The politics of language

May 10, 2017
The politics of language

When the UK voted to part ways with the EU back in June 2016, we considered the implications of the decision for the future of the English language in the EU. Our musings were prompted by the Head of the European Parliament’s Constitutional Affairs Committee, Danuta Hübner. 

Ms Hübner warned back in June 2016 that, as Britain is the only country with English as its official EU language, there was a case for removing English as part of the Brexit process. The EU has 24 official languages at present, built up from just four (Dutch, French, German and Italian) originally. It also has a number of co-official languages, such as Catalan and Welsh. While several other countries have large parts of their populations that speak English (such as Ireland and Malta), Britain is the only country that has English as its official EU language. This led Hübner to state:

“If we don’t have the UK, we don’t have English.” 

English becomes political

At the time, many dismissed Hübner’s comment as so much hot air, but recent reports of disagreement and lack of understanding between British Prime Minister Theresa May and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker have cast fresh doubt on the future role of English within the EU. In fact, Junker has recently commented that:

“Slowly but surely English is losing importance in Europe.”

The remark came as Mr Junker chose to deliver his speech at a conference in Italy in French instead of English. Citing the then-upcoming French election as another part of the reason for his choice, Mr Junker’s comments were greeted with amusement and applause by those listening. Regardless of the stated reasons, the timing of his decision to switch to French was certainly designed to make a point to the UK about its relative lack of importance to the EU as a whole. 

Language and politics

This is far from the first time that language has been used for political purposes. History is littered with examples of governments using (or attempting to use) language for political purposes. Language suppression, for example, has been used on many occasions by conquerors attempting to assert their dominance.   

Catalan is an excellent example of a language that has been used for political gain. It was banned in the early 18th century in both France and Spain (Spain had ceded Northern Catalonia to France in 1659). Despite a 19th century Catalan literary revival, the language was banned once more during the Francoist dictatorship of 1939-1975. 

While schools and public administration were forbidden from using Catalan, many families remained defiant in their use of the language at home. This was hugely influential in the language’s survival. Today, Catalan enjoys recognition as an official language and is used for education and mass media, asserting its position once more. It has become intrinsically linked with the Catalonian sense of identity and independence, demonstrating the complex interlinking between language and politics that can build up despite (and, in fact, because of) political attempts at language suppression. 

The future of English in the EU

The future of English in the EU is still a matter that is up for debate. Nothing is certain as the UK and the EU part ways. There is certainly scope for bitter political disagreement to impact on the future use of English within the EU. Jean-Claude Juncker’s recent speech in French has sent that message loudly and clearly to all those who are watching the Brexit process unfold. Only time will tell if English retains its status as an official EU language or if its use will be consigned to the history books. 

Final thoughts

Is there a case for keeping English as an official EU language, even after the UK has left the EU? Or is it time to ditch all those English professional translations and focus on the 23 other official EU languages? Share your thoughts via the comments. 

By Ofer Tirosh

Ofer Tirosh is the founder and CEO of Tomedes, a language technology and translation company that supports business growth through a range of innovative localization strategies. He has been helping companies reach their global goals since 2007.



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