The Future of EU English.

Cathleen O’Grady writes about a possible result of Brexit that hadn’t occurred to me; after describing a guide called “Misused English words and expressions in EU publications” that details “many of the ways in which European English has gone a bit wibbly” from the point of view of UKanians, she says:

Following Brexit, the UK will no longer be able to call these kinds of shots. In a paper published in the journal World Englishes last week, linguist Marko Modiano speculates about what this is likely to mean for the future of English in Europe. He argues that the newfound neutrality of English is likely to help it survive Brexit – and that without the UK’s clout in Europe, European English will be free to do what language does best: change. […]

Modiano argues that Brexit will give English a surprise boost, by making it the neutral option. Without the UK’s 60 million native English speakers, the five million native speakers from Ireland and Malta will make up only 1% of the total EU population. This will leave almost everyone else who speaks English in Europe on an equal footing, all using their second language to communicate. Even after losing the UK’s native speakers, the 38% (and growing) who speak English as a second language will make it the most widely-spoken language in Europe: German sits at around 27%, including native and second-language speakers, and French at around 24%. […]

The major change, argues Modiano, is that the UK will no longer have a say in how English is used. There will be no chance to exert the kind of influence exhibited by Gardner’s document, pulling the continent’s use of English towards a British English standard. This will leave European English free to drift towards US or Commonwealth conventions, and to develop features of vocabulary and grammar that are perfectly well-understood by other Europeans speaking English as a second language – for example, entrenching the use of structures like “I am coming from Spain,” rather than “I come from Spain”.

There’s a precedent for this kind of language change: the varieties of English spoken around the world in the ex-colonies. Much as standard English has changed its own rules over time (“thou” fell out of vogue quite a while ago, while the grip of “shall” is weakening swiftly), Malaysian English, Indian English, and a multitude of other varieties have developed their own grammars and norms. These varieties aren’t the result of speakers learning British English incompletely—their learning of English is aimed at an entirely different target, and English is often one of their native languages.

I don’t imagine there will be drastic changes, but it’s still interesting to think about. Thanks, Trevor!

Comments

  1. O’Grady doesn’t link to Modiano’s paper (as far as I can see), but it’s actually freely available: English in a post-Brexit European Union. (Thanks, Wiley!)

  2. Looking it over, Gardner’s guide has gotten a lot better since its first version. (For example, he no longer sneers at “training course.”)

  3. On the whole, I don’t disagree with Modiano’s paper, but every so often he makes points that seem slightly peculiar, as though he were living in a self-generated dreamworld. For instance:

    There is also the possibility that Scotland will secede from the UK, and, as an independent nation, negotiate for member-state status. Their choice of official language would in all likelihood be English if any alternative to such a decision would mean that English could not maintain its position as an official language of the EU. Here, like the Irish, there is no reason why the Scottish would, within the EU, want to promote British English. They too have an indigenous Celtic language which they want to support by implementing language-maintenance and revival schemes

    If Scotland did become independent and join the EU, I assume they would not be agitating for the primacy of RP, but would their desire to revive Celtic really impact on their support for English as an EU language?

  4. Any relation to Patrick Modiano, q.v.?

  5. I don’t think that the spread of English in (Continental) Europe is much dependent on EU. In all probability, 90% of it is explained by massive cultural influence of the US. And whatever cultural influence Britain has (which is not a trifling matter) is probably another 9%. On the other hand, EU’s bureaucratic speak might be adopted more wildly, but it will be a trickle. This is not to say that the Continent won’t develop it’s own peculiarities of L2 English. Just that Brexit won’t play a noticeable part in it. We probably participated in a debate or hundred about usefulness of prescriptive usage manuals in changing the usage.

  6. @Bathrobe: Yeah – I also have the impression that “Celticity”, together with the local Celtic language, isn’t as central or uncontroversial an aspect of national identity in Scotland as it is in the RoI. The Lowland Scots are about as Germanic as the English (to the extent that these terms have any applicability), with their own, impeccably Germanic, indigenous language.

  7. I am surprised that someone called O’Grady would think that English in a post-Brexit EU would go to hell in a handbasket. After all, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Swift, Yeates, Joyce all came from a country that is still in the EU – Ireland.

    It might be that the main threat to English in the EU comes from bureaucratese generated in EU institutions themselves, and not from Spaniards who say things like “I am coming from Spain” or who can’t get their tongue around “She sells seashells by the seashore”.

  8. As a native English speaker, I would actively welcome an expansion of -ing into stative constructions (I guess?) like “I come from,” because that would be interesting. Similarly, I don’t care if some people use “agenda” to mean calendar-diary-thingy. I cannot recall ever thinking “this language would be better if it had less variety.”

    But I don’t think O’Grady is saying that English will be worse in the EU after Brexit, just that it might be easier for it to diverge from the UK standard (without the unifying and edifying influence of gifted orators like Boris Johnson, for example). And she does mention Ireland—she just assumes that realistically speaking its influence will not be (even) what the UK’s was.

  9. I would actively welcome an expansion of -ing into stative constructions

    I’m sure the Irish would welcome it too!

    gifted orators like Boris Johnson

    (ʘ‿ʘ)

  10. I generally agree with D.O.

    > In all probability, 90% of it is explained by massive cultural influence of the US. And whatever cultural influence Britain has (which is not a trifling matter) is probably another 9%.

    The sum of 99% sounds right, but I think Britain is probably a bit more than 9%. At least in Denmark, it is usually British English which is taught (although it’s not always easy to tell if teachers’ accents are closer to AmE or BrE). I wonder if that’s different in other European countries.

  11. David Marjanović says:

    stative constructions (I guess?)

    Nah, so far that’s just a hypercorrection: extension of the more marked-looking form all across the present tense because no other language in Europe has a comparable aspect distinction. I’ve done it myself.

    it is usually British English which is taught […]. I wonder if that’s different in other European countries.

    Depends on the teacher.

    BrE is still widely taught, but outside of school almost all the influence is American. As a result, lots of native German speakers combine T-flapping with non-rhoticity, like Australians and Bernie Sanders as it happens but unlike either Hollywood or the Queen or Monty Python.

  12. David Marjanović says:

    From Modiano’s paper:

    English in European education
    When discussing the role which British English maintains as an educational standard in schools, here the withdrawal by the UK from the Union is a less dramatic development. If we look at secondary education, it is apparent that schools across Europe will continue to conceptualize English in much the same manner as they do at present, struggling as they are with the fact that nearly all of the pupils are mixing elements of American and British English, and speaking the language with lesser or greater transference from their L1. We see clearly a decline in the use of the British standard, and an upswing in an acceptance of the use of features associated with American English.

    All this is identical to my experience.

  13. After all, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Swift, Yeates, Joyce all came from a country that is still in the EU – Ireland.

    True, but the Irish are less than 1% of the EU’s population. The question is whether English can be sustained as a working language of the EU when approximately nobody has it as an L1. Among the countries with official or de facto official English, there are quite a lot in that position (India, e.g.), so I don’t see any compelling reason not to use it. If anything, it will be a neutral language for the EU with most of the L1 speakers gone.

  14. After all, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Swift, Yeates, Joyce all came from a country that is still in the EU – Ireland

    I doubt that the Europeans would look to Ireland as a beacon of Standard English in the way they might to the UK. Fact of life. Human beings are hierarchical animals, like it or not.

  15. badgersdaughter says:

    After having spent half the summer in an Irish-language school in County Donegal, I can assure you that the excellent teachers and local folk in the Donegal Gaeltacht would be amused by your assumption that Irish would become the language of Ireland, left to itself. No. No, it absolutely would not. They mostly don’t want to be bothered. I say that as an immigrant who is personally invested in the restoration of Irish in Ireland (because my father, a European immigrant to America whose English was his own second language, insisted that it was my duty as an immigrant to respect and participate in local culture).

  16. Des von Bladet, Burlap of Marginalia, Bearer of Imperial Grudges says:

    The only example I know of EU-institution English influencing English-as-she-is-in-the-EU-bespoke was the time that somebody decided that “Euro” would have a zero plural in English as written in English EU documents and a lot of people followed suit. (It is idiomatic for currencies to have zero plurals in many Englishes but — crucially — not in mine and I was not at all impressed.)

  17. Before I complain about the oddities of non-native varieties of English, I want to compare them with pizza. Almost everyone eats it and there are a zillion varieties. I’m sure many Romans have their original version that cannot compare to pizza as fast food or pizza pockets for that matter. But one could argue that is the price of fame.

    By the same token, English has been “modified” in several ways around the globe. Some changes in grammar and pronunciation are benign and even comical. Should it matter if a non-native refers to a “500 words document” instead of “500 word document”? After all, they are just communicating, and if they are understood, then what is all the fuss? In fact, when we speak our native English, aren’t we standing on the shoulders of people who could not speak Norman French properly?

    I draw the line at mutual intelligibiity. When I call a customer service hotline based in India and i do not understand half of what the representative says, I get annoyed. I do think that foreign and second language speakers of English have the responsibility of communicating smoothly—not perfectly—but hopefully reaching some middle ground where they can understand and be understood.

  18. Irish would become the language of Ireland, left to itself

    Not Ireland-the-state (and certainly not Ireland-the-people), but Ireland-the-EU-member. At present Irish gets anomalous treatment from the EU: since 2007 EU citizens have the right to communicate in writing with EU institutions through Irish, and speeches in Irish are interpreted into the other official languages, but not all EU documents are routinely translated into the language. This is supposed to go away by 2022, but we’ll see.

  19. Reed James, calling a customer service is a special type of communication. Responsibility for clear communication lies not with the speakers, but with the company which provides the service. Otherwise, people speaking English to you owe you nothing. Because they are able to speak (an imperfect) English you don’t need to speak their native language, and it is a gift for you. Take it and be grateful.

  20. BREXIT or not, there’s nothing to prevent the panjundrums of the EU from asking a native Briton to weigh in on English usage. If French were still the Lingua Franca of diplomacy and business and France exited an international organization in a temporary huff (I’m looking at you, DeGaulle), I as a non-French speaker would want the input of a native native speaker before messing with official communications. Or even just speech. To avoid such possibilities as Benchley’s French for Americans.

  21. Because they are able to speak (an imperfect) English you don’t need to speak their native language, and it is a gift for you. Take it and be grateful.

    I don’t understand this. I have all kinds of sympathy for ill-paid customer service hotline workers, but there is absolutely no reason to be “grateful” for calling to complain about something and getting somebody with whom you can barely communicate. Fine, it’s not the worker’s fault, but it’s still a shitty experience.

  22. David Marjanović says:

    somebody decided that “Euro” would have a zero plural in English as written in English EU documents and a lot of people followed suit

    Huh. I’ve encountered the opposite story: someone decided that “Euro” would have a plural in -s in all languages, and so the Italian budget or something, full of euri, was pulped and reprinted with euros.

    German escapes by having a zero plural for all currencies. I wonder how that happened, actually.

  23. “Otherwise, people speaking English to you owe you nothing. Because they are able to speak (an imperfect) English you don’t need to speak their native language, and it is a gift for you. Take it and be grateful.”

    Uh, no. That would be true in an exchange between equals but he specified a customer service setting, in which the customer is always right.

    On top of that there is the matter of loss of English prosodic marking in many L2 Indian speakers which renders their English as unintelligible as Mandarin, or God forbid, Cantonese pronounced without the tones.

  24. The powers that be decreed that ‘euro’ should be the nominative singular in all European languages and that the word could then decline according to each language’s grammar. This worked fine until the Balts came along and insisted that this was an unforgivable insult to their languages. They kicked up such a fuss (meetings about this went on for months) that the ECB eventually gave in for a quiet life and so in Latvian it’s eiro and Lithuanian euras.

  25. Sorry, if I confused everybody. Clearly, company which employs customer-service people should make sure that they speak adequate English. I was talking about other situations where L2 speaker’s speech is less than perfect and even a little bit comical. If RJ’s requirements were only for the customer service situation, I apologize.

  26. –> Eunglish

  27. I’ve encountered the opposite story: someone decided that “Euro” would have a plural in -s in all languages

    No, it was the enabling act declaring that the names of the currency should be euro and cent in all languages (thus, for example, Italy couldn’t ask for a derogation and use ducato instead). This was misinterpreted as requiring the terms to be invariantly uninflected in all languages. This table, part of Michael Everson’s euro site, shows that most languages have rejected this position, and some have even adopted centim(e) rather than cent as the name of the minor unit. In Ireland itself, broadcasters have stuck pretty firmly to the invariant form (euro as plural, like sheep) despite Michael’s attempts to dissuade them. The EU itself, however, uses euros and cents in English everywhere except in the actual texts of laws.

    There is also the question of what the name should be in Irish itself. Sticking to the false guideline generates such horrors as is é an euro airgeadra an Stáit ‘the euro is the currency of the State, where the masculine pronoun é disagrees with the feminine form an euro ‘the euro’ that follows; the proper masculine form is an t-euro, but apparently this is not invariant enough. Michael argues that the righteous form is either eora, pl. eorái, or else eoró, pl. eorónna, and that normal mutation after numbers should apply.

    German escapes by having a zero plural for all currencies. I wonder how that happened, actually.

    It’s part of the general German rule of using the singular for a unit of measure of any sort when proceeded by a number: 8m = acht Meter vs. eight meters. English used to say five foot two (inches), but now five feet two is more usual.

  28. prosodic marking in many L2 Indian speakers

    The problem with Indian English doesn’t appear to be only prosodic marking. When there is online customer chat, it can be equally difficult communicating with non-core English speakers because words and constructions seem to have different meanings.

  29. Jonathan D says:

    D.O., I thought your “otherwise” was quite clear.

  30. David Marjanović says:

    acht Meter

    Bad example – words in -er are invariant, because -er is also a plural ending. 8 t is very much acht Tonnen.

    Several historical currency denominations ended in -er (Taler, Kreuzer, Heller…), and the Swiss Franken is likewise invariant because -en is also a plural ending, so I wonder if things have been generalized from there.

    However, when various sorts of feet & inches still existed, they were invariant: fünf Fuß zwei Zoll

  31. D.O., I thought your “otherwise” was quite clear.

    Well, now that I read it over with his intended meaning in mind, I get it, but it could have been clearer. Not a complaint — we can’t sit around crafting our comments to avoid any possible misunderstanding — but “otherwise” was doing a lot of work there.

  32. Squiffy-Marie van 't Blad, Dutchman-at-large says:

    I am grateful to JC for the details of the Eurologies. You do still get pitched battles between zero-plural and anti-zero-plural gangs of marauding mavens, I firmly regret to say.

    now five feet two is more usual.

    I must be getting old, because I also regret to hear that. I dread the day that it infects the oral transmission of My friend Billy, possibly the finest poem in the language.

  33. January First-of-May says:

    Is the plural of Pfennig still Pfennige? I vaguely recall encountering such a form somewhere, but it could well have been a text from the 19th or 18th century.

  34. David Marjanović says:

    That refers to individual 1-Pfennig coins and therefore wasn’t used much. Likewise Schillinge in Austria (…where the dialects would have dropped the -e anyway…).

  35. January First-of-May says:

    Looks like some 19th century German states (and Danzig in the early 20th century, and probably an awful lot of notgeld-making cities as well) did use the plural Pfennige on their coins – which is probably what I was thinking of – but the official coinage of the German Empire (and from that point on) standartized on Pfennig.

    EDIT: and Prussia spelled their version Pfenninge, and Pfenning in the singular.

  36. On “Pfennige”:
    That refers to individual 1-Pfennig coins and therefore wasn’t used much.
    Not only. I remember hearing the plural also after amounts, and googling also finds examples:
    “Im Büdchen gab es Süßes für 50 Pfennige”, “Um die 50 Pfennige kostete zuletzt die Überfahrt”, “Kirchmanns Erläuterungen zur Nikomachischen Ethik des Aristoteles« waren in der Erstauflage 1 876 bei Koschny für l Mark und 50 Pfennige zu haben”, etc.

  37. David Marjanović says:

    Huh. I sit corrected and suspect a correlation to the belt across central Germany where -e apocope didn’t happen.

    Pfennig vs. Pfenning, BTW, is one of those bizarre messes. There are a few other words where this varies or the unetymological version has become general, but I can’t make geographic rhyme or reason of it.

  38. I suspect that once the UK is out of the EU, German will take on a significantly more important role.

  39. badgersdaughter says:

    Thank you, John Cowan, your comments are very helpful and enlightening.

  40. David Marjanović says:

    I suspect that once the UK is out of the EU, German will take on a significantly more important role.

    Why? Nobody speaks it outside of Germany, Austria, Luxembourg and a few old people farther east and southeast. English is going nowhere; indeed, I agree that its new status as a neutral option will give it a little extra boost, though not necessarily a noticeable one.

    (…if indeed the Brexit is actually going to happen, which I’m still not completely convinced of.)

  41. Lars (the original one) says:

    The Tories are doing their usual imploding act and Corbyn seems to be adulting, so this will be a fun winter for people not living in the UK.

  42. Squiffy-Marie van 't Blad, Dutchman-at-large says:

    Nobody speaks [German] outside of Germany, Austria, Luxembourg and a few old people farther east and southeast

    German is an official language of Belgium, man. Belgium!

    The cornerstone of my pitch for king of Belgium at the last vacancy was that I evenhandedly speak poor French, poor Dutch and derisory German. (Sadly my bid was thwarted by nepotism.)

    Also: I do not live in the UK and I am not enjoying Brexit at all. (I have both friends and assets in the UK, very much in that order of importance.)

  43. I’d say you should try again after marrying into the royal family and converting to Judaism, not necessarily in that order. Your claims to be a true Belgian should be unstoppable after that. And it’s worth a shot: we know from the works of the eminent American historian of the future Robert A. Heinlein that the House of Orange will become the constitutional monarchs of the World (really Solar) Empire, with the title of Rex et Imperator (in the United States and perhaps the whole New World, only Imperator) and Protector of the Martian Nests, having been the only monarchy that has managed not to alienate their subjects beyond redemption.

  44. House of Orange
    Maybe I misunderstand what you’re trying to say here, but the Belgian Kings are Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.

  45. we know from the works of the eminent American historian of the future Robert A. Heinlein

    I initially read this as “the eminent American historian of [the future Robert A. Heinlein]” and was first confused, then amused.

  46. Hans: No, I’m just confused. Perhaps there will be a reunification of the Netherlands first.

    David: The West Saxon Gospels have both pening and penig, so the confusion goes way back. In both Old Saxon and Old English the hardened form pending appears, whereas penningr and its descendants are the only North Germanic forms. Gothic, for whatever reason, has skatt, otherwise unknown in this meaning.

  47. Speaking of Belgium and fictional histories: A history professor I knew once remarked (upon seeing what I was reading at the time), that Pirenne’s Mohammed and Charlemagne was not bad, if you treated it as being about an.alternate universe.

  48. David Marjanović says:

    for whatever reason

    Inflation: the worth of one skatts has become a whole treasure in German (Schatz). 🙂

  49. The OED gives a number of relevant-looking definitions of scot, all of which are marked “Now historical”.

    1. A tax or tribute paid by a feudal tenant to his or her lord or ruler in proportion to ability to pay; a similar tax paid to a sheriff or bailiff.

    2a. Duty paid towards municipal expenses; a local or municipal tax. […] municipal taxes and charges paid by burgesses in proportion to their means, (in later use) sometimes used as a qualification for enfranchisement.

    2b. In Kent and Sussex: a tax levied on the householders of the marshes and levels for the maintenance of drainage systems, flood defences, etc.

    3. The charge or amount to be paid, esp. at a tavern or for entertainment; a person’s share of such a payment; a bill.

    The term survives in several standard collocations. Sense 2 most often appears as scot/shot and lot or vice versa; sense 3 most often in to pay [one’s] scot. In addition, the term scot-penny means an amount paid toward municipal taxes.

  50. marie-lucie says:

    JC: 3. The charge or amount to be paid, esp. at a tavern or for entertainment; a person’s share of such a payment; a bill.

    I did not know the English word, but there is a French word l’écot, likely from older escot, still used in payer son écot ‘to pay one’s share (of the bill when several are eating or drinking together)’.

  51. David Marjanović says:

    *lightbulb moment* Getting off scot-free!

    Just where does the o come from…

  52. Lars (the original one) says:

    My dictionaries tell me to confer with OFris sket(t) and OSlav skotŭ (probably a loan from Gmc) both meaning cattle (or chattel).

  53. January First-of-May says:

    I vaguely know of sceat as the name of an early medieval English coin, but I don’t even recall if said coin was silver or copper.

    (But probably silver, since I recall referring to it as “a kind of penny”.)

  54. I imagine Skeat could tell us.

  55. I’ve found the discussion on “Euro” very interesting. In Greek the currency is called ευρώ, both in the singular and the plural, and the term is the same in all grammatical cases, but some people, while talking to friends, might use the slang, somewhat derogatory or ironic, Hellenized plural form «τα ευρά». In the case of a single Euro coin, I’ve heard it being called ευρώπουλο, another Hellenized form wth an ending which, when used in connection to other words, implies affection for something small or young (for example, κοριτσόπουλο or λυκόπουλο).

  56. David Marjanović says:

    somewhat derogatory or ironic

    Mark used to have such a plural: deutsche Märker.

  57. Trond Engen says:

    In Norwegian (and no doubt other) the plural merker goes with the unit of weight. A line from a folk song says åtte potter rømme, fire merker smør “eight pots of sour cream, four marks of butter”.

  58. I did not know the English word, but there is a French word l’écot, likely from older escot, still used in payer son écot ‘to pay one’s share (of the bill when several are eating or drinking together)’.

    The term also exists in (Peninsular) Spanish, but almost exclusively in the fixed expression pagar a escote.

    I don’t think speakers are aware this is not the same word as the far more usual escote ‘neckline, décolletage’ (ultimately akin to coat); I shudder to think of the folk-etymological explanations!

  59. marie-lucie says:

    Gracias Alon! The second meaning does not ring a bell in French.

    ‘neckline, décolletage’ : the first meaning = French l’encolure (fem.), cf le col ‘collar’, which is also the older form of le cou ‘neck’. L’encolure does not reach far below the neck, unlike le décolleté which is definitely lower, at least in front.

  60. The second meaning does not ring a bell in French

    The Academy’s Diccionario usual is typically uninformative, but in principle it should be a denominal from escotar ‘crop; trim’, in turn from es- (< La. ex-) and cota ‘coat’ (< OFr. cote, the source of the English word as well)

  61. marie-lucie says:

    Alon, thanks again.

    OF cote still exists as French la cotte, a word used only in historical contexts, especially in la cotte de maille ‘mail coat’ as worn by medieval warriors. The word la maille means ‘stitch’ in the context of knitting or crocheting: a mail coat is essentially a sweater knitted of metal wire.

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