A couple of years ago the word “Brexit” didn’t exist. It has now become one of the latest and less attractive additions to the English language. An amalgamation of the words “Britain” and “exit”, it refers to the possibility of Britain leaving the European Union following the referendum that will take place at the end of this month.
But does Brexit mean more for the English language than just another word? If Britain were to leave the EU, would the influence of English as the language of international communication suffer as a result?
The English language adapts quickly to cultural, technological and external influences. Not constrained by official bodies it is allowed to develop easily. Some might say like the legal and political system in the UK, it’s more based on precedent than written rules and laws.
We can argue whether this is a good or bad thing until the cows come home, but one of the consequences of this is that English is one of the more forgiving languages for non-native speakers. It is a language which tolerates wide differences in spelling, syntax, word choice and grammar. As a result, people from different parts of the world can meet, talk and understand each other fairly easily, even though they speak different versions of the language. Not only do English speakers tolerate a wide variety of differences, but they are also able to adapt to them. For example, listen to British people who work in the USA speaking English differently whilst in the USA even when retaining their British accent. People from Nigeria or India speak English differently amongst themselves than how they speak it with foreigners. For a native English speaker not to be able to understand another because of his or her accent or dialect is relatively rare.
English as the language of international communication is now well established and it is the dominant language within the institutions of the European Union. Will this change if Brexit occurs, leaving only the Republic of Ireland and Malta as member states whose official language is English? Some might say this would offer a welcome opportunity to the French to promote their language to the fore. The notoriously zealous Acadamie Francaise has been struggling for years to prevent creeping anglicisation. Would not the exit of Britain from the EU allow the French government to wage a campaign to eradicate English from Brussels?
Probably not. English is seen as the lingua franca independently from any relationship with Britain or the USA, knowledge of which is now a sine qua non for most aspiring bureaucrats and diplomats. In fact one could argue that Britain’s absence from the EU would only strengthen the case for English, giving it the status of greater neutrality.
Nevertheless, the internationalisation of the language is not universally seen as a success for English. What is spoken in the corridors of Brussels is not be the language of Shakespeare that many cultural institutions in Britain were celebrating recently on the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death. “Euro-English” features incorrect usage often introduced by “false friends” from romance languages, like using “‘control’ to mean ‘monitor’ because contrôler has that meaning in French” (see English becomes Esperanto – Economist). An official EU report from 2013, “Misused English Words and Expressions in EU Publications,” addresses dozens of such incorrectly used terms, everything from “actor” to “valorize.”
Turning to another European institution that has enthusiastically adopted the English language, Eurovision, I can only sigh at the way the language is mistreated. The key is in the word “vision” – you should watch it, but don’t bother listening too hard and definitely don’t go as far as to read the lyrics on the internet as I did. The Daily Telegraph published some of the worst offending lyrics from this years Eurovision which you can see here.
Fortunately, Eurovision is not the litmus test of the success of the English language. There are many excellent non-native speakers working in all walks of life throughout the world. If not, we may be tempted to conclude that despite the best efforts of the Academie Francaise to promote their language internationally, French is safer not being the lingua franca.
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