Eurovision entries can be no longer than three
minutes and they must have a vocal - there have never been
totally instrumental entries (though the 1995 Norwegian winner
came closest). So what language to sing in? When the
contest began, songs were performed in native tongue by habit,
but after Sweden tried something in English in 1965, rules were
From 1966 to
1998 entries had to be sung in a native language of the country
(with the exception of a five year period in the mid 70s which
coincided with string of big selling contest winners like
"Waterloo" and "Save Your Kisses For Me"). During this
period, Scandinavian and Benelux countries took the chance to
sing in English and all tended to fare better than of late. Would Abba have won and
broken through if they had been forced to perform in
By 1977, the European Broadcasting Union who run the
contest had decided to revert to the old rule. Their decision
was made after the Belgian and German songs had been selected,
and neither had a native language version, so they were allowed
to sing in English. Neither did especially well. The
native-language rule was well and truly back in place and would
remain so for more than two decades. During this era, there were
some oddities: France sent songs in both the Creole and
Breton dialects. Belgium alternated religiously between
French and Flemish. Back in 1972 Ireland sent a song in Gaelic.
Switzerland sent songs in French, German and Italian and in 1989
even a song in Romansch.
After a series of English language
winners in the early and mid-nineties it was perhaps long
overdue to free-up the language and that happened in 1999.
As had happened two decades earlier the Scandinavians and
Benelux countries were initially the most enthusiastic and Sweden and
Iceland fought for the Grand Prix with up-tempo English language
songs. A trend soon grew of combining languages. This peaked in
2001 when no less than six entries began in native tongue before
switching (sometimes rather clunkily) to English.
The free language rule seems hear to stay, but there is
still room for some quirkiness. The Belgian
runner-up song from 2003 "Sanomi" was in neither Flemish, French
nor English, but an imaginary language known only by the group.
A year later saw the expansion of the contest to first one, then
two semi-finals and simultaneously the growth of ex-patriots
lavishing multiple votes for the homeland. This brought a
renaissance in non-English songs, particularly from the
countries of former Yugoslavia, peaking with Serbia's "Molitva"
winning the contest in 2007.
At the end of the
first decade of the new century it seems almost anything goes.
English is pre-eminent but we've also heard Cypriot entries in French, Romanian
ones in Italian and even French and German ones entirely in
English, unthinkable a few years ago!.