Lost in Translation: The EU′s Alphabetical Diversity | News and current affairs from Germany and around the world | DW | 10.08.2008
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Lost in Translation: The EU's Alphabetical Diversity

With its mind-boggling multi-lingual alphabetization, in the EU countries can simply go missing.

Letters and numbers in a printing box

The EU has all the ingredients for a tasty alphabet soup.

German journalists registering for the French presidency of the European Union in July had an unusual problem: they couldn't find their country.

The registration Web site, drawn up in flawless English, featured a drop-down menu listing 201 countries of origin. There was just one problem: Germany, the EU's largest member, appeared not to be there.

Only a painstaking search revealed the Teuton titan, nestled in the alphabetical list between Algeria and Andorra. The reason: although the Web site was in English, it was based on a French original -- and in French, "Germany" is "Allemagne."

It takes a special kind of organization to make even alphabetical order that complicated.

Keeping everyone happy

Flags at the European Parliament in Brussels

The EU speaks 23 languages..and often finds itself tongue-tied.

The EU, whose motto is "united in diversity," currently boasts 27 members, 23 official languages and three alphabets: Latin, Greek and Cyrillic. Being scrupulously careful to protect its members' rights, it gives each language and alphabet equal official status.

But the bloc has ended up being so scrupulous that even insiders sometimes find it hard to use EU lists drawn up in alphabetical order -- as the German journalists found out in July.

Most international organizations list their members alphabetically by name in the group's main working language. In NATO, for example, member states are ordered by name in English.

The letter of the law

But that approach would not work in the EU, which has three working languages: English, French and German.

Instead, member states and languages are listed alphabetically by name in their own tongue. Thus, Finnish (Suomen kieli) falls between Slovenian and Swedish, Hungarian (Magyar) comes between Lithuanian and Maltese, and German (Deutsch) comes after Danish.

A Spanish conspiracy?

But the prize for the most unpredictable listing goes to Spain. On the website of the European Commission, Spanish is listed between English and French, according to its official name, Espanol.

But on the websites of the European Parliament and the council of member states, Spanish -- still called Espanol -- falls among the Cs.

EU staff say that this is because even though the language is officially called Espanol, its technical name is Castellano, the term by which it is still known in much of Latin America.

Spain's different languages have been known to clash

Would Spain see red if Catalan becomes an official EU language?

But conspiracy theorists, of whom the EU has a startling number, say that the odd listing was devised to limit the fall-out should the Spanish regional language of Catalan become an official EU language.

If that were to happen, they say, it would be much less sensitive politically if the two languages were listed side by side, rather than separated by Czech, Danish, German, Estonian, Greek and English.

Alphabet war unlikely

At a time when the EU's members are at loggerheads over issues ranging from the fate of the Lisbon Treaty to the regulation of international divorces, the question of where exactly each member state fits in the alphabet is hardly likely to make it onto the agenda for this autumn's series of high-level meetings.

But at the very least, it provides observers with a fine example of how hard the union tries to keep all its members happy - and why the results so often leave EU citizens bewildered.

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