English Language, Europe, Empire, EU, and the Exit
by Summer Worsley
In our previous post, we looked at the origins and the use of the word Brexit. We also remarked on the efficacy, or not, in the framing of the language used in the campaigns and debates around Brexit. There's been a lot of jargon used to sway opinion by politicians, the media, and everyday citizens on the street.
In or out, remain or exit, stay or go–they are all very simple, but polarising and divisive terms. Such terms raise questions, not to mention barriers, about self and other. Whichever side of the divide you sit on, the lexicon has created a shift and uncertainty around individual and national identity.
Obviously, there’s the “us versus them” aspect of Britain in relation to other countries in the Europe Union. There is also the internal cultural divide and opposing values amongst people in Britain who wish to remain, and those who wish to exit from the EU. Whether you’re a Brexiter or Bremainer, the implications of Brexit are just around the corner. Shifts in economic, political, and physical boundaries and borders are nothing new and will continue to happen.
People are pondering whether the English language will remain in use by the EU, or even stay as one of the official languages without Britain as a member. Then there are those in the camp acknowledging that some are in favour of the retention of English as a working language within the EU. In addition, spoken and written English is now, more than ever, firmly entrenched in Europe as a second language in general.
This post is going to explore a little what has happened in the past where English has become a dominant language. We’ve taken a look backwards at the English language in order to look forward. It's no linear journey by any means. The spread of the English language is more akin to navigating a complex roundabout. Not so different from the EU perhaps, with multiple inroads and exits.
English as a language is really somewhat remarkable. Especially when you take a look at the way it evolved, spread, and is currently utilized around the world. Language shifts can happen gradually with socio-cultural changes. Significant changes can also happen dynamically through the planned introduction or exclusion of another language.
Brief Origins of the English Language
Firstly, let’s not forget the origins of the English language actually lie in Europe. Yes, that’s right! In the Indo-European language family, English evolved from the West and North Germanic tribes the Angles and the Saxons in the Middle Ages. Over the next few hundred years, it developed to include words and phrases from Latin, the Vikings, and the French-speaking Normans.
English Language and Colonization
Go forward another five hundred or so years, and the reach of the British Empire spread the English language far and wide. British colonies included North America, South America, Africa, The West Indies, India, Asia, and the Pacific. The Empire eventually fell, but the language remained. With new idioms and Pidgin variations, yes, but as an English-based language nonetheless.
In many colonized countries there have been moves over the past few decades to revive indigenous languages. In New Zealand, Te Reo Maori was marginalised in the 1800s with the arrival of Europeans. A hundred years later, in 1987 Maori became an officially recognized language within New Zealand. English remains the main language spoken.
There is a flip side to the spread of colonial English to other countries and cultures. One of the counter-effects of England’s colonial days is the backflow of other languages and phrases into Britain. Think about the Americanisms that soon began creeping back into the lexicon from “the new world”, and still do.
People who were once the “other” from the colonies, or their descendants, immigrated to post-colonial Britain. What was once “different” is now commonplace and considered cosmopolitan or as a matter of diversity to be celebrated. A case in point, London’s Notting Hill Carnival first started to encourage cultural unity with the West Indian community in the 1960s.
English Language and the EU
Following two attempts in the 1960s, England first joined the European Community, as it was then in 1973. A multi-lingual body, there are currently 24 official languages of the European Union. No one language has weight over another, and the EU publishes official information in all languages.
However, at any given time there may be two or three main lingua franca used by the EU. French and German were the most used languages by the EU during the 1960s and 1970s.
Since the 1990s, the top three lingua francas have been English, French, and German.
English was the most spoken language during EU plenary sessions in 2012. This goes for written communication and information disseminated via the EU websites as well. Depending on the content, the language on EU websites is one of the official languages, one of two or three languages, or English only.
Back to Brexit
Language is power. Being able to speak in your own language is empowering and evokes a sense of nationalism and pride.
After Britain exits from the EU, there will be two countries remaining who list English as one of their official languages. Yet these countries, Ireland and Malta, have Maltese and Gaelic as their official languages within the EU. Proportionately, both countries are very small, representing just 1% of the EU population. So not likely to hold much sway.
The EU language policy encourages multilingualism. It prioritizes and supports the learning of at least one or two second languages in all member countries. In the UK, foreign language policies differ. Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales all have strategies inclusive of other languages. In England, there is no current language policy. However, the British Council’s 2017 findings support foreign language learning in post-Brexit Britain to help create global citizens.
Yes, the UK is a diverse multilingual society, however, teaching English as a second language is a big business, in Britain and abroad. If you land on the British Council’s home page, the focus is very clearly on learning English to live not only in Britain but to take the tongue and teach it around the world. This is seen by many as not so much a result of globalisation, but a form of linguistic imperialism which echoes colonial rule.
Proponents of retaining English as a working language within the EU parliament, do so for reasons of both neutrality and practically. What’s more, many European nations have, and are, invested in teaching English to their populations. The English language could well remain as one of the main languages used in the EU, and as a common second language among European people. So, what if the English language remains as a lingua franca in Europe post Brexit?
Will this lead to the rise of a new form of Euro-English? Articles from academics such as Marko Modiano believe so.
Euro-English may not technically be a described language variety yet, but there are a few specific Euro-English forms and constructions on the rise. Some of these were noted by linguists as early as 1992. There are changes to lexis, adjusted standard phrases, as well as differences in case, morphology, and other formal aspects. A few examples include:
● hop over - To refrain from doing something.
● to salt - Overcharge.
● I am coming from Sweden.
● We were five people present.
● Interchangeability of the relative pronouns which and who.
● Rising use of the plural marker -s on singular nouns.
● Lack of adverb marker -ly.
Given that we already have formal variations with American-English, Australian English, Canadian English, and many others, it’s more correct to speak of Englishes.
As L2 European speakers increasingly use the language among themselves, Euro-English is not so much a possibility as it is an inevitability. That is if English remains prominent.
Do you have any thoughts on the matter? If so, we’d love to hear them. Drop us a comment below.