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  • Writer's pictureSteven Garner

Does language matter at Eurovision?

To mark the 19th European Day of Languages, an initiative launched by the Council of Europe to promote multilingualism and foster greater intercultural understanding, we at Aussievision have decided to look at the language choices made by competing Eurovision Song Contest countries and, amongst other things, to ask the question ‘does language matter?’.

After all, in addition to being a celebration of European music and culture, since its inception the Eurovision Song Contest has embraced linguistic diversity and seen entries featuring languages and dialects ranging from Corsican to Creole, from Võro to Viennese, from Romani to Romansch… and on one occasion even Ancient Greek! This first post of what will – hopefully – become a regular Aussievision feature will begin with a brief glance at some of the facts and figures regarding language on the Eurovision stage over the past 64 years.

First, let’s look at the one-time thorny issue of language “rules” and their development over the years. For the first ten contests, entrants were free to sing in the language of their choice, and this has likewise been the case from 1999 onwards.

However, for a six-year period from 1966 to 1972, songs had to be performed in one of the participating country’s official languages, before the removal of that restriction for four years. During that time, English songs won three times including ABBA with 'Waterloo' and Teach-In with 'Ding-a-dong'. In 1977 the national language requirement was reintroduced up until the 43rd Eurovision Song Contest in 1998. 

Despite the situation being largely settled for the past twenty years, the choice of language has not been without controversy at the national level, with complaints and criticism being levelled at artists who have opted to use the – arguably – now Eurovision lingua franca: English.

English has also been the language of choice – or at least the primary language – in a record 33 winning entries, accounting for half the songs achieving the top spot. When combined with French, the language with the contest’s second-best track record with over 22% of winners, the dominance of Europe’s two powerhouse languages appears clear over the entire history of the contest.

However, deeper exploration of the issue paints a more nuanced picture, with phrases, verses or indeed entire songs continuing to incorporate less well-spoken languages and successfully taking out the Eurovision crown in recent years: most notably, Serbian in 2007’s ‘Molitva’, Crimean Tartar in 2016’s ‘1944’ and Portuguese in 2017’s ‘Amor pelos dois’.

Going forward, I plan to dig deeper into the history of the ESC and its relationship with the languages of Europe (and beyond!), devoting more detailed posts to specific languages. As a passionate Francophile, the first language to be put under the microscope will be French.

À la prochaine / Until next time! Steve


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