English used to be synonymous with tourism. Visit any European city, and the chances were, if you saw something written in English, it was aimed at foreigners. Or, depending on where you were, American forces stationed in the area. Particularly in Germany, which boasted amongst the largest concentrations of US forces stationed abroad during the Cold War.
Increasingly, though, English has come to serve a very different function. While it is true that, in Europe, it remains largely aimed at travelers, it is also increasingly targeted at migrants, and, to a lesser degree, left-leaning expats, who, while not necessarily native English speakers, rely on the language very much like business persons do, as a lingua franca for everyday transactions.
Berlin is an especially obvious place to employ English, as it is both a highly international city, and a magnet for left-wing activists throughout the world. Though English is not an official language of the city, it is not uncommon to hear it in certain neighborhoods with the frequency one might hear Turkish, for example. Perhaps not in commercial settings, but certainly in terms of street talk.
For those inclined to dismiss the use of English, as though an appeal to notions of justice foreign to Germany, there’s always the reproach that the ‘German’ is precisely the problem. Particularly if you subscribe to the anti-nationalist strains of German leftist thinking, as suggested by the use of English in the lead photo, in its allusion to the Merkel government’s recent granting of tax equality to same-sex couples.
Then, of course, there are always issues of practicality. If your audience is from abroad, and you want to reach the largest number of them possible, you write in English. Such is the case with the flyer above, by Milan’s Committee Against Racism. Directed at illegal migrants, who do not have Italian residency cards (“Il permesso di soggiorno,” or residence permit,) this flyer can be read by persons from any number of countries – the Balkans, China, Central Africa, the Maghreb, South Asia, Southeastern Europe. All origins of mass migration to Italy in recent decades.
Certainly, one will encounter more specific languages used in addressing foreigners as well. Arabic, for example, is frequently used in political flyers, in both Milan, and in Berlin. It makes sense, especially considering the large number of Arabic-speaking migrants residing in both cities. The bigger the city though, the more likely one will have to compromise, and appeal to a language everyone has some knowledge of, simply because of the increasing diversity of persons on the move – some legal, many, of course, not.
Commentary and photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit