Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

The Scandinavian Languages and the European Community

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

The Scandinavian Languages and the European Community

Article excerpt


THIRTY-FIVE YEARS AFTER the founding of the European Economic Community (EEC), Jean Monnet's dream of a union of European states has become an indisputable reality. In 1986, the twelve European Community (EC) "member states" signed the Single European Act (SEA), among these Denmark; and many new membership candidates are soliciting membership from the Commission of the European Community in Brussels. Of the Scandinavian countries, the governments of Sweden and Finland have already delivered their official applications for membership in the European Union, and Norway, though still skeptical, is considering a similar move in the near future.(1)

If we consider that the primary task of the EC countries is to communicate and negotiate through the channels of EC institutions, then we must also recognize that the democratic way to accomplish this is for everyone to be able to communicate in his or her own language. Thus, it is natural to assume that the EC principle of "egalite dans la diversite" would also include linguistic equality. And, at least on paper, indeed it does where the member states' official national languages are concerned.

Article 217 of the treaty establishing the EEC stipulates that the rules governing the languages of Community institutions are to be determined by the Council of Ministers. A Council regulation of April 15, 1958 states that Dutch, French, German, and Italian are to be the official and working languages of the Community. When Denmark, Great Britain, and Ireland became members of the Community in 1973, Danish and English were added to the list of official working languages. With Greek membership in 1981 and Portuguese and Spanish membership in 1986, the number of official EC languages is presently nine. Among these, Danish is the smallest.(2) Currently, no member country is required to use a language not its own when participating in the official EC decision making process. But there is a difference between having linguistic rights on paper and exercising them without causing irritation and delay. Denmark's current situation--the extent to which Danish is used in connection with the "democratic processes" of the EC--reveals deficits on both linguistic and political fronts.

The goal of erasing national borders from the map of Europe allowing people, goods, services, and capital to move freely within the geographic area belonging to EC member states has not been accompanied by the desire to erase linguistic barriers. This is a rather unique situation considering the fact that organizations like the Council of Europe, UNO, NATO, OECD, and EFTA have few official languages, and sometimes only one. The multilingual linguistic ideals of the European Community are indeed idealistic.


Sociolinguistics teaches that power and language usage go hand in hand, and the European Community is no exception. Behind the scenes, French has asserted itself as the dominant language from the beginning. It was the official language, or one of the official languages, of three of the six countries founding the EC, and these French-speaking countries have cleverly supported their linguistic position structurally by seeing to it that all EC institutions were placed in French-speaking countries. The Commission and the Council are located in Brussels, a city with a French-speaking majority. The Court of Justice and the European Investment Bank are located in Luxembourg, where French is the most important administrative language. And the European Parliament is located in Strasbourg, a bilingual city with French as its official language. When Great Britian and Ireland became members in 1973, English quickly moved into a close second place due to its position as a global lingua franca. With respect to population, we might also expect Italy, Spain, and Germany to provide competition, but size alone is apparently not enough. …

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