‘Douze points’ for Linguistic Diversity

It’s that time of year again … The days are getting warmer, flowers are blooming, birds are chirping, and a girl’s thoughts turn to one thing: Eurovision! The Eurovision Song Contest, the longest-running annual international TV song competition in the world, is a cultural phenomenon that inspires feverish adoration in some and causes revulsion in others. As a lover of both languages and all things camp, from the first time I watched the song contest in 2008, I was hooked.

Photo: Albin Olsson; License: CC BY-SA 3.0

I mean, Russian grannies singing a song called “Party for Everybody”, a Finnish heavy-metal band performing in monster masks, bearded Austrian drag queens, and a healthy dose of pyrotechnics – what’s not to love!?

But as the years have gone by and my love for Eurovision has continued to deepen and grow, I’ve noticed an unmistakable trend (and I’m certainly not the only one): over time, more and more contestants are choosing to ditch their native languages and sing in English. Instead of Liebe, l’amour, ljubezen, and любовь, we’re increasingly stuck with plain old love, love, and love (and also peace). And 2017 will be more of the same: out of all the contestants entering the two semifinal rounds this year, all but six songs will be sung wholly or partly in English.

All of which makes you wonder: How did this happen? And why? – Let’s start from the beginning. As a rule, every song must have words; no entirely instrumental song has ever been allowed in the contest. The first contest was held in 1956, and for the first nine years, there were no rules about which languages countries could use (interestingly enough, in that first year, only seven countries participated, each represented with two songs, and each country sang in at least one of its national languages, none of which were English). But from 1966 to 1973, and then again from 1977 to 1998, a rule was put in place stating that countries could only perform their songs in one of their official languages. The only countries that could enter songs in English during this time were Ireland, Malta, and the United Kingdom.

This changed in 1999 when the language restriction was lifted and countries were once again allowed to perform songs in any language. Since then, the number of songs sung wholly or partly in English has continued to rise (if not exactly steadily), never dipping below 60%, and peaking at 96% last year, in 2016:

So why are so many countries making the switch? Over the past 61 years, English songs have won 31 times, and French songs have won 14 times, together making up roughly 68% of all wins, and leaving a scant 32% for the other 62 languages (and the 3 artificial languages that were entered in 2003, 2006, and 2008). From 1990 to 1999, 6 of the 10 winners sang in English, and since the rule change in 1999, every winning song but one was sung wholly or partly in English. Naturally, this could also be a case of jumping on the bandwagon (which may or may not be carrying a flaming piano): if an English-language song wins one year, the next year performers are more likely to switch from their national languages to English to improve their chances of winning.

And while, for linguaphiles like myself in particular, this is a somewhat depressing trend, it doesn’t mean I’ve given up hope that the tides could turn. After all, after Marija Šerifović won in 2007 singing in her native language of Serbian, the number of non-English songs increased in 2008, and last year’s winner, Jamala, sang a song with a chorus in Crimean Tatar. Perhaps another foreign-language win could convince more artists to take the risk and use the contest as a platform for their mother tongue. The theme of this year’s song contest in Kyiv is “Celebrating Diversity,” and perhaps next year’s contestants will take the message to heart and celebrate not only national and cultural diversity, but linguistic diversity as well.

Rachael Torkar