Linguistic neighbours

LAST Saturday saw Denmark win the Eurovision Song Contest, the country’s third win in the contest’s history. A prototypically apple-cheeked blonde (pictured) took the trophy for her country, but she did so with the rather un-Danish name of Emmelie de Forest and the equally un-Danish title, “Only Teardrops”. 

The contest has always been about more than music. Every year comes a slew of articles about the political nature of the voting. Countries that share ethnic or political friendships routinely give each other high marks: Greece and Cyprus typically give each other the maximum of 12 points while stiffing Turkey with nul points, for example. Estonia and Latvia this year gave Russia 12 points, no doubt because those countries’ large Russian populations voted for their neighbour. 

Language, of course, plays a role in this as well. “Ethnicity” in Europe is often linguistic: an ethnic Russian is not apparent on the streets of Riga until he opens his mouth. Linguistic neighbours will tend to be generous to one another. Finland and Estonia are friendly not only because they are nearby but because their Finno-Ugric languages resemble each other, while being utterly unrelated to their neigbours’. (Hungarian is also Finno-Ugric.)  Each country can give 12 points to only one other country, and this year Denmark and Sweden gave their 12’s to Norway, Norway its 12 to Sweden, as befits the Scandinavian language continuum.

But the Scandinavians share something else besides apple-cheeked blondes and North Germanic languages: their tendency to sing in English. In that, they are like most countries nowadays. But some interesting variation clouds the picture.

The French, of course, overwhelmingly prefer French. (France has, however, sent two entries in Corsican and one, in 2008, mostly in English.) Spain nearly always opts for Spanish, and Italy for Italian. But it isn’t true that big countries sing in their own languages while small ones opt for English. Germany has sung just one German title (“Frauen regierien die Welt”, or “Women Run the World”) in the past ten years.  And a few small countries opted for linguistic pride over Anglophone Euro-cheer this year. Iceland’s Eyþór Ingi offered up a dreary ballad in Icelandic, the perfect accompaniment to an official video in which he glumly fillets a fish in the rain. The highest-ranking song not sung in English this year was technically Greece’s “Alcohol is Free”, an upbeat ska tune in which the verses were in Greek and only the three-word chorus in English. It came in 6th place. The highest-ranking song entirely devoid of English was Italy’s “L’Essenziale” (7th).

Songs mostly in English have won 24 times, while songs in French have won 14. That leaves just about a third of the contests won in any other language. This is despite two periods (1956-1965 and 1977-1999) in which contest rules required countries to sing in their own languages. Perhaps the only true global hit to come out of the contest—Abba’s “Waterloo” (1974)—was sung by Swedes in English. It is clear that pop is just another area in which English is taking over Europe, alongside business and the politics of the European Union. French is holding a solid second place, as it does elsewhere. The rest of Europe’s many language communities divide up what remains. Whether you find this linguistic convergence cheerful as an Abba foot-stomper or depressing as an Icelandic fishing trip will say as much about your politics as it will your views on language. 

Correction: This post has been updated to note the 2008 singing of “Divine”, from France, mostly in English. Apologies for the error. 

Clarification: The famous Abba recording of “Waterloo” is in English, but Abba sang it in Swedish for Eurovision. Thank you to the commenters who pointed this out. 

(Photo credit: AFP)


3 thoughts on “Linguistic neighbours

  1. Tis true that politics will rule Eurovision. However most countries sing in English so that they can reach a larger population base as English is quite common. Generally people will only vote for a song in which they could understand the lyrics and meaning of that song.

  2. English seems to be the the language of choice amoungst vocalists worldwide. One could infer that this is because they want to seem similar to the American and UK music industries which primarily produce music which contains lyrics sang in English. It could also be considered a means to attract fans of that type of music to theirs so they might also be singing in English for that reason.

  3. English seems to be the most popular language for Eurovision. More countries seem to respond to so g written in English than songs that aren’t. Most popular songs in foreign countries are written in English. Maybe that has something to do with it

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