BRUSSELS—As if the European Union didn’t have enough to worry about, now it’s at odds over what should be its dominant language.
The French president,
wants to make French grand again and replace English as the default language in EU institutions, the way it was before Britain joined the bloc in 1973. With the U.K. negotiating to leave the EU next spring, he is eager to restore the linguistic ancien regime.
“English has probably never been so present in Brussels as when we’re talking about Brexit,” Mr. Macron said in March on the Day of Francophonie—a celebration of French language and culture observed in more than 70 countries. “This domination is not inevitable,” he declared.
Dethroning the Queen’s English looks nearly impossible for the soon-to-be 27-country bloc. Its 24 official languages produce 552 translating combinations—an impractically large number that demands a shortcut.
English is by far the leading foreign language taught in the EU, according to official statistics. Over 80% of primary-school children and over 95% of secondary-school students across the bloc learn English before any other foreign language.
Still, Brexit means a downgrading for English. Today it’s the official language for 12.8% of the EU’s 511 million people but after Britain leaves it will be just the second official language in just two countries: Ireland and Malta. Combined they represent 1.2% of the EU’s post-Brexit population.
known for her pithy tweets during EU leaders’ meetings, said any decision regarding the bloc’s linguistic regime “cannot be divorced from reality.”
“English is the most popular language of communication in the EU and people will continue to use it. Especially given that it is one of the official languages in Ireland and Malta,” Ms. Grybauskaite said.
A more modest, but perhaps not less daunting, challenge is improving the EU’s English. The bloc’s main translating body says 81% of EU documents are drafted in English, 5% in French, 2% in German and the rest in the 21 other languages. Yet only 2.8% of EU staff are British.
That imbalance prompted Jeremy Gardner, an English translator from Windsor, to write a handbook of words and phrases frequently misused in the EU. Mr. Gardner, who spent most of his professional life in Italy and Luxembourg, published the last edition two years ago—just one month before Britain voted to go it alone.
Some quirks of EU English his lexicon attempts to correct: An EU document too frequently doesn’t “say” something—it “foresees” it. Many staff are known as “contractual agents.” Instead of cattle, sheep, goats and donkeys, EU documents speak of “bovine, ovine, caprine and asinine animals.”
The word “axis” is used to denote programs that have a high priority within the EU’s bureaucracy. The European Commission—the bloc’s civil service—has, among others, a fisheries axis, a social policy axis and a technology transfer axis.
Much of the odd phrasing is the result of half-translations from French. Officials go “on mission” rather than taking business trips. They draft “fiches,” not documents, and talk about “enterprises” rather than companies.
The EU uses the term “comitology” to denote a decision-making process among national experts from the 28 countries. The jargon is likely taken from a French word that means a committee procedure. The word “comitology” was also used in 1957 by Cyril Northcote Parkinson, a British writer, to refer to the study of how committees and government cabinets are created and eventually grow irrelevant.
For centuries, French was the language of European affairs and international diplomacy. When Mr. Gardner joined in 1991, his orientation courses in Luxembourg were offered mostly in French.
Vestiges of French pre-eminence linger at the U.S. State Department, which still sends démarches to foreign governments, rather than just letters, and issues communiqués, not simply statements. U.S. ambassadors have a No. 2 called a chargé d’affaires.
U.S. ascendancies in the last century helped English eclipse French. Victory in the Cold War sealed English’s lock on Europe because almost everyone in ex-communist countries between Germany and Russia picked English as their preferred second language.
Now Mr. Macron is making a stand. His recently appointed ambassador to the EU,
walked out of a budget meeting in April because English was the only working language.
“Everyone was happy to speak in English, but once he made a fuss, the others also started demanding interpretation into their national languages,” said a Nordic diplomat in the room. “They got their French interpretation for the next meeting, but I’m sure eventually everyone will start talking English again,” the diplomat said.
Mr. Macron said he wants to “set some rules, to be present, and make French the language with which one has access to a number of opportunities.” He pledged to offer more French classes to EU officials and to beef up its international network of French-speaking schools.
One Macron ally in the battle to restore French is European Commission President
a native from neighboring Luxembourg, who frequently delivers public remarks in French and German.
“Why would Shakespeare’s language be superior to that of Voltaire?” Mr. Juncker said on French TV recently. “We are wrong to have become so anglicized,” he said, in French.
Mr. Gardner recently retired from the EU’s Court of Auditors, which isn’t actually a court. (Its name comes from, you guessed it, French.) While scoffing at the notion of Brexit restoring French as the bloc’s pre-eminent tongue, he predicts it could open the door to something more revolutionary: American English.
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