Amid the flurry of activity in the weeks after Brexit, with markets panicking and the major UK political parties facing monumental power changes, it was surprising and refreshing to see a translation and interpretation topic rise briefly to the top of the news cycle. Media outlets all over were wondering: might Brexit remove the English language from the EU?
On the face of it, it seems simple: the UK (by and large) speaks English, and so if the UK leaves, why keep it among the 23 other official EU languages? Yes, Ireland and Malta also have English as an official language, but it is co-official with Irish Gaelic and Maltese respectively, which feature among the 23. The UK is the only member representing English exclusively.
It would certainly be a symbolic move. Many EU representatives are open in expressing their displeasure at the UK’s decision, as well as the desire for Brexit to be acted on with speed and totality. Saying goodbye to English would be part of wiping the slate clean of the UK, and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker acted upon this by refusing to use English in his post-Brexit address to the EU Parliament. Further, internal communications — including emails, draft documents and corridor conversations — are heavily biased towards English, so some politicians have used this moment to call for a shift away from English to other languages, with French MEP Constance Le Grip saying that “anything that can help the French language to regain visibility, exposure and influence would be worth taking”.
(Let’s not forget that French has some of the most visibility of any language on the world stage, being an official language of 29 countries including Canada, several European countries, and much of west and central Africa.)
We should be careful here to distance ‘official language’ from ‘working language’ or lingua franca. An official language is a stated policy: to foster plurality and represent the diversity of Europe, the EU requires that all external documents be translated to all 24 languages. This is great for the EU’s message and its citizens. A lingua franca, on the other hand, is a working language between people who speak different native languages. It is a much more organic process, decided by the group as the easiest language to communicate in directly at that moment. Being a negotiation beneath the level of policy-making, a lingua franca cannot effectively be shut out by a change in policy. In school, you weren’t allowed to hand in your assignments in Pig Latin, but nobody could stop you whispering coded messages in it to your friends.
English, by significant margins ahead of French and German, is the lingua franca of the EU, and of Europe. Even if all 27 remaining member states — including Ireland, only a small percentage of whom fluently speak Irish Gaelic — were to agree to its removal as an official language, it would remain as the lingua franca, given that more EU representatives have expressed being comfortable in English as a second language than any other. In addition to the futility, it would add interpretation and translation costs both within and outside the EU as more MEPs request interpretation at European Parliament meetings and non-EU journalists are no longer able to rely on documents being available in one of the world’s major languages.
Brexit will change much about the EU, but English has far outgrown its place of birth.
Paul Sutherland writes about endangered languages, sociolinguistics and related phenomena for ALTA Language Services. He is a linguist, photographer and writer with a passion for supporting endangered language communities. To this end, Paul has an MA in Language Documentation & Description from SOAS and has worked with groups including language archives, teaching material developers and UNESCO.