Nearly three years after the Brexit referendum, a majority of Britons still can’t believe that they could vote to exit Europe! The country is in unprecedented turmoil, and now is totally confused about a suitable deal versus no-deal exit of Britain from Europe. There is widespread speculation about the severe economic, political and social impact of Brexit on the island in the future. However, apparently one of the greatest losers of Brexit would be the English language.
First, we look at the position of English in Europe prior to Brexit. Today, English is the most widely spoken language in the European Union (EU), and it has extensive governmental, educational, informational, and work-related functionality. It is the working language in its institutions except the Court of Justice, which uses French. However, while the proportion capable of communicating in English is as high as 90 per cent in Holland and 86 per cent in Denmark and Sweden. This changes drastically in the southern part of the continent – only 34 per cent in Italy, 27 per cent in Portugal and 22 per cent in Spain can communicate in English.
When Britain formally leaves the EU, the proportion of native English speakers inside the EU will fall from 14 to 1 per cent, however English will still remain as the second language of 38 per cent people in the EU. In fact, more than 80 per cent of primary school children and over 95 per cent of secondary-school students across the EU learn English before any other foreign language. Undoubtedly, English has earned a completely dominant position within the EU during the last two decades. Now, with the exit of Britain, English is also set to make its exit from the official list of languages of the EU. What would happen next?
Certainly, the French language might eye its comeback in the EU; certainly Brussels, the headquarter of the EU, has an affinity for the language. At the moment, English is one of the 24 official languages of the EU. In fact, every EU member country can list one language of its choice, and English entered that list due to Britain. Of course, English is an ‘official’ language in both Ireland and Malta, but Ireland listed Irish and Malta listed Maltese as their chosen language in the EU list. Of course, English was already existing when these countries were inducted in the EU. Ireland or Malta may now insist that they have the right to have more than one official language. However, will the mighty English language then retain its place at the request of Ireland or tiny Malta? If that happens, that will also be an interesting scenario.
Some believe that English will return to the EU with the entry of Scotland in future. Yes, 62 per cent in Scotland voted to ‘Remain’ during the Brexit referendum, and there is a burning desire of independence among the Scots as well. Scotland did stage an unsuccessful referendum to break away from Britain in 2014. However, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon would certainly gauge the situation to identify a suitable time for another referendum in the near future.
Officials from non-French speaking areas like Italy, Spain, Scandinavia or Eastern Europe would be more interested to see English, the global lingua franca, which they sometimes call ‘Globish’, remain the primary means of communication in the EU over a language like French or German. English might be a better bet for them as it will not be anybody’s mother tongue. Hence, there is a wide spread speculation that English might become even more prominent after Brexit. In fact, Mario Monti, the former Italian prime minister and European commissioner, already batted for English as the EU’s main official language in the post-Brexit scenario.
Interestingly enough, many experts believe that instead of weakening the status of English, Brexit might strengthen the power of English as the principal working language of the EU. However, an emergence of an authentic European English or Euro-English might be a socio-linguistic reality. ‘Euro-English’ may be defined as “a self-contained European variety of English”, which is used and developed by non-native English speakers in Europe with its own grammar.
Europeans are already speaking a version of English that is diverging from British English and developing its own idioms, different spelling (labor, not labour), grammar and construction, and it is developing in the same way that American or Australian or Indian English did. A recognisable variety of Euro-English within the EU could emerge in the post- Brexit era. In post-Brexit Europe, nearly all British interpreters and translators within the EU would lose their jobs, and native British people would no longer determine or regulate English-language learning in continental Europe. This would loosen the grasp of British English within Europe. The Irish, for example, don’t have any motivation for preserving the sovereignty of ‘British English’. The Scots too have an indigenous Celtic language, and there is a long-standing conflict between the English and the Scots regarding their languages. Experts predict that Europe would speak its own post- Brexit English without having the British umbrella. Some experts prefer to call it ‘Eurish’ language, which is still English but with many features which a native English speaker would never use.
If Britain returns to the EU in future (who knows), they’ll see a new language as the lingua franca of the EU, which will be far removed from British English. That will also be one serious loss to Britain – losing British sovereignty of English in Europe – all due to the exercise called ‘Brexit’. Thus, in a linguistic sense, Brexit seems the portmanteau of British English and Exit.
(The writer is Professor of Statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata)