October 05, 2003

The European Council legislates English morphology

In this post on the EDline list, Victor Dewsbery references an official page informing us that "[a]ccording to the European Council conclusions reached in Madrid in December 1995, . . . [i]n English, the terms euro and cent are invariable (no plural 's')."

Thus the Council decrees that its subjects should write (and say) "This apple costs 30 cent."

Curiously, the morphology of other languages is not similarly redefined: the French and Spanish get to keep their traditional 's', the Finns get a singular partitive 'a', etc.

Dewsbery cites some other official pages that backpedal on the 's' prohibition, presumably because it's hopeless to try to enforce the original policy. But why was it imposed in the first place? It's hard to believe that the drafters of the policy thought that this is how English works. Perhaps they saw the euro as a game animal, like grouse, deer, trout and salmon?

Another odd stricture, documented further down the same page, concerns the syntax of the ISO code EUR:

In English, the ISO code or euro sign is placed before the figure, separated by a non-breaking space, e.g. EUR 30.

In all other languages the order is reversed, e.g. 30 EUR.

[Update: this page explains the political history of plural euro and cent:

How did this unusual usage come into being? At a meeting of the Monetary Committee in 1998, the ECB -- fearing that the use of different spellings for the single currency might lead to legal problems -- claimed that "euro" and "cent" should be invariable in all languages, as decided in Madrid and Verona. The principle of invariable spelling was therefore accepted, but -- as so often happens -- some countries (France, Spain, Portugal) immediately obtained derogations allowing them the plural inflections natural to their languages (though not of course on the notes and coins themselves). In practice, therefore, 'invariable' meant 'invariable for some languages but not for others' right from the start.

So the European Council was not motivated by a subtle analogy to invariant "yen" and similar models in English-language currency usage. Instead, the Council aimed to establish a rationalist, morphology-free norm for all languages, and then issued exceptions to a few countries who were paying attention or who take language legislation seriously.

The English-only order EUR 30 is still a mystery to me.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at October 5, 2003 01:15 AM