At the beginning of the 19th century, Czech scholar Josef Dobrovsky sat down to write the first dictionary in his dying language. The Czech lands were then occupied by the Austrian Empire, and the Czech language was quickly giving way before politically powerful German.
Mr. Dobrovsky's research sparked a movement to resurrect his language and liberate the Czechs, and today Czech is the national language of an independent country of 10 million. Linguists call it a miracle.
Now, 200 years after Dobrovsky's writing, the Czech Republic is poised to join another supernational European government, the European Union. The old question remains: What will happen to the language?
With dozens of languages intermingled in Europe, English is increasingly taking the place of smaller languages in politics, diplomacy, and business. Forty-seven percent of the citizens of the EU speak English as a first or second language. Yet, unlike the Austrian Empire, the EU insists on preserving multilingualism in its documents and meetings, even at great expense.
As the Union prepares to expand eastward and absorb a tangle of new languages, the question of how Europeans communicate is becoming more urgent.
"In the European Union we are caught between two necessities," says Christian Bourgin, spokesman for an EU delegation to Central European candidate states. "We need to understand one another in our discussions and, at the same time, we have to be certain that no one is at a linguistic disadvantage in those discussions. For the moment, there is a tenuous balance, though many people fear English has too much influence. The question is how will it work with 21 languages."
Language is perhaps the most potent symbol of national identity left on a continent where currencies are being united and religion is not the force it once was. All candidate states insist that their national languages gain equal status in the EU.
Central and Eastern Europe have a long history of supernational domination, most recently by the Soviet Union, which tried to impose its language - Russian - as a regional common tongue. That memory is painfully fresh. A recent poll in Latvia showed that 52 percent of Latvians worry that joining the EU will threaten their language again. By contrast, only 48 percent were concerned about the loss of their national currency.
One of the most sacred principles of the EU is the right of all citizens to be heard and to receive information from common institutions in their own language. For a decade that policy has maintained a delicate, and expensive, equilibrium between linguistic imperialism and communications chaos in Europe. European Commission officials insist that EU enlargement will not change this language policy. But economists warn that if it doesn't change, the EU may face a financial crisis that could threaten the Union's cohesion.
EU institutions currently use 11 official languages, which create 110 language combinations in translation and interpretation. In the name of maintaining linguistic equality among member states, EU entities employ thousands of interpreters and translators at a cost of 686 million euros ($671 million) per year. Planned expansions of the Union in the next decade will add another 10 official languages, raising the number of combinations to 420 …