5 January 2021

By Blanca Marabini San Martin

Towards the end of the Second World War, British prime minister Winston Churchill appealed to all European States to create a European family, a group of nations united by patriotism and by the perception of a citizenship shared by all inhabitants. This is often cited as the birth of the narrative of a shared European identity, which has since then been under great scrutiny. European identity is generally described as being composed of a series of cultural components, including ethical elements, social similarities and shared historical narratives, as well as a range of civic elements, pertaining mainly to the identification of Europeans with the institutions, rights, and rules that create the base of the EU system (Bruter, 2004). However, there is one element, often cited as a cornerstone of national identities, which is much rarer in descriptions of identity at the European level: language.

Beyond its function in terms of communication, language is often understood as a symbolic element, with a strong role as an identity indicator, often associated with ethnic or cultural features (Dorian, 1999; Edwards, 1984). There are various positions regarding how exactly language and collective identities interact: some authors, such as Skutnabb-Kangas (2008) or Nettle and Romaine (2000) argue that language codifies the cultural reality of those sharing a collective identity. Others, such as Myers-Scotton (2006), recognize the role of language in forming identities but posit that other factors, such as religious or geographic ones, play a bigger part in said process. Lastly, there is a third group of authors, such as Liebkind (1999) or Jupp, Roberts, and Gumperz (1982), who contend that language and identity share a relationship based on a dynamic of interdependence, where a group’s preferred language affects its identity which, in turn, influences the group’s attitude towards its language as well as others.

These points of view refer, however, to the relationship between one language and one nation: most cases of language-based national identities hinge on the use of a national language as a unifying element, as is the case of Bahasa Indonesia is the world’s biggest archipelago or of the German language during unification in the 19th century. The European Union defines itself as a multicultural and multilingual entity with 24 official languages, both as a way of reflecting the diversity contained within the Union’s borders and of emphasizing the transparency and accessibility that its institutions seek (European Parliament, 2020b). However, can it really build a European identity based on language plurality rather than on a shared language? Can EU citizens truly be ‘united in diversity’?

An argument in favor of this multilingual unity is that collective identities based on multilingualism already exist. Let us examine the case of Switzerland which, albeit at a smaller scale, holds similarities with the EU in terms of a self-declared multilingual state with multiple official languages, namely German, Italian, and French, that are guaranteed equality in the 1848 Swiss Constitution, whereas Swiss citizens appear, according to various surveys, to be largely monolingual (Demont-Heinrich, 2005). In fact, Neue Zürcher Zeitung correspondent Christophe Büchi argues that Swiss identity is based on the acceptance of diversity within the country (Le News, 2015). Switzerland’s linguistic reality is therefore characterized by the contradiction between the perception of the multilingual nature of the State as central to its national identity by both its nationals and those beyond its borders, and the relatively small number of multilingual citizens. This shows certain similarities with the multilingual nature the EU espouses for itself, with the exception of a higher rate of multilingualism in the latter: the Europeans and their Languages Eurobarometer report (European Commission, 2012) showed that 54% of Europeans were able to hold a conversation in a second language. It also concluded that the majority of Europeans do not believe themselves to be active language learners but that, nonetheless, there is a broad consensus that everyone residing within the EU should be able to speak multiple languages. Therefore, the European Union could even be considered to have an advantage over Switzerland in this sense, as multilingual individuals would likely find it easier to identify with a multilingual entity.

Having determined that collective identities based on multilingualism are a viable reality, as well as one that can be stable and long-lasting, given the fact that Switzerland in its current state was founded in 1848 and many of the cantons have a history of confederacy going back centuries, the next step would be to consider whether a multilingual European identity would be compatible with national identities based on a national language, especially given the current rise of nationalism.

Keeping in mind that a European identity does not require the exclusive loyalty that national identities do, there are three main models attempting to explain how these two identities could coexist, which are also helpful in examining the interaction of the linguistic dimension of both. The supranational identity model, in which European identity acts as an umbrella that encompasses all the national identities of its Member states, is most commonly cited. The nesting model, whose name comes from Russian nesting dolls, is based on the same principle but goes a step further, using concentric circles to include additional identity levels within the national one, therefore taking into consideration local and regional identities too (Cinpoes, 2008). It is possible to draw parallels between these “layered” models and European languages on two different levels: on one hand, most EU languages are included within the family of Indo-European languages (University of Ottawa, n. d.).

The categories within this family include various sub-levels which, as they decrease in size, show increasing concentration in specific geographical areas of the EU, in a way that can be compared to the distribution of European citizens who identify with the various national identities encompassed in the European identity umbrella. There are of course regional and national languages such as Basque, Maltese, Finnish, Estonian, or Hungarian that are not part of the Indo-European family, but there is another European linguistic umbrella that includes virtually all EU languages: linguistic policy. EU Member States transpose supranational language policies into national laws in various areas, such as linguistic integration of migrants (Boukala & Wodak, 2015) or the protection of endangered languages, as is the case of the Member States who have signed or ratified the European Council’s Charter for Regional or Minority Languages or those who follow the Commission’s 2011 Policy Recommendations for the Promotion of Multilingualism in the European Union (ECSPM, 2020; Jones, 2013), thus creating national policies within the supranational guidelines set by the EU.

The third model goes beyond the “layered” view, arguing instead that the European and national identities form an amalgamation: they constitute a heterogeneous mix, such as the flavors of a marble cake, from which the model draws its name. This marble-cake model presents the two identities as intertwined, with the components of each one influencing the other (Cinpoes, 2008). It is no secret that European languages are also influenced by their neighbors via the linguistic contact that takes place within the parameters of multiculturalism fostered by the EU both in the daily work of the institutions and through initiatives such as European Multilingualism Day (ECSPM, 2020; European Parliament, 2020a). Consequently, many national languages include terms that clearly have their origins in neighboring languages, which shows how the intertwined nature of European languages allows for mutual enrichment of national languages without hiding the foreign origin of these words.

Furthermore, models which consider European and national identities as not fully compatible or as players in a zero-sum game may also be leaving more space for language-based unity: a Pew Research Center survey carried out in 2016 shows that, although language is seen by far as the most critical attribute of national identity, the ability to speak the official language is perceived as less important by younger inhabitants, with clear generational splits in Sweden, Spain, Greece, and the Netherlands (Stokes, 2017). It is possible to infer from this that individuals with strong national identities may experience a higher affinity with multilingual environments and, consequently, find it easier to identify with this aspect of the European Union.

Multilingualism is part of the very fabric of the European Union and, therefore, an essential component of any iteration of European identity. The case of Switzerland shows that it is possible to create a viable identity with multilingualism as one of its pillars in an environment similar to that of the EU. Furthermore, it can be generally said that most models for the representation of the relationship between national and European identities are compatible with a strong multilingual component or, at the very least, would provide a certain space for multilingualism given that the perceived importance of language in national identity appears to be decreasing with each passing generation. Thus, despite facing obstacles in other fields, it seems that the construction of a European identity need not necessarily suffer from the lack of a common language but rather that, as the Italian writer and semiologist Umberto Eco said, the language of Europe is translation.


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