The Inevitable Lingua Franca

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2011

7 Pages, Grade: 1,0


The European Union today[1] contains 27 member states with 23 recognized languages, all being granted official status. This proves to be unique when viewed from a global perspective, since “the EU has more official languages than any other international organization: despite bringing together 189 states, the United Nations has only six official languages [...], while the Council of Europe hast only two [...] for 43 member states”[2]. This situation turns out to be a rather complicated one – with widespread consequences on several aspects: at first, the immense translation costs, estimated at about €800 million in 2006[3]. Even more important, however, are the consequences on the European citizens themselves. Unlike the United States of America (U.S.A.) or even Japan (to cite two similarly influent economic/trading blocs) where there is usually only one (in some states U.S. states two) language spoken, Europe certainly is divided throughout the continent by its various spoken tongues. Language is arguably one of the most significant aspects (if not the one most significant) of one’s identity[4].

A typical native German is likely bound to grow up using her/his mother tongue which is inevitably about to frame her/his identity as a German as it probably is the case with a native U.S.-American having English as her/his mother tongue. So what about a common European identity ? Can there possibly be one – and if so, how would it look like? If language plays such an important role in forming one’s identity – which we will assume for now – how come there are people born in Europe who rather consider themselves European than (e.g.) German, French, Finnish or Slovakian, etc.[5] ? Furthermore, is there a so-called lingua franca existing in Europe – and what would it be? Also, would this lingua franca be necessary to further impel European integration, if not even help to unite the European countries and possibly create a European identity? – since “language is central to the production of identity [...] [which, in turn] literally refers to sameness. One might therefore expect that identity would be most salient when people are most similar”[6].

London-based researcher Leigh Oakes is dealing with these issues in Chapter 6 of his work “Language and National Identity. Comparing France and Sweden.” I am going to use this chapter as my major reference for the following essay, trying to give answers to the questions raised above.

Oakes writes, that “there do exist some broad cultural patterns on which to found a European identity, although these [would be] difficult to characterise”[7]. The first mentioned is “the heritage of Roman law”, then “Judeo-Christian ethics[8], Renaissance humanism and individualism”. One could argue here about to what extent Judeo-Christian “ethics” would still play a role in today’s civic societies, but the peoples of Europe certainly share these common bounds in their respective history. It continues with “Enlightenment rationalism and science, artistic classicism and romanticism, and, above all, traditions of civil rights”. It is to be assumed, that one would hardly disagree with these, however, there might be some doubts raised when mentioning the aspects that apparently “divide” Europe “on many dimensions: religious, economic, linguistic and ethnic”. It appears to be helpful to look over the Atlantic here and see how the situation is in the U.S.A. – one of the world’s largest countries, by per capita income, area and population alike: it would not become obvious how the situation in the U.S. would be any different to that in Europe; quite the opposite even when it comes to religious and ethnic differences, if not to concerning single federal states, then at least to minority groups. However, there are certainly large(r) economic and linguistic differences within the countries of Europe; in the former case caused by a rather unfavorable, if not destructive form of government in Eastern Europe for most part of the 20th century, in the latter (linguistic) due to historical developments in Europe over the last millenia[9]. Oakes further argues that “the history they have shared, for example wars, has tended to highlight [the European countries’] differences, rather than their similarities. However, there had been no violent conflict between states being members of the European Union (EU) since the end of World War II. Also, one might remember the 1860ies Civil War in the U.S. – still, so I assume, the author wouldn’t doubt the integrity of a common U.S. identity, compared to one in Europe.

To give an example of a different kind of argumentation, (at first) apparently apart from language: The 1929-born and Frankfurt-based German philosopher Jürgen Habermas has been discussing the issue of European integration in an 2006 article, saying that “a common European identity will develop all the quicker, the better the dense fabric of national culture in the respective states can integrate citizens of other ethnic or religious origins”[10], hereby putting the focus on integration of foreigners into the European society, an issue that had been put on a much higher level since the mid-20th century; Habermas critizies Europe’s “oldest national states [which would] react far more sensitively to the integration problem than immigration societies like the USA or Australia, from whom we can learn a great deal”[11].


[1] As of the latest enlargement on January 1, 2007.

[2] Oakes, Leigh. Language and National Identity. Comparing France and Sweden, p.142.


[4] See Gumperz and Heller in Hansen/Liu: “Social Identity and Language: Theoretical and Methodological Issues, p.568.

[5] See results in the Eurobarometer 62, published in May 2005:

[6] Bucholtz/Hall: „Language and Identity“, p.370.

[7] Oakes, Leigh. Language and National Identity. Comparing France and Sweden, p.138.

[8] See The Washington Post, Dec. 30, 1991, editorial: “The values are called Judeo-Christian because they derive from the complementary ideas of free will, the moral accountability of the individual rather than the group, the spiritual imperative of imperfect man's struggle to do what is right and the existence of true moral law in the teachings of Christ and the Jewish prophets”.

[9] Latin America is to be mentioned here, where Europe-based occupying forces (mostly Spanish, Portuguese and French) annexed the Native peoples’ territory and forever influenced their history – in particular by shaping their language, only within a few centuries.



Excerpt out of 7 pages


The Inevitable Lingua Franca
European University Viadrina Frankfurt (Oder)
Language and Identity
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ISBN (eBook)
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445 KB
inevitable, lingua franca, european integration, nationalism, language, identity
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Gordon Wagner (Author), 2011, The Inevitable Lingua Franca, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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