Now that we know that Boris Johnson will “do Brexita” by the end of January 2020, what are the implications for English as an official language of the European Union and in the European Parliament? Can it stop being used when Britain is leaving?
In 2016, Danuta Hübner, Member of the European Parliament and Chair of the Committee on Constitutional Affairs of the European Parliament, declared: “If we do not have the United Kingdom, we do not have English.”
Until the 1990s, the EU was the dominant language in French. When the EU was the EC (European Community) and the official language policy was defined, the working languages were Dutch, French, German and Italian. However, as more countries joined, many of whom had English as a second or another language, the number of English speakers grew until English became the majority common language.
The EU currently lists 24 official and working languages. The United Kingdom is the only Member State to give English as its official language. There are several Member States that commonly use English but have proposed another language as their official EU language. For example, the Republic of Ireland lists Irish Gaelic as its official language and Malta gives Maltese.
When Britain leaves the EU (and postpones any negotiations with Scotland or other territories) to remove English as an official language, as explained in the declaration on behalf of the European Commission in Ireland of 27 June 2016, there will be a unanimous vote in the European Parliament for that. At the time of the 2016 referendum, German EU Commissioner Günther Oettinger explained: “We have a series of Member States that speak English, and English is a world language that we all accept.” So even if it were to .
Even if that were the case, would that be language? English has historically increased the number of storms. When the colonies of the British Empire sought independence, it might seem logical that English, the language of oppressors, was rejected at the same time. The fact that this has not been done and that English is used as the official first or second language in more than 70 countries around the world partly points to the evolution of the socio-economic and political situation in the 20th century. The number of speakers for whom English is an unofficial second or foreign language is higher than for all other speakers in the English language and continues to grow. With the decline of the British Empire came the rise of the United States, which has English as their official language. Professor Lynne Murphy of the University of Sussex believes the US has saved the English language. Its use as a global lingua franca has its point.
In some post-colonial situations, English is considered a more or less neutral language. In India, for example, after gradual independence in 1947, English was to be phased out in favor of Hindus. However, since not everyone in India speaks Hindi and many do not want it for various cultural and political reasons, English has continued to be used and is now the official language of India. In Hong Kong, English is still an official language despite the return of the territory to the People’s Republic of China in 1997. Since Hong Kong is an international center for business and finance, it makes a pragmatic sense, but there is evidence that Hong Kong people feel that English is part of their identity – something that makes Hong Kong different from mainland China. Singapore also speaks Malaysian, Chinese (various dialects) and Tamil; in this context, English is a unifying language.
However, these English are not “British English” or even “American English”. The English, spoken worldwide, have developed their own vocabulary and grammar; Euro-English is no exception. English is simply no longer a traditional “native” English speaker: it belongs to anyone who speaks it and will evolve and change according to the communication needs of the speech communities. The British and Americans must bear this in mind when using English in an international environment, because they cannot assume that every English speaker will understand them.
Will English cease to be an EU language? Probably not in the short to medium term, neither in talks between EU Member States, MEPs, nor in EU interactions with other countries around the world. One Swedish MEP even suggested that communication in the EU could be fairer in English, because it will be everyone’s second language.
In the long run, however, the continued dominance of English as a global language may depend on its political and socio-economic wealth. Being so well established and widespread, I think it will probably be used as a global lingua franca for some time. However, situations and languages are changing. I think it was Andy Hamilton who stressed that once Latin was everyone’s second language, it wasn’t the first.
• Jane Setter is a professor of phonetics at the University of Reading