Why Language Laws Don't Work

01/09/2013 12:24 EST | Updated 03/11/2013 05:12 EDT
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The European Commission and the British government have agreed that the official language of the European Union will be English, rather than German, which was the other possibility.

German is the primary language of more Europeans than any other tongue, over 90 million, against nearly 70 million for English and French. But English is the second language spoken fluently of a much greater number of Europeans than any other language. The British agreed to certain modifications of official spelling, to make it easier for Europeans, to be phased in over five years. The result will be known as Euro-English, and the United Kingdom is not bound to alter the instruction of English in U.K. schools to conform to it.

The results promise to be interesting. In the first year, "s" will replace the soft "c," which will not only make the sivil servants happy, but will surely be taken up with selerity by many when the new plan commenses. The hard "c" will be dropped in favour of "k," which will klear up konfusion, as the letter "c" kan then be skrapped kompletely. The public will become more akkustomed to these korrections, which will be a sinch to introduse by the sekond year, when "ph" will be replased with "f." This will kut words like fotograf by 20 per sent. By the third year, Publik akseptanse of the new spelling kan be expected to sede easily to more komplikated and exsitingly kreative changes. Europeans will be enkouraged to sease to use double letters, which have always ben a deterent to akurasy. Most wil aksept that the silent "e" is a teribl mes, a disgraseful oddity that should be skraped.

It is anticipated that by the fourth year, the profetic reform wil be sufisiently advanced to apeas the Germans by replasing "th" with "z": and "w" with "v." Akordingly, in ze fifz year, ze unesesary "o" kan be kut from vords containing "ou" and at ze end of zis fifz year, ve wil hav a sensibl vriten styl. Zere vil be no trobl viz ze ofisial Uro-speak for zos zat speak the languags of Servantes, Kamus and Rasine, Goz and Hin, (zey ver Goethe and Heine), and Makhiaveli, ets. Ze dream of a kultur of Urop vil kum tru; after ze fifz year, ze Uropeans vil al be speaking German as zat grat ras vanted.

Not to be outdone by this surging linguistic progress in Europe, Quebec, ever at the cutting edge of cultural matters, can provide an authoritative table of translation between English, French, and Quebecois. Thus "Check that" ("Regardé " in French), is "Garsa." "What's new " ("Quoi de neuf?"), is "Pis?" "Look at her and Look at him" ("Regardé -la y" and "Regardé -le") are "Gar la y don" and "Gar le don." "I don't believe it" ("Je ne le crois pas") is "Ben voyon." "What?" ("Quoi?), is "Quessey?" "With that" ("Avec ca"), is "Aik sa." "I'm going to beat you up" ("Je vais me battre"), is "Ma te crises un vole X." "You're kidding me" ("Tu badines") is "Vatendon." "It stinks" ("Ca pue"), is "Sassen charogne." "I was scared" ("J'ai en peur"), is "Gey eu la chienne." "Right here" ("Ici meme"), is "Drette la Y." "Move your ass" ("Tasse-toi"), is "Anweille." "I'm so confused" (Je suis confus"), is "Ch'toute fourre X.") "I'm so tired" ("Je suis si epuisé X"), is "J'cogne de clous." "Get lost" ("Disparais.") is "Decrisse." "Because" ("Parce que"), is ""Stacose." "Anyway" ("En tout cas"), is "Anteka." "See you later" ("A plus tard"), is "Mat woere talleur." "Relax" ("Détends-toi"), is "Camme toe X." "Damn" ("Damne X"), is "Viarge." "She's crying" ("Elle pleure"), is "A braille." And "I'm in trouble" ("Je suis dans le pétrin"), is "Chu dan marde."

To be altogether serious, the Euro-initiative to modernize English has not reached such absurd lengths, and an ever larger number of Quebecois is making the effort to speak a French that is acoustically and grammatically closer to the middle version of the phrases above. Most of the leaders in Quebec society, including many of those best known to English-speaking Canadians, such as Pierre Trudeau, Robert Bourassa, and Jeanne Sauvé, spoke with great elegance and precision. But the point of these endless discussions of language is not that they can be made more like other languages and homogenized, or that other languages can be restrained by legislation.

In free societies, people must be free to speak any language they wish and to put out commercial signs in any language they wish. The most eloquent of all Quebecois of my acquaintance was Paul-Émile Cardinal Léger, who in accepting an honorary degree from the University of Montreal in 1974, at the height of the controversy over the restrictive Bill 22, which envisioned language tests for pre-schoolers to see if they should be streamed into French or English schools regardless of the wishes of their parents, made this point.

"I remember walking through the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris in 1928, as a young priest and hearing the chatter of the children, as clear as the chirping of the birds and the splashing of the water in the fountains. It will not be by laws, regulations, fines, and harassments, that a language is promoted. It is by speaking your language in a way that to hear it, others will wish to speak it also."

That is what he did.

Europe will not succeed by homogenizing its nationalities, but by making a virtue of diversity. Quebec will not make French stronger by trying to weaken English. All people should be proud of their language and speak it well and all people should recognize that it is an advantage and an enviable condition to speak more than one language. Americans should not be concerned about the advances of Spanish in the U.S., as long as all public schooling has English as the language of instruction and all school attendees learn English. Beyond that, any additional language facility expands the cultural resources of the country and should be encouraged.

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