How Brexit is driving a rise in the language of everyday racism

Philip Seargeant, Senior Lecturer in Applied Linguistics

A hostile environment

In the aftermath of the Windrush scandal there’s been a great deal of discussion about the ‘hostile environment’ that was purposefully created by the government to persuade illegal immigrants to feel so unwelcome in the UK that they’d want to ‘go home’. The policy dictates that employers, landlords and even NHS staff must insist on scrutinising people’s documentation before they can offer them their services, thus creating a bureaucracy-based surveillance system which uses paranoia as a deterrent.

A hostile environment of this sort isn’t simply restricted to bank checks and paperwork, of course. It’s an ideology that permeates society as a whole, stoked by the pronouncements of politicians and the media. It’s created through the promotion of attitudes which discriminate against marginalised and minority groups. And as with the actual policy, it doesn’t necessarily make a distinction between legal and illegal immigration.

Much of the anti-immigration rhetoric that contributes to this hostile environment plays on explicitly racist ideas in the way that it stigmatises certain nationalities, and mocks characteristics which mark them out as different. One notable way in which it does this is through what’s known as linguistic xenophobia: discriminating against people based on way they speak or the language they use. For instance, in an article in The Sunday Times at the end of last month, the columnist Rod Liddle offered up an anti-immigration broadside based on the argument that the UK is already full. The piece was prompted by news from the Office for National Statistics that the number of Romanians living in the UK had overtaken Irish and Indians to become the second most-common non-British community. This provided Liddle with the opportunity to revisit Nigel Farage’s assertion from a few years ago that British people would rather live next to a German family than a Romanian one. Refuting that this should be seen as racist, Liddle argued that ‘Germans were more likely to be in employment and speak English – both qualities we tend to like in neighbours’.

His central argument here is that it’s fine to discriminate against certain nationalities living (perfectly legally) in this country if their levels of English are poor. And this, in turn, is based on the idea that to be a proper part of British society one must, by default, speak English. The trouble with this argument is that it’s founded on the patently false idea that the UK is, and has always been, a monolingual society, and that multilingualism is a problem rather than a boon to a rich and harmonious culture.


Some very basic facts show how misguided this is. The English language is not native to England, nor to the UK. It was imported from northern Europe in the 5th century, and it wasn’t used for government documents until 1430. The first British monarch to have English rather than French as his native language was Henry IV, who came to the throne in 1399. And as with a language such as Romanian, English has been greatly influenced by Latin, via the French. At present, the only official language in any part of the UK from a legislative point of view is Welsh in Wales.

This history of multilingualism in the UK continues to be the norm. 8% of the population in England and Wales reported in the 2011 census that their main language was something other than English, with a total of over 100 languages being spoken through the country.

Widening the context further, societies which have a single language are very much the exception around the globe. A report published by the British Academy in 2013 recorded that two-thirds of the world’s population are raised in multilingual environments. Although English is, today, the pre-eminent global language, it’s still only spoken by 6% of the world population as a native language. So the idea that a single language is a prerequisite for a harmonious society is simply wrong. Liddle’s remarks are thus a clear case of linguistic xenophobia.

And there’s a lot of evidence that there’s been a spike in this type of discrimination post- Brexit. There have been several reports of people being abused on the street simply because of the language they were speaking. There’s also evidence that this sort of discrimination is particularly aimed at immigrants from Eastern Europe.

This isn’t a problem restricted to the UK, of course. Much the same thing is happening in the US, as illustrated by the case of New York lawyer Aaron Schlossberg who was caught on video ranting against Spanish-speaking staff at a restaurant. In the video Schlossberg is shown saying that he’ll call Immigration and Customs Enforcement and have the workers ‘kicked out of my country’, then adding that in America ‘staff should be speaking English’. The language he uses here echoes almost precisely the assertion that Donald Trump himself made in the run-up to the presidential election, when he chastised his opponent Jeb Bush for speaking Spanish at public meetings by asserting that ‘This is a country where we speak English, not Spanish’. The fact that over 37 million US citizens now speak Spanish does little to undermine the ‘English only’ ideology.

Rhetorical strategies

Rod Liddle’s rhetoric may not be quite as direct as this, but the purpose is very clearly to mock and disparage. For instance, he quotes the first economic migrant to arrive in the UK from Romania when EU regulations changed in 2014 as saying ‘I haf not come to rob your country’. Transcribing the speech in this way uses what’s known as ‘eye dialect’, a way of representing regional or non-native dialect by spelling words in nonstandard ways. For instance, you can write ‘I woz’ or ‘he sez’ – on in this case ‘I haf’. In most cases, the nonstandard spelling would be pronounced in exactly the same way as the standard spelling. But it flags up the fact that the speaker’s accent is different from the norm. As the linguist Mark Liberman writes, it’s not necessarily a racist technique for describing people, but ‘there are a lot of racists out there; and many of them use eye dialect as a focus for their feelings of disgust and hatred’.

Throughout his piece Liddle uses a style of comic exaggeration, hiding the message behind a rather arch and hyperbolic style. This is much the same technique that Boris Johnson has used, and which has somehow allowed him to get away with racist slights such as suggesting that Barack Obama had an ‘ancestral dislike’ of the UK because he was ‘part-Kenyan’, and talking of the ‘crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies’ in the Commonwealth, and the inhabitants of the Congo having ‘watermelon smiles’.

And now we have the same ideas pushed in serious mainstream publications such as The Sunday Times. It’s done via techniques such as eye-dialect and stylistic exaggeration. But at its base it’s discrimination against a group based on culture not behaviour, and carried out by means of mockery. These are the sort of rhetorical strategies which don’t help to advance the debate around immigration, but instead simply normalise a crude from of hostile prejudice.


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1 Response to How Brexit is driving a rise in the language of everyday racism

  1. Ann Hewings says:

    This morning on the Today programme Christopher Hart from Lancaster University was talking about the ideologies behind and metaphors used in discussing migration. It is near the end of the programme around 2.49.00. It chimes well with the points made above.

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