Tuesday, 28 June 2016

English: no longer an official EU language?

In the fallout from Brexit, it has been suggested that English could stop being an official language of the EU.

Is this likely to happen?

Until the 1990s, the most dominant language of the EU (European Union) was French. When the EU was the EC (European Community) and the official language policy was defined, Dutch, French, German and Italian were identified as the working languages. However, as more countries joined, many of which had English as a second or additional language, the number of English speakers grew until English was the majority common language.


Image from jakubmarian.com


Currently, the EU lists 24 official and working languages. The UK is the only member country which gives English as its official language, but English is the most commonly used language in EU debates and discussions. There are a few member countries which commonly use English but have nominated a different language as their EU official language; for example, the Republic of Ireland gives Irish Gaelic as its official language, and Malta gives Maltese.

If Britain withdraws from the EU, there will be no member country listing it as an official language. (There is of course the possibility that England will withdraw and e.g. Scotland and Northern Ireland will remain; it will be interesting to see what happens linguistically in that instance.) In order for English to continue to be used as an official language, all remaining members of the EU will have to agree*.

But does choice of language work like that?

Historically, English has weathered a number of storms. When members of the British Empire sought to gain their independence, it may have seemed logical for English - the language of the colonial oppressors - to be rejected at the same time. The fact that this did not happen and that English is used as a first or second language in more than 70 countries worldwide points to the usefulness of English as a global language, but also to its developing socio-economic and political status during the 20th century. With the decline of the British Empire came the rise of the United States of America, which has English as its official language. One of my colleagues, Dr Lynne Murphy from the University of Sussex, regularly presents on how America saved the English language; from the perspective of its use as a global lingua franca, she's got a point. (If you're interested, you can follow Lynne's wonderful blog, Separated by a Common Language, and find her on Twitter @Lynneguist.)

In fact, in some post-colonial situations, English is regarded as a more or less neutral language. In India, for example - and this is an oversimplified summary - English was to be phased out over a period of 50 years post-independence in 1947 in favour of Hindi. However, as not everyone in India speaks Hindi, and many do not want to for various cultural reasons, English continued to be used, and is now an official language of India. In Hong Kong, there was quite a strong desire at the time of the Handover in 1997 for the British to stay and for the territory not to be handed back to China. The fact that English is still an official language of Hong Kong may reflect this desire, but also it has its uses in Hong Kong, which is an international hub for trade and finance. Singapore has Malay, Chinese (various dialects) and Tamil speakers, among others; English is a unifying language.

But these Englishes we are talking about here are not 'British English', or even 'American English'. The Englishes spoken around the world may be based on one or other variety, but they have developed their own vocabulary and grammar. Euro-English is no exception; there is research into this variety, and even guides on how to use EU English. English simply does not belong to traditional 'native' English speakers any more; it belongs to everyone who speaks it, and communities will enact development to fit need and use. Brits and Americans need to bear this in mind when using English to interact in international settings, as they cannot assume they will be understood by every English speaker.

So, will English cease to be a language of the EU? Probably not, either in conversations between EU member countries, MEPs, or in EU interaction with other countries around the world**. It is simplistic to think it can simply be voted out. After all, English is much more than just the language of the United Kingdom.

--

Updates, 29/06/2016:

* I had understood that there would have to be a vote to keep English as a language of the EU.  The opposite is, in fact, true: there would have to be a unanimous vote to remove it as an official language, as clarified in this statement on behalf of the European Commission in Ireland, dated 28th June 2016.

** One MEP from Sweden suggests that communications in the EU could be fairer in English, as it will be everyone's second language.
 

26 comments:

  1. As I understand it English in multilingual post-colonial situations seems to have survived in order to avoid one internal language being seen as dominant within the post-colonial state. English in this situation is more neutral, and by taking it on as part of the new dispensation, different areas are able to unite in the post-colonial situation. But following Brexit, will English in the EU have connotations of rejection and failure, and thus be seen to be disruptive and effectively antagonistic? Europe was never part of a British empire, or even an American empire (though there might be a case for saying that following the Second World War Western Europe became in effect part of an American economic empire), so the situation is rather different. If negotiations see the UK perceived as the catalyst for partial collapse of the EU, or as hectoring the EU into what it wants, I wonder if the English language baby may be thrown out with the UK bathwater.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, I think this is the concern, Julian. But English has a life of its own. It may not be kept as an official language in the EU, but I can't see it ever not being a working language.

      Delete
    2. This topic is also taken up here:
      http://languagehat.com/the-future-of-eu-english/

      Delete
    3. Thanks for the link, Sidney.

      Delete
  2. Hi Jane! For me, the English language is a kind of present-day Latin; it wouldn’t make much sense to “judge it” on its speakers’ decisions, but...

    ReplyDelete
  3. Wenn Donald Johnson und Boris Trump populistisch-nationalistische FÜHRER ihrer jeweiligen Staaten werden, sehe ich schwarz für das Prestige des Englischen in der EU. Wie das Lateinische wird es zwar lange dauern, bis es aus dem alltäglichen Sprachgebrauch verschwindet, aber es wird keine Chance haben gegen Französisch in Süd- und Westeuropa, und Deutsch in Mittel- und Osteuropa. Und weltweit wahrscheinlich auch nicht gegen Spanisch und Standardchinesisch.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Pues la verdad es que no sé qué decirte; no sé si me entiendes. Porque, claro, no es lo mismo hablar una sola lengua (pongamos por caso el inglés, si no te parece mal) a lo largo de todo el territorio, que verse en la tesitura de tener que emplear dos o tres idiomas (o cuatro, ya puestos) según por dónde te muevas. Y lo del chino no deja de ser curioso, pero nada más, y no deseo ofender a nadie, que conste.

      Delete
    2. I gather you didn't grow up in continental Europe (though you are right that Chinese isn't influential here, either). Speaking the three official languages of Belgium I never ceased to be amazed by how many eastern European politicians speak fluent German on TV, and how many "southerners" (Italians, Iberians, Romanians, etc.) prefer French. — Speaking one language rarely means not speaking another one.

      Delete
    3. Thank you, mythoman. I suppose you're right, but I'm just a silly old Anglophile, so...

      Delete
    4. British and American English speakers are not known for speaking other languages, it's true. But, as I've said above, English doesn't belong to the Brits or Americans anymore. I do have a concern that certain politicians may turn people the world over off English, but I think its usefulness far outweighs this negative possibility. But let's see. Whatever happens, it will be linguistically interesting.

      Delete
    5. Jane, it is not so much a question of usefulness but of attractiveness, and this language rocks!

      Delete
    6. Let me give you all an example:
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mk7T3qKrlgU

      Delete
  4. I appreciate your framing the discussion around the notion that there are "varieties of English." As a native British English speaker who has spent the last 20 years in the US, regularly working with colleagues in Canada and Australia, I've become acutely aware of the variations. When I visit my family in England, they often "accuse" me of having developed an "American accent" and that I should "talk proper English" like they do. Mind you, they're all from Lancashire and any variations of English outside the county borders is "foreign!"

    ReplyDelete
  5. Isn't English besides Maltese also an official language?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. For a language being official in one of the EU member countries doesn't mean it automatically is an official language of the EU. This is true for Luxembourgish (Luxembourg) and Turkish (Cyprus).

      Delete
  6. I didn't notice anyone making this point so here goes (although it's understood in Kraut's comment). For a language to be official usually means it has a special status protected by legislation or constitution, with stipulations concerning access and usage in specified situations. So Brexit could mean the loss of e.g. publication of official EU documents in English, and loss of translation and interpreting services. That doesn't affect English continuing as a lingua franca among EU members, used by EU officials and delegates among themselves.

    It seems the UK is the member unit, so NI or Scotland cannot remain while England leaves. Brexit is concealing a severe constitutional crisis in the UK since only England voted to leave, and the English are taking it for granted that the Irish and Scots will leave too, perhaps with a little persuasion from the SAS. But that's not a language issue so 'nuff said.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. There are other issues affected by Brexit, and of interest to this blog and its readers.

      One is the coordination and evaluation of university degrees throughout the EU. The UK will presumably not participate after leaving the EU.

      Another is the EU-wide research cooperation between universities with EU funding. The UK will presumably be excluded from this funding and cooperation. UK phoneticians have contributed to these research projects, enjoying the funding and the opportunities to work with colleagues in other EU countries, but no longer.

      Delete
    2. I believe it is likely to continue as a 'working' language at minimum. Where other Brexit issues are concerned, this is not the place to discuss them, IMO. I do have opinions and I find the general situation lamentable, but this blog is about language issues.

      Delete
  7. I would like to add one point that is probably less obvious to English native speakers than to us other EU citizens:

    So far the EU member states have been unable to agree upon a lingua franca that is taught to all children at kindergartens and schools throughout the Union and also serves as a unionwide additional official language at national and local government level. One of the reasons why, in spite of the prestige enjoyed by English in most of Europe, no such thing happened was an understandable fear of British linguistic (hence, cultural, political and economic) supremacy over the mainlanders. With Britain leaving the EU those fears might be reduced to some extent and the use of English in the EU even be expanded.

    I am not saying that this is going to happen, but it is one of the numerous possible scenarios.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, that's certainly a possibility - although I can see the French in particular not being keen on that.

      Delete
  8. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete
  9. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I admit, I have not been on this web page in a long time... however it was another joy to see It is such an important topic and ignored by so many, even professionals. I thank you to help making people more aware of possible issues. learn korean in Hong Kong

    ReplyDelete