Language variation: what’s the kerfuffle about ‘queue’?

Language variation: what’s the kerfuffle about ‘queue’?

Last week, during his visit to the UK, Barack Obama shook hands with a dressing-gown-clad Prince George, was driven about by the 94-year-old Duke of Edinburgh and sent Brexiters into a frenzy by using one simple word: queue.

In discussing Britain’s upcoming vote to determine whether or not they will stay in the EU, Obama noted that leaving the EU’s collective bargaining power behind would mean that the UK was in a less powerful position in trade negotiations with the USA. But strangely, the interest in his statement wasn’t on Obama’s support for the UK staying in the EU; it was on his use of the word ‘queue’.

As anyone who has ever been to the US will know, the common American English expression is to ‘wait in line’ or in New York to ‘wait on line’, rather than ‘to queue’. Commentators suggested, then, that an American would never use the word ‘queue’ without being unduly influenced, or possibly even having their speech written for them, by a Brit. The issue was written about ad nauseum, including a dizzying array of articles cataloguing every single previously recorded use of the word ‘queue’ by both Obama and his Vice President, Joe Biden.

But is the use of ‘queue’ really significant enough to spark an international incident? Are pundits reading too much into one little word? When does this microscopic examination of vocabulary start to get a little ridiculous? English-speaking countries have their own variants of English – Australian, British, American, Singaporean, Indian, Nigerian, Barbadian  – and they are influenced by other versions all the time. It is certainly conceivable that the President of the United States would be aware enough of the differences between the conventions of American English and British English to tailor his speech to suit the UK audience he was trying to convince to vote ‘no’, and that he would be aware that using the term ‘line’ in this context might subtly alienate this audience by highlighting his ‘Americaness’.

This week’s resources and activities explore the idea of national English variations, inspired by the ‘queue kerfuffle’ (or ‘line ruckus’ or ‘row stoush’ if you want a particularly confusing synonym) and open discussion about how different language use can reveal social attitudes and conventions. The focus is on exploring the ‘Language variation and change’ sub-strand of the Australian Curriculum, but sharing some of the discussion with students will give some context for persuasive language and argument analysis too – it’s the perfect example of how one word can undermine the whole purpose of a speech if it seems out of place.

Scroll down for a content breakdown that will help you to assess if these resources are right for your school context or class, and for a free downloadable PDF of guiding questions and writing tasks. Please note that all links below and in the PDF will take you to third-party sites.

Best wishes and happy teaching, or you’re welcome and have a nice day y’all.

Sandra Duncanson
Senior Editor

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For background on the issue:

For discussion of the linguistic debate about Obama’s speech:

  • Language log: Obama and the end of the queue by Geoffrey K Pullum, 24 April 2016.
    Central idea: discusses Obama’s use of the word ‘queue’
    Suitability: Years 10–12

For specific activities:

  • Google Books Ngrams viewer
    Central idea: allows users to graph the frequency of use of different words and phrases in Google Books (also allows for different search variables)
    Suitability: Years 7–12
  • The Australian Word Map, Macquarie Dictionary
    Central idea: provides a mapped dictionary of Australian idioms and slang terms
    Content warning: some terms and phrases used in the dictionary and their definitions contain coarse language and  adult concepts that may not be suitable for some classes or school contexts
    Suitability: Years 10–12.
  • Meanings and origins of Australian words and idioms, Australian National Dictionary Centre, Research School of Humanities and the Arts, ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences
    Content warning: not as blunt or coarse as the slang used in the Australian Word Map but some terms and phrases might not be appropriate for younger students Suitability: Years 9–12.

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