I find it difficult to describe the true level of horror and dismay that I felt when I came across a news article about a recent proposal to make English the sole official language of the European Union. I find it even more difficult to come to terms with the fact that this has not come from the British – the famed monolinguals – but from the German president. This is also not the first serious suggestion of this nature that has come from a German politician, and as a result I feel that I must explain exactly why it riles me so much, and why no matter what the cost, we must strive to sustain multilingualism for the good of us all.
I am a native English speaker. I have spoken English all my life, been educated in English, I read widely in English and have been struggling with the subtleties and complications that using the language throws up in essays, exams, social and professional contexts for as long as I can remember. Let me assure you, beyond English’s seemingly simple grammar lies an unfathomably complex and elusive language that continues to baffle the majority even of its own native speakers.
English is a remarkably malleable language. It originates from the clash between Norman French and the highly Germanic language of the Anglo-Saxons that occurred in 1066, when the language suddenly took on a wealth of words of Latin etymology, and later even Latinised some that were pre-existing (by the 17th Century the word ‘iland’ started to be spelt ‘island’, to erroneously infer its roots in the Latin ‘insula’ and equally ‘dette’ became ‘debt’ to mirror the Latin ‘debitum’). This is a tradition that persists to this day: ‘schadenfreude’, ‘aficionado’, ‘trek’ and even ‘bungalow’ are words that might not even register with the average English speaker as loanwords. English consequently is reported to have one of the largest vocabularies of any language in the world, which has inspired its use as a language of medium for some of the greatest art and literature that there has ever been.
But this also one of the reasons for its being slaughtered in its relatively new role as the ‘international lingua franca’ (although we also cannot ignore the contribution made by the legacy of British imperialism and contemporary American cultural and economic dominance). “Я никогда не понимаю, когда Британцы быстро говорят” a woman on my flight back from Moscow told me, when she didn’t understand the cabin crew asking if she wanted milk with her coffee. “Других как-то всегда понимаю: Итальянцев, Немцев, Голландцев, но Британцев никогда.” (I never understand when the British speak fast. Somehow I always understand everyone else: Italians, Germans, the Dutch, but never the British.) The irony of this is almost too tragic to dwell on. Her knowledge of English had got her by nearly everywhere she’d ever been, except in the one place where the language is actually spoken.
But this story is by no means exceptional. International English is an ugly conglomeration of words loosely held together by negligible grammar and with almost no interest in register or convention. It fulfills its purpose as a primitive form of communication around the world, and as English speakers we have begrudgingly accepted that it is the norm. Some of us even resort to using it when we can’t make ourselves understood otherwise. But that is where its use should end.
Joachim Gauck’s proposal would result in the institutionalisation of this ghastly vernacular. It is wholly unfeasible to imagine that all of the politicians, civil servants and diplomats of what will be 26 non-English speaking member states would be able to master English and express themselves in a way that would do their political intentions justice. This is arguably already a huge problem. The extent to which EU officials use the English language to meet their own needs with a complete disregard for what words or phrases actually mean managed to distress one senior interpreter so much, that he compiled a 33 page report on the misuse of English in official documents. It begins: “Over the years, the European institutions have developed a vocabulary that differs from that of any other recognised form of English. It includes words that do not exist.”
I believe that this is even a contributing factor to the UK’s growing disenchantment with Europe. Every time the topic comes up on the news, they somehow manage to dig up what to a British audience seems like a stereotypical ‘European’, who proceeds to deliver a lecture in painful, almost unintelligible English and with the arrogance and self-assurance to try and invent words in the language. Watch this short video to see what I mean. This speech goes straight over my head, and not just because she’s using long words, but because she’s also using words that are non-existent: the Oxford English Dictionary has no entry for ‘flexibilisation’ or ‘sacrilisation’ at all. Therefore her sentence “the underlying differences make it more reasonable to expect a call for more ‘flexibilisation’, and via this ‘flexibilisation’ to have a serious competition of systems that would then solve a major problem which is how to proceed with further integration and also how to resolve the problem of competitiveness in the European Union, so that is my first point” means nothing. It demonstrates the point that no matter how meritable her intention of achieving a more united Europe may be, her inability to express this in natural or even genuine English completely undermines it.
Apart from anything, multilingualism is one of the key defining features of the European Union. The idea of a union is that anybody can come and share their ideas in an environment that encourages diversity. Forcing people to adapt and change them to fit a model that is foreign to them, such as the English language, seems to go against the very essence of what the EU is. Encouraging linguistic homogenisation can surely have no benefit to anyone, apart from saving a bit of money and destroying an entire industry made up of talented linguists.
Professional interpreters and translators are not a luxury. They are a necessity, vital for the survival of the fragile political union of one of the most linguistically and nationally diverse continents in the world. They exist because we can’t expect politicians to be as rhetorically fluent in their adopted language as they are in their own, and because they can’t expect to be able to lead us in it. Let them make their speeches in the language they know best, let them form their ideas within their linguistic comfort zone, and let conveying that to the rest of the world be the job of those that know how.
It frustrates me when people underestimate the English language. They think it’s easy and become complacent about their knowledge of it. In turn, people’s ability to speak it is declining, and an apathy towards learning correct grammatical and idiomatic usage is driving countries futher apart rather than uniting them. You can’t barge into a language and impose your own rules on it. You equally can’t ignore the way in which its own native speakers use it. The increasing acceptability of International English is a crime against language, and I think it’s time that people started showing English the respect that it deserves.