Language of the departed

by Terence MacNamee

Writing in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung before the Brexit referendum, German linguist Florian Coulmas noted that whether the British were in or out of the European Union, the English language would continue to play the key role that it has acquired since the British joined.

More and more English is spoken in the corridors of Brussels, he says – but in a discreet undertone, because officially the peoples of Europe have to get everything in their own languages. This has made Brussels a paradise of translation, he points out, whereas many there secretly doubt the necessity of translating between Estonian and Maltese.

If the British go, he says, they will leave one thing behind: their language. This he compares to the postwar process of decolonization. The newly independent nations of Africa and Asia got rid of their European masters, but they kept the imperial languages as a tool for communicating with the outside world. Francophone Africa is now acknowledged to carry the future of French. Coulmas gives the example of India, where even Gandhi hoped that the English language would decline after the country got its independence, but where it turns out to be an economic advantage on the world stage to speak English, let alone within the multilingual subcontinent itself.

Of course, the European Union was no colony, and Coulmas admits that the role given to English is more due to the leading role of the USA in the postwar world than to the importance of Britain itself. Still, having Britain as a high-profile member of the Union provided a good enough excuse.

If and when the British go, Coulmas writes, it will be harder to justify this leading role being quietly granted to the language of a state that is no longer even a member. He jokes that Ireland, which is staying, can be the excuse.