Britain is divided. With the clock ticking on negotiations in Brussels, neither national leaders nor the wider public can agree on one of the most fundamental questions arising from the vote to leave the European Union: is it pronounced “breksit” or “bregzit”?
Linguistic differences are crucial when we form impressions of others. A funeral planning business recently set up a call centre in South Wales, at least partly because the accent was considered friendly. Less positively, survey after survey has demonstrated that a Birmingham or Liverpool accent can make British people think the speaker is unintelligent.
The impulse to correlate differences is so strong that speakers can seize on any speech difference they hear, and connect it to some social difference. This duly happened with Brexit.
Both “breksit” and “bregzit” make sense in linguistic terms. British speakers who say “breksit” are likely to have a vocabulary-related (lexical) explanation: the word is made up of Br(itish)- + exit, and they pronounce the last part “eksit”. The explanation for “bregzit”, on the other hand, is phonetic and phonological (to do with the way sounds are produced and arranged). In English, voiceless sounds (where the vocal cords don’t vibrate) can become voiced when they occur between two voiced sounds (in which the vocal cords vibrate). The voiceless “ks” becomes a voiced “gz” in the case of “Brexit”, since the sound falls between two vowels in the word “exit”.
So either of these two pronunciations could be naturally produced by a native speaker of English. Neither one is intrinsically more correct than the other. Nor is there an obvious social reason why any given speaker would produce one or the other. Presence or lack of intervocalic voicing of voiceless consonants doesn’t differentiate UK accents, social classes or the sexes. And yet the difference between “breksit” and “bregzit” is very prominent, as Twitter polls by historian Greg Jenner and I demonstrate.
Given that people the world over have such an entrenched instinct about connecting linguistic differences to social ones, there was really only one thing that could happen: the two sides of the deep political divide of Brexit have been assigned different pronunciations of the word. “Bregzit” is now associated with those who support leaving the European Union, with “Breksit” being the pronunciation for those who wanted to remain in the union. Some Remainers even use the spelling “Bregzit” as shorthand for “stupid, annoying, wrongheaded Brexit”. (Read past the tweets in Serbian and Albanian – in those languages, that’s just how Brexit is spelt.)
There are a few potential reasons for the spread of this view. It’s been suggested that “bregzit” is Boris Johnson’s pronunciation. He was of course the most prominent Leave campaigner ahead of the referendum, and now, as foreign secretary, he is one of the main people who has to deliver Brexit, so it might follow that some think his preference is “the pronunciation for Leavers”. And for those who disagree with Johnson’s political view, it’s even possible that writing “Bregzit” evokes “Brexit, but wrong” – so it’s ideal if you think Brexit is wrong.
The Iraq divide
Possible correlations between pronunciation and point of view have been investigated before. A study of the way members of the US House of Representatives pronounced “Iraq” in speeches throughout the course of a month in 2007 found that representatives who pronounced the “a” to rhyme with “palm” were more likely to be Democrats. Speakers who pronounced it to rhyme with “trap” could be either Democrats or Republicans (because, in English in general, the most common sound for the letter “a” between two vowels is “trap”). The authors of the study hypothesised that pronouncing “Iraq” with the “palm” vowel could be motivated by Americans’ perception that the “palm” vowel is a more common pronunciation for the letter “a” in foreign languages – or that “palm” simply sounds more “British” (therefore prestigious) than “trap”. Democrats might be (subconsciously) attracted by those reasons because there’s a long-standing stereotype in American politics that Democrats are more outward-looking, while the US itself is higher in Republicans’ priorities.
It’s harder to speculate about a reason for the “breksit”/“bregzit” difference, especially as the political-linguistic associations are less sharp, and also because these divisions aren’t watertight. Some Democrats pronounce “Iraq” with the “trap” vowel; in the same way, some prominent Remainers pronounce Brexit “bregzit”, and some prominent Leavers pronounce it “breksit”. But what that shows is that this potential social meaning of the pronunciation difference is like almost all social-linguistic correlations: it isn’t universally observed. Linguistic differences very rarely correlate 100% with social differences, so you can’t predict someone’s political views entirely from the way they speak.
But, even if we can’t be categorical about “bregzit”, one thing is clear: people’s reaction to “bregzit” shows once again that it is irresistible for speakers to make social associations with linguistic differences. Almost any perceived difference could be assigned a social value. So be careful what you say. You never know who’s associating.