Languages are not like markets

As someone passionate about languages (most of all the Irish language), I am keenly interested in the impact that the exit of the so-called United Kingdom from the European Union will have on the language policy of the EU. Not only that, I have another reason to be interested in this matter as I work as a translator for the one of the institutions of the EU and this is being currently discussed.

bratacha-na-ra-agus-aeBritish officials working in the EU institutions are worried about their status – will they be allowed continue to work when their state is no longer in the EU? Will the English language still be an official language of the EU? Will the EU pay their pensions?

All of these questions are in the realm of the hypothetical as the UK government has not yet formally asked to leave the EU. That said, some things do deserve to be discussed and brought up. The issue that I am most interested in is what will happen to the English language once the UK leaves. The UK is the only state in the EU that recognises English as its official language, so once the UK is gone, will the English language also be out of the EU?

I will go on the record here and say that I hope that the English language will be downgraded and perhaps removed as an official language of the EU.

There was much discussion of this topic in the days after the UK vote to leave the EU. I read a good number of articles about this topic and most of them seem to thrash out the possibility of English no longer being an official language of the EU with very few commentators believing that the EU will actually decide to do that. While it might seem incredible, most commentators did not believe that the majority of England (and that is who really decided it) would vote to leave the EU.

One particular article about this topic on the Forbes magazine website really got on my wick. It was written by an English journalist, Tim Worstall, who believes that languages just survive because people wake up one day and choose one particular language over all others.

Which language people use is a market. Just as which currency they use, which pub they go to or how fashion changes over the years. These are not things decided by bureaucrats miffed that the world isn’t giving them enough respect. They’re things that we decide ourselves and with language it’s something that we decide every time we open our mouths.

Oh really? So what happens when a person from Italy living in Germany wants to get official forms? They will get them in Italian of course! Like hell they will. The German state has decided that it will use German and that everyone has to use that language when dealing with the state.

Language choices are decided by bureaucrats

There is no market choice in these matters. Bureaucrats DO ACTUALLY decide which languages people are allowed to use. It applies throughout the world in every country. Language policies are used and people have to adapt to those policies. Take for example a Polish family living in Ireland. The parents speak Polish with each other and to the children. The children may be born in Ireland but their first language is Polish. In Tim Worstall’s world, this Polish family will be able to speak Polish wherever they like in Ireland.

Well what happens when the parents go to the hospital to give birth? Will the medical staff speak Polish to the parents? Will they give them forms in Polish to fill in? Will the parents be able to register their newborn baby using forms in Polish? Who decided that the forms in the hospital and the forms in the registry are in English? Bureaucrats.

When the child grows up and begins school, will they attend a Polish-medium school in Ireland? Not at all. What subjects will the child learn in school? Who decided the curriculum of the school and education system? Bureacrats.

When the child needs to get a passport form or apply for the Public Services Card, what language will they apply for these in? Surely if languages are like a market, the child of a Polish family living in Ireland could select Polish. Not a chance. Bureaucrats will have decided that they have to do it in English.

When the child becomes a teenager and wants to apply for a driving licence, what language will they do it in? English of course. The Irish state would never encourage Polish people in Ireland to use Irish, the first official language of the state. When the child sits the driving theory test, makes an application for the driving test and then does the driving test, which language will they do it in? Polish? No, English of course. Who decided that they would have to do that? Bureaucrats did.

I could continue to show that bureaucrats actually do decide in so many ways what languages people use in everyday life. Who decides what languages are used on roadsigns, in universities, in government offices, on radio stations etc.? Bureaucrats do of course. The general public do not have the right to decide what road signs should look like or how a radio station gets a licence to broadcast. Only the state decides these things.

When the state in Ireland, Wales, Canada and other places neglect or refuse to respect the rights of language speakers, that is why there are language commissioners in these countries. There would be no need for language commissioners and ombudsmen if states and their bureacrats were not failing when it comes to language usage. Worstall does not seem to have grasped this at all. Language usage is all about bureaucrats.

Languages are very political

I nearly choked when I read the following in his article:

London has no influence at all upon the English language–London as a political hub or power that is. We don’t even have the concept that there is some officially approved mode or method of the language. It simply isn’t something associated with political power in the slightest. We just assume that people will use whatever language they are happy using.

Where does he get this crap from? Does he really believe that London, as the capital city of England, the home of the English language, has no influence or power on the English language – or on other languages also hailing from Britain? How come the UK has not asked the European Union to recognise Cymraeg (Welsh), Gaidhlig (Scots Gaelic) and Kernewek (Cornish) to be official languages of the EU? If the UK still controlled all of Ireland, it would be very unlikely that the UK would ask for the Irish language to be given official language status in the EU. That is the point of independence for Ireland and other small nations in Europe – the big nation states do not recognise the small nations within their borders. Spain does not want to see Basque, Catalan or Galician as official languages of the EU. Maltese is spoken by less than half a million people whereas Catalan is spoken by ten million people. Where is the justice in that? It is the benefit of being an independent state that allows that to happen.

How could anyone ever try to claim “It (the English language) simply isn’t something associated with political power in the slightest.”? Languages are all about power! Why is Vladimir Putin fighting to take control of eastern Ukraine? He wants to “protect” the Russian speakers in Ukraine. Bangladesh fought a war of independence from Pakistan about the right to use Bengali as Pakistan wanted Urdu to be the sole official language. Why does the EU insist on linguistic diversity in the first place? It is to ensure that all EU member states are equal.

gandhiThe English kingdom going back the best part of a millenium have forced neighbouring people on the island of Britain and on neighbouring islands such as the Isle of Mann and Ireland to become English speakers. This did not happen by accident. It was a deliberate, coercive plan in order for the English to better control and dominate the neighbouring Celtic nations. Unfortunately, they were extremely successful in doing it and the Celtic languages are highly endangered as a result of their linguistic imperialism.

To this day, Irish speakers are forbidden from using the Irish language in the courts in the British controlled north of Ireland. So, the English are happy for people to speak whichever language they like? Who is miffed in this case – the Irish speakers or the bureaucrats who decide and implement these policies?

Mr. Worstall does not know his arse from his elbow. His arguments can be easily rebutted and shown to be nonsense. I am not surprised that an English person would try to pass off crap like this. He comes from a nation that imposed its language on others. He should cross over to Ireland to see what damage the English language did in Ireland and still does to this day.