#Eurovision 2017 and Language: Rules, Practices and Conventions

Aside from its own argot—because expressions like pre-selection, do a Rossinelli, PED, Eurovision-by-numbers, styling och consulting, make no sense outside ESC fanland—few topics are as vexing as the issue of language at the Eurovision. Whilst for the most part the Contest using English as its business language is accepted (with French increasingly only used for procedural elements like the voting rules and voting sequence), what language in which to perform remains a question were passions run high.

This year saw some interesting developments in terms of language of performance. But before we get into that, let’s take a look at the rules, the practices and the convention of performance language at the Eurovision Song Contest.

The Rules

There hasn’t always been a rule about language of performance; then again, rules themselves have aggregated extensively over five decades. For the first decade (1956-1965) participating broadcasters were free to send entries in whatever language they saw fit. Bear in mind two things, however. First, the presumption was that the various states of Europe (nation state and not) were somewhat proud of their culture(s) and, by extension, their language(s). In fact, it was only in 1965 that the Swedes sent a song in English—not creating an uproar, but certainly raising a few eyebrows. Ingvar Wexell’s Absent Friend ended up 10th overall.

Second, there are rules and then there are rules for France. From 1966 to 1972 and again from 1977 to 1998 only official languages were permitted. Belgium has three official languages: French, Dutch and German, but hasn’t sent an entry in German. France, strangely, still only officially recognizes French—and yet has managed to stretch or ignore this rule a few times:

  • In 1992 when Kali’s Monté la rivié was performed in French and Haitian creole
  • In 1993 when Patrick Fiori’s Mama Corsica had a mixed Corsican and French chorus
  • in 1996 they snuck Diwanit Bugale, which was performed in Bréton (France did not recognize regional languages until 2008). So the language rule seemed to have a bit of flexibility at times.

It’s a metaphor, a rather grown up one about…love? (Source: YouTube/escLIVEmusic1)

There is a paradox here: a member of the European Union (and its antecedent organizations) that did not officially recognize even regional languages until a decade ago persistently flouted the ESC language rule.

From 1999 until today there’s been an “any” language rule, no doubt because of the results that decade. The 1990s were dominated by Ireland, the UK and Malta, all of which have English as an official language. But as the scoring system rapidly accelerated towards public voting, the advantage of singing in English only grew—and the frustrations of delegations whose countries were willing and inclined to send songs in English grew. In any number of years all three countries featured in the top 10: in seven of those years (including Sweden’s 1999 winner, Take Me To Your Heaven), the winning song was performed in English. Granted, until 1997 the winners were chosen by jurors rather than the public.

Between 1999 and 2017 precisely two winners have been sung wholly or largely in a language other than English: 2007’s Molitva (Serbian) and our most recent winner (see below). 2004’s Wild Dances featured one verse in Ukrainian; the rest of the song was in English. In other words, seventeen out of nineteen winner entirely or largely sung in English. To win in the televote era you need to sing in English, right?

But is it always (or only) about winning?

The Practices

The removal of a Contest-wide language rule has not eliminated discussions about languages—though one could argue, based on the ubiquity of English language entries, this has become a much more muted topic within many delegations. Nonetheless, the ubiquity of English language entries has not precluded some broadcaster from adding a language rule to their national selections. Participating broadcasters can make their national selection rules as simple or complex as they wish—as long as the entry ultimately does not break any of the official Contest rules for that year.

Why would a country broadcaster persist with songs in other languages when English is the most frequently performed language? Well, some EBU member public broadcasters are tasked with promoting or preserving official and national languages as part of their mandate, including:

· Albania RTSH · HRTV Croatia · ERR Estonia
· YLE Finland · GPB Georgia · ERT Greece
· MTV Hungary · RÚV Iceland · LTV Latvia
· LRT Lithuania · MKRTV Macedonia · TVM Malta
· RTP Portugal · TVR Romania

Some of these broadcasters hold mandates to multiple languages (including minority or regional languages), rather than majority or national languages. Broadly speaking, the more localized a language’s “footprint” is, the more likely it is that there is a public broadcaster tasked with promoting or preserving its use. Though “promoting or preserving” more often seems to mean dubbing audio into foreign cultural products (inexpensive) than locally produced content (expensive). But when your programming involves others providing content for free—like a national song contest—a cost/benefit analysis can quickly tip in favour of a rule that either requires or advantages songs submitted in a national, official, regional or minority language.

In 2017 a few broadcasters kept a national language rule. RÚV required at least some lyrics to be performed in Icelandic during the two semi-finals. However, the version performed in the national final would be the version performed in Kyiv: from 12 songs mostly or entirely in Icelandic in the first round there were 7 songs mostly or entirely in English in the final. Malta featured its first Maltese language song in many years. Janice Mangion nearly took Kewkba to Kyiv—and almost certainly would have done better than Breathlessly and its null points from the public.

Might just have qualified (Source YouTube/Eurovisionfest)

There was one broadcaster that opened up space for more linguistic diversity for the first time in 2017. Which had a surprising result.

The Convention

If the assumption from 1999 to 2006 was that you needed to sing in English (or in a language understood widely in a region, like Serbian) to win the 21st century Eurovision Song Contest, Portugal’s comprehensive victory in 2017 rather effectively counters this thesis. Portugal has no consistent point “partners”, and an unreliable diaspora. Yet Salvador Sobral’s Amar Pelos Dois handily won both the televote and jury vote en route to victory this year.

This year we started out with three semi-finalists singing entirely in another language and a fourth—Croatia’s Jacques Houdek, My Friend—singing in English and Italian. All four songs qualified for the Grand Final. Two of these—the winner from Portugal and Hungary’s Joci Papa’s Origo—finishing in the Grand Final top 10. When we integrate the two prequalified finalists whose songs were mostly (Spain), or almost entirely (Italy) in a language other than English, the final result is:

Participant (languages) Televote Jury Final
Portugal (Portuguese) 1st 1st 1st
Italy (Italian) 6th 7th 6th
Hungary (Hungarian/Romani) 7th 17th 8th
Croatia (English/Italian) 9th 22nd 13th
Spain (Spanish/Italian) 23rd 26th 26th

Four of the non-English entries were in the televote top 10—the juries ranked Hungary and Croatia much lower—and four ended up in the aggregate top 15. Almost half the public top 10 were not sung in English: two these were sung in languages not commonly spoken or understood outside their regions.

Joci Papa’s Origo ended up 8th overall is as remarkable as Portugal’s victory. It’s not the first recent song in Hungarian to do well in the Contest: ByeAlex took Kedvesem to 10th place in 2013—but it’s also performed in Romani. The Roma are both the largest minority community in Europe and arguably its most stigmatized. Previous entries featuring Romani have fared poorly in the Contest and there’s been no evidence of any success in getting a pan-European Roma televote activated.

Arguably even better during A DAL (Source: YouTube/A Dal 2017)

The Takeaway

Portugal scored massively all over the voting region, receiving douze points from Iceland to Armenia and Norway to Israel. One did not need to understand Luisa Sobral’s lyrics to understand the performance. It was exceptionally well performed and staged and people were moved by it. Like Amar Pelos Dois, you did not need to understand the words to Origo to understand the performance.

Perhaps the lesson from 2017 is that the conventions about how to win the Eurovision no longer apply when an exceptional entry comes along. Until recently there was an implicit assumption that this meant singing in English. Two 2017 non-English entries each had several elements that made them stand out:

  • Drawing the audience into the first 10 seconds of the performance
  • High quality, distinct vocals
  • Staging that lifted the song rather than distracted from it
  • Nothing else like it on offer this year

Will we see an increase in non-English entries for 2018? Perhaps a few: RTVSlovenija is re-introducing a national-or-minority language rule for EMA 2018. We might see more high quality non-English songs entered for national selections, à la Kewkba in Malta this year. For any participating broadcaster it is better to have more high quality entries from which to choose. Quality should trump language: quality clearly can transcend language.

Bearing in mind that Salvador Sobral handily topped the jury and public votes for Kyiv…after finishing second twice in the Festival da Cançao public vote! In other words, the pan-European consensus for Amar Pelos Dois was greater than in its own country.

The final take-away should be this: sending something awesome in any language and you will probably be rewarded with a good result. And a lot of points!

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