Deciphering Brexit: A linguistic approach

Since entering the public sphere in 2016, Brexit has been an issue shaped by, and at whims of, media coverage. That contents of that coverage have morphed over the last 3 years, as specific terminology, personalities and deadlines have arisen, and media discussion of todays Brexit news is very different from that prior to the referendum. Beyond the ideology and policy in any article or broadcast, the linguistic nuance of coverage has also been in a state of flux. New slogans, phrases and even individual words have been coined, risen to common use and then dropped off in popularity throughout the Brexit debate and subsequent negotiations. Dr Andreas Buerki, Cardiff University, has monitored and assessed the ebb and flow of phrases in British media discussing Brexit, and is talking with us today about the emergence and lasting use of specific language therein.

Original Publication:
http://orca.cf.ac.uk/124529/


Will:

Hello, I’m Will, welcome to ResearchPod. In this episode: Since entering the public sphere in 2016, Brexit has been an issue shaped by, and at whims of, media coverage. That contents of that coverage have morphed over the last 3 years, as specific terminology, personalities and deadlines have arisen, and media discussion of todays Brexit news is very different from that prior to the referendum. Beyond the ideology and policy in any article or broadcast, the linguistic nuance of coverage has also been in a state of flux. New slogans, phrases and even individual words have been coined, risen to common use and then dropped off in popularity throughout the Brexit debate and subsequent negotiations. Dr Andreas Buerki, Cardiff University, has monitored and assessed the ebb and flow of phrases in British media discussing Brexit, and is talking with us today about the emergence and lasting use of specific language therein.

Dr Buerki:

I’m a senior lecturer at the center for language and communication with search here in Cardiff, which is within the school of English communication and philosophy. I came to Cardiff originally in 2014 as a postdoc. So this was about a year after I finished my PhD to work on a particular project with one of my colleagues here. Now Alison Wright, who’s an expert in formulaic language and phrasiology eventually I ended up as, as a senior lecturer.

Will:

And the topic that we’re going to be discussing today is something that came up at a recent conference presentation.

Dr Buerki:

Exactly.

Will:

Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

Dr Buerki:

Yes. So earlier in the summer we had the international conference that sort of is a biannual thing is called Corpus linguistics. And really it’s a focal point for, um, researchers into language that use what’s called linguistic corpora. So these are large collections of texts.

Dr Buerki:

So it could be spoken texts or written texts. So it’s really a, a methodology as it were, a way of studying the language that unites all of those perspectives of, of those people who attend this type of conference. You know, it’s a method, but also you get certain types of insights did you might not get in other ways. So yeah. So I presented a paper entitled Brexit phrasiology.

Will:

The English language from my understanding is notable for being as malleable and quick changing as it is. And Brexit being a comparatively recent event. How much time does it take for an event to really impact language?

Dr Buerki:

This is a very interesting question because it’s, it’s one of the questions that prompted me to look into this. I did some research earlier, language change over relatively short periods. Typically in historical linguistics, we look at language change over hundreds of years, you know, and uh, and so say syntactic change.

Dr Buerki:

So change in grammatical structures is thought to take place very slowly. So you, you know, if you read a text from say a decade or even 50 years ago in terms of the syntactic structure, you might not notice much of a difference. You really have to go back to a much earlier stage of the language to notice any differences in that regard? And so people have generally thought based on this, that language change is something that takes a very long time, that you know, you can’t observe really. Only in retrospect by going, as I say, you know, across hundreds of years. Can you actually see what’s changed. But with my own research focused on phrasiology um, my core formulaic language, I’ve seen that in that area, things at least in that area, I think probably in other areas as well. If you look at it carefully, things do seem to be changing much more rapidly.

Dr Buerki:

Perhaps worth saying a few things about what phrasiology might be. So…

Will:

Please.

Dr Buerki:

Phrasiology is really the sort of common phrases or the common terns of phrasing that we find in language. So you might have idioms so “to get to hang off something”, you know, isn’t an idiom or um, Proverbs, you know, things like uh, “rubbish in rubbish out” is a type of proverb that you sometimes hear. And then there are more mundane tunes. A phrase, things like “with respect to” something is a, in a kind of little formula that people use or even things like “open letter”, which is really two words, but it’s almost like a term, you know, that has a particular meaning. It’s not a letter that’s open, but…

Will:

it’s its own idea.

Dr Buerki:

precisely. And um, Oh, you have things, that attract each other and go well together. So for example, “utter disgrace”, that sort of people, people tend to slip into.

Will:

No-ones every a mild disgrace, it’s always complete disgrace. Absolute, 100%.

Dr Buerki:

So, so people tend to slip into those types of phrases. So this is the type of thing I’m looking at. And as I say, it’s a based on previous research, I found that, um, some of these types of things tend to change much more rapidly than we might think. And also they seem to be linked to what happens within a society at a certain time. And so of course, you know, with Brexit it is something that affects a lot of people at, you know, society is, I think it’s probably not overstating it by saying, you know, is somewhat in turmoil because of this. So, you would think that we should probably, if you look at the language at that time, you know, we should probably see some kind of reaction within the language. So it’s interesting from the one site to look at a Brexit phrasiology as a way into the question, can we actually detect language change as it changes and you know, when, how might not happen and et cetera. So that’s sort of asking questions about language. The other thing that I think is interesting to get to when we look at Brexit phrasiology is what does society think about this topic? You can get at that as well.

Will:

I had been wondering when you mentioned the multi word phrases, “utter disgrace”, “open letter”, how much that relates to the use of slogans and catchphrases? Which there’s a lot of in modern language in modern society and definitely around the Brexit debate and then referendum. And then I guess marketing and policy since has been kind of dictated sometimes by what is a catchy phrase. What have we heard from politicians or policy makers most in the news and how is that shaping the debate of the idea and the topic of Brexit.

Dr Buerki:

That’s correct. So, um, it’s interesting to see that there are both those types of phrases that as you say, ah, you know, as have catch phrases that we rather suspect, you know, are deliberate coining. So there may be communication advisers, you know, who could sort of say, “Oh well, you know, let’s make this a catchy phrase or a catchy expression and hope that it catches on, you know, and then that will hopefully sort of give the message a particular drift”. Does it work? So, so there is that, but there are also, um, phrases that come into existence via sort of, you know, more, uh, less deliberate ways as it work because organic precisely because you need, you know, if, if you have a new phenomenon within society such as Brexit, then, and people wish to talk about those, then you knew that there have to be ways of talking about it in our language is very flexible.

Dr Buerki:

So we can talk about lots of new things. But once you start talking about new things, what tends to happen is that there are certain ways of saying these things and those have become slightly entrenched. You know, that become the usual ways of putting a particular message or a particular thing that you want to say in relation to a topic. And this is where it becomes interesting because then you get the sort of conventionalization that kicks in, which is no longer a thing that is simply an individual expressing him or herself, but is now something that becomes a communal thing because everyone shares in that way of putting things. And this is of course also where even though we might have these catch phrases or these deliberate coins, some of them do enter the larger use, but others don’t. And so, and so, um, if it, if it doesn’t enter general usage in topical area and language in general, then it becomes something that, uh, you know, we’re very interested in.

Will:

I was wondering if we could just go over the methodology of what data went into the analysis?

Dr Buerki:

Sure. So, for this particular paper, I looked at Corpus data since I’m a Corpus linguist. So I looked at press reportings and this includes newspapers, radio broadcasts, et cetera. And I made two different corpora. So collections of texts, both of them run from the date of the referendum to the end of last year because that’s when I prepared the paper. And one of the collection was articles or news items that included the word Brexit and those items that did not include the word Brexit. So from that, I want you to contrast those two in terms of those turns, those usual phrasings as it were. So I extracted those usual phrasings and there are procedures to do that. It has to do with how frequently does a certain expression occur. You know, I extracted those from each of those to cook pro and then I compared those.

Dr Buerki:

So basically looking at the list of those common expressions on the Brexit topic, contrasting it with articles not on Brexit, you can then get to a list of those expressions that are only found in those texts that are on the topic of Brexit or within which Brexit is at least mentioned. So that is a, that is a, roughly speaking is the methodology. So the important thing here is perhaps that I like to approach it in a way that is in a sense quite comprehensive rather than just going for perhaps the more obvious things. It’s interesting to see to what extent the things that we might perceive from, you know, listening to the radio or reading the paper, whether those actually show up in the data as well. And some of them did. But it’s also interesting to see whether there might be perhaps some phrases that have gone as it were under the radar, but it just as much part of Brexit phrasiology as it were.

Will:

So there’s going to be some headline phrases that people will probably be able to think of just from regular coverage, like the “second referendum”, “hard border”, “meaningful vote”. These are things that you mentioned, Brexit and in the, I guess the thought cloud and people said these are going to be attached phrases that get strung through pretty quickly.

Dr Buerki:

Precisely. Yeah. So these have shown up in the list and you know, that’s reassuring in a way because it shows, yeah, this is doing what it’s meant to do. So that’s good. But then there were lots of other phrases as well. And the interesting thing was it wasn’t those phrases that were fully lexically specific, so with a particular sequence of words. But there are also some that are perhaps more patterns where they are much more flexible but they still sort of follow a pattern. So you might have things like post-Brexit, you know, is is a kind of expression, but that’s part of a wider parts. And some of these expressions go with things like in the post-Brexit world, in post-Brexit Britain in the post-Brexit future. And you know, you can see all of these things emerging from that or so and so has warned of something or other or the warning that racks it could etc. Etc. So you see all of these types of patterns emerging from, from that which, which are possibly not necessarily what we first think of when we think about, you know, expressions bound up with Brexit.

Will:

And there’s a few that you mentioned there of post-Brexit Britain of in a post Brexit future that come up with something that is mentioned later on in your presentation about it being an epoch defining event. Time will be bound as pre-Brexit and post-Brexit

Dr Buerki:

Possibly, because one of the, one of the questions you see when you look at topical phrasiology and topical expressions in this way, there are always people who say, well look, this has absolutely nothing to do with language itself. This has only to do with things that happen. So you might get these expressions and you know, they’re sort of here one day and gone the next. They’re not, they’re not part of language in any proper sense. So that there may be expressions like that, you know, who are very topical, you know, but there may be expressions that may stay with us for quite some time. And the one you mentioned is one of those. So even now in the language, when you look at a Corpus, one of the expressions that we have is things like after the war or following world war two. Yeah. So world war two is a long way away now, but it was a cataclysmic event as it was.

Dr Buerki:

So it seems to me that without wanting to drew too close parallels but uh….

Will:

We’re talking about language, not ideology here, I wanna make that very clear.

Dr Buerki:

but simply in terms of the magnitude of the societal impact, uh, it seems to me that Brexit could be on sufficient enough at scale. Did those types of expressions might well stay with us? They’re sort of those Epoch type things. So following Brexit or in the post-Brexit era or what have you did we can already see in the data now? That would be my prediction possibly that um, these expressions would stay with us. I don’t know. In 50 or more years they will still be part of the language. So it’s not a case that’s, these are just simply topical that that are here one day and gone the next necessarily know. You mentioned being on the lookout for any unexpected or any emerging freezers that you didn’t think might’ve been something that people were necessarily expecting to be incorporating the language in that way.

Will:

Were there any phrases that you were surprised to see making up a large part of the coverage of Brexit?

Dr Buerki:

To some extent, yes. The first thing that you know does, and this, although this is something that people might’ve picked up generally in Corpus linguistics, what we can see is that actual idioms or even things like Proverbs are very, very rare in actual language use. So a lot of people know these Proverbs. Although knowledge does differ quite a lot between people, but when we look at actual language being produced, these are very, very rare and if they occur they usually occur just in illusion to it. You know, there are very few people who say when it rains, it’s always “raining cats and dogs”, there are very few people actually use that idiom. But interestingly in the Brexit, this course as well, the Brexit phrasiology, some of these idioms, sort of, so rare usually have actually come right to the surface here.

Dr Buerki:

There’s the thing about having cake and eating it, you know, there’s been so prominent or cherry picking is another one of those that are idioms that are not new to brexit but they are such that, you know, usually we would never expect such a frequency. But yes, we see them, you know, shoot right up in frequency in the context of Brexit. So that wasn’t necessarily a an expected thing. Another thing that has struck me somewhat are the number of expressions that are patterns around expressing uncertainty. So the, another phrase that is very, very common is “the uncertainty surrounding…” Yeah. And then you have these partterns. So “the uncertainty surrounding Brexit” obviously itself, but also “the uncertainty surrounding the status of EU nationals”, “the uncertainty surrounding the UK future relationship with” so and so. And you know, there’s endless patterns there you can make,

Will:

How many times have we heard of companies changing practice or closing because of “the uncertainty surrounding Brexit”?

Dr Buerki:

Exactly. So, so you know, these types of things become very useful linguistic tools because you know, if I say the uncertainty surrounding so and so the uncertainty surrounding Brexit then you know, this as you say, is a phrase we hear all the time. And so it’s very easy to understand. We know exactly what is meant. You know, we can sort of mentally puts it in a drawer and ah, this is what the person is saying and this is what phrasiology does. It helps us to communicate better in the sense that, you know, we helped mutual understanding by using those phrases that we sort of have an idea of what they are meant to communicate and what sort of things concepts around them.

Will:

I wonder if there’s something to be said for some of the phrases you mentioned there of having cake and eating it. Cherry picking. That’s so many people who are hearing this phrase and possibly using this phrase are trying to make some sense in their own way of a very complex situation. Like you wouldn’t talk about the selective renegotiation of an EU backstop or the movement of EU national speakers say cherry picking parts of this, that the other, and that’s it makes sense for the general public in a way for the people who aren’t involved in negotiations, but they get to conceptualize a very complex thing and a very small manageable package of information. Of words.

Dr Buerki:

Yes.

Will:

And that is something that do you think is going to affect the way that people have conversations about Brexit, that you can possibly break things down into two small a chunk or too simple an idea.

Dr Buerki:

What we can see in some of these phrases is that they’re not, perhaps we might say ideologically neutral. So there are phrases that have certain conceptualizations that go along with them. So you know, if you’re talking about “cherry picking” then you are by doing so automatically implying that cherry picking is not a thing to do is a legitimate thing to do. Whereas you could possibly conceptualize the idea of that in a different way. So you might say, Oh I have no idea, but do you have to find a way to express it? But once there is, you see a conventionalized way of putting this idea across is very, very difficult to avoid using that phrase. But it has, you know, the, the conceptualization around it. There are others like this. So for example, you might have something like the “cliff edge”, yeah? So this shows up in the data.

Dr Buerki:

So the cliff edge is there, but avoiding the cliff edge or going over the cliff edge or what have you. And in fact if you look at political cartoons, the cliff edge features very prominently is usually the white cliffs of Dover. But uh, it is that, and of course as soon as you use this phrase, the cliff edge or going over the cliff or avoiding the cliff edge, you are in a sense asserting that there is a cliff edge. And it’s quite a dramatic thing if you think about it because you know,

Will:

Nothing good is at the bottom of a cliff.

Dr Buerki:

Well, precisely, you know, it activates a whole load of other things. So, so it implies immediately, you know, that it’s a catastrophe of some sort. So if you want to talk about a rupture or a transition that isn’t smooth, then the cliff edge is kind of the phrase that has come to be used to communicate that.

Dr Buerki:

But if you were to be, if the persuasion that you know, this is really nothing to worry about, etc. Which some people interestingly are, then you can say, Oh, there is no cliff edge. But even if you say there was no cliff edge, there you are. There’s the picture of the cliff edge. You’ve used the words Clifford. Precisely. So, so it, you know, you end up reinforcing that, uh, still another example might be the idea that there’s lots of phrasiology around things like the best possible deal. No, Dave is better than a bad deal. No deal, of course is now a thing where I start is not necessarily the only way to talk about this type of thing. So the European phrasiology is the withdrawal agreement, which is much more precise because of course there’s going to be another agreement, you know, after the withdrawal, et cetera.

Dr Buerki:

But in the data, the withdrawal agreement is not really used very much. So it’s always the deal. So no deal, the best possible deal, et cetera. So if you think about an agreement and a deal, there are different sorts of concepts that are attached or information and conceptualizations that are attached to these. So an agreement is sort of a very mutual thing where two parties perhaps sit down and sort out their differences and come to an agreement. Exactly. Whereas a deal, you know, it seems to me that a deal is about getting the best for yourself and almost sort of trying to push the other person to accept something that may not be so good for them, but it’s good for you.

Will:

Yeah, very mercantile, very… Almost aggressive.

Dr Buerki:

Yeah. Exactly. Yeah. And so it’s difficult now even for people who wouldn’t perhaps agree with this type of conceptualization of, of a withdrawal agreement in this case, not to use this phrasiology of talking about no deal or good deal or you know, what have you, a good deal for Britain.

Dr Buerki:

And you know, all the rest of it, it’s very difficult to get away from that because we, you know, within this short period now that we’ve had to talk about Brexit, this has already formed into a convention that people use.

Will:

And you mentioned that this was going up until the end of 2018?

Dr Buerki:

Yeah, So the data, we’re only up to then for the moment.

Will:

I was about to say, are there any plans for further analysis from 2019, potentially onwards depending on how things turn out to politically?

Dr Buerki:

Yes, I would like to do further work on this. And I’ve only just started on that. So one of the things that would be interesting to see is, you know, we have different phases of this Brexit saga, so we might have the time before the referendum. So we might’ve done the campaigning period or even before the campaigning started, when it became clear that there was going to be a referendum.

Dr Buerki:

So that might be one period. And then you have another period, you know, between the actual referendum to when article 50 was triggered. You can see I’m saying” article 50 was triggered”, which is another one of those little phrases. Yeah, you could, there’s other possibilities to say that. So we might say, you know, “invoke article 50” but it’s “trigger”…

Will :

That’s the word. That’s the phrase.

Dr Buerki:

Exactly. So we were almost bound to use that. So there are these different periods and as you say, who knows what will happen on the 31st of October, but that is probably going to be another phase of Brexit after that.

Will:

Who knows how many prime ministers we’ll have been through by that time.

Dr Buerki:

That’s right. That’s right. And so, so one of the things I’m hoping to look at is also do different phases of Brexit, have each their own phrasiology as it were.

Dr Buerki:

So if we look at some, if the phrasiology that’s in the data, some of it already seems a little bit dated. So for example, “Brexit means Brexit” was one of those slogans. Well, it does already have to feel if being antiquated, doesn’t it? So, so that does have that feel as belonging to an earlier period of Brexit. But what we know from free, illogical research is also that sometimes these originally start as quotations. I mean this particular one is a quote attributed to Theresa May. So sometimes what happens is that these quotes sort of develop a life of their own and be called them winged words. Yeah. That sort of stay with us. Um, but maybe it becomes something completely no longer connected to that particular context in which they first were coined. So there is that possibility. And then there, you know, there are other ones of those that we really feel are tied to particular periods.

Dr Buerki:

You know, “no deal is better than a bad deal”. When I wrote this paper, it looked like, you know, that had been consigned to an earlier period. Now though it may be making a comeback now, but uh…

Will:

We’re recording this in mid August of 2019. So for anyone listening to this, just for posterity sake, that’s where this fits.

Dr Buerki:

Precisely. Yeah. So it’s sort of comeback. So talking about society and the types of things that society is going through. I think the phrasiology as we’ve seen, you know, is almost like a barometer where we can feel the types of things that are going on within a society at a particular time. But they’re also interesting cause they tell us about how language functions and how it changes. So is it, there are these two sides to it, which I find fascinating.

Will:

If people do want to follow your work and keep up to date with your research, what would be the best way for them to keep track of that?

Dr Buerki:

I think it would probably be to just look me up on Google, or another, there are other search engines available, nicer ones, that will direct them to my personal home page area card if you need. So, I have a list of publications and people are very welcome to follow up on, on any of those. And if any of those are not accessible, I try to publish in open access journals, but it’s not always possible. So if someone were interested in a paper that isn’t accessible, just drop me an email and I’ll send a copy. There’s no needs to pay for that.

Will:

Thank you very much for your time.

Dr Buerki:

Thank you very much.

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