Flags at Eurovision Song Contest 2014

An exploration of language

A discussion of the languages of the Eurovision Song Contest

La Lingua, Kieli, Sprog, Gjuhe. No matter your native tongue Language is an integral part of vocal communication. It goes without saying that without language there would be no Eurovision Song Contest. Although, the story of language in the contest can be a complicated one. In this article I will be discussing the Language rule, the introduction of various languages to the contest and the opinions I gathered from ESC fans as to what languages they find inherently musical and which feel a bit clumsy in a melodic setting.

1956 - 1964

At the very beginning Eurovision had no language rule. The first contest gave us Dutch, French, German and Italian. French made up the majority but all four languages remain staples of the contest to this day. From that first contest until 1965 there remained no rule on the language a nation could use. Although most nations chose to use their own national languages with few exceptions. During this period many of the base languages of the contest made their debut. At the 1965 contest Sweden sent and English language song which presumably led to the EBU instituting the first language restriction to the contest.

Debuting languages:

  • 1956: Dutch, French, German, Italian
  • 1957: Danish, English
  • 1958: Swedish
  • 1960: Norwegian, Luxembourgish
  • 1961: Spanish, Serbian, Finnish
  • 1963: Croatian
  • 1964: Portuguese

1965 - 1972

From 1965 until 1973 nations were required to sing in one of their official languages. This rule was very restrictive for some nations such as France who’s only official language is French. Other nations had more flexibility. Switzerland has four official languages: German, French, Italian and Romansh. Yugoslavia, which debuted in 1961, had, at that time, three or four languages also depending on your viewpoint. These included Serbian, Croatian, Macedonian and Slovene (Before the dissolution of Yugoslavia, Serbian and Croatian were always combined into Serbo-Croatian).

Sweden 1965: Ingvar Wixell - "Absent Friend"

Debuting Languages:

  • 1966: Slovene
  • 1971: Maltese
  • 1972: Irish
Sweden 1965: Ingvar Wixell - "Absent Friend"

1973 - 1976

Then again for the years from 1973 to 1976 the rule was repealed and once again nations were allowed to sing in any language they wanted. It is interesting to not that during this time three of the four winners performed in English. "Ding-a-Dong", the winner in 1975 was origionally sung in Dutch at their national competition but was translated to English before their Eurovision performance. This brief span of lingual freedom also introduced the world to ABBA. Only Luxembourg chose to stay with it’s frequent use of French and gave us the winning song "Tu Te Reconnaîtras" in 1973.

Debuting Languages:

  • 1973: Hebrew
  • 1974: Greek
  • 1975: Turkish

1977 - 1998

Following that brief flirtation with linguistic freedom the EBU again restricted the language options of the competing nations. From 1977 until 1998 the official language rule returned to the contest. This time around, however, the rule was increasingly unpopular. The world at this time was becoming more and more intertwined and English had slowly started to take over as an international language, a title previously reserved for French. The U.K. and especially Ireland achieved great success during this period and many attributed this to the fact that being able to sing in English gave their songs a broader appeal. Obviously more people would have a basic understanding of English than many other languages such as Slovak. Although some may argue that their songs were just simply better than the competition. During this long stretch of time many languages made a first appearance as returning nations began to experiment with various other official languages and dialects. At the same time a large number of nations began to compete for the first time bringing even more new languages into the fold.

Flag of Morocco
Morocco gave us Arabic in 1980

Debuting Languages:

  • 1980: Arabic, Sami
  • 1986: Icelandic
  • 1989: Romansh
  • 1991: Neapolitan
  • 1992: Antillean Creole
  • 1993: Bosnian, Corsican
  • 1994: Slovak, Estonian, Hungarian, Romanian, Lithuanian, Polish, Russian
  • 1996: Breton
  • 1998: Macedonian
Flag of Morocco
Morocco gave us Arabic in 1980

1999 - 2021

Beginning in 1999 the EBU bowed to popular opinion and changed the language rule once again allowing nations to sing in any language they wanted. This change came about at a time when English was growing in popularity as a common language. Because of this many nations began to present their songs in English even if their own national selection required songs sung in their own official language. Some nations debuting during this period have almost exclusively come to the contest with English songs. Azerbaijan joined in 2008 and have never presented a song in Azeri, although there have been at least two instances of the language briefly appearing in the songs of other nations. Other nations, such as France, have rarely strayed from their national language. This time period also brought us three instances of nations inventing completely fictional languages for their entries.

2006 - Jenny for Andorra which always sent songs in Catalan

Debuting Languages:

  • 1999: Samogitian
  • 2004: Catalan, Latvian, Ukrainian, Voro
  • 2006: Albanian, Tahitian
  • 2005: Montenegrin
  • 2007: Armenian, Bulgarian, Czech
  • 2009: Romani
  • 2011: Swahili
  • 2012: Georgian, Udmurt
  • 2017: Belarusian
  • 2020: Amharic
  • 2021: Sranan Tongo
2006 - Jenny for Andorra which always sent songs in Catalan

English in the lead

Despite the love hate relationship many nations may have with the English language it remains the leader among winning song in the contest constituting 47 percent of the winners circle. French comes in second at 20 percent with Dutch, Hebrew and Italian rounding out the top five each at only 4 percent. Personally I feel that even though English makes up 47 percent of winners that only means that 53 percent of winners have song in languages other than English. Not a bad statistic for the non-English speakers.

All this research got me curious about peoples opinions on various languages. I recently took a poll of Eurovision fans and asked them what languages they found inherently musical and what languages they felt could be a bit clunky. Going in I thought I had an idea of what people would say but I was very wrong. Topping the list of languages people enjoyed hearing were Finnish and Albanian. Italian received more positive feedback than an other but I attributed this to a little bias with the massive success of Maneskin. Still it was a general consensus that the romance languages tended to be much more melodic than Germanic languages. There seemed to be a lot of love for eastern European languages including the Baltics and Balkans. The Scandinavian languages were split which surprised me. Swedish and Norwegian found themselves on both sides of the poll while Icelandic seems to be very popular in a musical setting. Danish topped the list of languages that my sampling of fans thought to be very odd and unmelodic.

Among the responses I got there were many who agreed with me in that if the song is good it doesn’t really matter what language it is sung in. Personally I feel that songs that are translated from their original language into English for performance purposes are always the most awkward to the ears. Many times the translated version doesn’t fit as well into the melody and the original. Every year I read comments from people who say that the original version of a particular song was much better and in most cases they are absolutely correct.

In recent years the contest has taken on a very English tone as many of the songs are sung in English rather than other languages like Latvian. In fact since the last rule change there have only been three winners who did not sing in English, 2007 "Molitva", 2017 "Amar Pelos Dois", 2021 "Zitti e buoni". Although it is interesting to note that last year the top three were all non-English songs. Perhaps in the coming years nations will begin to rediscover just how beautiful their native languages can be. In my opinion one of the things that always made the contest great was the coming together of so many different nations celebrating their differences as a matter of pride.

About the author: Christopher Carlson (United States)

Christopher Carlson is our American correspondent. His interest in Eurovision began in high school when his Spanish teacher would often play "Eres Tu" by Mocedades for the class. Later encounters with Eurovision occurred upon discovering Secret Garden's "Nocturne". As a fan of history as well as music Christopher enjoys writing articles that discuss the roots and foundations of the Eurovision Song Contest. Topping the list of his favorite songs are "Heel de wereld" by Corry Brokken, "Eres Tu" by Mocedades, "Inje" by Vanya Radovanovic and "You are the only one" by Sergey Lazarev.

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