What’s the Irish for boondoggle?

by Maria on June 24, 2004

What’s the Irish for boondoggle?

It’s not every day that Fine Gael, the Progressive Democrats and Sinn Fein agree on something. But they all say Irish should be an official language of the EU, and complain that the government (which the PDs are part of) hasn’t done enough to make this happen during the Irish presidency. Our presidency of the EU is at best a partial success because we haven’t managed to force the EU to spend an extra 50 million euro a year to translate speeches and documents into a language that no one actually needs them in. It’s the principle, you see.

Support for the Irish language is to Irish politics what honouring families, ‘our troops’ and ‘freedom’ is to Americans; something you hear a lot about in speeches, or occasionally as a sentiment invoked to justify highly dubious policies. Or to put it another way, supporting the Irish language is a bit like pornography; no one can really say what it is, but we all recognise it when we see it. It’s just that we all tend to see it a little differently.

But let’s take it as a given that supporting the Irish language is a good thing. I certainly think so (though I think that speaking it is even better). It’s a sign of huge cultural confidence that in the last decade or so, speaking Irish is no longer the preserve of an aging, dwindling and heavily subsidised minority on the west coast. The gaelscoileanna (Irish-speaking schools) movement is sweeping through the country, with dozens of new schools opening up and enrolling the children of Irish and non-Irish speaking parents alike. In the last couple of years, bi-lingual cafes have opened up in Dublin, and the Irish-speaking tv station is no longer hopelessly uncool. Purists may grumble that the phenomenon is bringing in all colour of faddists and poor grammar into the Irish language movement, but the biggest benefit of all may be that the language is finally becoming just another part of Irish life, rather than something we venerate and set to the side.

Or it was until this campaign to make Irish an official language of the EU. First off, what does it mean to be an official language? It means that parliamentary debates have to be simultaneously translated into that language, whether or not anyone who speaks it is there, and whether or not they understand the language of delivery. It also means that most official documents need to be translated into the language. The upshot of it all is that about 150 people are hired to support each new official language. If you (very unscientifically) divide the 1 billion euro a year translation budget by the current number of languages (20), then an estimate for adding a new language is E50,000,000. What, then, are the reasons to make Irish the 21st official language of the EU?

Because we can.
The motto of the official campaign of Conradh na Gaeilge is ‘The Irish Government has but to ask’. The logic seems to go that as Ireland has been riding high throughout its EU presidency, we should take the opportunity to shove through our own little demand. Or, as Dolores O’Riordan might put it, everyone else is doing it so why can’t we? There’s no counter-argument to this, of course, as it isn’t even an argument so much as a call to opportunism. So let’s consider the case for Irish on its stated merits.

The Maltese got it
Practically every flyer/letter/rant in favour of Irish mentions Maltese, an official language spoken by the same number of people as speak Irish; approximately 380,000. The situation of Irish is indeed similar to that of Maltese; it’s spoken by a small number of people who also speak English fluently. I’ve no idea what shabby little deal was done with the Maltese to give their language official status, but it is a silly and pointless arrangement that does nothing to boost the efficiency or credibility of the EU. As my father often points out, two wrongs don’t make a right.

It’s not that expensive, and anyway, we’d only pay a fraction of the cost.
Proponents of making Irish an official language generally say two things; the cost is trivial, and it’s spread out amongst all EU member states. Currently, translation costs work out at about 2 euros per citizen every year, or less than half the cost of a pint. And when you compare that cost to the ‘return’ we would get – dividing the cost of a new official language by the total number of Irish speakers yields a return of 131.57 euros each per year; dividing it by the number of people who’ve signed the petition supporting Irish (70,000) would give a return of over 700 euros each per year – it’s clear that the Irish would be coming out way ahead of most other contributers to translation costs. (except, of course, the Maltese)

If the main reason we’re in the EU is to milk it dry for every nonsense reason we can think of, then I suppose this would be a good argument. Though when you look at it that way, 50,000,000 euro a year is not expensive at all. It’s actually a cheap price for our self respect.

Nonsense calculations aside, what about this point that we alone enjoy the benefits of Irish being an official language, but share the cost of it with all the other countries? Well, it’s perfectly true. Pork-barrel politics is not a term most Irish people are familiar with, but it’s a well-known concept in US politics. Congressmen tacitly agree to support federal spending plans, or ‘pork’, for individual districts as long as no one questions anyone else’s spending. So a state or district directly receives all the money and pursuant jobs for a particular project while contributing only a fraction of its cost to the overall federal budget. Sounds like a win, right?

Wrong. Everyone then sees that it’s in their interest to add more to the budget – no point holding back, you’ll pay for everyone else’s pork anyway – and so it goes higher and higher until before you know it, somebody’s voted in a Republican president because they think he’ll lower federal spending… So, to get back to the Irish language, raising the overall translation budget for our own direct benefit might seem a good idea in the short term, but ultimately we will suffer along with everyone else as budgets keep climbing and we lose all authority to block anyone else’s pork.

(Of course, you could argue that as the Maltese have already got their own expensive boondoggle, we gain nothing by sniffily refusing to lower ourselves to their level, and should actually shove our snouts into the trough with everyone else. But if you’re arguing on the merits of Irish as an official language, this argument unravels back to ‘everyone else is doing it so why don’t we?’, the non-argument that is simply a salvo of opportunism.)

It would create jobs and get more Irish people into cushy EU positions
Yes, 150 jobs would be created; 110 interpreters and 40 translators. But to whose benefit, other than the job-holders? Irish people in the European Parliament and other institutions already function perfectly well using the English interpreters and translations. Nor would other member states benefit as they are already able to communicate quite effectively with the Irish in Brussels/Strasbourg. So the only direct benefits would be to the happy 150 new employees, whose joy seems dearly purchased over 300,000 euro each.

Then there’s a related argument that runs; Irish people are put at a disadvantage because they can’t count Irish as a working language when applying for a cushy EU job. To which the only sane response is; no shit, Sherlock. Speaking Irish is a wonderful thing, but it does not help you get your point across or understand that of someone else in a meeting room in Brussels. (Though it can be very handy for whispered negotiations with compatriates when you can’t leave the room.) If you’re applying for a job in an EU institution, it is very important that you can communicate with as many different Europeans as possible. These institutions don’t exist to make us feel good about ourselves and our lesser known languages, they exist to produce work.

But underlying the whole debate seems to be the belief that Irish is somehow a second class language unless we have 110 interpreters speaking it to a half-empty parliament session in Strasbourg. Or the idea that Irish isn’t a proper language unless other countries officially recognise it. Are we really so insecure? Do we really need other people to tell us that our language and culture are worthwhile and important?

The actual merits of the case for Irish as an official language are weak. And the hard done by posturing of the people pushing it cuts right against our national self-respect and the very cultural confidence that means Irish is alive and well. Ireland is justifiably proud to be kicking away the training wheels of structural funding and becoming a net contributor to the EU. We were right to throw away the begging bowl and the mendicant sense of entitlement that went with it. Let’s not take it up again.



des von bladet 06.24.04 at 2:12 pm

Is “euro” really the usual plural in Irish English? It isn’t over here in Blighty, as Wikipedia coments:

Official practice followed in English language EU legislation is to use the words euro and cent as both singular and plural. [1] However normal usage outside of such legislation is to use the plurals euros and cents; this somewhat inconsistent position is actually endorsed by the European Commission Translation Service.


james 06.24.04 at 2:18 pm

“If the main reason we?re in the EU is to milk it dry for every nonsense reason we can think of…”

Ha!, don’t be ridiculous…what was Albert Reynolds’ argument for the Maastricht Treaty again? “Eight billion pounds”?


maria 06.24.04 at 2:18 pm

Yes, opinion is mixed. So much so that I wrote ‘euros’ at first and revised to ‘euro’. Damned if I know.


Barry 06.24.04 at 2:41 pm

Maria, I don’t mean to be negative, but that was a long post for what seems to me to be a very minor topic.


Ray 06.24.04 at 3:02 pm

50,000,000 euro a year isn’t that minor a topic. But what really caught my eye was the fact that 2 euro is less than half the price of a pint – dear lord, what kind of world have we created?


DJW 06.24.04 at 3:04 pm

Hmm. Knowing absolutely squat about Irish politics, my first inclination is to be rather more sympathetic to this notion, although I haven’t convinced myself this is appropriate.

One question–is Irish the only language of some portion of the Irish population, or does virtually everyone speak English as well?


Ray 06.24.04 at 3:07 pm

Oh, and I do say ‘two euro’ and ‘fifty cent’. But I also say ‘fewer than’, and ‘try to’, so I may not be your best guide in these matters.


james 06.24.04 at 3:12 pm

“Maria, I don?t mean to be negative, but that was a long post for what seems to me to be a very minor topic.”

What an extraordianrily pointless comment.

“…or does virtually everyone speak English as well?”

Not virtually, literally.


maria 06.24.04 at 3:27 pm

“Maria, I don’t mean to be negative, but that was a long post for what seems to me to be a very minor topic.”

In fairness, if you’re not Irish and don’t live in the EU, it probably does seem like a storm in a tea cup.

And it is certainly shocking that plenty of Dublin pubs now charge 5 euro(s) for a pint!


des von bladet 06.24.04 at 3:35 pm

Speaking for those persons who happen to be me, few things are more engrossing than the institutional linguistic politics of the EU as it grows and otherwise, and this is a very excellent and informative post.

As for the plural issue, In the UK I distinctly remember a rash of mock outrage about how EU bureaucrats were trying to bend Our Glorious National Language – the language of Shakespeare and Milton, no less! – to their depraved Franco-German wills, because every story about the EU has to be written that way and damn the facts.

And for further languagey hilarity, Spain’s new Socialist government has a proposal on the table to make Catalan, Basque and Galician “co-official” languages, such that they could be used in, say, correspondence with official bodies (but not in parliament). That would really open some floodgates.

Personally, I think it’ll be worth letting Serbia and Croatia join (in the dueness of course, of course) just to have poker-faced Serbian interpreters relaying the very very different language of the Croatian MEPs…


Ray 06.24.04 at 3:38 pm

_Everybody_ speaks English as well. I don’t think there are any remining holdouts. There is absolutely zero chance of anybody _needing_ material translated.


q 06.24.04 at 3:42 pm

You’ve touched on an issue which reaches to the heart of “being European”. What is the “cost of being fair to everybody. (FWIW, most of my Irish family and friends know very little Irish at all, but then the’re all aging…)

(The Cornish language is another interesting case. The language actually died out all together – and the current version is simply an “derived” or “invented” one).

Pro-Europeans (of which I sometimes include myself) must campaign for a sleek and efficient model, otherwise the structure will collapse under the weight of administration and lawyers.

Goodness knows how many millions of francs/liras etc went into that black-hole farming subsidy called CAP. (Is it still going anybody?).

I think a good metaphor for European growth would be the Internet TCP/IP, Peer-peer networking, where costs and transactions are managed at the lowest possible level. Put control in the hands of the people who can make it happen: which means an open structured framework, with fewer “big projects”. The problem is of course that someone can argue that “Language” is part of the framework.

Look at it another way. In a corporation, you might want to keep structural and administrative costs to a minimum. This means giving everyone access to the required information for the optimal cost.

How many people in Ireland can’t read English or French, but can read Irish? 10,000? What would be the cost of sending these people on courses? A one-off 20,000,000 Euros?

As you rightly point out, one of the best ways of focussing people’s minds is to charge them for their opinions. If a language is added, then all people who SUPPORT the extra expense of a language, who can already understand existing documentation, can be sent a tax debit.

I think the same should go for the 500 billion the Iraq war has cost.


sohotosoho 06.24.04 at 4:02 pm

Maria, I don’t mean to be negative, but that was a long post for what seems to me to be a very minor topic.

I found it interesting. It’s not mandatory to read every post on this site, y’know.


Richard Bellamy 06.24.04 at 4:21 pm

I look at this issue differently.

Every once in a while there is a news story about “the last living speaker” of Language X. How anthropologists are following this guy around with microphones 24/7 because once this guy dies, there will be no more record of what the language sounds like.

This strikes us listeners as a “bad thing.” Languages shouldn’t die, they should be saved. We are excited that Hebrew, once a dead language limited to bible scholars, is now spoken by millions of Israelis. We sympathize with the Irish protagonists in Brian Friehl’s “Translations,” as their Irish landscape is re-named into English by their misguided British occupiers.

It is our subjective view that language SHOULD be preserved — that if everyone everywhere spoke English (or French or Chinese . . .) that the world would be a poorer place. Thinking in different languages increases the absolute number of thoughts.

The fact that no one “only” speaks Irish is a historical accident (well, not really accident, but not really the fault of the current leaders of England and Ireland.) Irish is in the middle of a re-surgence. Great! But couldn’t excluding that language from “officialness” crush that re-surgence? In a world where everything is Euro, not having your language sanctioned by the EU may be the equivalent of a death sentence. Parents or schools who may be tempted to select “Irish” for their child’s foreign language will not pick “French” because the job prospects are better.

“How important is Irish today” is only half of the question. The other half is “How important will Irish be in 100 years?” Without “official language” status, likely a lot less so.


Jack 06.24.04 at 4:21 pm

des, I think it is outrageous that you are suggesting ignoring the distinctive contribution of Bosnian.


Pete 06.24.04 at 4:36 pm

q: CAP is still going, at 47,141,600,000 Euros in 2003 (and comparable figures since then) (see http://europa.eu.int/comm/agriculture/agrista/2003/table_en/341.pdf)

There is hardly anybody in Ireland who can’t understand English because the Irish language was banned until 1922 by the British. That is the main reason for its promotion.


Antoni Jaume 06.24.04 at 4:40 pm

des, any one of Catalan, Galician and Basque is spoken, and written, by more people than Irish.



maria 06.24.04 at 4:45 pm

“Irish is in the middle of a re-surgence. Great! But couldn’t excluding that language from “officialness” crush that re-surgence? In a world where everything is Euro, not having your language sanctioned by the EU may be the equivalent of a death sentence.”

Thanks Richard, I absolutely agree that linguistic diversity is vitally important. What I’ve been trying to get to the bottom of is this idea that not having your language ‘sanctioned’ is a bad thing. How exactly is it a bad thing? i.e. where is the harm? or the benefits foregone?

Why, in the midst of a naturally occurring resurgence, is it so important to have an EU stamp of approval on our language? No one is seriously suggesting that not having Irish as an official European language will mean we speak it less in Ireland. And I don’t imagine anyone expects other Europeans to learn it either in order to communicate with us. So if the measure will not make more people speak Irish either at home or abroad, then what’s it for? Sounds like chauvinist posturing to me, and we shouldn’t expect others to bankroll that.

“Parents or schools who may be tempted to select “Irish” for their child’s foreign language will not pick “French” because the job prospects are better.”

Just FYI, all Irish children must learn Irish in both primary and secondary school, and other European languages are introduced in secondary school. So there’s no point at which people are forced to choose between, say, Irish and French.


Ray 06.24.04 at 4:49 pm

“Parents or schools who may be tempted to select “Irish” for their child’s foreign language will not pick “French” because the job prospects are better.”

Seriously, how does making Irish an official language improve the job prospects of Irish speakers? The only jobs it creates are for a few dozen translators.

As maria points out, Irish and French are not in direct competition. But if they were, French would still be a much more economically attractive option for students, schools, and parents, because there are millions of people out there who speak French and don’t speak English, and there is nobody out there who speaks Irish but not English. Learning Irish doesn’t allow you to communicate with anyone you wouldn’t have been able to communicate with anyway.

(It has other benefits, but these benefits do not depend on Irish being an official language)


maria 06.24.04 at 4:52 pm

Point of information Pete; Irish wasn’t banned until 1922. Its use was discouraged, certainly, not least by our pattern of emigration.

But the tens of thousands of members of the Gaelic League who happily learned, spoke and wrote Irish in a vastly popular mass movement from 1893 on would be amused to hear they were law breakers.

I should probably admit that I have an axe to grind here. My great-grandfather, Eoin McNeill, was one of the Gaelic League’s founders. At and after the foundation of the state in 1922, he argued strongly against making Irish obligatory for schoolchildren – he thought officialdom would be the kiss of death for the language… ;-)


des von bladet 06.24.04 at 5:05 pm

[A]ny one of Catalan, Galician and Basque is spoken, and written, by more people than Irish. — Antoni

Maybe so, but none of Catalan, Galician or Basque has national language status, which Irish does, and which is currently a pre-requisite for full official EU status. Catalan (6,472,828) has more native speakers than Latvian (1,394,000), Lithuanian (2,955,200), Maltese (300,000) and Slovene (1,727,360 ) put together (source; figures for speakers resident in the relevant nation) but it still doesn’t get official EU status. I’m sure you can find Calalonian activists that are mad as hell about this, but that’s the way it (currently) is.

The Spanish proposal for co-official status (with more modest implications) is discussed here:

“If you let in one regional language – as opposed to a national language like Irish – there’s no good reason not to let them all in,” said Ian Andersen, a senior official in the EU directorate for interpretation. “The consequences would have to be thought through quite carefully.”

Davyth Hicks, a Cornish speaker and director of a news service funded by the European Bureau for Lesser Used Languages in Brussels, said: “If Basque, with 650,000 speakers, goes through, then you should have Welsh too, which is spoken by 550,000.”

France, whose own minority languages include Basque and Catalan as well as Breton, Corsican, Occitan, Norman, Gallo, Champenois and Picard, was reported to be leading the opposition to allowing limited use or regional languages.

For the record: I certainly refuse to oppose the admission of Irish to the club before it is formally proposed by the Irish government.


Ian 06.24.04 at 5:08 pm

On the anglicisation of Iriosh names there is a street in Portlaoise which in Irish is Pipers Lane (don’t ask me to spell the Irish) but in English is Pepper Lane. I couldn’t work out why till I heard the local accent…


Ian 06.24.04 at 5:10 pm

…and before anyone says anything ‘Iriosh’ is a typo not a linguistic statement.


Keith Gaughan 06.24.04 at 5:20 pm

Sorry Marias, but I find the “there’s no sense in making Irish an offical EU language” argument a bit tiring. Mind you, I find the opposing argument tiring too.

Let’s forget about Maltese and all the other EU minority languages for a moment. The fact is that under Irish law, laws must be published in Irish and the Irish version is the definitive one. It’s applies to everything, not just Bunreacht na hÉireann.

It won’t cost much more, or create all that many more jobs. EU directives already need to be translated into Irish as it stands. All this does is put things on a union-wide footing, and possibly mean that now interpreters will need to be provided for some Irish-speaking MEP or something if they request one.

The arguments for Irish being an official EU language are as weak or strong as those for any other. Personally, I think they should just start using Europanto… ;-)


maria 06.24.04 at 5:32 pm

“EU directives already need to be translated into Irish as it stands.”

This is a point I’m unclear on. As I understand it, directives aren’t automatically translated into Irish but their enacting national legislation is. (Since directives don’t themselves have immediate effect and need to be transposed through primary legislation, i.e. the bill that gets discussed in the Dail and Seanad.)

Surely only the transposing bill itself needs to be translated and not the originating directive? Or has that changed in the last couple of years? I’d love a clear answer to this question if anyone has it.


John James 06.24.04 at 5:44 pm

Why is linguistic diversity important?

I’d be quite happy if we everyone spoke the same language.


John James 06.24.04 at 5:45 pm

Why is linguistic diversity important?

I’d be quite happy if everyone spoke the same language.


Matt McGrattan 06.24.04 at 5:46 pm

Re: ‘euro’ as plural of ‘euro’

In Scots (and some Scots-English dialects) the plural of ‘pound’ would be ‘pound’ – as in “He gie’d us twa-hunner pound tae tak fer ma ainsel” – so it looks perfectly natural to me.

The status of Scots is particularly wierd given that there are probably millions of Scots who speak Scots or some Scots/Scottish-English creole as their first language – although all but the least-educated will be able to switch to a formal register that approximates ‘standard’ English.

Huge amounts of money is pumped into the survival of Gaelic which has a few tens of thousands of speakers and yet comparatively little is allocated to the survival of Scots (in its more ‘pure’ form).

I don’t see any reason for Irish, Scots Gaelic or Scots to be official European languages however given that every speaker of any one of these is also a fluent English speaker.

Although I would enjoy Scots being there for my own amusement:

“The folk fae the Pairlement hae decidit that yon high-heid-yin o’ the Unichted States o’ America be censured afore the Unichted Nations ” etc.


Eimear Ní Mhéalóid 06.24.04 at 6:28 pm

Most of the people I know who support the campaign want the status primarily for the same reason they want national government departments to deal with them in Irish. They feel that the present “coolness” could be a flash in the pan and unless you can actually use the language in your dealings with officialdom it will only be a hobby language doomed to extinction. The point of the Maltese example to me and my friends is that it can be done, not that we want the same pork the Maltese get. I particularly despise the suggested “compromise” that Irish be recognised for employment purposes even if it doesn’t get official status. That’s not what it’s about.

It looks to me like the enacting national legislation only needs to be translated if it is a Bill/Act. However most directives are implemented by statutory instruments which don’t need to be translated. I can’t see that EU regulations are translated at all even though they are directly effective. The Treaties are translated, however.

I’m basing this partly on a quote from Proinsias in Slugger O’Toole’s weblog a few months back

“Thirdly, E.U. regulations and directives, which can be directly enforced in Irish courts are not available in the Irish language. It is true that relatively little litigation was conducted in the Irish language in the past, but that is no longer the case. Irish speakers are more frequently relying on their constitutional (and now statutory) right to use Irish in legal proceedings.

As the E.U. increases its influence on our daily lives, the need for the practising lawyer to rely on E.U. legal instruments is increasing. For example, the E.U. is playing an increasing role in the field of justice and home affairs.
As it happens, framework decisions are available in Irish beacuse of the ‘pillar structure’ of the E.U., but this will change when the draft constitution is passsed. Is it being suggested that these crucial pieces of European legislation should not be available to those who would bring or defend proceedings in this country through what is still at present, in legal terms, the first official language?”


He also talks a bit about Irish MEPs being denied permission to address Parliament in Irish.

Sorry to post such a long comment, but I didn’t have time to compose a short one…


robbo 06.24.04 at 8:01 pm

As a Californian well removed from the point of discussion, I certainly don’t find this to be “a very minor topic” — the underlying principles generalize well beyond whether the EU accepts Irish as an official language. You’d think a reader of a philosophically oriented blog would have grasped that.

Anyway, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Maria’s analysis and everyone else’s comments. Carry on!


Randy McDonald 06.24.04 at 9:24 pm

The situation of Irish is indeed similar to that of Maltese; it’s spoken by a small number of people who also speak English fluently. I’ve no idea what shabby little deal was done with the Maltese to give their language official status, but it is a silly and pointless arrangement that does nothing to boost the efficiency or credibility of the EU.

You don’t need schools to teach grade-school students Maltese; Maltese is their mother tongue.

The difference between Irish and Maltese is that the latter language is a living language. (Also, the overwhelming majority of the Maltese population speaks the language. Not so Irish in Ireland.)


Anthony 06.24.04 at 11:40 pm

It means that parliamentary debates have to be simultaneously translated into that language, whether or not anyone who speaks it is there, and whether or not they understand the language of delivery. It also means that most official documents need to be translated into the language.

That sounds like the best argument for not making Irish an official EU language. Imagine the effect on the Irish language if the primary literary output of the language is translated political speeches and bureaucratic regulations. About the only things which might be worse would be to establish an Irish-speaking faculty of Hegelian Philosophy or wide popularity of the publications in Irish of the Communist Party of Ireland.


William Sjostrom 06.25.04 at 2:04 am

I think you are overrating the importance of the all Irish schools. Their attraction to parents includes the fact that classes are about half the size of other schools, that is to say, the government heavily subsidizes them. I know several parents who send their kids to those schools, having zero interest in the Irish language, precisely because of the extra resources available.


Greg 06.25.04 at 2:34 am

That is certainly true to a degree, William, but just as important is the fact that countless Irish teenagers hate the language all the way through school and wind up not understanding a word; only in adulthood do they realise what they’ve missed out on…

Plenty of parents send their kids to Irish schools so they grow up using and liking their own language.


Caitriona O'Kelly 06.25.04 at 8:40 am

Just to clarify: Irish IS an official treaty language with 16 translators employed in the Court of Justice in Luxembourg. Therefore its status as the constitutional language of Ireland is recognised. It IS NOT a working language and does not need to be. Conradh na Gaeilge seem very confused on this distinction.


Henry 06.25.04 at 9:03 am

Let’s take a moment to remember the great Myles na gCopaleen [aka Flann O’Brien, born Brian O Nolan], who got his start writing a column for the Irish Times over 60 years ago when he wrote in to complain about someone else’s column bemoaning the lack of an Irish word for buzz bomb, blitz and the like. On the other hand, I’m sure he could have come up with more than one Irish word for balderdash.


john s 06.25.04 at 10:12 am

Many official EU documents are translated into all the official languages. But it is not uncommon for only the English or French versions to be read, even if the reader is a native Italian, Irish, Finnish etc speaker because the translations are weak.


JamesW 06.25.04 at 10:28 am

The day to day, practical working languages of the EU (say for a staff meeting) are already few: really just English and French, and French is losing out.

There’s a distinction to be drawn between publishing legislation in the Official Journal, since it’s used in national courts and has iconic value, and in EU business (Commission proposals and Parliament debates), where the language set required for universal comprehension is smaller.

Noise is added by even very good translation and interpretation – just as it is by making people follow speech in a foreign language. Indirect translation adds more noise than direct, and Brussels is running out of people who can translate or interpret from say Estonian to Maltese: so they cheat and use indirect, which cements the status of the core languages.

The objective should be to minimise the overall amount of linguistic noise, weighted for importance. When a directive is translated into Maltese, how do you resolve ambiguities with other versions? A Maltese court would surely give preference to the English or Italian text, since these would have been used for the drafting, rather than the later translation.


maria 06.25.04 at 11:20 am

Thanks everyone for the comments and clarifications – especially Eimear for her point about translating directives. It seems that directives are not automatically translated into Irish (giving lie to claims that they’re all translated anyway so there’s no extra expense). But this also raises a slightly tricky issue of directives having direct legal effect in national courts (when they haven’t yet been transposed) but being only available in English.

Also, in fairness, Liz O’Donnell in her statement on the issue a few months ago seemed to have a firmer hold on the idea of official versus working languages than Conradh seems to still.

This just seems to be one of those issues where the rhetoric and emotion behind the proposed policy are very far removed from any pragmatic sense of what the benefits are and how it plays outside Ireland. (or maybe I’ve just been abroad for too long.)

One last point from me. Randy McDonald; Irish may not be spoken fluently by everyone in the country, but it is very, very far from being a dead language!


PM 06.25.04 at 11:28 am

I imagine, the middle classes being what they are, that as long as its is a cumpulsory subject, and you get extra points for sitting the leaving cert in Irish, the language, the schools and the Gaeltacht (at least to send your kids to visit) will survive.


q 06.25.04 at 2:47 pm

There has to be a very interesting project here: feeding all the multi-language copies into a single computer (lets call it “Chomsky 2”) to analyse all the language coming out of the EU.

Of course, we could reduce the cost of translation and processing, if we reduced the number and length of douments coming out of the EU!


HP 06.26.04 at 2:07 am

For what it’s worth, the United States has no official language. Granted, most people speak at least some English, and most (if not all) official documents are written in English, but a citizen has the right to request translations. It’s not uncommon in some parts of the country to find ballots or other documents in a variety of languages. English evolved as the de facto language over time (for example, I live in Cincinnati, Ohio, which like many midwestern cities once had a German-speaking majority), and every attempt over the last 200 years to make English official has failed (mostly because the “official English” crowd barely conceal their racism beneath a thin veneer of respectability). The US has one of the largest Spanish speaking populations in the world, as well as significant communities of Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese and other Asian languages. (Not to mention Navajo, Cherokee and other native languages, as well as native creoles like Cajun or Gullah.)

So my advice to Europe would be to forgo official languages altogether. The only concievable purpose for having official languages is to exclude non-official ones, like Irish.


des von bladet 06.26.04 at 11:39 am

hp, he or she say: So my advice to Europe would be to forgo official languages altogether. The only concievable purpose for having official languages is to exclude non-official ones, like Irish.

Official languages, in the context of the EU, are those in which official documents are published, and which may be used in (the EU’s own) Parliament where interpreters are provided to translate into all other official languages.


John Ross 06.26.04 at 3:31 pm

I have hugely enjoyed this thread, though I have no real stance on the issue. I would point out, though, that all the Spanish regional languages mentioned – Basque, Catalan, Galician – are, like Maltese, living languages.


John Ross 06.26.04 at 3:36 pm

…and that the point of preserving linguistic diversity is a bit like conservation of a species. You may not have a very good reason why it should be kept, but you never know what you might lose, either.


Antoni Jaume 06.27.04 at 10:14 pm


the predominance of English in the USA is not due to simple social convenience, while you are right that the USA has no federal official language, quite a few states have adopted at one time or another an “US English only” policy.

As for the Irish, it will be official in Ireland as long the Irish people want, the question here is if that means that an Irish individual can communicate with EU institutions in Irish, without having to resort to another language. In this moment the answer is yes.



Keith Gaughan 06.28.04 at 3:00 pm

Sorry I couldn’t post sooner: I wasn’t near a computer over the weekend.

You’re right on the directives. The directives themselves don’t need to be As Gaeilge, but the inacting bill does. The directives don’t need to be in *any* particular language. They could written in martian for all it matters, and this applys to any european country. What I meant was that they need to be translated if requested, and that making Irish an official language wouldn’t cause any increase as, for reasons of law in this country, the government has to be prepared to release translations of the directives as it stands. I’m sorry if I was misunderstood on this.

To Randy: Irish is the country’s first language, and whatever some may say, it is still a living language. But it’s a minority language too.

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