I recently spent a couple of years working for the EU in Brussels, where amid the 24 working languages English is increasingly dominant.
Older generations – particularly those native in Romance languages – may favour French, but young people have grown up with English as the background noise and, anecdotally, seem to prefer it as the default.
I arrived in Belgium with a cosy sense of smugness about all this. While lagging hilariously behind my Euro-brethren in all kinds of ways, I was English and therefore surely counted as some kind of authority on Europe’s common language. It was a nice thought.
So when co-workers made little mistakes, I would benevolently correct them: a ‘delay’ was not a deadline or a time-frame (from the the French delai), and the the opposite of sweet food was savoury, not ‘salty’. My colleagues would complement me on this dazzling ability to speak my native language (like what a 5 year old can do), and all would be well with the world.
Except, of course, that everyone was getting on just fine without correction. So long as the language served its main purpose – getting the point across – any ‘mistakes’ are simply absorbed as the new norm, a way of melding English to its fresh purpose as the lingua franca.
From its use across the continent a new English dialect – European English – has emerged. It’s particularly pronounced and unique in the world of the government institutions, but is also a general feature of life across Europe.
England may have given birth to this new English, but it has long outgrown its parent’s influence, and if European English wants to describe a training course as ‘a training’, it is damn well going to do so.
The number of native anglophones in Europe is eclipsed by speakers of European English. There really is no stopping it as it plugs the gap Esperanto once tried to fill of letting Europe talk amongst itself.
And football is no exception. From being the lingua franca in the Albanian squad to serving as back-up for clubs across the continent, English is everywhere. And this English doesn’t need to conform to British, American or other existing dialects to get the job done. A European version will do just nicely.
Learning the native language is still the ideal for a new arrival at any club in Europe, but a back-up that allows a player from Bulgaria to speak to a player from Spain when they’ve both just arrived in, say, Sweden is always going to be needed.
The parallels between England’s relationship with its language and with football are interesting. We created both, and some feel a lingering sense of ownership over the two things, but the rest of the world have taken them and are shaping them in their own vision.
If we are going to shuffle away from Europe we’d do well to remember that, while we invented it, English no longer needs us in order to to grow in whatever direction it needs to. The English language, like football, has sprouted wings and flown the nest.
And wherever we sit in world politics, this evolution of language has to be good news. In or out of the EU, English will continue to splinter, grow and leech off foreign influence as it always has done. Our international football may stagnate as we refuse to learn the lessons of failures past, but our language will continue to ramble down all kinds of unforeseen paths.
We can try to shut the world out, and in some ways we may succeed, but language, to paraphrase Dr Ian Malcolm, finds a way.