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.