A rose in black and white, in memory of Queen Elizabeth II. Image from freeimages.com

Queen Elizabeth II and the Power of Language

The UK entered a period of national mourning this week, after the sad passing of Queen Elizabeth II. As the world reflects on her qualities, it’s worth noting one very close to our own hearts: she understood the bridge-building power of language.

It’s a little-celebrated fact that the Queen was a talented linguist herself, fluent in French. Her language abilities are a side the British public heard precious little of; perhaps the spectacle of a monarch speaking anything other than Queen’s English never chimed well with the patriotic symbolism the figurehead is supposed to espouse.

But perhaps this kind of patriotism is one that travels better than home-bound nationalism. It’s the patriotism of faithfully representing your own community, while giving respect to others. Queen Elizabeth II employed this to great effect while supporting British diplomacy abroad.

In fact, she understood something even more fundamental about the power of language. She understood that it only takes a few words to build a bridge. Fluency isn’t essential.

One particular story that came to light this week spotlights that beautifully. In 2011, the Queen made an unprecedented state visit to Ireland, the first since the Republic gained its hard-fought independence. Surprising officials who had advised against it, she opened her speech to gathered dignitaries with an address as Gaeilge:

A Uachtaráin, agus a chairde
(to the president and friends)

Just five words, but the significance was huge. Former President Mary McAleese, at her side, summed it up with a simple wow.

Languages are powerful, and that power can be used for good.

A few words can’t erase history. But they can begin to clear a path to the future. To understand this is the hallmark of a true diplomat.

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