Boom bang-a-bang – it’s Eurovision time again!

The winners of Eurovision 2017

The winners of Eurovision 2017

by Colin McIntosh

Congratulations to Portugal on winning the Eurovision Song Contest for the first time ever! Amar pelos dois, the winning song, was sung in Portuguese by Salvador Sobral. The UK did slightly better than usual, coming 15th with I’ll never give up on you, sung in English by Lucie Jones.

English has a proud history of taking part in Eurovision, most notably when sung by non-native English speakers, such as Abba. The English may not always be recognizable to native speakers (“Be my Bonnie, will mix and match with Clyde” and “Now I’m into daydreams / Amazed by thorn jeans” featured this year) , but that’s hardly the point. Nonsense words feature heavily (La la la, Ding-a-dong) to the extent that the Eurovision style was parodied by the Monty Python team in Bing tiddle-tiddle bong, and the genre is even imitated by British songwriters – see Lulu’s 1969 winner Boom bang-a-bang.

Despite the UK’s proposed departure from the EU, there is no danger of English ceasing to be a language of Eurovision. The UK will continue to take part, and other countries will continue to enter songs partly or entirely in Euro-English.

So whose English is it anyway? Certainly not England’s. Only 50 million speakers of English were born in England (out of a total of over 1.5 billion English speakers). Currently English is spoken as a first language by around 13% of over-15s in the EU. It is the second most widely spoken native language, after German. Including those who speak it as an additional language, that figure rises to over 50%.
After Brexit, the number of native speakers will be far lower: around 1%. But it will still be the most widely spoken language in the EU, with around 40% having the ability to hold a conversation in English. German is next, at around 30%, followed by French, at around 25%.

These figures seem to show that English will continue to be the main lingua franca of Europe, at least in the short to medium term. But this will mean that the English used will have a much looser connection with native-speaker English, with Ireland and Malta being the only other countries where English is an important native language.

So if English continues to be spoken in Europe, what will it look like? Well, Euro-English already exists. There are many features that are common to the types of English spoken by continental Europeans as a second or foreign language, but different from the English of England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. This kind of English has been dubbed ELF, or “English as a lingua franca”, by some academics, but is commonly referred to as Euro-English in a European context.

Euro- is a prefix (or combining form, to use a more technical term) that can be added to practically any word you like. In form it is simply the word Europe with the end chopped off, but has gained traction because of its similarity to other combining forms referring to nationalities such as anglo-, franco-, and italo-.

Starting perhaps with Eurovision itself in 1950, it has been one of the most productive prefixes of its type in English. Depending on the context, it can refer to the continent of Europe, the European Union, or the euro currency (which itself is an interesting case of a prefix that has been transformed into a word).

The prefix is, ironically, probably more common in English than in other European languages. It is frequently used disparagingly by the tabloid press in Britain, as in eurocrat and eurofederalism, but it can also be part of the EU’s own terminology, officially or unofficially, as in euroregion, eurocent, and the eurozone. Eurosceptic, referring to the anti-EU wing of the UK Conservative Party, seems to have run its course, though, and has found itself overtaken by events and generally ousted by the more forceful Brexiteer.

We’ll look at some of the common words and features of Euro-English in some posts over the coming weeks.