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!


Back of the line/the queue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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