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Autumn - Winter 2007

Multilingualism in labelling. Comparison of the situation and the linguistic policies regarding the labelling of products in linguistic communities with similar characteristics to Catalonia, by Bernat Gasull i Roig

The situation of Catalan in labelling constitutes an atypical case when considering the treatment that companies and the respective legislations apply to different comparable cases. The analysis of various models of countries with linguistic communities similar to or even sensibly inferior in number of speakers than Catalan, and in situations of plurilingualism similar to that of Spain, confirms the exceptional treatment given to this question in our country.


Versió per imprimir. El nacionalisme lingüístic: una opció intervencionista davant les concepcions liberals del mercat lingüístic, per Henri Boyer PDF printing version (102 Kb)



1. Introduction
2. Criteria used by companies for selecting the languages present on labels
2.1. Criteria for the selection according to the internal considerations of the company
2.2. Criteria for selection based on the legal situation in the place of distribution
3. Plurilingualism in the labelling of products in Catalonia: an exceptional situation
4. References

1. Introduction

Plurilingualism on product labels is a widely extended practice. Distribution logistics mean that it is not exclusively limited to one linguistic community or particular country or state, but that multilingual labelling enables no differentiation to be made in stock in accordance with the functional dynamics of distributors and the market. This means that the languages present on the label of a product are often not only those present or official or widely used at the place of purchase, or even those used by potential purchasers from other linguistic communities that travel or move to that area, but the languages are often without any or almost any representation in the place where the purchase is made. A product purchased in Lisbon could, for example, be labelled in Spanish, Portuguese, Greek and English all at the same time. Sometimes the basic or obligatory information about the product may be displayed in more than twenty different languages on the same label or package. Governed by the commercial interest of this distribution, manufacturers have found practical solutions to fit a whole series of languages on the label, and therefore, for the time being, this does not imply any impediment to the sale of the product, in any case an advantage that enables reducing control over the distribution of stock.

2. Criteria used by companies for selecting the languages present on labels

The criteria for the selection of the languages on the label is obviously not based on reasons of pure communication. It must be considered that a large number of consumers do not read the label, or it is assumed that it is not necessary to read it to understand the type of product they buy, or that the reading is limited to mere identification of the type of product. This confirmation is highly present in various studies. In the study Attitudes of Catalans to the Commercial use of Catalan (Aguilera M. 1994) (1) showed the poor recall of languages on the labels of sample products even when they were only labelled in one language. The criteria used by the company for the selection are based, evidently apart from reasons of communication, on commercial questions, image of the product and the company before the customer, and the obligations to which the product information is subject to under applicable legislation. This was made quite clear in the conclusions of the texts of the exhibition Language in the labelling of large brands. 2004 (2) made by the Platform for Language, which made a collection of labels from different countries whose characteristic linguistic communities were comparable to Catalonia “For companies, the language on labels is much more than a mere means of providing information about the product. It is important to stress a conclusion that may seem evident, but which implies a very important question, and this is that the labelling of products is different in each country, and that they seek to adapt as best they can to the specific characteristics of the society where the product is to be consumed. The labelling of products, more than a desire to transmit information that is understood by the consumer, constitutes a way of guaranteeing respect and bringing the product closer to the customer”.

The languages selected for the label can then be differentiated in two obvious aspects: The free choice of the company according to its own commercial and customer service criteria, and the legal obligations the company must comply with.

2.1. Criteria for the selection according to the internal considerations of the company

Companies, apart from a will to communicate, have commitments regarding their ethical and commercial strategy when dealing with customers. This, even though the potential consumers of a certain linguistic community could have a complete knowledge of another, more widely used language already used by the company in other places, the fact that the language of these consumers appears on the label, and more so considering that these consumers have an important commercial weight, could undoubtedly favour bringing the product closer to the customer and therefore consolidate the benefits obtained by the manufacturer. In economic terms this action is practically “obligatory” when the commercial environment, and perhaps even the competition, is already present in this territory respecting the language. It is well known that as a basic criterion a company will never assume policies of poor quality customer service when they are widely or totally assumed by the rest of the market. No company wants to be the negative exception. As for ethical commitments, which without doubt are also very often the result of the commercial strategy itself, large companies usually have codes of conduct that they make public as a guarantee of action before the customer. These codes of conduct often contain references to respect the cultural environment of the consumer. As an example, take three samples of large companies where these commitments are evident, even though this practice could be generalised to all companies of a certain size with more or less similar codes:

Extract from the Corporate Social Responsibility of Heineken, a Dutch multinational company specially known for beer: (3)

“Society expects quality companies to not only provide good products and obtain positive financial results; it expects them to conduct their business within socially acceptable standards (...). Based on this idea, our actions are based on the principle of respect for different cultures.”

Extract from the code of conduct of PepsiCo, a multinational company of American origin in the food sector: (4)

“We are committed to commercialising our products to all groups, treating consumers with respect, sensitivity and integrity.” “We collaborate with many groups to create programs that favour minority communities.”

Extract from the commitments of the Corporate Business Principles of the Swiss multinational Nestlé: (5)

“Maintain responsible communication with consumers, that do not depict attitudes that are discriminatory or offensive to religious, ethnic, political, cultural, or social groups.”

2.2. Criteria for selection based on the legal situation in the place of distribution

These commitments, whatever social responsibilities are behind them, are not always fulfilled in the practice of labelling. Neither is there always a consolidated environment of normality, whether on a social or commercial level, that “obliges” the companies to use the languages of linguistic communities with enough economic potential. Even in the event that this environment exists, the public powers often feel obliged to guarantee this right, or to establish regulations for the understandability of the product information to ensure correct distribution and use of the product by citizens, and protect their health. It is therefore evidently necessary to clarify the role of the language on the label. At this stage the legislation of the respective authorities of each country comes into play with the purpose of guaranteeing citizen rights. Within the context of democratic countries, respect for the language of the consumer of linguistic communities is respected, always provided, obviously, that the community has sufficient commercial weight. The presence of these languages is normally guaranteed by linguistic legislation or by specific legislation that refer to each type of label or consumer rights.

Finland, would be a good example of this second case, and a sample of a plurilingual state with languages considerably less spoken than Catalan. The treatment of labels is regulated by law, so that depending on where the product is distributed, the label must be in Finnish, Swedish or both languages. In this country two national languages are recognised, Finnish and Swedish, both with far fewer speakers than Catalan (this recognition is guaranteed by the Constitution of 2000, as well as the Language Law of 2004). The total population of the country is about 5.2 million, with approximately 94% having Finnish as their mother tongue, and 6% Swedish. (6) The latest Language Law 423/2003,(7) which will come into force in January 2004, defining the country according to linguistic areas based on municipalities (Article 5 of the Law). In general, a region or municipality is considered bilingual if the minority language constitutes more than 8% of the population, otherwise it is monolingual. According to the decree of the Council of State, the 452 municipalities of Finland are considered monolingual in Finnish (389, 86%), monolingual in Swedish (21, 5%), bilingual with Swedish majority (22, 5%) or bilingual with Finnish majority (20, 4%) (Wikberg, K. 1999). (8) The 16 municipalities of the Aland Islands are also monolingual in Swedish with a special regime as a state associated to Finland and with a completely independent linguistic policy. The labelling policy strictly follows these criteria; in the bilingual areas the labelling is at least in both languages and in monolingual areas it is in each language depending on the language of the region. It is important to note that the recognition of Swedish is not only a result of the populational weight of this linguistic community in some regions, but is justified by the fact that it has been used as a language since the XII century. The linguistic policy in labelling follows the parameters combining both individual and collective rights (Wikberg, K 1999). As an example of the legislation resulting from the Language Law, the Decree for labelling packaged food products (1991/794) (9) clearly specifies in Article 21 that all products distributed in Finland must be labelled in Swedish and Finnish, and in the event that they are manufactured in the country, they may be labelled in a single language for the territories that have been considered as monolingual.

In extreme cases, when other important linguistic communities are beside a linguistic community with its own language, and the citizens with their own language have a wide knowledge of one or more of the languages of the other communities, then the measures may be even stricter to guarantee protection of the minority language. This is the case of Latvia. According to the classifications of Fishman (1968) and Lijphart (1984) Latvia is a state with a clearly heterogeneous linguistic composition, (10) in this regard it is a case similar to Catalonia and Spain. In 1991 Latvians represented 52% of the population of the country (Leprêtre, M. 2002), (11) just like a very similar 54% feel Catalan is their own language in Catalonia (Statistics on linguistic uses in Catalonia 2003). (12) Obviously the situation of Latvia regarding Latvian was not as favourable as Catalonia, at least in 1989, just before the first law of Latvian languages of 1992. During the 1989 census, only between 18% and 20% of citizens belonging to ethnic minorities other than Latvian stated that they had a knowledge of Latvian (Druviete, I, 2001). (13) That is to say about 80% had no knowledge of the language, many of them did not even understand it (this is mainly the Slavic population which, because of the notable differences between languages, the lack of knowledge also corresponds to understanding). We must recall that close to half the population are not considered to be of Latvian origin, in fact even today (2000 census) only 57.6% are considered Latvian, in spite of other groups having adopted Latvian as their mother tongue, reaching 62% in 2000. Russian was, especially before independence, the most widely understood language, with a continuing considerable bilingualism (Druviete, I. 2001). In Catalonia, according to the 2001 census, (14) understanding reaches 94%, probably even higher than Latvian in Latvia. On the other hand the total population of Latvia is close to 2.5 million, considerably below that of Catalonia.

In view of this situation the government introduced the Republic of Latvia Languages Law (1992), which established positive discrimination in favour of Latvian. In fact the model of this law came from the linguistic policies of Quebec (see below) based on the collective rights according to the territory (Druviete, I. 2001). Article 20 carefully set out the language for use in economic activity. And so Latvian became the only obligatory language. All labelling and instructions for products produced in Latvia, must be only written in Latvian, and it cannot appear beside other languages. In the case of the labelling and instructions for products not produced in Latvia, the presence of other languages on the label is permitted, always provided Latvian is included, and that it occupy the prime place, the typeface not be smaller and that it contain at least the same information as the other languages. This of course affected the labelling for other countries that shared product distribution; so that for example Lithuanian or Estonian do not occupy the prime position on the labels of many products also distributed in Latvia. Later, specially as a result of Latvia's entry into the European Union (Druviete, I. 2001) the legislation changed even though it continues to be very protectionist in regard to Latvian. The current Article 21 of the State Language Law of 1999 (15) clearly specifies in Point 2 that the labels, packaging and instructions for products produced and distributed in Latvia must be in Latvian. In the event that there is another language, Latvian must always occupy a preferential position and under no circumstances can the typeface be smaller or the message contain less information. In the case of products manufactured outside Latvia but distributed in the Republic, all the information must also be in Latvian. This is specified in point 3 of Article 21.

The case of Quebec in Canada is well known. In Quebec there are about 6 million inhabitants who have French as their mother tongue, 20% of the population has other mother tongues, especially English . The latest 2003 update of the Charter of the French Language, in chapter VII, Article 51, clearly specifies that all instructions, inscriptions on the packaging and label of a product must be at least in French and if there is another language it must not be longer than the French text. (16) This affects almost all products, the few exceptions, understood to be for example products that are manufactured but not distributed in Quebec, are considered in the Regulation on the trade and business language. (17)


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