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How Brexit Is Giving Rise To A New Wave Of Language Wars

05/04/2017 12:31
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Around the same time as The Sun was first agitating for the return of the 'true blue' British passport, another symbolic change was being suggested which would have removed 'all French words' from the cover of the document. According to the petition calling for this, the leave vote was a clear sign that people wanted to 'Take Back Control. Control of their borders, their culture and their language'. And given that French is an EU language, so the argument continued, it should have no place on a post-Brexit UK passport. But unlike the campaign to oust the burgundy (or is it pink?) cover, this idea never really caught on. As people were quick to point out, the word 'passport' is itself of French origin - a fact which made the whole venture rather impractical.

While this particular initiative may not have got very far, debates over post-Brexit language politics have, on the whole, been easily as contentious as those over the colour of travel documents. Within days of the referendum last June, the Polish MEP Danuta Hübner, who heads up the Constitutional Affairs Committee, was arguing that it would probably be necessary to drop English as one of the EU's official languages once Britain had gone its separate way. Although this is highly unlikely to actually happen - English has official status for both Ireland and Malta as well - it was a sign that jockeying over the cultural symbolism of our various linguistic heritages was going to play a significant role in upcoming discussions.

Language issues in contexts like this are very little to do with communication, and instead all about national identity. Since the founding of the EU, English has emerged as the pre-eminent international language the world over, and this is reflected in the way it operates as the primary working language in the corridors and bars of the EU institutions. Many European politicians, however, are much less keen to use it in official settings, either because they feel they're surrendering some of their negotiating power if they do, or because it gives the wrong impression to their constituents back home. In other words, despite its global status, English still has strong symbolic associations with the UK.

An interesting related phenomenon is the way that people invoke other languages as a way of marking out some idea of cultural difference. A notable example of this, from across the Atlantic, comes from Donald Trump's attitude to Spanish. Trump has often asserted that speaking English is one of the criteria for being American. During the debates for presidential nominee last year, for instance, he chastised Jeb Bush's lapse into bilingualism by stressing that 'This is a country where we speak English, not Spanish'. And as soon as he was president, in one of the many symbolic breaks with his predecessor, he took down the Spanish language pages from the White House website.

His stance over this falls squarely within an ideology that views monolingual cohesion as part and parcel of social cohesion. Linguistic diversity, as with most other forms of diversity, appears to be one of the main casualties of an 'America First' rhetoric. And despite the fact that over 37 million of his fellow citizens now speak the language, the only time he slips into Spanish himself is when making denigrating cultural stereotypes about his plans to deport all the 'bad hombres' who've been recklessly let into the country. By using the word 'hombres' here, rather than simply saying 'men', he's playing on the associations of the two languages to explicitly racialize the statement about immigrant crime.

The last few days have seen a similar phenomenon happening in Brexit debates. Tuesday's front cover of The Sun, for example, responding to proposals that Spain should have power of veto over arrangements for Gibraltar, struck a defiant tone with its headline: 'Up Yours Senors!'.

This was a direct allusion back to their infamous cover from 1990, which juxtaposed a picture of a two-fingered salute alongside the epigrammatic 'Up Yours Delors'. At that time, Jacques Delors, the French socialist who was President of the European Commission, was a symbol of the increased power of the European Parliament that The Sun was so concerned about. For those who remember this, Tuesday's headline echoes both the phrasing and sentiment of the final days of the Thatcher era. And switching into Spanish for the final word clearly frames the dispute along nationalist lines. (Although of course they've anglicised the word - the Spanish plural would be 'señores', but that would have ruined the rhyme.)

In contrast to this was the headline in Germany's Die Welt last week following Theresa May's letter triggering Article 50. Written in what's known as 'Denglish' (a mixture of English and German) it read 'Dear Brits, ze door is schtill open'. Here the sense was much more inclusive - by using English, and especially a form that was self-mockingly inflected with a heavy German accent, the paper suggested that relationships in the union could flourish despite linguistic and cultural boundaries. They were stressing, in other words, the ways in which language works as a means of communication between people, rather than a symbol for separate identities.

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