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Europe will continue to speak English after Brexit

Monday, 8 February, 2016

What will be the role of English in the European Union if the British vote for Brexit? To use one of those phrases that most speakers of English do not understand, with one fell swoop English would change overnight from being the community’s unchallenged lingua franca to a minority language spoken natively only by the Irish if the British decided to leave. Naturally, English would remain essential for doing business in Brussels, but its prestige would be tarnished and its authority questioned.

Or would it? There is a counter-argument that even if Brexit were to happen, English would expand its role as the EU’s working language because of its growing global influence, which is powered by the dynamism of North America, the Commonwealth and the Anglosphere. As well, it’s preeminent position in science and business remains unchallenged and, on a practical level, its lack of genders and related conjugations, unlike Germanic and Latin languages, makes it attractive to millions of learners looking for jobs in a world where the universal English “you” offers a practical way of avoiding those social minefields caused by formal modes of address in other languages. Yes, the spelling system is inconsistent, but this is balanced by the incredible depth and breadth of the English vocabulary.

Brexit Question: In a post-Brexit EU, would UK English be replaced by US English? This is a tricky one because anti-Americanism is the only form of racism that’s acceptable in Europe and the speaking of UK English or “Oxford English”, as some affectedly like to say, is seen as a form of superiority. But this is silly because US English, with its preference for structures such as “He didn’t do it yet”, is simpler than UK English with its preference for the more complex present perfect tense: “He hasn’t done it yet.” This is not to say that US English is a pidgin unworthy of sophisticated Europeans. Far from it, but it is an uncomplicated language, with simplified spelling and reduced vocabulary, that has demonstrated enormous value for a nation that has successfully absorbed millions upon millions of newcomers from a of broad spectrum of linguistic groups. And now that Europe is receiving vast wave of migrants, the need for a basic, continent-wide language makes more sense than ever.

Should Europeans be unwilling to learn US English because it would represent to them the ultimate acceptance of American supremacy, there is an alternative: Hiberno-English. The English spoken in Ireland manages quite well without the intricacy of the present perfect — “How long are you in Brussels?” — or the nuisance of pronouncing “th” in words such as this, that and those. In this way, it is actually nearer the original pronunciation that lexicographer David Crystal is now championing. Another advantage of Hiberno-English is that its speakers use the entire UK English vocabulary and enhance it with colourful coinages of their own: “yoke” (thing), “craic” (enjoyment), and lively alternative meanings — “cute” (clever), “savage” (excellent) and “bold” (naughty). What’s not to like? And then there’s the spelling: “reigns” for “reins”, and so on.

Sunday World

A Brexit would rattle the already shaky EU structure and it would pose a severe crisis for the island of Ireland, but it need not be all downside. Hiberno-English could be the light at the end of the tunnel and it might not be long before Martin Schulz is saying, “C’mere to me, Jean-Claude. Where’s the feckin’ yoke for opening the bottles? Tisn’t in the press, anyway. The turnout was desperate last night, wasn’t it?”


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