At the beginning of the 19th century, Czech scholar Josef Dobrovsky sat down to write the first dictionary in his dying language. The Czech lands were then occupied by the Austrian Empire, and the Czech language was quickly giving way before politically powerful German.
Mr. Dobrovsky's research sparked a movement to resurrect his language and liberate the Czechs, and today Czech is the national language of an independent country of 10 million. Linguists call it a miracle.
Now, 200 years after Dobrovsky's writing, the Czech Republic is poised to join another supernational European government, the European Union. The old question remains: What will happen to the language?
With dozens of languages intermingled in Europe, English is increasingly taking the place of smaller languages in politics, diplomacy, and business. Forty-seven percent of the citizens of the EU speak English as a first or second language. Yet, unlike the Austrian Empire, the EU insists on preserving multilingualism in its documents and meetings, even at great expense.
As the Union prepares to expand eastward and absorb a tangle of new languages, the question of how Europeans communicate is becoming more urgent.
"In the European Union we are caught between two necessities," says Christian Bourgin, spokesman for an EU delegation to Central European candidate states. "We need to understand one another in our discussions and, at the same time, we have to be certain that no one is at a linguistic disadvantage in those discussions. For the moment, there is a tenuous balance, though many people fear English has too much influence. The question is how will it work with 21 languages."
Language is perhaps the most potent symbol of national identity left on a continent where currencies are being united and religion is not the force it once was. All candidate states insist that their national languages gain equal status in the EU.
Central and Eastern Europe have a long history of supernational domination, most recently by the Soviet Union, which tried to impose its language Russian as a regional common tongue. That memory is painfully fresh. A recent poll in Latvia showed that 52 percent of Latvians worry that joining the EU will threaten their language again. By contrast, only 48 percent were concerned about the loss of their national currency.
One of the most sacred principles of the EU is the right of all citizens to be heard and to receive information from common institutions in their own language. For a decade that policy has maintained a delicate, and expensive, equilibrium between linguistic imperialism and communications chaos in Europe. European Commission officials insist that EU enlargement will not change this language policy. But economists warn that if it doesn't change, the EU may face a financial crisis that could threaten the Union's cohesion.
EU institutions currently use 11 official languages, which create 110 language combinations in translation and interpretation. In the name of maintaining linguistic equality among member states, EU entities employ thousands of interpreters and translators at a cost of 686 million euros ($671 million) per year. Planned expansions of the Union in the next decade will add another 10 official languages, raising the number of combinations to 420 and requiring the EU to hire top-notch interpreters between languages such as Latvian and Portuguese or Hungarian and Danish. Costs aside, just finding interpreters with such obscure skills will be difficult. At present, language services swallow a third of the European Parliament's budget each year.
"The idea of accommodating even more languages is totally crazy," says Katinka Barysch, chief economist at the Center for European Reform, a nongovernmental think tank in London. "It is prohibitively expensive and impractical. The problem is that there would be intense nationalist resistance to any change. Especially in the new states in Central and Eastern Europe, language is a symbol of freedom from domination."
Indeed, Eastern Europe lags behind the EU in foreign-language proficiencies, and very few people are skilled enough to handle the simultaneous interpretation needed in top level EU discussions. The European Commission reports that it will need 80 high-level conference interpreters from each new member country. Currently about half that number are available.
The languages of the region are so small and specific that one can easily drive through four countries in a day and read road signs in six languages on the way.
Frustrated by lack of communication, German computer programmer Bernd von den Brincken says, "Everyone should just learn English. We can't afford to support a bunch of tiny languages in the EU. Some languages are simply stronger than others."
Renata Staudova, who runs a translating agency in the Czech town of Pardubice, very nearly the geographical center of Europe, has mixed feelings about the European Union. On one hand, her business is set to boom. With 80 interpreters on call, she can transfer texts between 14 different languages including Finnish, Dutch, Hungarian and, of course, English and Czech. As the European Union expands eastward to absorb her country, services like Staudova's will be in ever greater demand.
But, despite the prospect of sparkling profits, Staudova is worried. "I'm afraid that Czech language and Czech identity may disappear in the EU, and we will lose some important part of ourselves," she says. "The influence of English-speaking countries is so powerful, and they do not want to learn any other languages. Eventually, smaller languages may be pushed out of use."
Relying on English would open the way for hazardous misunderstandings, EU officials say.
Jean-Luc Dahaene, former prime minister of Belgium, predicted that, unless care is taken, the conference language of the future will be "bad English" among those who learned it as a second or third language.
Many financial and other decisions by the European Parliament or Council of Ministers immediately become law in member states, and negotiations must be absolutely clear to all delegates.
"Interpreting is a fundamental part of making sure that democracy works and money only changes hands at the intended times," says Ian Anderson, spokesman for the commission's Interpreting Service. Referring to current budget figures, he adds: "We consider 2 euros ($2) per EU citizen per year a bearable price to pay for the ability of citizens to be able to get in touch with the institutions in their own languages."