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Glossolalia: Euro English

Wednesday, 18 May, 2016

It’s the week of Pentecost, which is associated (Biblically) with “speaking in tongues,” a phenomenon linguists call glossolalia. So, in honour of all things philological, we’re devoting this week’s posts to language. We began with Singlish, followed up with Valley vocabulary and we’re continuing with Euro English.

On Saturday night in Stockholm, 18-year-old Jamie-Lee Kriewitz became a footnote in the history of the Eurovision Song Contest by achieving last place for Germany with Ghost. This indignity has prompted Die Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache (the Association for the German Language) to demand that Germany be represented next year in Kiev by a song in German. Making the case, the association’s managing director, Andrea Ewels, said that the Eurovision Song Contest does not reflect the linguistic diversity of Europe and that there are lots of fine German singers of German songs.

Note: The last year a German-language song represented the country was 2007, when the late Roger Cicero sang Frauen regier’n die Welt. It ended up in 19th place from a list of 24 entries. Germany last won in 2010, when Lena sang Satellite, in English.

Only three of the 42 entries in this year’s Eurovision Song Contest were not in English. Back in 1956, when the event began, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which runs the contest, didn’t specify which language singers could use as it was expected that each nation would use its own. And everyone did until 1965, when Ingvar Wixell represented Sweden with Absent Friend. France protested. Charles de Gaulle, the French President, who had vetoed Britain’s application for EEC membership in 1963, argued that English “hegemony” would damage the cultural variety of the contest and the EBU was forced to stipulate that each country’s entry to be in an official language of that land.

The turbulent Swedes struck back in 1973 and persuaded the EBU to drop the “official language” rule, which resulted in a run of English-language winners, including ABBA’s Waterloo in 1974. The Élysée Palace was not pleased and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing used his power to compel the EBU to restore the language restriction in 1978 and it remained in place until 1999. Since then, only one non-English song has won the contest: Serbia’s Molitva in 2006. To show how far the wheel has turned, the French and Italian entrants this year had choruses in English and the Spanish song was totalmente in English.

In Paris, Rome, Madrid and Moscow, the reality that English is the language of global music has finally sunk in. International audiences want to listen to songs they can understand and they’re used to hearing songs in English, not in Russian or Ukrainian.

With an audience of some 200 million, the Eurovision Song Contest is the goose that lays golden eggs annually for the EBU. It’s now the most-watched non-sports live television event in the world, and Asia and America are knocking on the door. The idea that participating countries would compete with songs that cannot win, to satisfy a linguistic policy, is ludicrous. It’s an international song contest, sung increasingly in the language of popular culture. Competing nations are not being made to sing in English; they want to because they know the fate of songs that are not in English.

The Eurovision Song Contest is a success and its linguistic issue has been settled, but the debate about the role of English in Europe is far from sorted. On Thursday, 23 June, a referendum will be held on whether Britain should leave or remain in the European Union. If “Brexit” were to happen, the 450 million citizens of the EU would find themselves using a lingua franca spoken officially only in the Republic of Ireland (population 4.6 million) and co-officially in Malta (population 450,000). How will this affect Euro English? More on this during our Brexit week in June.