Tag Archives: spread of English

Out with Britain, in with English.

Anybody who thinks that Britain out of the EU will diminish the role of English in Europe could be in for a rude awakening. Though at the moment the EU is working in German, French and English and some have suggested that now is the time for Spanish to replace English at the top table, the opposite is more likely. English can finally take the role of THE official  EU language. The reason is quite clear, Europe needs one voice. It can’t be German, the French wouldn’t have it. It can’t be French, nobody really speaks it outside France and Spanish, with 45 million in Europe, just doesn’t have the numbers.  But English without Britain would be neutral, with none of the major EU players gaining a language advantage. Plus of course it is the child of a coupling between the German Anglo Saxon and the French of ancient Normandy with just enough words from other languages, from Italy to Scandinavia, to give everybody a stake. Who could ask for a better compromise? And there is a good precedent for an external language to be adopted as the official one. The world’s newest country, South Sudan, an area the size of France but with 100 local languages, has chosen English as its official one. Why? As the news director of the South Sudan Radio, Rehan Abdelnebi, said, “we can become one nation. We can iron out our tribal differences and communicate with the rest of the world”.

Countries which could benefit from the adoption of English include divided Cyprus and divided Ireland where only 10% of the population speak the Irish, as well as the whole of Scandinavia where the standard of English is often better than that of England.

In any case, those trying to maintain their current language with rules and laws are probably doomed to fail. There is no escaping the fact that English is so popular because it is easy. As a young Slovak told me recently, “we learn English, German and Slovak in school, but Slovak is over, it’s too difficult”. How long before young Germans come to the same conclusion? Have the French decided yet if WiFi is masculine or feminine? As though it really matters.

All this begs the question of exactly why nations have official languages which so few speak, for example Ireland where 10% speak Irish but as a second language. Clearly it comes from a political need to create a nation, to be different. Whereas of course the truth is that, other than being told they are Irish, they are just Europeans, like everybody else.

 

 

 

 

 

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Updating German

Once upon a time I jokingly said that if Germans spoke English they would take over the world. I now suspect that this may not be such a joke after all. With the UK out of the EU, there is little to challenge the German leadership of the block and as they increasingly embrace English as an (almost) gender neutral, easy to learn, language, the possibility that Europe can move forward towards a united continent, draws closer. Reasons for the rapid spread of this offshoot dialect of German, seasoned with French and Latin and spiced with words stolen from around the world may, at first, be difficult to understand. After all, we all have a mother tongue, absorbed along with mothers’ milk. Why do we need more? The answer is of course business, the driver of our lives and supplier of all the material things we hold dear. How much easier it is to do business with somebody you can actually speak to.

It is the relative ease with which a little bit of English can be learnt that gives it the edge over alternatives. You can go a long way with a little bit of English, not so German. And though Spanish might be equally easy to pick up, it doesn’t (apart from South American) have the global connections which English has developed over the past 200 years, first with the British Empire, then with the USA.

With eight years of teaching English in a German speaking country, let me predict the way both the German and English languages will change over the coming years. First, efficiency. It is clear that, for what ever reason, language changes are being driven by a desire to be efficient. The need now is to express ideas with precise words with clear meanings. As an example I give you zeitgeist. Count the syllables. There are two. Now look at the English translation and you get, yes its true, zeitgeist. Now if you ban this, clearly German, word from English you would need to write “spirit of the times”. Count the syllables and you get five. Zeitgeist is clearly more efficient. Similarly iceberg is more efficient than the English word for berg, mountain. The Titanic may have hit an ice mountain, but they called it an iceberg.

The second motivator for the “Anglicisation of German” is actually the size of the language. German has many compound words, words made by adding nouns together. For example, luftkissenboot. You don’t need to be an expert in German to figure out that this is a boat which kisses air or, in English, a hovercraft. So I would contend that English has more discrete words and as another example offer sicherheit, a German word which can mean either safety or security. In English they have separate meanings. Now of course, German speakers can understand the difference in meaning because they can compare the context in which it is used. Unfortunately, there is a whole industry based on context free words. I mean of course the advertising industry. Advertisers need to catch the audience with one or two words. They have no time for context. So German marketeers default to English for a snappy headline and, due to the spread of English pop songs, they are understood.

Yet the biggest problem which is hitting the German language, particularly in Austria, is its gender bias, and the struggle to overcome it. Formerly the word “Österreicher” meant Austrian people. The drive to eliminate gender bias now dictates that “Österreicher und Österreicherin” is used. Clearly this is a bit of a mouthful. We may yet come to a time when “Austrians” is adopted as the simplest solution!

PS, actually, the German word for kiss is küssen not kissen, kissen is a pillow. In my mind the hovercraft “air kisses” the sea but for Germans, the air is a pillow on which the hovercraft rests. As they say, “the devil is in the detail”!