Published On: Tue, Mar 28th, 2017

Le Brexit: How the EU referendum is dividing languages, not just nations

It is not just the continuing negotiations of Brexit that are causing international conflict and confusion, it’s the word itself. In the UK, many politicians have mistakenly referred to the decision to leave the European Union as ‘Breakfast’. Meanwhile on the continent, politicians are busy debating the gender of Brexit.

However the gender of Brexit is not the only thing that is dividing language; it is the language that the negotiations are held in too. And that could have knock-on effects for British businesses operating across the EU.

Brexit is masculine in French, but feminine in Italian

In French, Britain’s decision to leave the European Union is known as ‘le Brexit’, Why? Well a slightly higher percentage of men than women voted to leave the European Union. However, while it is an interesting coincidence to be sure, the reason is likely far more simple than that.

Although the Académie Française has yet to rule on the question, new words in French are almost invariably masculine. Nouns ending in “t” are also usually considered masculine. So it makes linguistic sense that Brexit became ‘le Brexit’.

Germany also appears to have pretty much decided that ‘der Brexit’ is a male thing. Spain, too, has plumped for ‘el Brexit’, like most English loan words that become masculine by default in Spanish. However in Italy, Brexit is feminine. Italy’s language authority, the Accademia della Crusca, published a lengthy explanation for their choice of the feminine ‘il Brexit’. They state: “It seems preferable to make Brexit feminine, since etymologically, the component exit has a corresponding Italian noun, ‘uscita’”, which is feminine.

The Accademia della Crusca also compared Brexit to other catastrophic events such as global warming, that are also considered feminine. Although Eurosceptic Brits may snigger at the Europeans for bothering about such trivialities as masculine and feminine nouns, we might need to at least take the French language a little more seriously before long.

The debate over which language the Brexit negotiations are held

The news that the European Union’s lead Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, would reportedly like British and EU officials to work in French rather than English during the Brexit negotiations has led to something of a fallout over the linguistic challenges Brexit represents.

Barnier has since refuted favouring French. He took to Twitter to say “I never expressed myself on negotiation language. Work as often in English as French. Linguistic regime to be set at start; to be agreed between negotiators.” This was supported by an EU spokeswoman, who said: “This will be agreed upon at the beginning of the negotiations—after receiving the Article 50 notification—and in common agreement with the negotiators.”

The British government also insisted it would not accept negotiations in French. “We will conduct the negotiations in the way that is going to make sure we get the right deal for the United Kingdom,” Theresa May told journalists after the EU summit. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, suggested a compromise, stating “If I am correctly informed, we are all entitled to speak in our native tongue.”

In the meantime, Jon Henley in The Guardian has produced a helpful Brexit language guide which he suggests that the PM could benefit from using. Choice phrases include ‘Le Brexit, combien de fois faut-il le répéter, veut dire le Brexit’, which translates to ‘Brexit means Brexit. How many times do I have to say it?’ and ‘Je dois platement m’excuser pour le comportement de mon ministre des affaires étrangères’ which means ‘I really must apologise for the behaviour of my Foreign Secretary.’

How will this affect the language of businesses in Europe?

The effect of Brexit on the English language could potentially have more serious ramifications for British businesses. Not only have France been supposedly courting London-based banks, Robert Ménard, mayor of Béziers in France, has suggested English could lose all legitimacy in the European Union. If this turns out to be the case, unlikely as it seems, there’ll be more of a need to translate things like patent applications, and if your business operates according to EU law you may need to translate your business records too.

London Translations, experts in French translation services, say that the language is already one of the most important for British businesses; stating that “Fluency in French opens up no end of opportunities for commerce, both in mature markets and developing nations.”

Writing for the IBTimes, Andrew Linn makes the point that “English has not always held its current privileged status. French and German have both functioned as common languages for high-profile fields such as philosophy, science and technology, politics and diplomacy.” It would be foolish to suggest the current dominance in English will last forever—Brexit or no Brexit.

It is likely that businesses will need access to foreign languages in the future. Of course, for many businesses, being multilingual is already vital.

The British Council suggests Spanish, Arabic and French could be the most important languages to British businesses. German, widely spoken in central and Eastern Europe, is another important language for British businesses working in Europe.

Whichever language(s) you’re working in, the business world is becoming more global regardless of the Brexit vote, and the ability to work in two or more languages will only become more important.

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