It is a basic principle of the European Union that it has as many “official languages” as there are languages spoken by its members. This is surely an anomalous situation which we owe to the sensitivity of the member states who would resent and even reject a move to select only one of the languages as the sole official one.
While a multiplicity of languages was merely inconvenient while the Union was small, it is surely now becoming a major problem in terms of organization (every meeting has to be supplied with translators, every document has to be translated many times) and, by the same token, in terms of expense. What proportion of each nation’s dues are spent on translation and related activities, I wonder?
It seems to me that this overweening linguistic sensitivity places the European Union in a ridiculous position. It is bad enough when two heads of state meet and their two interpreters need to be present but how inconvenient it must be when, say, EU foreign ministers meet in conference, each with his or her interpreter. Imagine the resultant Babel and how slowly they must crawl through the business of the meeting.
And all because no one will lower him- or herself to speak someone else’s language. It would be laughable if it were not pitiful.
Can we imagine a United states of America in which each state spoke a different language? Or can we imagine a modern Britain in which the Welsh, the Scots, the Irish, the Manx, the Cornish and the English could only do business by talking to one another through their various interpreters? Imagine the Houses of Parliament wired for simultaneous translation. Yet this ridiculous scenario is accepted when it comes to the European Union.
The European Union was founded on something called The Treaty of Rome and this is not the only analogy that the Union likes to make with the Roman Empire. Cruel and corrupt as that ancient empire undoubtedly was, it had good qualities, including the way that it extended citizenship to all who embraced its civilized norms and its egalitarianism (e.g. many famous “Romans” were in fact non-Latins) yet the whole was unified by use of the Latin language, whose linguistic heirs the Italians, French and Spanish, among others, are today.
I think any sensible person will agree that the EU needs a common language. I don’t mind what it is. It could even be Latin, for all I care. The main point is that one is needed. It is even possible that if all members of the European Union (literally) spoke the same language, they would understand one another better and that many of the petty squabbles would disappear.
How would the new Eurolanguage be chosen? I would give the job to the Dutch. Anyone who has been to the Netherlands, or who has simply met Dutch people, knows what fantastic linguists they are. During our visits to the Netherlands, we have met hardly anyone who does not speak perfect English. One of these was an inspector on the tram. He didn’t speak English but he did offer German and Spanish as alternatives. He went on to explain the problem with our tickets in perfect Castillian.
That is not to say that the Dutch are careless of their own language and culture. Far from it. If you go to live and work in the Netherlands, they positively insist that you learn Dutch. They also provide free lessons, something that doesn’t seem to have occurred to the Little Englanders in Westminster who fulminate about the need for all immigrants to speak English but never suggest how this desirable goal is to be achieved.
Perhaps the Dutch would even conclude that their own language was the best choice for a Eurolanguage, on the grounds that no one speaks it but themselves and they have already learnt everyone else’s. Time they received a pay-back. Yes, I could live with that. Dutch is sufficiently similar to English to make it easy to learn and sufficiently different to make the process interesting. I would be happy to learn Dutch if it meant I could go everywhere in the EU speaking it. Moreover, I would then have the opportunity of paying the Dutch the same courtesy that they pay me every time I visit their country.