Europe: "Unity" Spells Trouble

A common language won’t work in Europe, where language stirs nationalistic pride and people know the advantages of not understanding each other

No ONE WANTS to belittle European unity, not at this bracing time of change. But one truth needs facing. An immovable obstacle stands in the way of the kind of unity envisaged by those seeking a United States of Europe, and it is the way people speak. The United States itself offers no guidance here. The lesson that America is America because it was prudent enough to insist on one language is irrelevant to European integration.

In Europe there are a dozen determined languages that are never going to surrender to English. Say “language” and you are saying pride, identity, roots, communication, and all the things that stir the heart. As President Mario Soares of Portugal puts it: “My country is my language.”

This unhelpful truth has a habit of revealing itself just when European federalists least care to see it—at European Community summit meetings. These take place every six months, attended by the heads of government of the twelve member states and conducted in nine official tongues. As a tribute to communal thinking, the summits may work. As an example of it, they don’t. They come perilously close to disinformation exercises.

Here is what happens. During the summit, spokespersons for the government leaders offer press briefings at propitious moments. Since Dutch spokespersons speak Dutch, Spanish spokespersons speak Spanish, and so on, the purveyors of news find themselves addressing the people who understand them—journalists and TV cameramen from their own countries. This is precisely what they want. They tell the journalists what makes their leader look good. Language apartheid is a useful weapon.

The EC is democratic if nothing else, and no rules bar an English journalist from attending a German briefing. But such behavior is odd, and though no one would ever openly complain about intrusion, outsiders are left in no doubt about how they are looked upon, particularly if they attempt a question. The result is that each national delegation puts a spin on the summit, and this shows up on the front pages in the different countries. Europes front pages ean tell diametrically opposed stories. Journalists, being mistrustful and skeptical as well as linguistically limited, do harden themselves against abuse. But they can’t butt their heads against language.

While officials from all member countries exploit this fact, the man who makes the baldest use of it is Margaret Thatcher’s glowering mouthpiece, Bernard Ingham. Since Britain’s Prime Minister is the only leader overtly opposed to a federal Europe, Ingham’s job is to try to embroider her solitude by making it appear that others secretly sympathize with her. Ingham’s sparring partners in the press can patch together decent approximations of reality by swapping notes with foreign newspaper colleagues, but there is no such thing as a balanced, dependable account of a European summit, from any quarter. Maybe American journalists come closest to providing one, out of nonpartisan curiosity.

Language-related statistics will show what I’m getting at. Belgians commonly receive twenty-six TV channels, broadcast in a spread of languages from their own country and surrounding ones, whereas folk in the larger European countries receive far fewer, the French least of all (six). Two conclusions offer themselves. First, little two-tongued Belgium is at the linguistic crossroads of French, English, Dutch, and German, and is obliged to entertain itself in several languages because it has no champion of its own; second, the European nations that count most—Germany, France, Britain, Italy, and Spain — tend to close themselves off from their neighbors’ tongues and, by extension, from their cultures.

THE FRENCH ARE devils in matters of language. Of all the European nations they are the most authoritarian in a domain where flexibility should rule. At the moment, they—the government, not the people— are thinking of changing French spelling. Spelling has been the cause of periodic crises in French history. The language is virtually impossible to write without error. In normal times this breeds a perverse national joy, Gallic pride in adversity. However, President François Mitterrand’s Socialist government has set itself the extraordinary task of lifting France’s level of education to an altitude at which 80 percent of students will pass the tough baccalaureate exam, the ticket to a promising job. At present the pass rate is about 40 percent. Surveying the long odds against the government’s plan, many teachers insist that the solution is to simplify the spelling that floors so many “bac” candidates (to lower marking standards is regarded as too crass a way out).

The spelling of most languages evolves quite naturally, with usage. You know—“night" begins slipping ominously into “nite,” “through” into “thru,”and so on. Not French. The Prime Minister, Michel Rocard, asked the recently formed Conseil Supérieur de la Langue Françhise (High Council for the French Language) to come up with reforms that he and the august Académie Française, the guardian of the purity of the language, would, all being well, require Frenchmen to use. From that point on no alternatives would be permitted. Fluff your spelling on the official government form and you can forget your tax rebate.

The sort of changes being discussed are more a wash and brushup than a radical departure. Circumflexes that sit on vowels (château, fôret) would disappear; the mad feud between single and double consonants in the same root (rationnel, rationalisme) would be settled in favor of one of them; rogue plurals (genoux, not genous) would be tamed, past participles shorn of masculine and feminine wiles.

All this just might improve bac results, but the backlash is fierce even before the first decree has hit the dictionaries. No one who has struggled to master the placement of the circumflex, and I include myself, will renounce it without a fight. Years ago, when other kids were learning to smoke or drink beer, I made a substantial personal investment. And how can Nimes and Angouleme accept being stripped of their municipal dignity? This is not a question for French authorities to decide by decree. It concerns everyone who ever entered a French class anywhere in the world.

FOR FIVE YEARS now, starting in the spring and working up to a pre-Christmas finale, France has dramatized its linguistic passion with a national spelling championship. The later stages of the contest are televised live, enabling millions to submit simultaneously to the same dictation that the contenders are writing down. In France spelling has the kind of appeal that chess holds for Russians, baseball for Americans. We could go further without exaggeration: correctly terminated past participles are to the French what lederhosen are to Austrians. Last year’s spelling final was held in the multi-domed National Library, in Paris, where solemn ranks of lamp-topped desks provided space for 252 finalists— 132 French citizens and 120 foreigners, some French-speaking, others redoubtable French buffs from Japan, Argentina, and other countries. Each one had advanced through grueling heats to earn a desk at the National Library.

Hoping to feel my way into France’s soul, I entered the final in a subcategory for foreign journalists, a johnnycome-lately gang offered a walkover into the final in return for our show of concern. Moreover, our contingent had to complete only half the dictation. At the pre-fight cocktail party I met Bob Durling, a full candidate from Santa Cruz, California, one of two U.S. finalists. Among the score of Americans who had competed in the earlier stages, eleven came from the San Francisco Bay area, including Durling, who is a professor at UC Santa Cruz, although not of French—his living is Italian literature. As a teenager in New York, he tested his skills by speaking French in the subway with his best friend. “I was an insufferable little bastard,”he told me. He noted with some relief that the Académie Françaisc had announced opposition to any wholesale redrafting of French spelling. The candidate-guests at the cocktail parte drank moderately, saving themselves for the big moment on the morrow. “You can’t imagine this happening in any other country,” Durling remarked happily. “Italians know how to spell. Their language is written ninety-nine percent how it sounds. French is crotchety.” I sensed that he would hate to see the quirks in French disappear.

The atmosphere in the National Library was highly charged the next day. You could see the tension in the candidates’ too-ready smiles, affected to suggest the right degree of insouciance. But these contestants were beautifully trained. Their brows bulged with grammatical trivia. For myself, attempting the dictation without preparation reminded me of the humiliation I had once brought upon myself by entering a marathon without training.

The crow of a cock launched the proceedings—a nice chauvinist touch. Then the bookish French TV star Bernard Pivot, of the cultural program Apostrophes, gave a preliminary reading of the dictation to acclimatize the contestants. A buzz of excitement rose to the vaults, interspersed with whispers of “You swine, Pivot” . . . “shameful”

. . . “diabolical.” It was true. Indiana Jones could not have devised a more deadly minefield. Pivot admitted, before starting a slower reading, at dictation pace, that there were plenty of traps. In case several likely champions finished with the same number of errors, he dictated three further sentences to separate the men from the boys. These, he said, were “terrifying.” (One of the most fiendish sentences was in the main dictation: “,Je suis parfois si obsédée par la faint que, p eachée sur les trésors de la Ribliothèque rationale, je les confonds acre ceus de la gastronomic: manuscrits médiévaux et fricandeaux, palimpsestes minoens et courtsbouillons, in-folio et sot-l’y-laisse, ainsi que les culs-de-lampe historiés et les cancoillottes très parfumées. . . .”)

Until then not even the most distinguished French spellers, members of the Academy included, had managed to get through a final without making mistakes. This time, to general incredulity, an error-free paper was handed in by a classical-literature professor from Strasbourg. When the state-run TV network went live in prime time that night to explain the pitfalls and announce the results, the nation’s delight at the winner’s performance was twofold. Not only was he faultless but he came from a town where people communicate in a German dialect.

OF COURSE, IT IS not because the French language is impossible to write properly that a federal Europe will be hard to achieve. The point is this: The immense popular appeal of Monsieur Pivot’s national spelling bee demonstrates that forwardlooking Europeans who call for the acceptance of English as the language of Europe have got it all wrong. You can’t expect English to replace the deepest emotions Europeans feel. I daresay Germans and Italians feel as strongly as the French about this. The “English solution" might be halfway valid if European unity were only about business and improved economic management. Parents in continental Europe increasingly insist that their children learn English, because mastery of English leads to the top jobs with the most money. Federalists know that a United States of Europe must take into account much more than that.

Those who argue that language differences won’t obstruct European unity often cite quiet, contented Switzerland as an example of how multilanguage federalism can work. But Swiss togetherness is a myth. I know several German-speaking Swiss from Zurich, bright professional people, who have never in their lives been to Geneva, and as many French-speaking Genevese who haven’t been to Zurich. Within their little country the two main contingents of Swiss hardly know or speak to each other. Switzerland would work much less well than it does if it had to shoulder the responsibility of a leading world role, as a federal Europe would. Then there is the example of the Soviet Union. With its many different peoples and languages pressed together, the Soviet empire offers an appalling example of botched unity— mainly, as Mikhail Gorbachev knows, because of the link between language and nationalism.

No one is happy about the language barrier except maybe Margaret Thatcher—and except, also, the 3,500 people handsomely employed by the EC as interpreters, translators, and support staff, and the additional tens of thousands employed by corporate Europe simply to ensure that companies are able to explain themselves to crossborder partners and customers. Here I should declare an interest. Disappointed though I will be if the United States of Europe never gets off the ground, my conclusion that it will not has paid off. If I hadn’t sensed that Europe’s language differences were intractable,

I would not have applied such youthful zeal to exploring French grammar. And I would certainly have made more than the twelve errors that led Monsieur Pivot to award me second prize in the foreign journalists’ category (I was trounced by a Left Bank contributor to Playboy). The prize was a pen, with which to cross out “federal” before Europe.

—David Lawday