Welcome to Linguis Europae, the EUC's language blog!

Linguis Europae is dedicated to a range of topics involving official state, regional, and minority languages in the EU. Posts are written in five languages by UI students and faculty! Check back regularly for updates!

Bridging the Gap: Language and Community in Action in East Central Illinois

Skye Mclean discusses the East Central Illinois Refugee Mutual Assistance Center (ECRIMAC), which provides services essential to refugee and immigrant resettlement in East-Central Illinois and aids in the exchange and preservation of their respective cultures.

Place and Space: Another Perspective on Crimea

Senior Andrey Starosin offers his perspective on the current events taking place in Crimea.

French Professor Revamps Course on "Language and Minorities in Europe"

Linguis Europae's own Zsuzsanna Fagyal and her course "Languages and Minorities in Europe" were featured in a recent issue of the School of Literatures, Cultures, and Linguistics.

Un'Ode al "Dialàtt Bulgnaiś": An Ode to the Bolgnese Dialect

Kaitlyn Russell muses on her fondness for the Italian dialect, Bolognese.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Languages of Innovation: the tortuous linguistic history of the EU’s Unitary Patent System

By Victoria Bauer and Zsuzsanna Fagyal-Le Mentec

At first glance, the European Union has the most liberal language regime in the world: all twenty-four of its official languages are considered equal and can be used by EU citizens to communicate with their institutions. The EU’s strong commitment to multilingualism holds despite the formidable costs associated with the enormous translation flow. Consider, for instance, that the European Commission's Directorate General reportedly spends over 330 million euros per year on translation (Translation in the EU) and the total costs of language services within the Union are estimated to be close to a billion euros. However, EU language regimes are much more constrained than they might appear.

Source: Wikipedia
In principle, the Council of Europe determines the rules governing language use (Article 342, Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union), but EU institutions “may stipulate in their rules of procedure which of the languages are to be used in specific cases” (The French Language in European institutions). Typically, a handful of languages are used as ‘procedural’ or ‘working’ languages, but preference for one or another can vary depending on the context and the institution. For instance, the European Commission works exclusively in English, French, and German, while the European Council varies its rules of language use depending on the meeting. The European Parliament has an even greater flexibility: it can mandate up to seven languages per group of interpreters delivering simultaneous interpretation in its plenary sessions. Occasionally, language use in EU institutions can become a political issue.

In the late 1990s, legal and financial experts working on the newly planned European Unitary Patent System were close to a major breakthrough. Having worked for decades on replacing the systems of national patents requiring costly translations by a single European patent, the European Patent Office (EPO) was finally ready for a new era of unity and transparency. Since the EPO has been working in English, French, and German since its foundation in 1997, everyone assumed that patents under the new unitary system would continue to be written and filed in these three languages. After all, they would require no additional translations and would allow patent applications to be handled fast and efficiently. Who would possibly object to such advantages?

As it turns out, multilingualism got in the way...

EPO Office
Unexpectedly, Italy and Spain disagreed. They objected strongly to the idea of a practical status quo in matters of language when filing for patents with the EPO. They cited conflicts with their own national interests and claimed that the proposed trilingual patent system would put their own businesses at a disadvantage over British, French, and German companies. When the Council of the European Union gave the green light to proceed without the unanimous support of all member states, Italy and Spain took the EPO to court.

In May 2011, Italy and Spain filed for the annulment of the language clauses of the unitary patent regulation with the European Court of Justice (CJEU cases C-274/11 and C-295/11). They have argued that the proposed language regime was discriminatory: filing innovations only in English, French, and German would be non-compliant with EU treaties, distorting competition, and causing a misuse of the Council’s powers. Italy and Spain’s goal was to add Italian and Spanish to the list of working languages in which all patents could be translated when filed. Or, as a possible concession: use English only. When the French objected to the latter, the negotiations have stalled.

The controversy has dragged on for years. While everyone agreed that it was a good idea to ‘streamline’ the patent application procedure, how to do it without undermining national interests remained an open question. In 2012, a second version of the patent scheme was debated in the Parliament and the Council. Most state parties seemed satisfied with the idea of proceeding without the agreement of Italy and Spain, as the financial gains of the new scheme looked promising enough to prompt further action. According to the European Commission: "an EU patent validated in only 13 Member States cost on average €20,000, compared to €1,850 in the United States” (see Last hurdle for EU Patent: translation). Translation costs, which then stood at €14,000, would be reduced to approximately €680 per EU patent. It was also estimated that adding a single language to this translation scheme could add up to €1,500 to the cost of a single patent.

Image Source
And yet, it took until October 2015 for Italy to agree on a new version of the Unitary Patent system. On the Spanish side, the opposition remained unchanged. The Spanish Employers Organization (CEOE), among others, explained that it “strongly supported the position of the Spanish Government” resisting the “unbalanced and discriminatory language regime” of the proposed unitary system (see reference). While Catalonia has been ready to join for several years, Spain’s central government continued to argue in favor of an English-only system that the French continued to refuse. Despite a non-binding vote in the Spanish Parliament in March 2017 in favor of joining the unitary patent system, the Spanish government resisted. The Spanish government pointed out that patents are an important way of disseminating and protecting technological and scientific innovations and that the Spanish language could be just as useful in doing so within the EU as it already is everywhere else around the world. Economic and legal reasons for resisting a language regime not including Spanish were foregrounded:

  1. Spanish companies would not be able to file European patents with unitary effect ("Unitary patents") in their own official language;
  2. Since the Unitary patents would not need to be translated into Spanish in order to produce effects in Spain (unlike the case of "traditional" European patents), the Spanish companies would not benefit from the disclosures therein;
  3. The linguistic regime would also produce legal uncertainties for Spanish companies, which would have to respect the rights conferred by more than 95,000 new patents per year (not translated into Spanish).
  4. Spanish companies would bear the translation costs of every new patent;
  5. Spanish companies would be forced to plead in English, French or German in invalidity and non-infringement declaratory proceedings which would be heard by the Unitary Patent Court’s ("UPC") central division.
  6. Spanish companies sued for infringement before the local divisions would also have to litigate in a language chosen by the patentee.
To date, neither the Unitary Patent System, nor the Unitary Patent Court have been ratified in every EU member state. The Brexit vote, unsurprisingly, threw an additional wrench in the works, and this summer Germany's constitutional court has also put a halt to domestic legislation trying to ratify Europe’s single patent system. On the German side, the objections appear to be legal rather than linguistic, but the outcome remains the same: the entry in force of the unitary patent scheme might again be delayed well beyond the currently intended date of December 2017.

Although the winners and losers of this particular language controversy are still too early to call, one is reminded of the warning of the late Joshua Fisher, sociologists and expert in multilingualism: “Do not leave your language alone”, if you want it to make it to the next era of global innovation and language use.


‘Unitary Patent & Unified Patent Court’, official site of the European Patent Office https://www.epo.org/law-practice/unitary.html

“Patents: Commission proposes translation arrangements for the EU patent – Frequently Asked Questions”, 1 July 2010, MEMO/10/291 http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_MEMO-10-291_en.htm?locale=en

‘Patent Translations, Language Wars, and the EU Patent’, March 15, 2011 https://www.morningtrans.com/patent-translations-language-and-the-eu-patent-2/

‘Italy and Spain sue over patent language’, EU Observer, June 1, 2011 https://euobserver.com/innovation/32434

‘Language Winners and Losers -The 40-Year European Patent War is (Almost) Over’, byLibor Safar, July 4, 2012 http://info.moravia.com/blog/bid/182942/Language-Winners-and-Losers-The-40-Year-European-Patent-War-is-Almost-Over

‘The unitary patent’, Library of the European Parliament, June 12, 2012 http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/bibliotheque/briefing/2012/120404/LDM_BRI(2012)120404_REV1_EN.pdf

‘Unified EU patent scheme moves a step closer’, April 16, 2013, http://www.computing.co.uk/ctg/news/2261808/unified-eu-patent-scheme-moves-a-step-closer

‘Spain would have been better off inside the Unitary Patent and the Unified Patent Court’, Kluwer Patent Blog, October 20, 2015, http://kluwerpatentblog.com/2015/10/20/spain-would-have-been-better-off-inside-the-unitary-patent-and-the-unified-patent-court/

‘The European Patent Office (EPO) Doesn’t Like Spanish, So Why Should the Spanish Tolerate the EPO?’, January 8, 2016 http://techrights.org/2016/01/08/epo-vesus-spanish-speakers/

‘False alarm: Spain will not join the Unitary Patent System after all’, March 27, 2017 http://www.lexology.com/library/detail.aspx?g=5567f802-70fa-4f48-814e-27fa1378e6b0

“Germany puts halt on European unitary patent”, June 13, 2017 https://www.theregister.co.uk/2017/06/13/germany_halts_european_unitary_patent/


Victoria Bauer is a second year MAEUS student and a French FLAS fellow, and Zsuzsanna Fagyal-Le Mentec is an Associate Professor of French Linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. They collaborated on this blog post as a follow-up to Victoria’s work on procedural languages in the EU in the FR 418 ‘Language and Minorities in Europe’ seminar.


Monday, November 13, 2017

Europeans Choose English as the Winner of Eurovision

by Kirsten Vold

Eurovision: where European nations compete through song, dance, costumes, pyrotechnics, and light shows every summer to an audience of over 200 million people worldwide-compared to the 30 million global viewers drawn to the 2016 Rio Olympic opening ceremonies (O’Connell 1). This summertime tradition has reflected not only Europe’s taste in music, but also language. Previous to 1999, countries generally sang in their mother tongues; then a rule change allowed them to choose any language for their entry (Rosell-Aguilar 2). The effect of this change was seen almost immediately, both the percentage of entries and the percentage of winners who performed in English increased dramatically (Eurovision 1).

The Eurovision Song Contest was created in 1956 by the European Broadcasting Union to mend and unify the continent after the previous two World Wars. Since then, Eurovision has been a reflection of political and cultural changes in Europe. Each country sends an entry of a song with at least one performer; the competition has grown to over 40 countries from the original seven in 1956 (Beauchamp 2). The competition promotes cultural diversity among European nations. The winning country hosts the competition the following year and displays their country’s culture in small video clips and skits as interludes to the acts. Following the 1999 rule change, countries can sing in any language including their mother tongue, any lingua franca, and even gibberish (Rosell-Aguilar 2). As well, the contest’s growing popularity and participation has brought in viewers from all around the world, prompting the inclusion of non-European countries like Australia to join in 2015 (Siim 1). This increase in participants correlates and arguably leads to the dominance of English as the chosen lyrical language and mimics the spread of English as a lingua franca in Europe over time.

Looking at all the entries that made it to the semifinals or higher from the beginning of Eurovision in 1956 to 2016, there is a clear shift in the use of English starting at the turn of the century (Eurovision 1). The breakdown of language used by contestants in the first year (1956), middle year (1986), and most recent year (2016) shows three stages of this gradual and eventual dominance by English. In 1956, 0% of the contestants sang in English; in 1986, 10% of the entries were in English; and in 2016, 91%of the countries chose to sing in English. The 199 rule change gave the countries the freedom to strategically choose which language to sing in, and most chose English (Rosell-Aguilar 2).

Previous to the rule change, English shared the title of most popular winning language along with French. From 1956 to 1998, English and French won 14 times each, or about 32% of the time. The closest competition came from Dutch with just 7% of the winning entries. Following the rule change, English shot up to 89% of winning songs with Ukrainian and Serbian trailing it with one win, and 5%, each (Eurovision 1). This dramatic change shows an undeniable trend: English, when given the option, will be the preferred language for Eurovision contestants and the preferred language for Eurovision voters and judges.

Eurovision was created with the intention of bringing a war-torn Europe together, and now does so on a worldwide scale. Viewers pour in from around the world to bear witness to the over the top extravaganza that is Eurovision; last year totaling over 200 million. This increase in viewership, along with the 1999 rule change, have shifted the preferences to favor English over any other language.

Work cited:

Beauchamp, Zack. "Eurovision, the World's Biggest and Best Singing Competition, Explained." Vox. Vox, 14 May 2016. Web. 08 Apr. 2017. <http://www.vox.com/2016/5/14/11667716/eurovision-song-contest-2016-logo-timberlake>.

*Graphs produced by me by data gathered from:Eurovision. "History." Eurovision.tv. N.p., 14 May 2016. Web. 05 Apr. 2017. <http://www.eurovision.tv/page/history/year>.

O'Connell, Michael. "TV Ratings: Rio Olympics Opening Ceremony Falls 28 Percent From London." The Hollywood Reporter. The Hollywood Reporter, 06 Aug. 2016. Web. 05 Apr. 2017. <http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/live-feed/tv-ratings-rio-olympics-opening-ceremony-how-many-watched-917393>.

Rosell-Aguilar, Fernando. "Parlez-vous Eurovision?" OpenLearn. The Open University, 22 May 2015. Web. 09 Apr. 2017. <http://www.open.edu/openlearn/languages/parlez-vous-eurovision#>.

Siim, Jarmo. "Australia to Compete in the 2015 Eurovision Song Contest." Eurovision.tv. Eurovision, 10 Feb. 2015. Web. 06 Apr. 2017. <http://www.eurovision.tv/page/news?id=australia_to_participate_in_the_2015_eurovision_song_contest>.

--------------Kirsten was a junior in Political Science at the University of Illinois when she wrote this blog post in the 418 ‘Language and Minorities in Europe’ course in the spring of 2017. She is currently applying to law schools to pursue a career in global corporate compliance.

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