Will Europeans end up speaking Eurish?

"When push comes to shove." It was a jolt to hear this expression from a participant at a recent training event in Amsterdam because I had heard the same words at a Frankfurt session the week before.

Both events were in English, and those taking part were fluent and confident. The Dutch trainees' English was close to a native speaker's idea of correctness. But in 10 hours of teaching and listening in the two cities, those twin instances of "push comes to shove" were the only bits of metaphorical language that I heard.

The use of figurative language often makes native speakers unwelcome - and incomprehensible - guests at international English-language events. Do second-language speakers largely avoid metaphors to ensure that they understand one another?

Mr Marko Modiano, a lecturer at Gavle University in Sweden, says they do, although he adds that when people from Nordic countries speak English to one another, they adopt words and phrases from their own languages. "To hop over" means to refrain from doing something, "blue-eyed" means naive and "to salt" means to overcharge. But generally, continental Europeans prefer their English straightforward.

That may change. Mr Modiano argues that continental Europeans are developing their own variety of English, a process that will accelerate when the United Kingdom leaves the European Union and continental Europeans pay less attention to British rules of what is right or wrong.

One day, it could, like American or Australian English, even have its own dictionary.

Is that true? European English began developing its own quirks long before the UK's 2016 referendum. Brexit might reduce the influence of UK English in Brussels, but in business and tourism, English was changing anyway because so many interactions in Europe's lingua franca happen without many, or any, native speakers present.

European business people, hotel receptionists, academics, scientists and railway staff speak English constantly, usually to others who do not speak it as their native tongue.

Over years of attending conferences, chairing panels and running training programmes in more than a dozen European cities, I have begun to note the contours of this changing language that I call Eurish. It is still English, but it has its own features that are often common to both Romance and Germanic languages.

One feature is the European uncountable noun - singular in native-speaker English but plural in Eurish: "He received feedbacks", "We have a lot of informations" and "We are producing online contents".

There are other Eurish differences. I have heard both Germans and Italians say "we discussed about" rather than "we discussed". "I will answer to your question" is common in many European discussions.

Writing in the World Englishes journal, Mr Modiano adds others: "I am coming from Spain" rather than "I come from Spain" and "We were five people at the party" rather than "There were five people at the party".

Continental Europeans are increasingly unworried about what Brits think of their developing English. "Teachers and learners are becoming less and less adamant in their efforts to promote the mimicking of native speakers," Mr Modiano says. "The continental use of English constitutes an emerging variety."

No, it is not a new variety, says another World Englishes contributor. Ms Jennifer Jenkins, director of the Centre for Global Englishes at Southampton University, writes that those speaking English in Europe bring too many imports from their different native tongues for what emerges to be called a new English variety.

Yes, there are some "observed regularities", common features of the sort that Mr Modiano and I have pointed out.

But "with the 24 different first languages of EU member states, plus the languages of continental European non-EU states, as well as a large number of immigrant first languages, the idea that speakers from this large range of language backgrounds will somehow come together to form and use a unitary variety of English is implausible", writes Ms Jenkins.

Is it? The existence of a large number of other native tongues does not necessarily prevent a distinctive common variety of English from emerging. It has happened in India, Singapore, Nigeria and South Africa.

It takes time, and intense interaction between people who switch between their own languages and English. It may not have happened in Europe yet, but with children learning English from primary school and increasingly working and studying in one another's countries, there is no reason why a distinctive European English should not emerge.

When Europeans start to use their own shared figurative expressions in English, we will know that it has happened.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 14, 2018, with the headline 'Will Europeans end up speaking Eurish?'. Print Edition | Subscribe