Along with the predictable economic and political fallout, Brexit—the UK decision to leave the European Union—has produced a wave of racism. It is also generating a wave of linguistic purism. Well before the June "leave-or-remain" referendum, Germany’s president suggested making English the EU’s official language, as an incentive for the UK to remain in Europe. But right after British voters narrowly approved an EU exit, French politicians urged the EU to drop English as one of its twenty-four official languages, and Danuta Hübner, the head of the European Parliament's Constitutional Affairs Committee, warned that the group’s charter might require dropping English, even though it’s the group’s dominant language.
And now, a British group wants to erase French words from English passports.
Above, a texto from the Left Party's Jean-Luc Mélanchon reads, “English can no longer be the third working language of the European Parliament #Brexit.” (Mélanchon knows Brexit is an English word, yeah? As are both texto and its synonym, SMS.) Right-wing French politicians expressed similar views.
Below, the petition to the UK's Parliament calling for removing French words from the cover of the post-EU British passport, followed by a map showing where the 422 signers as of 17 August come from (hint: they're not from Scotland or Northern Ireland, which voted "remain").
No one's quite sure what to expect from Brexit. Most of the uncertainty focuses on the economic consequences of the “leave” vote. There are concerns about what will happen to Europeans working in Britain, and to Brits working across the Channel. And European travel could be affected as new passport controls will slow traffic between England and the continent. A friend who teaches at a school near Eastbourne reports that, during a discussion of what comes next after Brexit, one of her nine year olds asked, “Miss, can we not go to France on holiday any more?” and another wanted to know if the Chunnel would close. A third, more of a realist, said, “It means we'll be in the long queue when we go to the airport on holiday.”
No one seriously thinks the EU is about to dump English—the French have failed to purify English borrowings from their language since they conquered England in 1066. And the English have been trying to push French back across the channel since then with a similar lack of success, so it's not likely that England's going to take honi soit qui mal y pense off the royal seal on its passports.
The phrase—'evil to those who evil think'—is attributed to Edward III, who was Duke of Aquitaine before becoming king of England in a coup. As for ditching dieu et mon droit—'god and my right'—that French phrase became the motto of English monarchs with Henry V, who used it to assert his claim to the French throne, hardly a symbol of English subservience to the yoke of Europe. Plus, British passports had plenty of French in the text as well as on the cover long before there was a European Union, as we see in the signature page from my father's 1945 passport, shown below.
Purifying English by cleansing it of foreign words is an idea that goes back centuries. In his 1550 translation of the Gospel of Matthew, John Cheke offered moond as an English replacement for 'lunatic,' along with uprising for 'resurrection,' and he turned the crown of thorns to one made from local thistles. Ralph Lever published a book on witcraft, 'logic'’ in 1573, using made-up, native-sounding words like backset for 'predicate,' endsay for 'conclusion,' and saywhat for 'definition.' Richard Verstegan, writing in 1605, proposed resurrecting thorp for 'village,' dugud for 'virtue,' and wod for 'angry' or 'crazy mad.' And in 1674, Nathaniel Fairfax offered a long list of nativisms to replace words he characterized as outlandish (literally, 'foreign') in a metaphysics book that began with a forespeech, 'preface,' and included such outlandish words as dirtying, 'blasphemy,' flowsom, 'liquid,' mayness, 'possibility,' and thwacker, "a thumping lie."
Nineteenth-century England resurrected a romanticized and largely mythical past for its "green and pleasant land,” perhaps as respite from the horrors of the French Revolution, the Napoleonic wars, colonialism, and the Industrial Revolution. William Barnes, a folklorist and writer of dialect poetry who was no fan of the French, offered extensive lists of words like cellar-thane, 'butler,’ folkdom, 'democracy,' and high-deedy, 'magnificent.' And across the pond, an American, Elias Molee, churned out long vocabulary lists for his proposed "Nu English" between 1888 and 1919, producing such monstrosities as brainspin, 'phantom,' deerlore, 'zoology,' and spraki, 'language.'
Of course these are the most outlandish of the nativists' suggestions, destined by their strange appearance and the crankiness of their advocates for the trash-heap rather than the dictionary. A very few revivals and coinages did quietly take hold, including foreword, which appeared in the 1840s and now coexists alongside preface in the book world, and handbook, the native equivalent of manual, which has been in use since the Old English period, but enjoyed a revival in the early 1800s. One twentieth-century magazine, decrying the name of the escalator, ran a contest to find a better, native name for it. Needless to say, the winner, upgangflow, supposedly modeled on German, did not become a major feature of our stores and public buildings (it’s even too weird for Germans, who prefer to call escalators Rolltreppen, ‘rolling steps’).
Although it had little impact on our vocabulary, nativism did influence our modern notion of English style, with everyone from Henry Fowler to George Orwell to Strunk and White recommending the short, native, concrete word over the polysyllabic, abstract, foreign borrowing. Even the Danish grammarian Otto Jespersen, who usually accepted English as it is rather than as it should be, privileged native words, claiming in 1905 that borrowed words threaten democracy and reinforce class structure because they are only used by the educated elite. In the end, though, none of the experts favor the kind of churlish vocabulary cleansing of the nativist nutters.
Language purification efforts tend to pop up during periods of intense patriotism: the Iraq War brought freedom fries to America (because the French wouldn’t join the war effort), but that was hardly a first: during World War I some Americans switched to liberty cabbage instead of sauerkraut, a word right out of the enemy’s language, and Germany returned the favor by banning English words from German, as we see in this 1914 report from the New York Times:
Above: Linguistic cleansing in 1914 Germany: All French and English words have disappeared from the shop fronts, and it is considered unpatriotic to use them in conversation. . . . The well-known buffet "Queen's Bar" has become "Hoch Deutchland," and "La Bohème" has been renamed "Germania."
The nativists, both yesterday’s and today’s, want to build a wall around the English vocabulary (sorry, wordhoard) in much the same way they want to wall out immigrants. (If you think Trump’s wall across the southern border is a new idea, you’ve forgotten the 1930 Congressional debate in which one conservative senator proposed a wall across the Atlantic coast to keep out undesirable European immigrants.) Since the Brexit vote, there has been an increase in incidents where some “native” Britons have told anyone they perceive as foreign, “We had a vote, now f*** off back home.” Of course, many who are the target of this xenophobic attack voted as well, because they are loyal subjects of the crown, born and bred in the United Kingdom.
But back to language purification. As of today, the petition to get rid of passport French has 422 signatures (that’s up twenty-two since I checked last week); when 100,000 people sign, the proposal could be discussed in Parliament. Wait, Parliament is a French word. The proper way to say this in post-Brexit England is,
The beseeching would be talked over in the Speak-thing. (Or should that be Speak-ƿinʒ?)
But even with 99,578 more signatures, that's not going to happen (and if you insist on a native equivalent of signature, go ahead, try namewriting). It's one thing to do something daft like pull out of the European Union without thinking it through, but it takes more than a petition, a referendum, or an act of Parliament, or even a deed of the Speak-thing, to change the way people use their language.
Sure, dropping French from UK passports is a symbolic gesture, but it would mean replacing the word passport itself, because passport is French. To be totally consistent, the UK's alt-right should pick something more English instead, like, say, trip-card, or go-carry, which is sort of what a passport is.
And speaking of nativist nutters, does it never occur to these England-for-the-Englanders who insist on keeping out nasty foreign words that their precious English came ashore with illegally immigrating Angles, Saxons, and Jutes who forced the native Celts and Picts to swallow their own words and replace them with outlandish Germanic ones instead?
This article first appeared on the Web of Language.