If it were possible to replace the diverse languages of Europe with a common Eurospeak, there could be only one sensible choice – English. Not because it is the language of Star Trek and Madonna, but because it is the language of McKinsey and Goldman Sachs.
The founding members of the European Union shared four languages. Six bilingual interpreters could have enabled any of its citizens to communicate with any other. With last week’s accession, the number of possible language pairs rises to 190. The European Commission is anxious to play down the problem this Babel of Brussels presents. It points out that interpretation is not very expensive and that the scarcity of people who can translate Maltese into Lithuanian can be relieved by using another language as an intermediate stop.
But there is a larger issue. Common identity is closely related to common language. The French speak French, the Italians speak Italian, the Hungarians Hungarian. In 19 of the Union’s 25 member states the same word describes language and nationality. That the British speak English is not a large departure from this general rule. Austria, Ireland and Luxembourg use the tongue of a larger neighbour. Belgium and Cyprus have two large linguistic groups. In both, the language issue is central to politics. Outside the EU, Canada’s French-speaking province is perpetually on the brink of secession and there is only one multi-lingual country in which language is not seriously divisive. Switzerland has the weakest central authority of any major state and is also an exception to many other generalisations.
Language is closely associated with ethnicity but language seems more important. The limits to communication through an interpreter are quickly reached. The US forged a common identity among European settlers from many diverse backgrounds though a single language. The unification of 19th-century Italy and Germany was quickly followed by the spread of universal education which ensured that all Italians and Germans could talk to each other.
If it were possible to replace Europe’s disparate languages with a common Eurospeak, as the euro has replaced Europe’s disparate currencies, then linguistic union would be an objective. But there is only one possible candidate for the role of common language. It is not Esperanto, or the language of Voltaire, Verdi or Václav Havel, but the language in which you are reading this article. And you are more likely to be reading this article outside the UK than in it. English is the world’s common language.
As services have gained importance relative to manufactures, the economic significance of language has grown. You do not need to communicate with the person who assembles your car or sews your shirt but it is important to be able to talk to the person who supplies you with services. So language has been a source of competitive advantage for British and American firms in media, law and financial services. Ireland has benefited from offering an English-speaking gateway to the EU and English is the reason that Bangalore rather than Beijing has become a software centre.
If it were possible to own English, as Microsoft owns Windows, the royalties would make the owners rich. Instead, the proprietors must be content with the more subtle advantage which is derived from intimate knowledge. But this means that while native speakers of English initially gain from the wider adoption of their mother tongue, their advantage diminishes as the use of English becomes wider still. For example, it is intimidating to be in a room of Dutch people who speak English as well as you and yet can turn away and talk to each other in terms you find incomprehensible. I conjecture this has happened frequently at Shell in recent weeks. American jobs may be displaced by offshore call centres, but it will be a long time before Estonians lose out in this way. The very universality of English has destroyed the edge that English speakers once enjoyed in the securities industry.
These economic incentives make the rise of English inexorable. The EU’s better-educated citizens learnt other languages to experience other cultures more intensely and to address waiters correctly when they dined after the Prado or the Uffizi. But in all the accession states, many more students learn English than any other foreign language. Not because Shakespeare is rated more highly than Goethe or Molière, not even because English is the language of Star Trek and Madonna, but because it is the language of McKinsey and Goldman Sachs.