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Business

My Brexit Diary: London-Brussels-Babylon

DW's London correspondent Gerhard Elfers says there may be many reasons the British may want to leave the European Union. But he feels English-language purity would be dealt another serious blow, if that happened.

When I'm about town, I can hear Londoners complain about the weather in 300 different languages, from Arabic to Zulu. Yet not so many people can do so here in perfect English. And it's no wonder: 37 percent of Londoners were not born in Britain. The city is - and always has been - one of immigrants.

In my neighborhood around Brick Lane, the street signs even have Bengali subtitles. At the grocery store on Bethnal Green Road, the octogenarian Bangladeshi shopkeeper, who has only the most rudimentary command of English, calls me "Guv'nor," the Cockney version of "Sir." I find that strangely touching. Adult immigrants here learn most of their English on the street and from colleagues, relatives or neighbors; their teachers are Scottish accountants and Irish builders, Poles and Nigerians, Cockney plumbers and Jamaican bus drivers. The language they learn is a London patois, colorful and often remarkably understandable, alas - the Queen's English it is definitely not.

In EU circles, English is clearly the most important language, as much as the French may lament it. But as in London, a similar yet separate dialect of "EU English" has emerged in the corridors and conference rooms of Brussels. Even native speakers find it hard to understand.

Jeremy Gardner, a British EU official, clearly had enough of hearing his native tongue mangled by Germans, French and Spanish colleagues when

he wrote the definitive guide

to "Misused Words and Expressions in EU Publications." It's a funny read. Take this example: "...state-building efforts [in Palestine] have been … endorsed by various international actors."

Now, we all know that people like Angelina Jolie or Sean Penn enjoy a spot of conflict resolution after lunch. But in Euro-slang, an "actor" is simply someone who, well, does something, like a government or an aid organization. I can feel Mr. Gardner's pain.

DW's Gerhard Elfers

Gerhard Elfers: DW correspondent in London

Or take the word "punctual," which means "on time." But in EU bureaucratois, it's used like this: "...will hold punctual expert groups meetings where appropriate." You would expect a meeting of experts to start on time, wouldn't you, but in EU English, "punctual" means occasional or periodic. I can't help but think that this deviation was first used by German officials, because it looks and sounds suspiciously like the German word punktuell, which, of course, means "occasional or periodic."

No wonder the Brits are fed up with the EU - even their hardened Europhiles don't properly understand what's going on anymore! How, then, are they supposed to sing the praises of Europe at home?

So let's all write to our MEPs and demand they book an English refresher course, out of respect for the language of Shakespeare and Dickens. Because if Britain indeed were to leave the EU, there would be only 4.6 million native speakers of English left in the Union, around 1 percent of the population.

The Irish would become the last remaining caretaker of the EU's most important mode of communication. Eurocrats, better book some punctual German lessons too.

Gerhard Elfers has been in journalism for nearly 30 years, working, among others, for WTN, NBC News and German broadcasters ARD and RTL. Since 2008, he's been DW's business correspondent in London. He is writing a regular column in the run-up to Britain's referendum on European Union membership on June 23.

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