Proposal for an Anglophone Europe lost in translation

Column: Ironies abound in German proposal to make English the EU’s lingua franca


After centuries of intransigence, it looks as if mainland Europeans are finally on the point of seeing sense. Like most sane people, I have – unmoved by the ancient conspiracy – declined to learn any of Europe’s frivolous made-up languages. In a few weeks, I will be travelling to the south of France for the Cannes Film Festival.

Whereas many of my Anglophone colleagues waste their time learning snippets of so-called “French”, this newspaper’s correspondent continues to bellow cacophonously in the language of Shakespeare while pointing aggressively at pastry, whiskey bottle or picture of nice steak. We know they all speak English. Everybody speaks English. I’ve yet to be handed a fence post when I’ve asked for a Florentine. What does that tell you? Scream loudly enough and you can make any foreigner understand you.

It would, of course, be diplomatically uncomfortable for an Anglophone nation such as the United Kingdom (or a semi-Anglophone nation such as the Republic) to tell the Europeans to abandon this absurd pretence and talk bloody English like bloody normal people. Step forward Joachim Gauck. The German president, speaking in Berlin recently, layered his proposal with inclusive guff about “feeling at home in one’s native language and its magic”, but the core of the speech was a suggestion that English become the European Union’s official language.

“It is true to say that young people are growing up with English as the lingua franca,” Herr Gauck said. “However, I feel that we should not simply let things take their course when it comes to linguistic integration.”

Cost of translation
If implemented, the proposal could result in massive savings for the EU. A report by the snappily titled Association of Accredited Public Policy Advocates to the European Union recently estimated the annual cost of translation in the EU at €300 million. That’s a full 60 cent from every citizen. Think about that the next time you hear some continental wiseacre babbling in his or her flowery Romance “language”. If they’d just back off from the linguistic perversity then you and your hard- working family could afford one more special-edition Kit Kat.

The strategy might also ease the fears of Eurosceptics in the United Kingdom. Ironies abound. After Germany’s aggressive efforts to make all Europe – and parts of north Africa and western Asia – speak its language in the middle of the last century, that nation is now, through the agency of its president, attempting to impose English from (adopts stern Churchillian tones) Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic. Even at the height of the British empire they were still speaking Spanish in Barcelona. The Woodhousian Nigel Farage, chief barker of the UK Independence Party, and his band of home-counties Black Shorts could hardly object to that unexpected triumph.

Unless I am reading him wrongly, Herr Gauck is not arguing that English become the spoken language of every EU nation. He is merely suggesting it should be accepted as the official language for all formal conversations within that organisation.

One senses, however, a belated acknowledgment that the larger façade must end. We all know that, when nobody else is watching them, Europeans speak to one another in English. How else can one explain the gorgeously measured Anglophone sounds that emerge from the mouths of Swedes, Germans and Dutch people when they address somebody from these islands or from the United States? The official line is that, shunning insularity and small- mindedness, they have worked hard in school and practiced their English repeatedly. Well, that doesn’t sound very likely. We go to school in Ireland. We care about the future. But only a handful of us speak a foreign language with any proficiency. Some sort of conspiracy must be afoot.

This initiative will, if taken to its logical conclusion, see all imaginary languages wiped from the continent and English spread itself gaily from (adopts Churchillian tones again) Galway on the Atlantic to Mamaia on the Black Sea.

With linguistic uniformity comes cultural conformity. We do not, of course, mean Morris dancers, real ale, Tennyson and country maidens cycling to evensong. The English language is – whatever Mr Farage might think – no longer recognised chiefly as an emanation of England. Just listen to the softened transatlantic consonants used by European presenters on pop shows. The annihilation of Mickey Mouse languages will allow Mickey Mouse culture to complete its annexation of our irritatingly diverse, impractically colourful little continent. Hang it all. Let’s just go the whole hog and allow the US to sweep us up and invite them to affix a 51st star on the flag.

I’ve gone too far with this. Haven’t I? Actually, Herr Gauck’s suggestion doesn’t sound like too bad an idea. Time for a cold compress.

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