Monday, July 26, 2004

Coffee Klatsch in the Tower of Babel

The European Union speaks in many languages, something which is good and bad. On the one hand, it means that Euro-politicians can find it difficult to communicate with each other and are weighed down by paperwork. On the other hand, regional and minority languages get needed support to survive.

The official languages are English and French as well as the language of the country that holds the presidency. Schroeder has pushed for parity for German--a request that is not unreasonable, but he has pissed off many people along the way (especially the Finns). French and English are working languages because it is assumed that every leader will know either one or the other.

The representatives also have the right to translations of speeches and reports. Spanning twenty official languages, the EU is often awash in translation. The paperwork can be excessive. The demands on producing translation means that memos and other minor documents are left in one language only, either French or English. As definitions of terms and usage can also be contentious, politicians often resort to creating new terms rather than be burdened by older ones and the differences of meaning between languages. Moreover, politicians can be inordinately and overtly cautious when they speak to one another. Consequently, political debate is limited because no one wants to offend in a moment of misunderstanding.

The "Tower of Babel" is best illustrated with an anecdote from Marc Abélès (see my previous post of his research on the EU), an anthropologist who studies the EU:
One day, when a Greek [Member of the European Parliament] was talking, the interpreter in charge of the translation suddenly declared that the speaker was making a good joke that was impossible to translate, and he called for the courtesy of the other MEPs. The whole assembly laughed at this remark, while the Hellenic MEP was delighted to be so well understood.

Humor is not often understood immediately, and speakers are often surprised by the delayed reaction: they have already moved on to more serious, perhaps more grim, subjects, and the chamber suddenly explodes in laughter.

Outside of the direct machinations of EU, language policies can have positive effects. The EU has set up various programs with the intention of preserving minority cultures from being extinguished by national cultures. Preservation extends to regional languages, most of which receive little support from their respective nations. They can appeal to EU policies in order to gain support for regional languages, or they can go directly to EU organizations. Within France, the more important examples are Brezhoneg (a Celtic language spoken in Brittany) and Corsican. (One of the few regional languages to have official recognition is German as the written form of the Alsatian dialect. Bilingual education in Alsace has existed since the 1950s). Germany has fewer problems with regional languages because so many public and private institutions at the local level teach and preserve these dialects, but non-Germanic languages (like Sorbian, spoken in Lower Saxony) have more difficulties gaining support. The main institution for linguistic preservation is Eurolang (dedicated to "lesser known languages").

One process is now feeding into the other. The Irish and Spanish governments have pushed for official recognition of regional languages like Gaelic and Galician (respectively), languages which are spoken by more people than some of the other national languages. Eastern European nations are looking to linguistic diversity as a measure to put the cultural policies of the Soviet era in the past.

Like in many things with the EU, the mess at the center offers opportunities and flexibility for peoples at the other end.

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