Can You Speak Commission?

Susannah Savage, Columnist @Swizz677

“At what time will be ze reunion?” my friend Taran asks me in a thick French accent, which would be cute were Taran not from Leicester.

The European Commission goes one step beyond the acronyms, abbreviations and general jargon that pollute the language of every large administrative body. It’s not a question of bad English, or not just bad English, but of Commission English.

The first few weeks here are like watching an episode of the Teletubbies; everyone appears to be using English words, or words that sound like English, but strung together they produce nothing of real meaning. One of my first meetings sounds like this:

“Eh-ho everyone. For the planification it is decided: Irena will organise externalising the briefs, Geert will link to some good actors and Susannah can you prepare the fish?”

Once I had understood that I hadn’t inadvertently been recruited into the Commission canteen but instead asked to prepare a ‘Fiche’ (French for document), and familiarised myself with other bizarre misuses of English and blatant fabrications, I started to wonder whether this isn’t all in fact part of some conspiracy. Or if not, divine retribution at least.

Bastardising the English language seems to be Europe’s way of punishing Britain for its sins. In recompense for Cameron’s diplomatic incompetence, Farage’s smug grin, Blair’s diplomatic incompetence and smug grin, the Battle of Waterloo, the Spanish Armada, Henry VIII calling Anne of Cleve’s ugly, and pretty much everything else since William the Conqueror, Brits in Brussels are frequently subjected to ‘words’ such as ‘planification’, ‘conditionalities’ and ‘comitology’.

The real punishment is that we cannot criticise, correct or even comment upon these atrocities because there is a ready retort raring to be fired back at us, along the lines of:

“Whilst everyone else is making a large and valiant effort to communicate in their second or third language, the lazy, arrogant ‘Anglo-Saxons’ [sic] never bother to learn other languages and are linguistically inept in any case”.

This is undeniable and substantiated on a daily basis by American and British tourists shouting very slowly in English at bemused trilingual waiters and waitresses all over the city. Despite this I feel fairly strongly that the French would not tolerate the same corruption of their language, at least not in a Frenchman’s natural environment, that is to say an administrative one.

As if listening to Commission English all day wasn’t bad enough, the chronically underrepresented British in the European Commission, with the Irish as reinforcements, are then forced to proof read. Wrapped in a disingenuous deference to our superiority as native speakers, the proof-reading requests are endless:

“Susannah, wonderful native English speaker from the land of Shakespeare and Winston Churchill, could I call on you to take a look at this short document for me? It’s only 500 pages or so”.


And at the same time we are slowly indoctrinated. Any authority we had to correct other people’s English (sometimes minimal in the first place) is lost as unavoidably we all start speaking and writing ‘Commission’ ourselves. The need to be understood surpasses the desire to make sense. In the worst cases, such as that of poor Taran, some native Anglophones not only lose their ability to use English grammar and vocabulary but a fixed accent as well. If ‘ere’ is more easily understood than ‘here’ or ‘Yermany’ more so than ‘Germany’, then in the battle for English Taran surrenders.

Yet it seems there is a need for some resilient Anglophones to clutch the Oxford Dictionary to their bosoms; Commission English is actually presenting a bit of a legal and diplomatic pickle for the EU. There is even an EU publication on ‘Misused English Words and Expressions in EU publications’.

Apparently the EU risks creating nonsensical laws and regulations, offending its own member states and alienating the rest of the world.

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