Et pourquoi pas English?

September 16, 2010 § Leave a comment

On Tuesday, Libération’s Brussels correspondent, the indomitable Jean Quatremer,  mounted his favorite hobby horse, the perils of the use of English at the Commission. This time it was Viviane Reding’s condemnation of France’s expulsion of the Roma that caused his cables to snap. It’s worth quoting in full the following passages which I fear fail to convey their vigour in original French, but hey –

“Her intervention was in the language of Shakespeare only. According to a Commission spokesperson, Reding, a citizen of Luxembourg and therefore perfectly able to speak French and German, deliberately did this in order to mark her distance from France.

“Her choice, let’s be clear about this, is quite simply scandalous and I am measuring my words here. As if the fact of speaking French or being French leads quite naturally to a discriminatory attitude towards the Roma and even towards racist behaviour… A logic which would have led to the banning of the German language in 1945… Viviane Reding furthermore gives the impression that “Brussels” is not able to express itself in any another language but English and this comforts the suspicions of a number of French that see the Union more and more as a foreign body which has the presumption to rule France from outside its borders: aside from a small elite, the French, no more than the Germans or the Italians, do not speak English.”

Firstly, she probably spoke in English because she knew it would have maximum impact not just in Europe but around the world, if the world is at all bothered by this sordid tale of a French presidency running on empty and casting desperately about for a cause. Secondly, with all due respect to Quatremer, it’s completely untrue to say that only “a small elite” speaks English in France, Germany and Italy. I would hazard a guess that the majority of young Europeans under forty, let alone French, Germans, Italians, speak moderate to good English, or at least can get by with a limited vocabulary of a few hundred words, which is all you need to read The Sun, as legend has it.

But in typical French fashion, Quatremer confuses the use of English as a vehicle for Anglo-American values and power rather than a means to get more followers on Twitter, or get the latest downloads or something. “The commissioner seems to consider that English is to say the least a neutral language or even one that embodies values far superior to the French language. Someone should go explain this to the detainees at Guantanamo or the prisoners in Death Row in the United States.”

But this is actually a typically French assumption about language, that it is a vehicle for values, if not influence and power. The appropriation of English as a world language, however, means that it no longer has a national or an ethnic underpinning, does not reflect the prejudices of London or Washington. As someone fortunate enough to be able to speak French and make himself understood, albeit comically, in five other European languages, I’m beginning to wonder if European construction is at all possible if one language cannot predominate. I couldn’t care less if it wasn’t English, but why shouldn’t it be?


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