Slainte! to a New EU Official Language?

Slainte? That’s Irish, or Gaelic (henceforth we’ll use the latter) for the salutation made at a toast with alcoholic drinks – as in “Bottom’s up!” or “Here’s to you!” – and the Irish hope to be commemorating soon with a celebratory round of the finest Irish whiskey the addition of Gaelic to the EU’s corridors of power. As reported by the sharped-eyed Hana Lesenarová of the Czech daily Mladá fronta dnes (Ireland Desires Recognition of its Original Language in the EU), the Irish government decided this week – “unanimously,” whatever that means – to ask the EU to recognize Gaelic as its twenty-first official language. (Yes, it’s a little bizarre to be reading this news in Czech. I did consult the Irish Times, but didn’t find any mention – although much of that website is shut off behind pay-per-view.)

It wasn’t hard for Lesenarová to carry on with her reporting to find enthusiasts for this move, even outside of Ireland itself, namely at the European Bureau for Lesser Used Languages (not to be confused with the European Advisory Board for Silly Walks; the former does actually exist, in Brussels of course, as you can see by clicking the link). “Fantastic news!” exclaimed Davyth Hicks, of that Bureau (and Davyth even speaks Cornish, people!). “We should all try to use our native languages,” he reasoned, “that’s simply democracy,” and added, “I think there’s no reason why anyone would want to block [the Irish request].”

Oh, there are reasons all right, and Lesenarová swiftly goes on to name them:

  • Cost: Just the expansion of the EU’s officially-recognized languages by ten that was caused by the accession of the ten new member-states last May increased the EU’s translation budget by €800 (or €2.50 for every European) yearly. Adding Gaelic will increase it even more . . .
  • Availability of personnel: . . . although rather than that specific additional expenditure figure for Gaelic, the article prefers to list the additional personnel that that will require – namely 110 new translators (you know: Gaelic-Hungarian, Gaelic-Estonian, etc.) and 40 new simultaneous interpreters. You see, additional money is by far the easiest issue here, but you can’t buy what is not available, and if you review some of those language combinations you could well conclude that qualified personnel simply won’t be available for some of them for a while.

But even if all these personnel were available, they would surely be overworked, as the European Commission alone produces yearly 1.5 million pages of official documents to be translated into all the EU’s official languages. Indeed, the translation situation has already become so dire within the bowels of EU bureaucracy, reports Lesenarová, that the Commission in June asked all member-states to limit their document submissions to a reduced size of 15 pages maximum, rather than the usual 32.


Nonetheless, Irish EU representatives apparently intend to press their case. (It’s interesting to speculate why they waited to do so until after the Irish EU presidency.) “Why not?” they probably think – for one thing, the move would slow down the encroaching superiority of English as the Union’s true lingua franca – English is overwhelmingly the preferred second language of most Europeans – by taking the Irish out of the English column and into the Gaelic. That should make the French, in particular, cotton onto the idea. And after all, Maltese is an official EU language, and only 400,000 people speak it, while at least 1.4 million in Ireland can at least understand Gaelic.

Ah, but that is 1.4 million Irish out of a total Irish population of around 4 million, although in mitigation Lesenarova adds that Gaelic is increasingly “in style” there. (Still, conducting a sample-of-one survey with an Irish acquaintance of hers, she found that the only Gaelic he knew was indeed that Slainte!) More crucially, though, there is an intermediate step to being a full “official language” of the EU, and that is being a “contractual” language (the Czech adjective Lesenarová uses is smluvní), meaning that only “basic” EU texts are translated into and from it. Gaelic currently has that status, as do languages such as Luxembourgeois, Basque, and Welsh.

Should Gaelic be elevated to full “official” status – regardless the trouble and cost to EU institutions and EU taxpayers that that would involve – then why deny the same treatment to any of these other at-present “contractual” languages? What’s the Gaelic for “squash this one”?

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