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!


Sieu Nissa/Je suis Nice – a sociolinguistic response to violence

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.

‘I am Nice’, first in Nissart, and then in French

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.

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Images from Instagram using the red, white, and blue of the French tricolour

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.


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.


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.