24th May 2017


Do we need 23 official languages?

Some years ago, when the Cold War was going through that uncomfortable period which seemed to threaten mass destruction or mass democracy with equal probability, two British diplomats found themselves in conversation on a Moscow Street.

"The real trouble with the Russians," said one, "is that they have no word for détente." His colleague nodded solemnly in agreement.

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  • "English language dominance is an accident of history" (Photo: Peter Sain ley Berry)

The story is of course a joke about language, which, at the risk of insulting the intelligence of my readers, I had better explain. You see there is no word in English for détente either. Détente is a French word that the English have simply borrowed.

Even while we were bemoaning the paucity of the Russian language English was busy borrowing words like 'perestroika' and 'glasnost,' though I am not sure that many knew what they meant. Twenty years ago they were both fashionable in essays of this sort but have since fallen into desuetude. Judging from Mr Putin's recent Berlin sally, not only in Britain it seems.

Other people ask why there is no phrase for 'lingua franca' in Esperanto? Or maybe there is, for my familiarity with Esperanto is rather less than my familiarity with Latin, which, of course, was the original lingua franca, in Europe at least.

Indeed it is ironic that just at the time that we could all well do with the ubiquity of Latin as an independent and innocent vehicle in which to draft European legal texts, it has virtually disappeared.

Latin - disappeared too early

Having managed to cling on, dead but not forgotten, for more than a thousand years after the collapse of the Roman Empire, Latin has finally succumbed a century or so short of guaranteed rehabilitation.

Even in my youth the newspapers regularly carried heroic accounts of vague and improbable international conversations of great import pursued successfully through the medium of Latin.

Even more improbably, but no less successfully, the recent Finnish Presidency made a habit of issuing newsletters in Latin for the edification of classical scholars everywhere. As a gesture it was most wonderfully romantic, especially as the secret forest pools of Finlandia remained secret even to the Romans.

Nonetheless, it served to remind us Europeans of our common, though now scarcely comprehensible, linguistic heritage. There was togetherness in knowing there were things that we did not know, as Donald Rumsfield might have put it.

So it was a good thing that the Finns communicated mainly through the medium of English, which language the Scandinavians seem to imbibe effortlessly with their mother's milk. Whenever I go there I am amazed at just how fluently ordinary people, who cannot surely have much opportunity to practice their English conversation, are able to chatter away with seldom a mistake of grammar or mispronounced word.

English - language of globalisation

The same cannot be said elsewhere in the European Union. With the notable exception of Mr Barroso, perhaps, proficiency in English seems to be very much a north-south affair. But whereas in my student days, French would be the travellers' lingua franca in the west of the Continent and German in the east, with English running in a poor third, today it is English that predominates as a second language everywhere.

In part the shift has been driven by business. Decades ago most multinational corporations took the decision to use English as a common language throughout their operations. Even some French owned companies bowed to the inevitable and reluctantly took this route, sacrificing the language of Voltaire and Montesquieu, not for that of Shakespeare, but for a jargon-filled and soul-less species of mid-Atlantic Cherokee.

Thus has international English become the modern lingua franca - the language of globalisation, the working lubricant of multilateralism across the world from Tokyo to Tallahassee. It has become the dominant language of business and the only language of international politics. Which makes it strange, perhaps, that the European Union should have 23 official languages.

As a Briton, the dominance of adjectivally challenged international English gives me no sense of satisfaction. What has happened has been an accident of history after all. Had Wolfe not captured Quebec in 1759; had Napoleon (or rather Talleyrand) not sold the vast Louisiana tract in 1803; had the United States Congress not voted against using German as an official language, I might not have been writing this European piece in English at all.

Yet that apparently is what many in France, alarmed at the decline of French within the EU, would like to see. In particular, we read that the Committee for the Language of European Law is calling for French to become the official language for all European texts on the grounds of its precision and rigour. French, they say, should have ultimate linguistic primacy when a text appears in several languages.

But why should that text be written in (as opposed to translated into) various languages in the first place?

Surely it is time for the EU to recognise that much would be gained from formally adopting a Single Language Policy to lay alongside the Single Currency and the Single Market? The contest between English and French - German has never really been in the running - has been effectively settled according to alphabetical order.

With globalisation and with the enlargement of the EU that result was inevitable. Yet we persist in denying reality. It would be rational now to cut through the endgame and to implement a Single Language Policy directly.

This would mean only one official language - English - for the whole Union. Not having to produce official legal texts in all 23 languages would entail significant advantage in terms of efficiency and cost. Moreover, the longer we delay the harder we make transnational debate across the European public space.

Of course, such a move would be controversial and politically difficult. But that does not make it wrong. Of course, Europe's linguistic heritage is of immense value; I do not want nor expect to see French, German or any other language fall away at the national level. But apart from satisfying national pride do we support a language by making it official?

If all EU business were conducted, and texts formalised, solely in English that would not mean that we shouldn't speak French in France, or German in Germany or Spanish in Spain. But in Brussels we should surely speak English. Otherwise our love of languages may strangle us.

The author is editor of EuropaWorld

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