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Selling dictionaries after Brexit - Bernard ­Gauci

British exit negotiations are meant to be in their final stages, but they aren’t. Unlike the Sicilians, North Africans or Maltese, people up north are known to be organised, thorough and on time. Instead, the UK is gripped by political chaos, trading of insults and contingencies for a no-deal exit. A few years ago, there was talk of social disintegration and soldiers in the streets of Athens if Greece defaulted. Now there are plans for British soldiers to milk the cows if there is a no-deal departure.

Given all this, the list of official EU languages may be the last thing on people’s minds. Still, sooner or later, a decision will have to be made. Will the English language be ditched once the UK pulls out of the EU? 

None of the remaining 26 member states claim it as a national language. Ireland and Malta may argue that English is functionally essential for them and should be retained. But neither country has a leg to stand on. Their own native languages are on the list. Changing the rules to let each member state adopt two languages would be a cop-out.

Maltese has been one of the EU’s languages since 2004, and that status has funded training and jobs in translating documents into Maltese, often to be read by practically no one, and in instant stand-up interpretation. But in the wake of the recognition of Maltese as an EU language, more could have been done domestically to engage schools, businesses and the bureaucracy in the development and active use of civilised communication in Maltese.

It is the language at home and it is also the language of the Church, Parliament and the courts, but it can be more. English can remain an official language in Malta, but communication within the EU may have to be in another language. It would not be first linguistic shift in recent Maltese history.

Meanwhile, conversational Maltese remains a melting pot of grammar-defying Maltese injected with badly Italianised versions of English words and peppered with bursts of incoherent and offensive profanity. In a casual conversation, the subject often goes one way, the verb goes the other way and there is no object even when the verb is transitive. If the speaker is schooled, half of the words may be in English.

Some use garbled Maltese to their advantage. I ask a simple question that calls for a yes or a no. I get a four-minute mangled answer, and at the end I ask myself: was that a yes or a no? I just give up.

Back to the English language. You wouldn’t know it as they squabble their way out of the EU, but the British have a knack for punching above their weight. Their language is a good example. 

The US has played a big role in the spread of English. What is odd is that the Americans do not have an official language – not at the federal level nor in any of the states. Attempts to recognise English as a national or official language is resented especially by the Latino community. But in any case, the Americans communicate in English most of the time, catapulting it into what is arguably the top position globally.

Over here many anglophiles acknowledge the American contribution, but they still express distress when confronted with American spelling or heaven-forbid American pronunciation. They also brag about an imperial legacy that has stretched the international reach of the language. But this exaggerates the clout of many former imperial colonies or dominions.

The British have a knack for punching above their weight. Their language is a good example

Take Australia. Geographically it’s a continent, but in terms of population size or economic brawn the Australians are not in the first division. Over and over, news from Australia reveals that immigrants are not always welcomed with open arms – a bad setting for population and economic growth. I must add that Australia is not alone, especially with the resurgence of far-right nationalism around the world.

Immigration is viewed differently in the US. Set aside the recent stirring of anti-immigrant sentiment, and tightened policy measures to stop illegal immigration at the southern border. Americans recognise that their country was built by immigrants who have been well integrated in American culture and workplace. At the polls, the Democratic Party has reaped most of the multi-generational loyalty of successive waves of immigrants, such as the Irish, Italian, Jewish and more recently Latino voters. Immigration has been essential in the growth of the US economy. And English is the language of this large and wealthy country.

Language is lucrative and, in the case of the English language, the British get a big chunk of the take. When outsiders learn and use your language, you’ll also sell them your dictionaries, textbooks, documentaries and entertainment. They’ll pursue all sorts of diplomas from your educators, and they will enrol in your schools. And when foreign students go back home they retain, for the rest of their days, a soft spot for the land that educated them.

Your scholars have the advantage of engaging their global communities in your mother tongue. The same happens to other service providers. Given the sheer size of the US, those who speak other languages see the advantage of falling in. Businesses relocate to English-speaking locations. Through these and other channels, English has become the language of the financial markets, science, technology, aviation and more.

After the British exit, the French are not likely to let their big opportunity slip by, and they won’t be alone. But among EU institutions, the European Central Bank may want to stick to English, so as not to cloud its influence on the financial markets and the distinction of its experts.

Instruction and communications have improved over the years, and English has probably become a little easier to learn than for previous generations. I keep thinking of my own experience.

In the mid-1960s when I took the Oxford GCEs at the end of secondary school, the fear of flunking the English language exam instilled a pervasive sense of panic among students, adding to the neuroses of living, even back then, in a congested place. It would have made sense if the matriculation exam in physics or Latin or Chaucerian English drove the average teenager down the path of tension, panic attacks and nail biting.

But why would a simple English exam instil such foreboding? To this day, I don’t have an answer, but I suspect the exam graders in Oxford were taking their task too seriously.

Difficulty does not come just with the written version. Spoken English is worse. It has almost no pronunciation rules, and the learner must figure out how each word sounds, one word at a time.

The only rule that I am familiar with has to do with the pronunciation of the “th”, as in third versus turd. I confess that I was not even conscious of the difference until my mid-30s, though I had already lived in the US for more than a decade.

Just think of the thousands of foreign teenagers who headed home up north after a summer spent here learning English. Did they all get their ‘ths’ right? When you mean third but you keep saying turd, you may leave a bad impression.

I also recall the name of my very first English textbook, the Wild Thyme Reader. Guess what! I’ve since been told that the “th” in thyme is an exception to the rule. It’s pronounced as a clean “t”. Now, out of all the words in the dictionary, why would anyone pick thyme for the book’s title, knowing that the word is an exception to a rule that almost no one follows? Again, I have no answer.

The challenge of proper pronunciation crops up in odd places. The French head of the IMF was on TV lately, talking on the British exit. A couple of times, she spoke of deer, and I kept asking myself, “Why is she talking about venison?” What she meant was dire, as in the dire effects of the British exit, but she pronounced it the French way.

Her outlook does not have to be taken on board. It wouldn’t be the first time the experts get it wrong. The exit may be cataclysmic for the Tories, but not for the UK, especially because it wouldn’t be in either side’s interest. British vigour and quaintness will not take long to recover and blossom, and their dictionary sales will remain brisk. But that topic is for another day.

Bernard Gauci is emeritus professor of business and economics at Hollins University, Virginia.

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