Wednesday, December 27, 2006



It is widely misbelieved that the European Union has three working languages only: English, French and German. Even EurActiv, for example, which specializes in EU news stories, falls for it: is now CrossLingual(tm)! This means that the site can be browsed in the three working languages of the EU: English, French and German
As discussed in the previous post (and as demonstrated by the European Parliament webcasts), this is wildly wide of the mark. There are currently twenty working languages, not three. The misapprehension seems to stem from the fact that the European Commission - which is just one of several institutions constituting 'the EU' - uses the three languages in question for its own internal communications. But that is an informal arrangement with limited application. It has no bearing on what languages are used at the Commission in non-internal matters or at the other EU institutions - the European Parliament, Council, Court of Justice etc.

The BBC is more reductionist still (or has been - the link is an old one), propagating the idea that there are just two working languages, English and French, and asking the following question of visitors to its website:
So, is it time to make a change? Should German join French and English as one of the EU's working languages?
This generates a long and lively discussion in which nothing is left unquestioned except for the false premise itself. Some of the contributions are remarkable:

Am I the only one who has not forgotten what happened 50 years ago? We came extremely close to all speaking German whether we liked it or not. Now we may be all forced to speak German in the name of a united Europe?? English and French make sense for political, cultural and practical reasons. Making German a working language as well as an official language is just giving in to Germanic ambitions of domination.

From 1 January 2007, the EU's current 20:20 language regime (i.e. 20 active and 20 passive) will become 23:22 with the addition of Bulgarian and Romanian - the languages of the two new member states - and Irish. Technically, Irish is already a working language although this status is not being given practical effect until the new year.

The new language regime is 23:22 rather than 23:23 because Irish will be interpreted passively only, in other words, members of the European Parliament, for example, may address the assembly in Irish and their comments will be simultaneously interpreted into the 22 other languages but there will be no interpretation into Irish of what is said in any other language.

One Irish-speaking member of the European Parliament (representing the UK) has not been prepared to wait for the official launch of Irish interpretation in 2007 and for some time now has effectively been providing her own interpretation by making her speeches in Irish and then repeating them in English. Since speaking slots at EP sessions are strictly metered she thus ends up sacrificing 50% of her time allocation to the cause of the Irish language.

There have been worse causes served by parliamentarians no doubt.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006



I was back working at the European Parliament last week after a long break. Last time I was there they were getting by with nine languages. Now it's up to twenty, and rising.

But the dire predictions (hopes?) of language chaos have not been borne out. The new expanded regime seems to be working just fine and the interpreters are taking it all in their stride.

Observe for yourself at the EP's website where you can watch and listen to its plenary sessions either in the original or interpreted into any one of the twenty working languages. If you want to know what Maltese sounds like, or if you don't know your Slovene from your Slovak, this is for you (doesn't seem to work too well with Firefox, unfortunately).

On the subject of Slovaks and Slovenes: if you're forever getting them mixed up you're certainly not alone. After all, George W. Bush famously did so. And according to Ljubljana-life
A Slovene diplomat (who has asked to remain anonymous) in a major European capital city, has revealed that his staff meet once a month with their counterparts from the Slovak embassy to exchange wrongly-addressed mail!
Mind you, is it any wonder when you consider the many striking similarities listed by Ljubljana-life:
Both countries have Karst regions.
Both countries have officially-recognized Hungarian minorities...
Both countries have shield-shaped coats of arms in the top-left of their flag...
Both countries were once a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
A female resident of both countries is a 'Slovenka' in her native tongue.
I wonder which of these it was that threw President Bush.

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