English without the English

If we don’t have the U.K., we don’t have English,” – Danuta Hübner, MEP

There has been no small degree of speculation as to what form the role of English will take in the post-Brexit era of the EU institutions. From Macron to the countless political journals, some of which will be referenced here, there has been a large degree of posturing on the future significance of the English in the EU without English with the question on everyone’s lips: What happens now? Short answer, nothing. Long answer, nothing yet.

British Linguistic Imperialism; applicable to the European Union?

Phillipson’s work posits that the dominance of the English language, throughout continental Europe and the globe, is a result of historical imperial conquests that utilised aggressive language policy to spread the English language and help control the native populace. He goes on to suggest that this continues to some extent this day, via the American empire that has taken up the mantle and uses the Bretton-Woods institutions to ensure that English remains the language of globalisation.

To what extent are these the reasons why English is the most commonly spoken language within the EU institutions? Even if Philliopson’s language imperialism theory accounts for the spread of English throughout Europe, the degree to which these can be applied to the institutions specifically seems limited at best. The truth is that it was not only the accession of the United Kingdom that encouraged the shift from French to English as the predominant language within the EU, but also the Scandinavian countries and subsequently the Central and Eastern European countries.

It is therefore not only the United Kingdom that is a stakeholder in the role of English as a working language, but also a significant proportion of other countries now present within EU decision making. There are some arguments based around the fact that once the UK leaves the EU, English will no longer be an official language of the EU and therefore cannot be used as a working language. However, these are fairly flimsy and assume that the EU is willing to undertake significant inconvenience in functioning for the sake of dogma.

It has often been stated that language policy is closely tied to sentiments of national ambition. This is can be seen in the enthusiasm with which the French state pursued attempts to homogenise the language spoken within their country. This has transitioned into contemporary language policies to protect the use of the French language and to discourage other languages (primarily English) from being used within the country.

There now exists the possibility of language growth for purely communicative purposes, without political overtones.

What form could this take?

Political declarations on language, such as recognising the existence of a Euro-English, or officially making it the Lingua Franca are likely to encounter popular opposition. Collective decision making means that there is often going to be at least one country opposed to a singular working language of the EU institutions. Hotbed topic, nationalism on the rise. Language policy is also seen as a zero-sum game, increased usage of one language is at the expense of another and therefore leads to a loss of national prestige.

It could also transpire that the French are more willing to use English in the form of Euro-English once the UK has left the EU and some of the political connotations have disappeared, no longer an element of national prestige lost if there is no competition with the UK.

The version of Euro-English could continue to develop rapidly on its own to suit the purposes of communication within the EU rather than upholding British standards. The EU sees no signs of altering the status quo regarding use of English within the institutions. This article describes a number of words that have a different meaning in Euro-English as opposed to British English. Interestingly many of the words are so called ‘false friends’, two words in different languages that sound similar but have different meanings. In Euro-English these false friends have been legitimised so that the ‘false’ meaning becomes the intended meaning in order to improve the means of communication.

Without significant political change from the national leaders AND the EU, it seems unlikely that the status of English as a working language will be threatened.

Ultimately, the choice of language at the EU level is one of function rather than form. Multilingualism remains a key principle and the right to use one’s own language and for information to be communicated outwardly to citizens of Europe in this language is unlikely to change. Questions of democratic legitimacy will therefore never gain significant ground and the prominent issue is that of communicatory efficiency.

To what extent will Euro-English define the use of English at national levels? Likely limited as much of the vocabulary is specific to the context of the European Institutions. Some adaptations may be possible, such as legitimising the usage of otherwise incorrect ‘false friend’ phrases.

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