The 28 member states of the European Union rarely agree on much, but over the years, they accommodated themselves to the reality of English as the language of business and government. Now that Britain, the homeland of the English language, is about to depart from the political union, where does that leave the status of English in Europe? Stronger than ever, according to a recent piece in The Guardian. For decades, Britain not only used its privileged position as native speaker to look down its nose at the unconventional usages and non-standard grammar that cropped up on the Continent, it had an official role as language cop. Brits battled everything from the creeping use of American idioms to the neologisms of Brussels bureaucrats, creating a “Guide to Misused English Words and Expressions in European Publications” to point out deviations from the norm.
Now that the British have voted themselves out of the EU, Brussels doesn’t need to listen to them anymore. In fact, because Ireland lists Gaelic as its official language and Malta lists Maltese, there are no remaining members states to speak for “English as she is spoken.”
Ironically, some believe this will enable European English, spoken mainly for official and business purposes, to grow and evolve faster, since everyone will be on an equal footing. According to the Guardian, “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.’”
Those in business and government use English in a functional, transactional way where the most important values are intelligibility, not style. Linguist Marko Modiano, whose work is cited in the Guardian column, sees European English becoming more specialized in certain ways, but ultimately more universal, “developing their own characteristics without ceasing to be useful.”
Most European countries are now educating children in English from an early age, giving them a head start toward careers in science, technology, business, hospitality, retail and any of the dozens of other industries and occupations touched by globalization. Within a generation, it may even be the EU that is publishing guides to proper usage, chiding its non-member trading partner, Great Britain, for deviating from the accepted norms of European English.