Beauty of European languages

By the title I do not want to express any ‘ethnophilic’ sentiment towards the languages of the old continent, I merely want to point out to the document  recently published by Brussels Studies and reported *here* by an excellent weblog A Fistful of Euros. The Brussels Studies’ document considers an interesting trend that recently appeared in Brussels, and by extension, in Belgium as such; English is becoming the city’s lingua franca and Dutch and French are only the second and the third most spoken language, respectively.

This trend might not be unexpected, as the similar development might be seen in Europe at large, yet the question whether this is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ still remains. First, ‘good or bad’ from which perspective? The whole continent being able to communicate in one language seems to be something we all desire – the idea is that people and statesmen would be able to better understand each other and many issues of our social life would be much faster to solve as the necessity to translate from one language to another would almost diminish. Thus, our beloved politicians would be able to better cooperate (and a sceptic might add, deceive), people themselves might become more benevolent and englishunderstanding to their other European neighbours, pro-European socialists would be happy that this would promote a sense of belonging to the ‘society Europe’ as such and they would have free hands to fully employ their welfare-policies at large.

‘Utility’ of having European lingua franca (or lingua britannica as suggests A Fistful of Euros) evidently seems to never end. I fully accept this and I also fully embrace the necessity to have a language, or languages, which are understood by all people in Europe, especially when taking the further integration of the Union in mind. Yet, one has to ask a question whether people are only simple automatons choosing their actions and considering ‘the best choice’ only in terms of efficiency and utility, as many liberals thinkers and economists suggest. To consider the embrace of a language which would be spoken by all European peoples as ‘a good thing’ only because its undeniable utility – that is, that it would make the operation of the Union more efficient – is, I believe, a mistake. Even more, it is an abstract kind of thinking that reduces individuals to automatons as mentioned above.

To understand this, one has to ask: ‘what is this language?’ First of all, a language is not only a means of communication, it is not only some ‘utility’ to use to get other goods. A language also contains a part of its people’s thinking – its history, its myths, its way of life (consider for instance various colloquial terms which are used in one language and compare them to another – you might even encounter such that would be completely incomprehensible without knowing the content – without living in that particular country!) and it has a substantial socializing effect on every child, which through learning a language also forms an understanding what he or she is – what is the child’s place in this large world, what happened in his or hers country before and what had an impact on his or hers surroundings and family the most. One’s mother tongue is simply not ‘a tool of communication’ – it is a part of the identity ‘me.’ My language is a part of what I am, and to start to speak in a second, or a third language, does not simply mean to find an equivalent for a word in my mother tongue to that in a foreign language, but to also find in what context this word is being used, what history the word has behind it. A seemingly innocent world ‘leader’ is, as everyone knows, directly translated to German as ‘führer,’ which has obviously much more livid images associated to it than its English counterpart.

A language is thus something particular – something directly related to the people by whom it is being used, to their history, to their geographic position, to their traditions, to their myths, to their likes and dislikes, even to the weather conditions in their region (e.g. English and rain). When one takes a language beyond its place of origin it means not only to take its ‘words’ but also to take its ‘content’ which will be incomprehensible to others.

One reader under the article by A Fistful of Euros exactly expressed this when he or she asked, what this new ‘Brussels English’ will be like:

But what kind of English will they speak? We already have cockney in London, “‘lian” in Sydney, chinglish in Hong kong and mexglish in Texas, Will we encounter Walglish in Liège, Flemglish in Ghent and kiekefretterglish in Brussels?

The problem is that people directly translate from their mother language and even if they speak it for some time, many times even speaking it thousand miles from a country in which that language formerly emerged – they simply cannot understand ‘what lies behind the language.’

To have a European language that would encompass ‘the mind of European peoples’ is also a sheer nonsense – since there is nothing like a European people – and in many years to come there probably will not ever be. This is by the virtue of what was mentioned few lines above – the language is formed in a particular region – with the relation to this region’s local affairs and concerns of its people. This is the way how the meaning of many words is formed. European peoples are geographically too distanced from each other and if this distance will not be ‘eliminated’ in the future by moving all our social activities to cyberspace (a truly horrible vision, but recent trends of knowing more about our online friends than about those who live in our town, or about our neighbours seems to lead to this conclusion), there can never be a European language.

Therefore, to have an administrative language for Europe is certainly a good idea, even a necessity. Yet, we should be aware of the developments as in case of Brussels (which indeed might only express the presence of large number of European officials) and do everything to preserve our mother tongues, thus preserving our identity, thus preserving ‘ourselves.’

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One Response to Beauty of European languages

  1. adam Pollard says:

    An interesting essay on language, both well balanced and well thought out. I do however come to slightly different conclusions, whilst i believe all cultures and identity’s are equally valid, and do not wish to push forward an ethnocentric view of western particularly English speaking western culture upon the world. I feel identity is a dangerous concept and feeds nationalism, which i would suggest is one of the greatest challenges to the future development of the institutions like the European Union.
    Maybe a point to consider in future would be the hypothetical need for a homogeneous “culture”, i am not suggesting this is a good idea, but it is a point for exploration on the grounds that if we all had some form of common ground globally, such as a language then potentially the misunderstandings and mistrust that cause so much suffering could be partly curtailed. at the back of my mind i have a vague recollection of such an idea being party of the league of nations??? This would not have to undermine mother tongues so to speak but in a globalising world maybe the globalisation of language is becoming more and more important.

    i would be interested to read your thoughts on such an issue and hope u have the time to explore such an interesting issue further.

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