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Diplomacy and the English language


'Utopia Lake' - Jaume Genovart 1983

When Winston Churchill said that jaw-jaw was better than war-war, he was expressing an elementary truth about diplomacy: that talking is better than fighting. Communication between the parties to a conflict goes back to the distant origins of history; heralds are mentioned in the Iliad, and one of them, Stentor by name, was said by Homer to have a ‘voice as powerful as fifty voices of other men’. It seems, however, this that this strength lay in volume rather than in his powers of persuasion.

The Greeks and Trojans communicated with each other in Greek in the Iliad, but Homer was using a common literary device of later ages. In fact, it seems certain that the two sides in the real Trojan War spoke different languages, and it goes without saying that language skill is an essential ability for any successful diplomat. Lingua francas have always been known and used, usually being the language of the dominant power. Greek and Latin were the languages of the classical empires, with Greek surviving as the language of official correspondence in Rome and Byzantium.

Latin survives in Europe to this day as the language of the Roman Catholic Church but the rise of vernacular languages in the Middle Ages fragmented linguistic unity, even though Newton wrote his Principia in Latin as late as 1687. English and French in particular increased their influence through their empires and French became the common language of much of educated Europe.

British influence in Europe remained great, but during the 20th century it was the rise in US power that was to boost the international status of English worldwide through American cultural and financial influence, soft power to use Joseph Nye’s name for such action. As a result, the use of English in international affairs has developed in two separate fields: Europe and the Commonwealth use British English, or slight variations of it, while the Americas and much of Asia use the American version of the language. But whichever form is used there can be no doubt that English is an essential language for anyone working in diplomacy or international organisations.

What is English for diplomacy? It is essentially the English language used in a formal way, as is the case with much use of the language by native speakers. Contractions (I’m, we’d, they’ll etc.) are not used in formal writing, though they are correctly used I speech in all hut the most extremely formal usage. There are some mistakes that Spanish-speakers make, even those who have a very respectable command of the language, and false friends lurk to trap the unwary. Conditional verb forms pose a problem though they are in fact much easier to explain and understand than many people, including many teachers, realise. A feature of formal written English that students must master is inversion of verb and subject following adverbs: Never had I experienced such difficulty. And finally (does it really need saying?) Google and other mechanical means can produce results that are nothing short of disastrous.

It is not only apparently friendly vocabulary that can be false. Idioms can be especially dangerous as they do not always transfer literally from one language culture to another. Many years ago, when I was on the board of a European youth organisation, our chairman was retiring after making a great contribution to its development. The Finn who made the thank-you speech said that in his years in the organisation he had ‘played the part of a brick’. The intention was to use a brick as a metaphor of construction, but to English ears a brick is a solid, heavy object that does nothing, hurts if you drop it on your foot, and sinks in water! Then there is the story of the diplomat making a speech at a formal dinner. His speech wouldn’t be long he said because … well because he wanted to quote the English proverb ‘Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise,’ but unfortunately what he said was ‘I quote your English saying: Early to bed and up with the cock.’ Well, it is true that cock is the  Spanish gallo. But it is also true that it is a slang word for the penis!

There is one particular example that I could quote that is relevant to Spanish-speakers:

¡Qué palo! Don’t say What a stick! in English. These things can’t be translated literally and they sound ridiculous. You are taking my hair! is ridiculous in English, just as ¡Te estoy tirando de la pierna! sounds silly in Spanish for the English equivalent: I’m pulling your leg. (Great English Mistakes made by Spanish-speakers by Peter Harvey)

Further language advice for diplomats can be found in A Dictionary of Diplomacy by G. R. Berridge and Alan James, published by Palgrave Macmillan.

English is an international language in its own right. It is the medium of communication between people who speak other languages but have English in common. In such circumstances it is hardly surprising that a form of English has developed that is used in international organisations but is not quite how native speakers would use it. In some cases it has been simplified: phrasal verbs, which are a basic part of native English usage, are rarely found – and this is not surprising given the complexity of their use. Words from other languages are sometimes used in English, though here a problem can arise. In English communitarian refers to the organisation of society into small self-governing communities. It does not correspond to the French communautaire though sometimes it is mistakenly used in that way. It is well known that English actual does not correspond to its equivalent form in other European languages, but actualité is sometimes used in English with its French meaning.

International English may be free of some of the subtleties that native speakers of the language include in their speech and writing, but these speakers will use their own language as they naturally do. That means that the cultural basis that underlies their choice of language will have full expression. In English that means first and foremost Shakespeare; not only was he a brilliant dramatist, but he was writing at an extremely fertile time in the development of the language. He contributed many expressions that are now in common everyday use, so much so in fact that people who use expressions such as full circle or what’s done is done are often not aware that they are quoting from Shakespeare’s work. The same is true of the Bible, not because people are especially religious but because the translation of the Bible that was published in 1611 (while Shakespeare was still alive) is regarded as a work of English literature and has similarly contributed many idioms to the language such as an eye for an eye and turning the other cheek. It was in the 1960s that the first year ever passed with no British serviceman being killed in action, and few if any such years have been known since then. Not surprisingly, the country’s military tradition, along with its merchant navy and empire, has influenced the language from battening down the hatches to turning a blind eye.

English has no Academy or other authority to set standards for usage. For that reason there is a certain degree of variation in the way that English is used, though this is of very slight significance in the context of the language as a whole. Some points that might be of interest to people using English in an international setting are these:

• Judgement and judgment are both valid spellings. Some courts use one and some use the other.
• Words such as standardise, realise etc. can be written as standardize, realize. The reasons for this are complex and need not concern us here. Suffice it to say that, contrary to popular belief, it is not a British/American difference. True, the form with z is standard in the USA but both are used in British English. Publishers and writers decide on a style, with consistency being the most important factor. There are some words that must always be spelt with s. They are advertise, advise, apprise, arise, chastise, circumcise, comprise, compromise, demise, despise, devise, dis(en)franchise, disguise, enfranchise, enterprise, excise, exercise, expertise, franchise, improvise, incise, merchandise, premise, prise (force open), promise, reprise, revise, supervise, surmise, surprise, televise. International bodies have their own way of spelling their names, e.g. the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the International Labour Organization (ILO)
• Some verbs have alternative forms, for example burnt and burned, learnt and learned. There is no significant difference between but once again, consistency in style should be observed.
• In legal use, in contracts and treaties for example, the auxiliary verb shall is used with a third-person subject. This use is perhaps not as common as it used to be in everyday legal contexts but it will certainly be found. It is used to imply a certain degree of compulsion or forded rather than will as simple prediction of the future. Here is an example from the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (my emphasis):
33. Interpretation of treaties authenticated in two or more languages
1. When a treaty has been authenticated in two or more languages, the text is equally authoritative in each language, unless the treaty provides or the parties agree that, in case of divergence, a particular text shall prevail.
33. Interpretación de tratados autenticados en dos o más idiomas.
1. Cuando un tratado haya sido autenticado en dos o más idiomas, el texto dará igualmente fe en cada idioma, a menos que el tratado disponga o las partes convengan que en caso de discrepancia prevalecerá uno de los textos.
In such cases Spanish uses the future tense.
• Finally, it is not by chance that I chose that Convention as an example. One of the most intractable problems in the Middle East lies in the interpretation to be given to UN Resolution 242, where a tiny difference between the English and French versions has bedevilled negotiations for many years.


Where English has ‘from occupied territories’, French has ‘des territoires occupés’. The English version implies that not all the occupied territories are to be evacuated, while the French seems to imply that such is the intention. Wikipedia quotes the varying interpretations by the people involved. For example, British Foreign Secretary George Brown said:

It calls for ‘withdrawal of Israeli forces from territories occupied during the recent conflict.’ It does not call for Israeli withdrawal from ‘the’ territories recently occupied, nor does it use the word ‘all’. It would have been impossible to get the resolution through if either of these words had been included, but it does set out the lines on which negotiations for a settlement must take place.

For the USA Secretary of State Dean Rusk said:

There was much bickering over whether that resolution should say from ‘the’ territories or from ‘all’ territories. In the French version, which is equally authentic, it says withdrawal de territory (sic), with de meaning ‘the’. We wanted that to be left a little vague and subject to future negotiation … we never contemplated any significant grant of territory to Israel as a result of the June 1967 war. On that point we and the Israelis to this day remain sharply divided. This situation could lead to real trouble in the future.

This is certainly not the occasion to enter into the details of that conflict, but it is worth noting that Brown and Rusk seem to have disagreed as to the intention of the wording. Language is about communication, and communication is about clear understanding. Only in that way can jaw-jaw prevail over war-war – as Rusk admits in his final words quoted here.

Copyright © Peter Harvey 2011. All rights reserved.