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.


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.

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.


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.