify as French speakers, of whom 7.3 million state that French is their first language.

Not for the first time, Twitter becomes a site of contestation within language politics, although – of course – Prime Minister Trudeau’s behaviour is impeccable; that is, if you think that an official Twitter account should adhere scrupulously to the law of the land. The extent to which one’s public and private lives intertwine on Twitter is something that has posed some challenges for some in the limelight. This is in addition to those who tweet messages to the entire Internet, but then rapidly seek to delete their mistake.

During the final years of the Harper administration, a language scuffle broke out between two former ministers from Canada’s Conservative government and the country’s Commissioner of Official Languages, Graham Fraser. In early 2015, Fraser found that the two ministers violated the law on official languages, with Foreign Affairs minister John Baird tweeting 181 times in English alone (out of a total of 202 tweets). The ministers and their officials rejected the Commissioner’s findings, but Trudeau’s Liberal Party responded by issuing a code of conduct, including advice on social media usage. The inevitable next question is to ask what Canada’s golden boy and his cabinet are doing in practice.

The starting point for any discussion of politician’s tweets is an acknowledgement that they might not be the authors of their own 140-character message; Donald Trump, for example, is not always the author of his own messages to the world. In some cases, an appointed official, therefore, might be writing the tweets. Nevertheless, there is some level of ownership of the tweets by the person named on the account. A cursory glance at the Twitter feed of Prime Minister Trudeau shows his even-handed approach to official bilingualism, with tweets scrupulously written in French and English – occasionally in the same tweet, but more usually in two subsequent tweets. However, Trudeau does tweet only in English in replies to a tweet in English – as evidenced by his diplomatic politeness towards the New Zealand High Commissioner to Canada. Trudeau also retweets English-language messages without providing a translation.

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Diplomatic tweets between Canada and New Zealand

Stéphane Dion, who prompted the investigation into the use of French on social media by Conservative ministers, is now in government himself, and opts for separate Twitter accounts (one in English, one in French) for his role as Minister of Foreign Affairs, as well as an account for his role as an MP, which is – naturally – in two languages. By comparison, Scott Brison – President of the Treasury Board (and whose predecessor was challenged by Dion over inconsistent language use on Twitter) – blurs the boundary in his account by tweeting in two languages for official business but tweeting in English or in French alone in a personal capacity.

So we return to a familiar question: does this really matter? Well, in terms of communication, not much is going to be lost by a politician who tweets in English but not in French. The significance is in the symbolism. As is so often the case, the message is not quite as important as the medium, and the absence of French-language tweets in a Canadian minister’s Twitter feed says more – some argue – about a politician’s attitude towards bilingualism in Canada, towards the reach of Federal law, towards Francophone citizens. Comments posted news stories about this on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation‘s website highlight how for some, this is a non-issue, a waste of time and of money. For others, this is very important indeed, and is about respect for a numerical minority whose language rights should be respected. As is often the case, social media is the forum in which lively language debates play out.


A new front in the battle for the French language

It’s now a well known narrative that the supporters of the French language, usually identifed with France, are both proud of their language and anxious that it is somehow under attack from outside enemies. This tension is particularly well rehearsed in Anglo-Saxon circles, where the press relish yet another story where the French spend considerable amounts of money, in various ways, to protect ‘their’ language.

In terms of the aggressors in this language war, English remains a key enemy, with one report claiming that up to ‘90% of French people’ using Anglicisms in their French. However, the threat from the English language is not the only challenge, and French is now facing an attack from a new flank, namely textspeak, sometimes known playfully as cyberl@ngue.

For the annual week of the French language, in mid-March, France’s Ministry of Culture and Communication commissioned three short video clips, urging Francophones to speak French. Of the three gently comic clips, one is devoted to the old foe. The particular focus is on the insidious use of English-language expressions; a 20-something man, seemingly on a first date in a bar, peppers his conversations with Anglicisms. The punchline is that his date reveals that, despite his fondness for turns of phrase in English, he can’t speak English, whereas she can – flawlessly – thereby precipitating the early end of their apéritif.

More noteworthy to my mind is the fact that the other two clips focus on textspeak and the use of this non-standard variety of French instead of the prestigious standard language. In one video clip, a teenage boy is left waiting in the cold because his running class was cancelled and his mother – in her role as taxi driver – could not understand his text message as it is written in textspeak.

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A new French-language pastime: helping your mum understand textspeak (from the videos made by France Télévision)

In response to the son’s lament that his text was clear enough, albeit in textspeak, his mother replies that the resolution to their impasse is that either he gets her a textspeak dictionary or, “better still”, he learns to write. In the final clip, the same mother and son are watching a Japanese subtitled film when suddenly the subtitles switch from standard French to textspeak. The mother is baffled by the new subtitles, but the son reasons that more can be said in less time using textspeak. In response, the mother pauses the film – much to her son’s annoyance – to “decrypt” the new subtitles.

There are a couple of interesting conclusions to draw from this trio of clips, not least the fact that the guardians of the French language, who still seem to include the French State in the guise of the Ministry of Culture and Communication, not only feel that French needs to be defended but also, more strikingly, that emphasis must be placed as least as much on the use of textspeak as to borrowings from English. Whilst the fear of ‘barbarisms’ has haunted French grammarians since the time of Vaugelas at the turn of the seventeenth century, this orchestrated defence against SMS-isms is relatively new.

The Ministry’s videos outline some of the arguments in this debate, not least in the tagline for the week of the French language: “Our language is beautiful; use it”. Interestingly, the choice of imperative mood – the second person rather than the first person plural (“let’s use it”) – reinforces the long held notion that the French language is owned and protected by an elite who command the wider public to follow their advice on language use. The popular use of non-standard French (from abbreviations and verlan – the playful reversal of syllables – to Anglicisms and borrowings from cyber@ngue) is not to be tolerated – the French public is instructed to use “their” language. More precisely, “their” language is the formal, standard French that has long been cherished by this language elite. In particular, so runs the logic of this tagline, this language is “beautiful” and so should be used for this reason. As we all know, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and for the teenager in the clips, the speed and practicability of textspeak outweighs this intangible notion of beauty.

Here, we return to the question about the purpose of language. Language is about so much more than communication but, at its heart, it is about communication. The teenager in the videos sees textspeak as communication; he fired off a quick text message to his mum, and later had no problem with the cyberl@ngue subtitles. For his mother, communication wasn’t happening; she didn’t understand the text message and works slowly letter by letter through the subtitles to decipher them. It has probably ever been thus: for a younger generation, the “beauty” of language plays second fiddle to speedy communication.