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Don’t hold your tongue, let’s talk about language

Friday, 22 January 2021
This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.

Last week, when French Minister for European Affairs, Clément Beaune, raised his head above the parapet to declare his support for greater ‘linguistic diversity’ within the European Union following Brexit, his intention was not to aggravate those who continue to mourn the United Kingdom’s departure from the bloc.

After denial, anger, bargaining and depression, the fifth and final stage of grief – acceptance – is one that still eludes a great number of the bereaved, and public figures like Beaune are no doubt wary of adding insult to injury at this sensitive juncture. Rather, the Minister’s comments may be examined within the context of an historically embattled quest to review the linguistic dominance of English in matters of EU affairs.

Almost fourteen years prior to Beaune’s remarks, Maurice Druon, distinguished novelist and long-standing member of the Académie Française, travelled to Brussels in the company of other high-ranking Francophiles. His aim? To argue in favour of replacing English with French as the procedural language of the EU – for legal documents, anyway. 

“Italian is the language of song, German is good for philosophy and English for poetry,” Druon stated in his address to EU officials, but asserted that “French is best at precision,” maintaining that “it has a rigour to it.”

To further his case, Druon drew attention to the relationship between French and Latin. French is derived from Latin, the language of Roman law, hence substantiating the claim that French is best-suited to serve as the official language of EU law, Druon argued.

In 2007, the year of Druon’s Brussels mission, the EU underwent its fifth wave of enlargement, and Bulgaria and Romania were welcomed into the Union as the two newest, fresh-faced Member States.

Notwithstanding the benefits of a more robust EU, accompanying the substantial growth in membership was a fear that the addition of extra languages into the already quite varied lexical mix would create considerable confusion around the interpretation of legislative nuances. By nominating French as the official language for legal text, thorny semantic disputes could, in theory, be bypassed.

Faith in the administrative superiority of French has its roots in Enlightenment thinking. In his letter of 1751 titled Letter on the Deaf and Mute, philosopher Denis Diderot equated French with the language of ‘truth’, using the logic that in French, the words in a sentence are structured in such a way that they follow the order of thought.

Noam Chomsky has also referred to Diderot’s championing of the French language for its adherence to truth. In pursuit of reason untarnished by disorder, the characteristically linear syntax of French is ideal, according to Diderot’s writings. This clarity, Chomsky observed, is what led to the popularity of the phrase, ‘Gallic lucidity’.

Now that the UK has left the EU, many have found themselves adopting a similar stance to that of Clément Beaune. “It will be harder for people to understand, after Brexit, that we all stick to a type of broken English,” Beaune admitted, speaking to reporters in French last Tuesday.

However, in a system organised around consensus, any changes to the existing language framework must be voted on by the EU27. The departure of a Member State does not have any automatic consequences.

The legal basis for this rule stems from Council Regulation No. 1 of 1958 and the EU Treaties, wherein it is stated that Member States must agree unanimously in the European Council if they are to remove an official language from the Regulation. Furthermore, to remove a language from Article 55(1), Member States must be in full agreement at Head of State level, after which there would follow ratification by all Member States.

English is an official language of both Ireland and Malta, co-existing with Irish and Maltese respectively, and it remains an official EU language so long as Member States do not make the unanimous decision to withdraw it from the list. Essentially, the status of English as a procedural language is contingent on it being an official language.

Brexit has arguably added fuel to the fire of the language debate – scepticism over the level of power English continues to wield within the EU sphere is by no means a fringe view – but only time will reveal its full effect on the status quo. Until then, speaking the same language (at least in the metaphorical sense) will, for the EU, be crucial.