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Brexit and EU English – how a new language has developed

With the aftermath and implications of the Brexit vote still the subject of daily debate in the papers and Parliament, the UK’s estrangement from the rest of the European Union is developing in ways many haven’t expected. In a speech last year, the European Commission’s president, Jean-Claude Juncker claimed that “slowly but surely English is losing its importance in Europe”.

This has come in part as a response to Theresa May’s refusal to conduct the Brexit negotiations in French, as well as a more official plan to diminish the English Language’s importance within the EU itself. While German is the most spoken language in the continent (with 90 million speakers), 38% of adults in Europe still speak English as a second language. As such, there clearly remains a need to adapt English to suit the needs of those on the continent who continue to speak it.

Enter EU English.

What is EU English?

As outlined in a paper written last September by Swedish academic Marko Modiano, the development of EU English has come in the wake of Brexit, in the knowledge that most of those EU citizens who speak English as a first language will be leaving. With the departure of these primary speakers, the standards for spoken English will primarily come from those who speak it as a second language. As the paper notes, “they will no longer find their use of English under scrutiny from ‘native-speaker’ colleagues”.

These changes to the basic usage of English within the EU are already being felt, with certain idioms and words in common usage within the corridors of Brussels. These are occasionally rooted in the different grammatical structure of sentences compared with Queen’s English; for example, as the Guardian notes, EU English finds “I am coming from Spain” as acceptable a sentence as “I come from Spain”. Meanwhile, commonly-misused words such as “ensure” (rather than “provide”) and slang terms such as “Handy” (rather than “mobile phone”) will become de rigeur.

What does EU English mean for the UK’s status in the Union?

The UK’s influence on EU law and policy is set to be nonexistent, with its outsider status minted as a result of the Brexit vote. However, Mondiano argues that England’s presence (or lack thereof) in the Union will not influence the EU’s use of the English language , claiming that the ability to communicate in English is instead “an integral component of globalization”. It has been noted, however, that Malta and Ireland, both of whom are predominantly English-speaking nations, did not list it as their primary language.

Despite this, it would appear that English will remain the EU’s lingua franca; it has been predicted that it may even lead to an European English dictionary, which would formalise the nuanced differences in spelling, syntax and grammar. This “new” form of English would also be a way for those who speak English at some level of proficiency to feel less pressure to conform to the standards held by those who speak it fluently. Or, as Modiano puts it, it will usher in an age of “liberation linguistics”, with or without the UK.

Beyond Brussels, the long-term role of EU English in the European Union is unclear. The differences between the English spoken in the UK and the hybridized version of English being developed in day-to-day conversation within the EU are subtle, but crucial. Much like the American or Australian variations, the EU’s autonomous variation on the English language shows that they appreciate the importance of English.

Yet it highlights the complexities of the English language, and how other nations find it easier to use it in a way that would most benefit them. The rise of EU English also emphasises the need for accurate, professional translation, whether to iron out the nuances of the Queen’s English for an international audience, or rendering EU English into a more understandable form for British natives.

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