“I Don’t Speak French…”: Language, the Eurovision Song Contest and Success Levels

Adrian Kavanagh, 18th May 2015

Does the language that a song is sung in matter at the Eurovision Song Contest? A review of past success levels at the contest by language, as well as a review of the numbers of times that different languages have been used since the abolition of the national language rule in 1999, would seem to confirm this.

I can’t speak French: English has been by far the most popular of the languages to be used at the Eurovision Song Contest, although the use of English was limited for much of the contest’s history by a rule requiring countries to perform in one of the national languages. The growing dominance of English within the contest is a relatively recent phenomenon, however, but one that has become especially evident from the early 1990s onwards. Indeed the earlier decades of the contest’s history were generally dominated by the francophone nations and by entries performed in the French language. This should not be surprising given that France, Luxembourg, Belgium, Monaco and Switzerland were regular participants in a period when the maximum number of participants was limited to the mid-high teens. Entries sung in French would win the contest on fourteen different occasions (with 5 wins for Luxembourg and France, two wins for Switzerland and one win each for Monaco and Belgium), but most of these wins occurred in the first two decades of the contest’s history. Indeed, no entry sung in French has won the contest since Céline Dion’s win with Ne Partez Pas Sans Moi for Switzerland in Dublin in 1988. The number of entries in French decreased following the withdrawal of Luxembourg and Monaco from the contest, but declined further from 1999 onwards when it was decided that countries could be free to perform in whatever language they chose. (The rule on performing in a national language had been suspended for a few years also in the mid-1970s.) Since then, a number of Swiss and Belgian entries have been performed in English, or in other languages, including Imaginary! It was even the case that one French entry (Sébastien Tellier’s Divine in 2008) was mainly performed in English, with some controversy arising in France over this.

Double Dutch: In a similar vein, songs performed in Dutch were very successful in the early years of the contest with three wins for Dutch songs between 1957 and 1969, but the 1969 win would mark the last time that a song sung in the Dutch language would win the contest. (The Netherlands won the contest again in 1975 but this time with a song performed in English.) Indeed only one entry has been performed in Dutch since 1999; The Netherlands’ 2010 entry, Sieneke’s Ik Ben Verliefd, Sha-La-Lie, which failed to qualify out of the semi-finals. Along with Dutch, Hebrew has been the next most successful Eurovision language in contest history after English and French, with this language accounting for three contest winners (all representing Israel). As opposed to the case with the Dutch language, Hebrew still regularly features at Eurovision contests with all of the sixteen Israeli entries between 1999 and 2014 being sung either entirely, or partly, in the Hebrew language. Israel’s 2015 entry, however, is sung entirely in the English language.

German (1966, 1982), Italian (1964, 1990), Spanish (1968, 1969), Swedish (1984, 1991) and Norwegian (1985, 1995) have accounted for two contest winners each, with the contest also being won by songs in the Danish (1963), Croatian (1989) and Serbian (2007) languages on one occasion (while Ruslana’s 2004 winner, Wild Dances, was partly in Ukrainian). Molitva’s win in 2007 was notable as this has been the only time since 1999 that the contest has been won by a song that was not performed, or even part-performed, in English. With just four of the thirty seven entries this year falling into this category, the run of successes for songs performed in English would appear unlikely to be changed at this year’s contest.

English breakfast…and dinner and tea and supper…: The Eurovision Song Contest, by contrast, has been won by songs performed in English on twenty eight different occasions (with Ruslana’s aforementioned entry being part-performed in English also). Given the dominance of the French language (and indeed the Dutch language, to a lesser degree) in the earlier years of the contest, no entry in the English language would win the contest until 1967 when Sandie Shaw won with Puppet On A String, with another win in 1969 when Lulu shared victory with three other acts. However, the number of wins by songs in English increased in 1970s. During this decade the contest was won by songs performed in English by Ireland (Dana) and the United Kingdom (Brotherhood of Man), but also by Sweden (ABBA) and The Netherlands (Teach-In), when these countries/acts availed of a temporary suspension of the native language rule in the mid-1970s. Three further wins would follow in the 1980s with two wins for Ireland (both for Johnny Logan) and one for the United Kingdom (Bucks Fizz), but the growing influence of the English language within the song contest would become more evident in the 1990s.

Even before the language rule was changed in 1999, there was strong evidence that the countries which could perform in English (Malta, Ireland, United Kingdom) were at a significant advantage because of this. Entries performed in English won the contest on five different occasions between 1990 and 1998 (four wins for Ireland, one for the United Kingdom). Acts from Ireland, the United Kingdom and Malta filled the Top 3 in the 1992 contest and, in all, twelve acts from these countries would figure in the Top 3 at Eurovision during the period between 1990 and 1998. Indeed, the only act performed in English (twenty six in all) that failed to make the Top 10 in a Eurovision contest between 1990 and 1998 was Eddie Friel’s Dreamin’ in 1995. The abolition of the national language rule in 1999 would accelerate the growing dominance of the English language at the contest, but ironically would bring about a significant decline in the Eurovision fortunes of the three English-speaking countries. Since 1999 Ireland has failed to make the Top 5 in a Eurovision Final, while the United Kingdom has just achieved two Top 5 finishes during this same period. Malta would fare somewhat better initially with two second place finishes in Eurovision finals in 2002 and 2005, but by the end of the 2000s Malta was also facing a struggle to qualify out of the Eurovision semi-final stage (although Malta would achieve another Top 10 finish in a Eurovision Final at the 2013 contest in Malmo).

The first country (and act) to take advantage of the abolition of the national language rule was Belgium, with Venessa Chinitor’s Like The Wind, which was performed second on the night at the 1999 Final in Jerusalem, being preceded on the night interestingly by Aiste’s Strazdas, which was performed in the Samogitian dialect of western Lithuania. The contest was subsequently won by Sweden’s Charlotte Nilsson (Take Me To Your Heaven) who performed in English, with second place going to Iceland’s Selma (with All Out Of Luck) who also performed in English. The German entry, Reise nach Jerusalem, which finished in third place, was notably performed in German, Turkish and English (with some Hebrew words also used), while Bosnia achieved their best result in the contest up to that point in time with Putnici, an entry performed partly in Bosnian and partly in French. A number of countries also took advantage of the rule change by performing their entries in a number of different languages. Having all been in the Top 10 in the previous year’s contest (with the United Kingdom and Malta in the Top 3), the three English-speaking countries found themselves all in the bottom half of the table, although ten of the songs in the top half of the table were performed in English or partly in English. Ultimately the natural advantage enjoyed by the United Kingdom, Malta and especially Ireland in the contest had been erased with one fell swoop.

English Dominance, British (and Irish) Decline: The use of the English language by different countries for their Eurovision entries has remained at a high level during the 2000s. In proportional terms this probably reached its peak at the 2001 contest in Copenhagen when as many as twenty of the twenty three entries were performed in English or partly in English. 2012 saw the highest actual number of entries (36 out of 42 entries) being sung, or part-sung, in English. The growing involvement in the contest of Former Yugoslav countries, such as Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro and FYR Macedonia, from the mid 2000s onwards had acted to limit the proportion (if not the number) of English songs at the contest given that acts from these countries usually perform at Eurovision in their own national languages. In 2015, however, the only one of these countries not to perform in English would be Montenegro, after Serbia opted to use English for their entry for the first time in that year’s contest.

There is an interesting geography at play here in terms of language use, with the Former Yugoslav and Iberian countries (as well as Italy and France) generally tending to present their entries in a non-English national language, while countries in north-western Europe, Scandinavia and much of the Former Soviet Union generally tend to perform their entries in English. 92.4% of all songs performed by countries in the Viking/Scandinavian bloc have been performed (entirely or partly) in English with a similarly high level (90.3%) for acts from the Former Soviet countries, but with these contrasting with levels of just 46.7% for the Former Yugoslav countries and 27.0% of the Iberian countries. At this stage – following Serbia’s decision to use English for their 2015 entry – only one of the currently existing state has not used English for any of their entries during the 1999-2015 period, namely Monaco (on the principality’s brief return to the contest between 2004 and 2006 – the 2006 entry was part-performed in Tahitian however). None of the entries performed by Serbia and Montenegro between 2004 and 2005 were performed in English either. In all, of the 600 entries for the Eurovision Song Contest since the abolition of the national language rule before the 1999 contest (and including this year’s entries), 448 have been either been performed entirely, or partly, in English, thus amounting to just under three-quarters (74.7%) of the entire number of entries at the Eurovision contest between 1999 and 2015.

Perhaps the main reason why most Eurovision countries choose to perform in English relates to the perception that their chances of winning, or doing well in, the contest are significantly improved by doing so? Do the figures back this up? As has already been seen, this would be very much the case in terms of numbers of contest winners. The dominance of English-performed entries becomes somewhat less apparent when one looks at entries that have made the Top 5 (14.8% performed in non-English languages) or the Top 10 (20.5% performed in non-English languages) at Eurovision finals between 1999 and 2013. But English still accounts for the majority of the entries attaining higher placings at the contest. Songs performed in English are also seen to have a better chance of making it out of the semi-finals, with 56.8% of the songs sung, entirely or partly, in English at semi-finals between 2004 and 2014 going on to qualify for the Eurovision final as against just 38.6% of the semi-final entries that were performed in other languages.


Figure 1: Level of usage of English in contest entries by Eurovision Song Contest countries between 1999 and 2013.

What other languages have figured prominently in the period since 1999? The most used language after English at Eurovision between 1999 and 2015 is French, with 27 entries being performed entirely or partly in French and with 20 of these songs figuring at Eurovision finals (mainly due to the fact that France, as a “Big 5” country, automatically qualifies for the final). The next most popular language has been Spanish, with 20 entries performed in this language and with 19 of these figuring in a Eurovision final (again benefiting from the “Big 5” status of Spain. Hebrew – given the fact that each one of the sixteen Israeli songs between 1999 and 2014 had been performed entirely, or partly, in this language – is the next most popular language. Other languages that have been performed at Eurovision on eight occasions, or more, during this period include Portugese (14), Italian (13), Croatian (12), Serbian (11), Turkish (9), German (9), Macedonian (9) and Greek (9). In most cases, the songs performed in these languages have been performed by countries that include these as one of their national languages – for instance four of the songs in Greek have been performed by Greek acts, with the other five being performed by acts from Cyprus. But there are exceptions to this rule, as especially evident in the fact that the most successful song performed in Turkish during this period was performed by German act, as referred to earlier. As Italy has only recently returned to the contest, as San Marino’s participation to date has been quite limited and as only two Swiss songs have been performed in Italian over this period, it is perhaps not that surprising that a number of the songs performed (entirely/partly) in Italian have been performed by acts from countries that do not use Italian as one of their national language, including Romania (on two occasions), Cyprus and Latvia. In a similar vein, acts from Cyprus, Bosnia, Israel and Romania have performed, or part-performed, in French during this period also. Furthermore, the only two acts to use the Swedish language since 1999 did not represent Sweden, but instead were from Hungary and Finland.

The most successful of the other (non-English) languages in the contest during this period has been Serbian, not just because this language is associated with one contest winner but also because it has also been associated with two other Top 5 finishes and one other Top 10 finish during the 1999-2015 period. Another language associated with significant levels of success at the Eurovision Song Contest over this period is Bosnian. All seven of the entries performed or part performed in Bosnian since 1999 have figured at the contest final (with all of the five entries performed in Bosnian that went through the semi-final route being successful in qualifying for the final). Five of these entries performed in Bosnian have gone on to finish in the Top 10 at the Eurovision Final, with Hari Mata Hari’s Lejla finishing in third place behind Lordi and Dima Bilan at the 2006 Final in Athens. Another language associated with above average levels of success at the contest during the 2000s is Estonian. Following their win in 2001 and third place finish in 2002, Estonia’s fortunes at the Eurovision Song Contest have been mixed at best. But the best performances by Estonia over the past decade have come on the two occasions that their entries have been performed in Estonian, with both Rändajad in 2009 and Kuula in 2012 finishing in sixth place at the Eurovision Final. Birgit’s Et Uus Saaks Alguse also qualified for the Eurovision Final in Malmo in 2013.

Non-European languages and non-existent languages!: It must also be noted that a number of non-European languages, in addition to Hebrew, have been used at the contest over the last decade and a half, including Swahili (Norway 2011), Arabic (Israel 2009) and Tahitian (Monaco 2006), as well as the three aforementioned “Imaginary” entries from Belgium (2003, 2008) and The Netherlands (2006). On the other hand, local dialects have also featured at the contest since 1999 with six entries falling into this category, including acts from Austria (twice), Estonia, Lithuania, France and Russia. The best known of these entries was probably the 2012 Russian entry, the Buranovskiye Babushki’s Party For Everyone, which was part-performed in the Udmurt dialect. Another high profile example was the 2011 entry from France, Sognu, which was performed in Corsican (the second French entry to use Corsican after 1993’s Mama Corsica) and was the bookie’s favourite to win that year’s contest.

To conclude…: Overall trends in language use at the Eurovision Song Contest show how the contest is itself a reflection of the times in which we live, with processes of cultural and economic globalisation (or rather MTV/McDonalds-isation) exacerbating the growing influence and use of the English language. These trends also reflect changing dynamics within the contest itself, especially in terms of contest membership and geographical extent. The contest today is very different to those of the 1950s and 1960s, which involved a relatively small number of countries drawn almost exclusively from western Europe (with the notable exception of Yugoslavia) and in which francophone states (on the basis of numbers) had a significant degree of influence over the contest result. As the Eurovision Song Contest’s centre of gravity has pushed ever eastwards over the last three decades, the influence of the francophone regions – and the success levels of French-performed entries – has waned. Some languages have, despite this, managed to stake their own pieces of the Eurovision pie during the 2000s, while the impact of other languages have declined. This begs the question whether voting trends are suggesting that certain languages (e.g. Serbian, Estonian) are simply “more musical” to the ears of the new Eurovision audiences than others are, or whether it is just the case that these are better placed to take advantage of the changing voting trends in a contest. Finally, it should be noted that the contest, like history, does not stand still and it is almost certain that, in response to future political, social, cultural and demographic changes within Europe and at the global level, the language geographies of Eurovision Song Contests in the 2020s and 2030s will be very different to those of the present date.  



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