Language After Brexit

English is currently one of three procedural language of the European Union.  But with the UK’s exit from the EU only a year away, there has been much speculation about the best way to prepare for the transition from a linguistic perspective.  While it’s unknown whether English will retain its status post-Brexit – it will remain the language of Malta and Ireland, both remaining in the Union – there have been clear suggestions from Jean Claude Juncker and others that it will not.

German and French, as the other two higher status languages in the EU, stand to be its successors – although there are set to be challenges from Polish, Italian and others for a place in the sun.  Accordingly, there has been plenty of discussion of their relative benefits.  French, it is pointed out, still carries a huge amount of international cachet, and is the language of choice for many diplomats; it is one of two working languages of the UN.  It is not for nothing we still refer to the ‘lingua franca’ or ‘French tongue’.

German, on the other hand, has its reputation for directness and efficiency.  We’re often told that the Germans have a word for everything – many of which we have borrowed, including schadenfreude, kitsch (by way of Yiddish), doppelganger, etc.

And it is true that Germans are able to express in single words what others might take a whole sentence over: my personal favourite is ‘schunkeln’, which could be translated the action of swaying from side to side to the rhythm of music, while holding (and trying not to spill) an alcoholic drink – usually shoulder to shoulder with other revellers.

Yet German has this in common with many languages: Scots has ‘tartle’, for the moment of anxious hesitation before introducing someone whose name you can’t quite recall; Czech has ‘vybafnout’ – the act of jumping out and shouting boo.

And while it sounds impressive to say there is even a German word for ‘the cap of the captain of a Danube steamship company’, there should really be a name for the moment of panic when asked to pronounce a compound word like Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitänsmütze.

Unfortunately, for the moment, especially while the power play of exit negotiations is ongoing, it’s impossible to predict what will happen – watch this space.

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