A fistful of Euro[s]?

Michael Everson is one of the more interesting characters in my strange little branch of human knowledge. I’ve never met him, but I’m pretty sure we have some mutual acquaintences on various standards committees. He is one of the people behind the Unicode character encoding standard and has been particularly instrumental in getting a number of smaller and more out-of-the-way characters and scripts into the Unicode standard.

He has also been especially vocal in bringing linguistic issues to bear on the European common currency, the most nagging of which is: What is the correct plural of “euro”?

He put his case forward in an interview on Today FM in the UK Dublin:

I am on a bit of a crusade about this because we’re having … we’re facing a sociolinguistic disaster right now, I mean, it’s almost class-ridden, you know? You’ve got ordinary folk on Thomas Street and Camden Street saying “euros and cents”, quite happily. And then you’ve got, you know — I don’t know who they are, whether it’s they’re better educated or they’re just Dublin 4 or what, you know, and they’re being very careful to say “euro and cent”. And there’s a reason for all of this, and I guess I’m going to have to point my finger at Mr McCreevy because he’s at the top of the heap…. But whether or not he took any decisions or was just badly informed, I don’t know. Now there’s two pieces of legislation which are, sort of, relevant there. One is a European Council Directive from 1997 — number 1103/97 — which says that, basically, OK, “we consider that the name of the single currency has to be the same in all the official languages of the Union.”

So, by EU directive, the plural of “euro” is “euro.”

Of course, this isn’t the end of the problems with the common currency. Everson also points out the many interlingual problems the whole choice poses. Slovenians call it the evro, the Greeks spell it using their own alphabet, and there are even greater problems that future members might pose.

Everson is, as far as I know, the only person to object to the Euro not on economic or political grounds, but on purely linguistic ones. However, this raises a different issue. Should we, in fact, be A Fistful of Euro? Are we out of compliance with EU standards?

Fortunately, the EU has significantly retreated from it’s original stance regarding pluralisation, as this auspicipously titled communiqué shows:

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.

In early 1999 the Secretariat-General of the Commission issued an instruction to the effect that the plurals of “euro” and “cent” in English were “euro” and “cent”, but it admitted in a footnote that this spelling without an “s” should be seen as departing from usual English practice for currencies.

So the instructions from all sides seemed pretty clear, if rather counter-intuitive. And there of course lies the rub, for in matters of language, prescriptive rules are often – even usually – overtaken by usage. Who now would object to split infinitives or end-of-sentence prepositions? And although English-speakers have quite happily settled for an invariable yen, birr, taka and nakfa, the euro is now on our lips far more frequently and has begun to align itself linguistically with the dollar,the pound and the peso. This alignment with natural usage for currencies has been evident in the English-speaking press for quite some time. But it also shows through clearly in EU documents, including many on the Commission’s euro website. This is not surprising at all, particularly since the Commission’s instructions on spelling – though they did not say so clearly enough – related only to EU legal acts and were not, one assumes, an attempt to influence the everyday speaking and writing habits of European citizens.

The fact is that our new currency is still a little too shiny in our pockets and a little too new on our tongues for a settled (let alone a dogmatic) position to be taken. In the end, the natural good sense of users will doubtless prevail, and the euro will be described in English like most other currencies – with a plural ‘s’ where one is required. Until that time, the recommended – if paradoxical – practice is neatly summed up in section 12.12 of the English Style Guide, produced by the Commission’s Translation Service:

“Guidelines on the use of the euro, issued via the Secretariat-General, state that the plurals of both ‘euro’ and ‘cent’ are to be written without ‘s’ in English. Do this when amending or referring to legal texts that themselves observe this rule. Elsewhere, and especially in documents intended for the general public, use the natural plural with ‘s’ for both terms.”

So fear not, gentle readers, a sociolinguistic disaster has been averted. You are free to pluralise “euro” in whatever manner you find most linguistically appropriate. And, more importantly, we here at A Fistful of Euros are in full compliance with EU directives concerning pluralisation.

26 thoughts on “A fistful of Euro[s]?

  1. I’m a translator, and it’s difficult to know whether or not to put an S on euro for the plural. I finally decided on following the EU directive when it comes to legal texts, and using ‘euros’ in my English translations of other texts. English speakers are going to follow English grammatical rules, regardless of any other instructions.

    My French colleagues claim that France is the only country where ‘euroS’ is the correct plural form. I have been unable to either prove or disprove this.

  2. If I remember correctly, this was a problem in the Czech Republic a few years ago: with the -o ending, “euro” would belong to the family of nouns which decline according to the pattern of “slovo”, which goes to “slov” in the plural. But “eur” for the plural of “euro” is just an odd noise, and not a terribly satisfying word at all. I can’t remember though, what the final decision was: I’d guess they opted for “eury”, or something like that, with the plural following a regular masculine ending, but I’m not sure. Any readers out there with Czech that is both better and more up to date than mine?

    All I can remember how to say is “Mysl?m ze bude revoluce na zapade brzy”, but that’s not a very useful phrase these days.

    Chris

  3. The euro or common wallaroo has been around for a long time. Mobs of euroes have been disporting themselves in Central Australia for millennia. Apart from the interesting question why EU currencies are always named after Australian animals, there’s a plural that’s existed happily since around 1800.

  4. Jez – As I understand it, European legal texts in French, Spanish and Portuguese can pluralise “euro” as “euros.” In other languages, no. It was an issue that no one really thought was worth fighting over, so when the French, Spanish and Portuguese said they wanted to pluralise properly, no one bothered to object. At my shop, we’ve encoded it as invariant in Dutch, English and German and as “euro/euros – cent/cents” in our machine translation system and terminology database. We don’t use MT in Spanish, so we haven’t done anything there.

    The real problem for me is how to pronounce “cent” in French. Since I speak Canadian, I just say “cenne” like folks in Montreal, but some people here seem to say “cente” and others “centîme.”

  5. Everybody says centime in France and c?ntimo in Spain. Perfectly logical, as those words mean “hundredth”, which is precisely what a cent is.

  6. And then there’s Finnish, which uses the partitive: “2 euro(s)” is “kaksi euroa.”

    In Russian, “yevro” (in fake Cyrillic, EBPO) is indeclinable, since (as in Czech) the genitive plural would sound very silly indeed: “yevr.”

  7. “He put his case forward in an interview on Today FM in the UK:”

    Scott; Last I checked, Dublin, and Today FM, weren’t in the United Kingdom. Maybe there’s been an invasion since this morning; if so, well done Britain, we thought your army was pretty stretched as it was. It’s gonna suck to have to vote for Tony Blair in the next election in the absence of any non-crap Tories, though.

    Michael Everson rocks, in general. As to the Euro; it’s a creation of the EU, I believe the EU should have been allowed specify an atypical plural, if it so desired. On one level, it annoys me that it backed down, but on another I recognise that the willingness to back down over immaterial stuff is a strength of the EU.

    “Euro” as a plural is never going to make it into standard English without the British on board, so we’re going to end up with a linguistic foible in Ireland. And prejudice towards the EU and its spirit isn’t a bad reason to have a linguistic foible–there have certainly been worse ones.

  8. The Dutch language has always had the same ambivalence when guilders were still in use. I don’t think I was ever formally taught which should be used when, I just picked it up as I went along. The rule of thumb, I believe, is to distinguish between the Euro as a monetary unit (particularly when exact numbers are used) and as a physical object.

    Some examples:
    “How much money do you have on you?”
    “I have about sixteen Euro (?14).”
    “Is that all in loose change?”
    “No, I have a ten Euro (?10) bill (UKEng: note) and some loose Euros. A ‘fistful of Euros,’ if you will.”

    “This project will cost millions of Euros.”
    “According to our calculations, it will cost nine hundred and two thousand, four hundred and fifty-seven Euro (?902,457).”

    Specifically in Dutch:
    Zestig dollar? Hoeveel is dat in Euros? (“$60? How much is that in Euros?”)

  9. Aidan – oops. Repair in progress.

    Jurjen – my Dutch isn’t great, but shouldn’t that be “euro’s” like “regio’s”? :^)

    Vaara – isn’t the general rule in Russian that foreign words don’t have to be declined at all? Does this also apply to pluralisation?

  10. Depends on the foreign word. For instance, the word “dollar” is fully declinable. “Eto stoit dva dollara / vosem’ dollarov.” The first time I went to Kamkin’s in New York to buy a Russian book, the cashier told me I owed her “desjat’ dollarov i odin tsent.”

    I think there’s a greater reluctance to decline words ending in -a (feminine) or especially -o/e (neuter). The word “radio” is indeclinable, likewise “kafe.” A lot also depends on when the word was introduced into Russian; the newer a word is, the more likely it is to be indeclinable.

    Jurjen: Is the word “euro” always — or ever — capitalized in Dutch? In English — and just about every other language I can think of — currency names are NOT capitalized. Hence their usefulness during games of Scrabble™.

  11. “the EU should have been allowed specify an atypical plural, if it so desired”

    The EU should be allowed to tell people how to speak their own languages?
    *shakes head sadly*

  12. LH: More specifically, the EU should have been allowed specify an atypical plural for usage within the organisation of the EU, among the people it employs directly. So, within _its_ languages.

    In the pattern of these things, that would have meant the educated speakers of the standard varieties of those languages would have deferred to it on this usage, just as “sulfur” has become the international standard English spelling for the element since the IUPAC (the chemists’ union) adopted that spelling. Just as McCreevy was doing.

    And, every book with advice on public speaking “tells people how to speak their own language.” There’s nothing wrong with that in itself, and everyone’s free not to co-operate[1], no-one’s holding a gun to anyone’s head.

    [1] Except the employees of the EU in this case, who are getting paid to co-operate. That’s a fair trade.

  13. There has been quite a discussion among translators about this ridiculous EU prexription and I use ‘euros’ or ‘EUR 10.00’, depending on how formal the text is.

  14. Reminds me also of a mid-1990s cartoon that featured recognizable national stereotypes all trying to pronounce Euro – “oiro,” “eh-uro,” “youro,” etc.

  15. Scott, Vaara, you’re both right; it is “euro’s”–with apostrophe and without a capital “E.” It hadn’t really occurred to me because you’ll encounter it in the spoken language more than in the written language, and I was concentrating on reflecting the phoneticisms, not the actual correct spelling. Mea culpa.

    That said, this column from the “Telegraaf” appears to illustrate my main point:
    ‘Imagine that, in 2002, the tobacconist asks for “two euro”‘ for a packet of cigarettes [actually ?3.20, but I digress – J]. You can hand him a ten euro note, and he will give you your change. Or you may give him four coins of fifty eurocent, it makes no difference to me. Should he ask for “two euro’s,” he evidently wishes to receive two coins of one euro each. It is just an example.’

  16. ”I don’t think I was ever formally taught which should be used when, I just picked it up as I went along. The rule of thumb, I believe, is to distinguish between the Euro as a monetary unit (particularly when exact numbers are used) and as a physical object.”
    Jur, I think I was formally taught which to use when, and I’m fairly sure this was the gist of it, although I think Vaara’s right that it shouldn’t be capitalised.

    By the way, I like the blog guys.

  17. Doug, yes, I remember that this issue was brought up at the time when they decided to call it the euro. Before that it was known in English as the ECU (European Currency Unit), which had the benefit (if I recall correctly) that it was phonetically similar in all the official EU languages.

    A nice proposal I once read was that we should call it the pecu, derived from the Latin root “pecunia”, meaning money.

  18. IIRC, the French wanted to turn ECU into “écu”, the name of a mediaeval French coin, which would have been dignified by history as well as more sonorous.

  19. Oh hi, Mark (Mark’s one of my closest friends, and the closest thing I have ot a little brother).

    David, I recall a sketch on BBC Radio 4’s “Weekending” programme back in ’94 or ’95 on what to call it. The German was arguing for “Euromark,” the Belgian wanted “eurofrank” and “eurofranc,” the French guy wanted to hang on to “?cu,” etc. Finally, somebody shouts that they should have lunch and try to sort out this euro-brouhaha in the afternoon. Suddenly, everyone goes “euro-brouhaha, yes, that’ll work…”
    But then the French guy says “It is a good Fransh word” whereupon the Dutch guy (the accent was surprisingly well done) “I sink you vill find it iss Dutch!” and the whole schemozzle starts all over again.

  20. Ironically, the abbreviation for ECU in French would be something like “UME” (unit? mon?taire europ?enne) and thus nothing like ECU, or even ?cu.

    I think I would have preferred something more exotic, along the lines of ngultrum, quetzal or tugrik. But it was not to be.

  21. And of course, all this discussion of pluralisation doesn’t yet include what might happen in Britain where the Euro gets to meet the so-called “greengrocer’s apostrophe” and we get Euro’s rather than Euro or Euros. Though I have also seen suggestions that as it an -o ending it should pluralise as Euroes in the style of Hero.

    While we’re on the subject, have any common slang terms for Euro emerged among the Eurozone countries yet?

  22. Many years ago I was involved in the negotiation of a construction contract in Taiwan. On the last day, in the final pre-signing meeting, there was a protracted discussion in both Cantonese and Mandarin, neither of which I speak. At the end of the discussion, suitably concurred in by all present, I asked my Taiwanese negotiating partner what all that was about.

    He replied “We were deciding on the correct character to represent your name.”

    You all have taken me back down memory lane.

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