Est Europa nunc unita? Language, History and the Forging of a European Identity

by John Como, an American born Italo-Swedish second year student reading War Studies and History at the War Studies Department of King’s College London. 

At the headquarters of the European Union, in Brussels, Luxembourg and Strasbourg, there reigns a sort of modern day Tower of Babel. In the sleek hemicycle where the Parliament sits in Strasbourg, the circular walls of the chamber are lined with two tiers of darkly tinted glass. Behind it sits the Parliament’s small army of translators. The EP employs 750 interpreters in total, as many members as the Parliament itself [[1]]. MEPs are entitled to speak on the floor in any of the 24 official languages of the Union and simultaneous translation must be ensured for each. That is a total of 552 possible combinations that must be translatable. Particularly exotic interpretations, say Finnish to Maltese, must sometimes be translated through a third ‘relay’ language. All official documents produced by the EU must be translated into the relevant languages. This multiplicity of tongues leads to confusion, loss of accuracy and enormous costs. In 2006, translation expenses totalled over €1bn, accounting for 1% of all EU expenditures [[2]]. Since then costs have only grown with the admission Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia and the attainment of semi-official status by Catalan, Basque, Galician, Welsh and Scottish Gaelic. As Europe continues to expand at its peripheries, there is no end in sight. If the European Commission were to adopt a common language it stands to save a much as €25bn a year [[3]].


However, the problems caused by the lack of a common language are not limited to an institutional level. Across Europe, the primary obstacle to integration on a social level remains the many languages of its people, constituting hard cultural barriers along mostly national lines. Beside the practical difficulties that this creates in intraregional communication, without a common language there will always lack a key component necessary for the creation of a pan-European identity. European identity must be pursued as the basis for true European democracy. Without it, European politics will remain obstructed by residual distrust between the nations. This is not to say that national languages and identities should be replaced by pan-European alternatives, but that they should coexist. After all, just as one can be Basque and Spanish or Breton and French, why should ‘European’ not be added to the list? Does the identification of ‘European’ already not have some significance? The Maidan protesters in Kiev wanted Ukraine to be ‘European’ in the sense of European values: rule of law, democracy, human rights, etc. Why not add to the values, institutions and symbols that today represent ‘Europe’, a common language?

The natural question that arises is what exactly that language would be. The obvious choice would be English. Along with French and German it is one of the three ‘procedural’ languages of the Commission, though German is rarely used and Francophones have dwindled since the eastward expansion of 2004. It is the most widely spoken language in the EU with 51% of Europeans reporting being able to speak English well enough to hold a conversation [[4]]. It is already the language of global commerce. But even if continental Europeans could swallow the indignity of establishing English as the common tongue, it is a poor choice for a common European language. England has always played a peripheral role in the European project and the Anglophone world stands in cultural contrast to the ‘European’. It might also risk a proclivity towards certain Anglo-Saxon political and economic notions. French or German would be a much better choice for a truly ‘European’ language, but knowledge of these is much less, 25% and 28% of the EU population respectively [[5]]. Ultimately though, selecting any of the existing languages as a lingua franca will present an unresolvable contention: it is inherently unfair. Whatever the common language, its native speakers will carry with them a huge advantage and risks a single nationality dominating the civil service.

It would appear that the only way to resolve this dilemma is to choose a language that is spoken natively by no one, and thus equitable towards all. Esperanto, an artificially constructed language meant to be simple to learn, has been suggested by some. It is the most widely learnt of the so-called ‘international auxiliary languages’, with up to 2 million users globally. But is there not an option that better suits the secondary function of a common language, to build a European identity? Might there be some language more firmly rooted in European history and culture? In fact, for centuries Europe had a lingua franca that was commonly understood by the educated across the continent. Its use continued as the principle scholarly language as late as the 18th century. Even today it has been studied by millions worldwide. I am talking of course about Latin.


As outlandish as this proposition may seem, there are many benefits. Though it is dead, it is far from unused. Classics departments in universities all over Europe are devoted to its study. It is still commonly taught at secondary school level in Britain, Germany, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands. Some Latin is already known indirectly by hundreds of millions of speakers of the Latin languages: French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian. Latin influence is pervasive even outside of the Romance languages; 56% of all English vocabulary is derived from Latin either directly or via French [[6]]. There are philological benefits in studying Latin and it aids in understanding and acquiring other languages. Empirically controlled studies have shown that “children who study Latin outperform their peers when it comes to reading, reading comprehension and vocabulary, as well as higher order thinking such as computation, concepts and problem solving[[7]]. A 1979 study noted that Latin was particularly beneficial to children from disadvantaged backgrounds, improving fluency of native language and providing a basis for access to intellectual thought through references that open up “new symbolic worlds” which might otherwise be inaccessible [[8]].

There are also enormous cultural benefits of adopting Latin. In a Latin-speaking Europe all people would have first hand access to the majority of the European literary corpus of the past 2 millennia. Classical literature, medieval histories, renaissance and early modern science all instantly accessible without the obfuscating need for translation. And here lies the most important but most subtle benefit of Latin. These works and their contents compose an important part of the common cultural, artistic and intellectual heritage of Europe. By giving people direct access to their past, of how the history and culture of each nation is inextricable tied and mixed with that of the others, we might recognize our similarity and begin to forge a common identity. Latin would link the EU to its historical forbearers of European unity: the Carolingian and Roman Empires. Greco-Roman civilization is considered to be the cultural and historic progenitor of modern Europe. In the Middle Ages, Latin even spread into Germanic and Slavic lands that the old Empires never touched, as a scholarly, ecclesiastical and administrative language. Not a single province of Europe has been unaffected by the larger flows of European history and Latin is a window into this world. It seems only appropriate to adopt what was, for 18 centuries, the European lingua franca as the common language for the future.

To build a common European identity one cannot conjure it out of thin air. Rather, what is already there (a common past) must be ordered so that we can engage with it in a way that allows us to give it meaning. This is the key and here Latin can have an important role to play, if only allowed. As unlikely as this would be to ever happen, it is not without precedent. The example of Hebrew serves to demonstrate the possibility. For centuries Hebrew was a likewise ‘dead’ language, used only as the scriptural language of the Jewish faith. When its revival began in the 19th century Hebrew did not have a single native speaker. Today it is spoken by over 7 million people and forms an important part of modern Israeli identity. If anything, the prospects for Hebrew in the early 1800s were much worse than for Latin today. Like Hebrew, a revived Latin based on its classical variant would require much updating for the modern world. After all, the Romans didn’t have a word for ‘electric car’ or ‘smartphone’.

If this were to ever happen, how would one start? A switch by the EU institutions to a dead language overnight is, of course, impossible. Latin would have to be made a standard part of European curriculums from a young age. Even then it would take a generation for knowledge to accumulate to such a level where it would be commonly useful. A small but crucial step could be taken today, which would address a currently outstanding problem: Latin could be made the legally definitive language of all European laws and treaties. This would resolve differing interpretations of statutes arising from language differences, as currently all 24 translations are given equal authority. This would not create sweeping change. It would have little immediate effect (given that such issues are relatively rare) and its relevance would be contained to the European legal apparatus. There already exist enough highly trained Latinists to be seconded to aid the courts and lawmakers. However, this would create a basis for the language to grow.

First, within the legal system as Latin knowledge would be increasingly important for legal specialists, then into the legislative organs themselves. As the profile of the language grows, proficiency will becomes increasingly prevalent in other institutions, and spread out from there, ultimately towards use as a pan-European vernacular. This process would require official encouragement and aid, on a national and supranational level, the whole way. For now at least, the Unio Europaea is occupied with much more pressing concerns. Long-term initiative, especially very long-term, has been something the Union has lacked of late, but it need not remain that way. Perhaps the time has not yet come or perhaps it is just a dream. But if it is a dream, is it not a beautiful one?


[1] European Parliament (

[2] ‘Cost in translation: EU spends €1bn on language services’, Stephen Castle for The Independent (

[3] L’enseignement des langues étrangères comme politique publique, François Grin (

[4] Europeans and their Languages, European Commission (

[5] ibid.

[6] Ordered profusion; studies in dictionaries and the English lexicon, Thomas Finkenstaedt & Dieter Wolff (1973)

[7]Forget Mandarin. Latin is the key to success’, Toby Young for The Spectator (

[8] ibid.


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