Languages in the State of the European Union SpeEch

Wednesday, 16 Sept. 2020, Politico Europe published an interesting article on the languages used by Ursula von der Leyen in her first State of the European Union speech. In it they made a surprising claim: that UvdL had abandoned his predecessor’s balanced use of English, French and German.

Out of skepticism and curiosity I went through all the SotEU speeches (on European Parliament’s Audiovisual service) to see how the EU’s three working languages had been employed.

To map how much each language was used, I recorded the timeshare of each language, because getting the word count was impossible as original transcripts for these speeches do not exist.

So here is what I found:

The person who came up with the State of the European Union speech, Commission president José Manuel Barroso had zero consideration for any balance. German was never used, and French was only used in 2011, for one third of the speech. Not a word of his native Portuguese.

Jean-Claude Juncker was the first to use all three languages, and even employed a bit of Portuguese, Dutch and Italian at the end of his 2016 speech. But he had no “balance”, and the proportion and use within the speech of each language varies from one year to another.

There is a notable decline of English after Brexit, it’s true, and an uptick of French, but the picture is a volatile one. German peaks in 2017 at 40%, while French peaks in 2018 at 73%.

Against this backdrop, UvdL’s meager 7% French looks bad, especially since she is fluent in the language.

I think, looking at the charts, that each Commission president has a different style in their language use, influenced by their education, their native language, and their vision of how they should communicate with the European public.

Some are better at this State of the Union thing than others. The best speech and most emotional one, is Juncker’s 2017 post-Brexit vote State of the Union.

Now that Brexit is done and ~60 milion English speakers are no longer EU citizens, some Anglophiles fear, and some Francophiles hope (like Jean Quatremer), that the status of English will decline.

This, I think, is a misjudgment of the European linguistic landscape, as English is by far the most studied and used lingua franca in Europe. So English is here to stay!

But it’s with sadness that I noticed that no Commission presidenthas used even a word from a language of “New Europe” (i.e. a language of one of the Central and Eastern countries).

A final note: in election years, there are no State of the European Union speeches as the habitual date falls after the elections and before the new Commission is sworn in. However, the departing Commission President does have a Farewell Speech that some consider analogous to the SotEU. I looked at the language use in these too

2014 (Barroso) – Entirely in English, except some multilingual goodbyes at the end: “Auf wiedersehen! Au revoir! Adeus, muito obrigado!”

2019 (Juncker) – a 22 minutes farewell speech, 75% in French and 25% in German.

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