You are probably aware of the fact that the United Kingdom left the European Union a couple of days ago. Maybe you counted down the seconds on BBC1, maybe you witnessed the storm of tweets it sparked, maybe you checked whether roaming costs are still free during your upcoming Easter trip to England. The event sure did not go unnoticed for the inhabitants of the Winchester Tower in Norwich, as they received a “Happy Brexit Day” card from one of their neighbours. The message, which was placed on all 15 fire doors of the building and which can be read above, was more of a threat than a well-wish. The incident was picked up by media outlets as BBC News and The Guardian because the content was incredibly insulting towards speakers of minority languages. In their pamphlet, the writers urge the tower inhabitants to speak English and “obey the rule of the majority”. If they do want to speak “whatever is the mother tongue of the country they came from”, they should go live somewhere else.
A rise in outspoken xenophobia was to be expected, post-brexit. A spike of hate crimes has been documented in America after the election and the inauguration of Donald Trump (see references below). On social media a so-called gulf of “post-election intimidation” took off. Threatening graffiti, with texts like “no more illegals 1-20-17” or the one in the picture underneath, directly linked their hateful content to the Election or Inauguration Day. In this respect, post-brexit, xenophobic incidents like the one in Norwich did not come as a surprise. Interestingly, however, language, rather than ethnicity or religion plays a pivotal role in this story.
In the pamphlet’s text, speaking English is positioned to be representative of “Britishness”. “The Queens English” is described as the language of Britain and of “all true patriots”. In this way, the pamphlet offers a textbook case for the one nation-one language myth, or the idea that a monolingual standard is a determining characteristic for a national identity. This myth is basically a language ideology, a widespread belief about language that is not backed by research but that is considered to be “common sense”. The one nation-one language myth, which much like the pamphlet positions English as British par excellence, is at odds with the linguistically diverse reality of Britain. Although nations are imagined communities of which most members will never meet and have little in common, one could argue that if Britishness is distinctively characterised by something, it is precisely that, its diversity.
However, the monolingual ideology voiced in this pamphlet does not only deny a reality, it also excludes speakers of minority languages by urging them to give up their native language. This sentiment can be explained by referring to a social phenomenon called “linguistic xenophobia”. This concept explains why some people become suspicious when hearing a language they cannot understand. People’s inability to understand what is being said makes them expect the worst; they fear the other party is gossiping about them or even planning on doing them harm. It comes as no surprise that linguistic xenophobia does not actually have to do with language, but is connected to longstanding stereotypes about migrants and violence.
Linguistic xenophobia treats language as a proxy for ethnicity and I would like to argue that the same is happening in the Winchester Tower. By making a language-based argument, the writers of the pamphlet legitimise the social exclusion of migrants. The document is nothing short of active discrimination against people who do not comform to the “linguistic norm”, a group that is mainly made up of migrants. Motives of patriotism and linguistic concerns “prop open the back door to discrimination and prejudice that would normally be considered racism (e.g. discriminating against people on the basis of their race or ethnicity), but which is couched within, and concealed by, talk about language”. In this way, racism takes on the dangerous, “more tolerable” form of post-brexit, patriotic sentiment.
Anderson, B. (2006). Imagined communities (p. 49). Routledge.
Giani M, Méon P-G (2019). Global Racist Contagion Following Donald Trump’s Election. British Journal of Political Science 1–8. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0007123419000449
Piller, I. (2016). Linguistic diversity and social justice: An introduction to applied sociolinguistics. Oxford University Press.
Wright, D., & Brookes, G. (2019). ‘This is England, speak English!’: a corpus-assisted critical study of language ideologies in the right-leaning British press. Critical Discourse Studies, 16(1), 56-83.