Tag Archives: European Union

The Compounding Magic of German

Sign in Germany: "Wastewater treatment plant" (Wikimedia Commons)

Sign in Germany: “Wastewater treatment plant” (Wikimedia Commons)

Germany has done away with what is arguably the longest word in the German language, a barely pronounceable word relating to a former law on the origin of beef: Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz.

But it isn’t much of a loss. Aside from being exceedingly ugly, this 63-letter word has company (even if its buddies don’t trouble the inkwell quite so much). German, like Turkish and Finnish, is all too amenable to the construction of insanely long compound words. Many are ridiculously clunky and obscure: famously, there was Donaudampfschiffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft, meaning “Association for subordinate officials of the head office management of the Danube steamboat electrical services”. But a few of these compound terms convey singular emotions or ideas, like Götterdämmerung, usually translated as “Twilight of the Gods”.

Listen above to hear German journalist Sebastian Borger discussing German compound words, and why they keep multiplying.

Railway station sign, with a pronunciation guide for English speakers, in North Wales. (Wikimedia Commons)


Podcast bonus: hear how to pronounce the name of the village on the island of Anglesey in North Wales known as Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch (“St Mary’s Church in the Hollow of the White Hazel Near the Rapid Whirlpool of Llantysilio of the Red Cave”). This village name is a Victorian era construction, intended to attract tourists. Locals sensibly refer to this place as Llanfairpwll or Llanfair.



Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

A Call for English Only at the European Union

A translator works at her station at the Translation Unit of the European Commission in Brussels (Photo: Don Duncan)

A translator works at her station at the Translation Unit of the European Commission in Brussels (Photo: Don Duncan)

Here’s a guest post from Brussels-based reporter Don Duncan…

The Treaty of Rome in 1957, which was the founding event of what is now the European Union, was supposed to be the beginning of the end of nationalism in Europe. But over a half-century later, walking through any of the EU buildings in Brussels, it feels like nationalism never went away.

Officially, deputies and delegates will only speak in their national languages, as a matter of principle. Attending them is a small army of translators and interpreters who assure their message is translated into the languages of the rest of the union – at a current cost of $1.4bn per year. The big irony, though, is that once they are away from the podium or the microphone, and they are hanging out with other European bureaucrats by the water cooler, they comfortably switch into English, the de facto lingua franca of the union.

You might wonder then, when most if not all EU bureaucrats master English, what’s the point in maintaining 23 official languages, especially at such expense? Why not just use a single language and, what’s more, why not use the language all EU bureaucrats master – English?

“It’s tempting of course, with English you get through everywhere in the whole world,” says Andrea Dahman, head of communications for the Translation Unit of the European Commission. “On the other hand, I’m always saying, if you want to do business you’ve got to speak the language of the client.”

Interpretors of various languages work interpreting a presentation at the European Commission headquarters in Brussels. (Photo: European Commission)

In the EU, in order to speak the “language of the client” – that is the languages of the 27 member states – a long, costly and time-consuming chain of tasks needs to happen.

Once a delegate or bureaucrat delivers a speech in his or her native language, it is then taken up by dozens of interpreters, who simultaneously translate into their respective languages, or tune into the English interpretation and work from that.

Meanwhile, an official release of the speech is produced and this is sent to the translation unit and – again – either directly, or via English, a separate group of text-based translators gets to work.

Within the EU institutions, ideology trumps pragmatism, and the founding ideology of the Union is “Unity in Diversity.” Back in 1957, when there were only six member states and four languages, it was an easy credo to follow. But fast-forward to today and things are not so easy: 27 member states and 23 official languages. It’s costing the EU a lot of money, it’s having a negative impact on its global competitiveness and it will only get more complex as the union continues to enlarge. In July, Croatia will become the 28th member state of the EU, and Croatian the 24th official language.

As the EU gets larger, critics of the multilingual system are becoming more vocal. For Shada Islam director of policy at Brussels think thank Friends of Europe, the process is costly, unproductive, and most of all, unnecessary.

“We’re spending too much time and energy on this language issue,” she says. “The world is moving fast, the world is moving ahead and we need to be looking at other ways of fostering diversity and inclusiveness. You do really need to have a common understanding and I think that’s where English came in as the natural language that everyone spoke.

While more and more respected public policy organizations are calling for establishing English as the language of the EU, the idea remains politically toxic. English is the language of the most eurosceptic country – the UK. What’s more, France and Germany are very touchy when it comes to having their languages eclipsed by English. Regardless of sentiment, EU officials argue that using any single language wouldn’t be democratic, or in the shared spirit of the union.

“Europeans believe or at least they think they should believe very much in diversity and in inclusion and that everyone is equal,” says Shada Islam of Friends of Europe. “It’s an artificial mental set up, if you like. Everyone is not equal. There are big powers, there’s Germany, there’s France… so we’re not all equal.”

But despite the growing cost and complexity, and the growing skepticism from outside the EU institutions, the Union is holding course and shows no sign of shifting. When Croatian becomes the official language in July, the cost of the union’s commitment to multilingualism will nudge up to an estimated $1.5bn a year.


Patrick Cox adds: Here’s a link to John Crace’s excellent Digested Read podcast that I mentioned in the pod.

Other podcasts on this subject:



5 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Language-learning in France and Ireland, and free speech in Tunisia

In France, the  government is proposing that children start learning English at age three. It’s high time, they argue, that French educators face up to the fact that learning English gives you — and your country — an edge.

Good idea,  say French intellectuals. But why English? According to French linguist, Claude Hagège, the proposal is “totally pointless, if not ridiculous.”

Now, before you write off Hagège as a good-for-nothing naysayer, consider this: he’s one of France best-known promoters of language-learning. He strongly supports the idea of people learning several languages if they can. But for Hagège, language is power– and speaking English is “not quite innocent.”  From his perspective (and, I suspect, he is far from alone) it’s more important to resist the rise of English than it is to expose French youth to it, at least as a first foreign language. In his words, speaking English is “a guilty act because it is the language of very wealthy, industrialized countries. And I think any person who has a minimum of sense of justice cannot accept that because this means domination by the countries whose mother tongue this language is.”

It may be because of attitudes like this that French schools will continue to lag behind school systems elsewhere in Europe, when it comes to teaching English.

In Ireland, mandatory Irish learning in schools became an issue in the recent parliamentary elections.  OK, so it didn’t sway voters as much as the economy did. But the party that won, Fine Gael, has promised to consider dropping Irish as a must-learn subject at school.  In the old days — or at least when my dad went to school — learning Irish was considered act of patriotism in a new country eager to establish its national identity.  It didn’t work. Despite massive government support, the vast majority of Irish people forgot most of the Irish they had been forced to learn. Fine Gael’s proposal, while upsetting the old guard and some native Irish speakers, struck a chord with some voters and commentators.  Why not learn languages that are more widely  spoken, like Spanish, French or Chinese — languages that  might help young people get a leg up?

In Tunisia, journalists are getting used to their new freedoms; some are clinging to the old ways.  The pod has a report from Tunis on how some news organizations are adapting quickly to their new freedoms, while others can’t figure out quite how to express themselves without a censor to frame reality for them.

Also,  we have  an interview with Anglo-Middle Eastern singer Natacha Atlas. Atlas isn’t known for her political or social stances. But recently she began singing about free speech in Egypt, and beyond.

Listen in iTunes or here.

Photos: Wikicommons

5 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized