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What does the language that we use about Brexit reveal about what is important to Brexiteers?

Brexit has caused new tensions between the United Kingdom and Ireland. The Republic is being blamed for the current impasse in negotiations. The talks may be delicate, but the language used in public is quite the opposite.

Its central feature will burden communication across the Irish Sea for many years to come. The key promise of the Leave campaign was to take back control of “our borders.” The most important stumbling block on the road towards an agreement between the UK and the EU is the “Irish backstop.” In terms of language, the desirable comes with the first person plural pronoun – “our” borders – while the obstacle is somebody else’s. Public discourse has evolved to a point where, essentially, “our Brexit is endangered by the Irish.” This is a dangerous state of affairs.

Let us look at the various ways in which people talk about the backstop in order to assess the danger. We have analysed 937 articles published between 1 January and 12 March 2019 published by the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Sun, the Mirror, the Irish Times, the Irish sister publication of the Sun newspaper, the website of the People’s Vote campaign, and information portal, Brexit Central.

The first thing to note is that it’s called the “Irish backstop” in Ireland as well – by broadcasters, broadsheets, and tabloids alike, albeit much less frequently than in the UK. It would be wrong to say that “Irish backstop” in and of itself has a negative ring to it.
Second, the backstop has other names too:

  • “Brexit backstop”: This is alliterative and rhythmical, employing two standard techniques of tabloid headline language (the third is the epithet added to an important term). Here, style is more important than substance – no other backstop is currently debated, so explaining which one we are talking about is unnecessary. The term’s low semantic charge makes it possible for both Remainers and Leavers to use it, and we can find it in all major media outlets.
  • “Northern Ireland backstop”: Northern Ireland is part of the UK, whose borders are going to be controlled by “us” again. But in a country whose future is billed as Global “Britain,” a wide range of linguistic tools are in circulation which distance Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK – a dynamic which is having real consequences. Talk of a “Northern Ireland backstop” adds to this perception of distance.
  • “Irish border backstop” or “border backstop”: The backstop does have to do with the border between the UK and Ireland, so in a sense the term is accurate. But even though the Leave campaign has argued that it is “our borders” which “we” need to control, the backstop is said to concern the “Irish border.” We find 52 uses of “border backstop” (of which 47 are “Irish border backstop”) in our set of articles; however, there are no mentions of a “UK border backstop” or a “British border backstop” anywhere to be found. As soon as the problematic backstop comes into play, “our border” becomes somebody else’s.

Leave and Remain-supporting media largely use these same names, showing the extent to which Leave dominates the way the UK public conceives of the main issues around Brexit. Indeed, we find that there is no statistically significant difference between usage of phrases like “Irish backstop” and “Ireland backstop” in Leave- and Remain-supporting media. Compared to all uses of the term “backstop,” usages like “Irish backstop” are not more or less frequent (χ2=2.4, not significant at p=0.5).

Uniquely, one Leave-supporting newspaper couples “Irish” and “backstop” with a word that casts the whole phrase in an even more negative light. The Sun routinely speaks of the “hated Irish backstop.” The phrase suggests that everybody hates it by omitting any mention of an active agent. Powerful collocations (words very often used together) give us the impression that the individual items are bound up with one another in the real world. Through the close proximity of “hated” and “Irish” the Sun portrays the UK’s nearest neighbour, as such, as a problem. Tellingly, the Irish sister-publication of the Sun drops any mention of the backtop being hated. Both the Mirror and the Express prefer “controversial,” which at least suggests that not everybody hates it. Overall we do find that, compared with all uses of the word “backstop,” usages with pejorative modifiers like “hated” and “controversial” are more common in leave-supporting media (χ2=11.155, significant at p=0.5).

The words we use to characterise the UK, the EU and other European nations will help determine what role the UK is able to play post Brexit. There is certainly much talk about Brexit, but so far little analysis of the linguistic dynamics at play. There is some, but it does not take sufficient account of Brexit as an ongoing campaign creating social unrest.

In the case of the UK’s relations with the Republic of Ireland, this development is a question of maintaining peace. Setting the two most important terms in the current Brexit debate so squarely against each other gives the “Irish” a bad name in Britain. It would be a cause for grave concern if, once the backstop question is solved, the Irish will still be hated.

If it doesn’t get solved, we can say that language has contributed to a breakdown in communications.

Dr Christophe Fricker FRSA is the author of a German book on 111 reasons to love England. He teaches at the University of Bristol.

Cory Massaro is a computational linguist, poet, and Classicist.

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