Languages at the Eurovision Song Contest


By: Harriet Cook

This year’s Eurovision saw a non-English language song win the competition for the first time in a decade. Salvador Sabral’s Amar Pelos Dois, composed by his sister Luisa, was awarded an incredible 758 points at the 62nd Eurovision Song Contest held on 13th May in Kyiv, Ukraine. His beautiful ballad, sung entirely in Portuguese, is the first winning song since 2007 to be from a country that has not won the competition before and is also the first song in a non-English language to win since Serbia's Moltiva also in 2007. You can see Salvador performing the song with his sister, who composed it, in the video linked below.

Given Sabral's success performing in his country's official language and the focus this has received in press across the world, we wanted to publish a post looking at the kind of policies Eurovision has in place regarding languages. This blog post will explore how language-related regulations have changed over the years at Eurovision and will also look at examples of songs that have been performed in more than one language.

The Eurovision Song Contest is the longest-running annual song competition in the world. It was founded in 1956 and its participating countries are primarily those that belong to the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). While the Eurovision's own website says that the competition came about to test the limits of live television broadcast technology, elsewhere online it is suggested that EBU started the contest to rally the countries of Europe and bring people together. Initially participating countries were allowed to put forward songs in any language: there were rules related to the length of songs performed, but nothing related to the language in which performers could sing. The first countries to participate were Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Switzerland, and when participants took to the stage in the host country, Switzerland, they sang in their national language.

However, in 1965 Ingar Wixell, representing Sweden, sang his entry Absent Friend in English. According to Eurovision, this saw songwriters across Europe consider whether they would only be successful if judges could understand their song's lyrics. Just one year later, in 1966, Eurovision issued a rule to prevent participants presenting songs in languages that were not official to their countries. From 1966 it became obligatory to perform in one of the official languages of your country; this meant that the only countries who were able to perform in English were Ireland and the United Kingdom.

In 1973 the rule was changed back again and participants were allowed to perform in any language they liked. In 1974 Finland, the United Kingdom, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands and Ireland all performed in English, six out of the seventeen countries that participated in the contest that year. This free choice of language lasted until 1977 when Eurovision decided to reissue the same regulations as in 1966; it was once again obligatory for performers to present songs in one of their country's official languages. In 1977 this rule applied to all of the participating countries apart from Germany and Belgium who went on to perform in English; this was because these countries had already chosen the song that would be performed at the contest and had been granted special dispensation from Eurovision because of this.

Some 22 years later in 1999 Eurovision went back to allowing countries to perform in any language they wished and these regulations remain in place to this day. 1999 saw thirteen songs out of a total twenty-three performed either completely or partially in English. Eighteen years later and the most recent Eurovision song contest also saw the majority of songs presented in English: a Guardian article reveals that Eurovision 2017 had the highest number of songs ever performed in English. In the past there has been controversy when performers have not used one of their country's official languages and have opted for English instead. In 2008 Sebastian Teller caused a stir amongst people in France when he presented Divine almost exclusively in English: this was, according to the New York Times, the first time a French entry had been presented primarily in a song other than French since the contest began in 1956. In 2014, some members of the Royal Spanish Academy disagreed and were uncomfortable with Ruth Lorenzo's entry for Spain as it included some lyrics in English.

Eurovision have worked out that it would take about 72 hours to listen to all 1,479 songs ever performed at its contests, but we have gone through and picked out some of the most interesting songs from a language lover's perspective. Below you'll find a selection of songs that countries have presented in not just one, but multiple languages, in some cases even imaginary ones!

It's just a game, Bendik Singers

In 1973 the Bendik Singers from Norway performed It's just a game in English, French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, German, Irish, Serbo-Croatian, Hebrew, Finnish, Swedish and Norwegian. The multilingual song uses twelve languages in total, reflecting the total number of countries that participated in Luxembourg that year. Its use of Irish is particularly interesting, given that Ireland have only ever presented one song in Irish.

Reise nach Jerusalem - Kudüs'e seyahat, Süpriz

In 1999 a German-Turkish group called Süpriz (Turkish for 'surprise) entered the Eurovision song contest with a song performed in a mixture of German, Turkish, English and Hebrew. You can find the song's lyrics here and a translation here. In his book Music, Nationalism, and the Making of New Europe, Philip Bohlman suggests that Germany's 1999 entry 'frames the spaces of New Europeanness, calling attention to where they are, without itself actually occupying the spaces'. For a really interesting discussion of how this entry fits into a political landscape, see the last two pages of his chapter on the 'Five Landscapes of Europeanness'.

Sanomi, Urban Trad

The 2003 Eurovision Song Contest held in Riga, Latvia saw Belgium present a song in an entirely imaginary language. As noted by The Herald, the song prompted Terry Wogan, famous BBC host for Eurovision, to comment 'They've got four languages in Belgium and they're singing in an imaginary one, the very essence of Euro'. The song was extremely popular though and finished in second place at the competition. Five years later at the 2008 Eurovision Song Contest Belgium presented another song in an imaginary language, O Julissi by Ishtar: this song never made it to the finals, but you can listen to it here.

Love Unlimited, Sofi Marinova

Sofi Marinova presented Bulgaria's entry Love Unlimited at the 2012 Eurovision semi-finals. While the song never made it to the finals in Baku, Azerbaijan, that year, we have included it on this list as it uses eleven different languages: Bulgarian, Turkish, Greek, Spanish, Serbo-Croatian, French, Romani, Italian, Azerbaijani, Arabic and English. In the second verse Marinova sings that 'This song has no limits, language and colour,/It's equal for everyone on this world/For me, for you, for them'. This translation can be found here. The verses are sung in Bulgarian, but each one ends with 'I love you' sung in one of the languages noted above: the eighth verse ends in Azerbaijani, marking the first time the Azerbaijani language has appeared in lyrics sung at Eurovision.

As we have seen in this post the Eurovision Song Contest has a remarkably rich history in terms of language policy and language use. This year's song by Salvador Sabral was a triumph and a move away from a competition dominated by the English language - let's hope that Sabral and his sister have inspired future participants to use one of their country's official languages and that next year's Eurovision showcases a wider variety of languages.

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