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World Perspective | EUROPE

Euro Currency Earns a Wealth of Linguistic Controversy

January 09, 1999|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PARIS — Western Europe's new money was supposed to be called the ecu, short for "European currency unit" and the name of an old French coin. But the Germans objected.

One reason: ecu sounds too much like eine Kuh, German for "a cow."

So European Union leaders in December 1995 agreed instead on euro--as in Europe. This month, the euro made its promising debut on world markets as the official, shared currency of 11 countries.

But even the term "euro" has raised a bevy of linguistic and geopolitical questions. For example, in languages such as French and German, in which nouns have gender, is the euro male, female or without sex? What's the plural?

In France, the greatest controversy--which has grown to involve the Academie Francaise, arbiter of linguistic purity--is what to call the huge geographic area, peopled by 290 million Europeans, where the euro is to become sole legal tender by 2002.

Is it proper to describe Germany, France, Italy and the other countries as members of Euroland, as some banks and journalists have grown accustomed to doing? To some Gallic ears, that rings of an unwelcome invader, like Disneyland.

"Let us banish this frightful Euroland, which smells like French fries and hamburgers from an amusement park," a reader of the newspaper Le Figaro wrote in a letter.

Another Paris daily, Liberation, has tried adapting Euroland by tacking an "e" on the end. That makes it look and sound like Irlande, Hollande and Finlande, the names in French of partners in the single-currency venture.

But it turns out that's not a perfect fit either. For the word lande in French means moor, heath or wasteland. To some, that's not a very promising moniker for a region supposed to boom economically thanks to the single currency.

On Thursday, the Academie Francaise weighed in, firmly counseling against Euroland.

After all, the academicians reasoned, who speaks of Dollarland? For French speakers, the Academie Francaise said, the proper term from now on will be la zone euro, or the euro zone.

But the academicians, who recently fought a losing battle against changing job titles to reflect advances of women in French society, may be overruled by the public again. Eurolande "is carrying the day," Helene Florent, who monitors new words for the Larousse dictionary, said earlier in the week.

As for the new money's gender, French, Germans, Dutch and Italians have managed to agree that it's masculine. But there's no unanimity about how to form the plural of something that is supposed to bring Europeans closer together.

In English, French and Dutch, anything above a single euro should end in "s," but not in German: for bankers in Frankfurt, it's 50 euro. For Finns, the plural is euroa.

In Italy, the Florence-based Accademia della Crusca insists on euri, but the nation's most popular dictionary, the Zingarelli, says the word remains euro, whether singular or plural.

Russians, who aren't part of Euroland/Eurolande/la zone euro, are as confused as anybody.

Linguists and journalists in Moscow have not yet decided on the gender of the money they know as the yevro. Cutting to the chase, publications have warned about get-rich-quick schemes involving the world's newest money.

"The only free cheese is in a mousetrap," the official newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta told readers.

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