Continuing our “Myths of the Eurovision Song Contest debunked” series, where we look at misconceptions viewers might hold about the world's biggest live music event, we're examining the common belief that only songs performed in English do well. Where does this come from? Is there enough evidence to back it up? Let's dig into it!
There is a long-held belief that if a country wants to do well in the competition they have to perform their song in English. While there have undeniably been many winners and good placings among the songs performed in English, particularly recently, if we take a closer look at our history, we learn that is not always the case.
Two of the last 5 winning songs of the Eurovision Song Contest were performed in languages other than English, thus contradicting the myth right off the bat. In 2016, Ukraine achieved its second victory thanks to Jamala’s 1944, a song performed partly in Crimean Tatar. The year after, Portugal swept the competition with Salvador Sobral's Portuguese song Amar Pelos Dois.
The history of the language rule
The official rules concerning the language in which the entries can be performed have changed several times during the Eurovision Song Contest's 65 years history. There was no language rule in the first 10 contests; it didn't come in to play until a country performed their song in a different language than their official one. This was in 1965 when Sweden sent opera singer Ingvar Wixell to Naples to sing his song, Absent Friend, in English.
After that ‘incident’, the first language rule was created: "Entries must be performed in one of the official languages of the participating country". It didn’t last long, though: in 1973 this rule was abolished, allowing participating countries to perform in the language of their choice.
This freedom was short-lived: In 1977, the language rule was reintroduced. It was not re-introduced early enough for that year's Contest, however, as Germany and Belgium had already chosen their songs in English before it was decided on. So it was from 1978 to 1998 that all entries were performed only in one (or more) of the official languages of the participating countries. Dana International's Diva, from Israel, was the last winner under the language rule.
Winners by language
Since 1999, no such restriction has existed. In these years, we've seen a trend of using the English language more often, meaning there have been more entries sung in English and so higher chances for these songs to do better. In the years since 1999, there have been 17 winners in English and 4 of them in another language, the most likely evidence for this myth's persistence.
If we check those statistics from the very first Eurovision Song Contest in 1956, the winners by language become more varied:
This means that, over the course of the Contest's history and changing language rules, 53,7% of the winners have been in languages other than English. That includes the 2007 winner from Serbia, Marija Serifović’s Molitva.
What about the songs that didn’t win the competition but still did well when performed in other languages? The most recent ones include Iceland’s Hatriđ Mun Sigra which Hatari performed in Icelandic, giving their country their first Semi-Final qualifier in 5 years and a Top 10 finish in the Grand Final. This is something that Iceland had achieved only on 5 previous occasions, 2 of them in Icelandic. It was Iceland’s first song in their native language since 2013’s Ég Á Líf, which Eythor Ingi also took to the Grand Final.
A country that has recently decided to move away from English is Albania; this change has also improved their rankings in recent years. Jonida Maliqi’s Ktheju Tokës saw the country qualify for the Grand Final for the second year in a row after Eugent Bushpepa did so in Lisbon with Mall, which ended up placing 11th. Albania’s best placing ever, 5th, was Rona Nishliu in 2012 and her Albanian language song Suus.
Other countries that qualified and ranked high in their national languages include Hungary, Slovenia, Serbia, Montenegro, Moldova or Estonia. The Eurovision Song Contest wouldn’t be the same without titles like Hvala Ne!, Ovo Je Balkan, Moj Svijet, O Mie, Et Uus Saaks Alguse or Kedvesem.
Widely-spoken languages like Spanish or French have produced varied results, but singing in those languages has definitely not stopped several entries from doing well.
French is, after English, the language that has produced the most winners, the last of them being 1988’s Ne Partez Pas Sans Moi, performed by Canadian popstar Céline Dion on behalf of Switzerland. More recently, we’ve seen Amir place 6th by mixing French and English in J’ai Cherché for France in 2016 and, in the same year, Austria with ZOË, who qualified for the Grand Final singing Loin d’ici which was performed entirely in French.
Spain had traditionally sung in Spanish at the Contest, but more recently added some English in their lyrics, including one all-English entry in 2016, Barei’s Say Yay! But it was a song performed fully in Spanish that granted their best result in the last 10 years: 10th for Quédate Conmigo by Pastora Soler in 2012.
That year, even Romanian band Mandinga chose to sing partly in Spanish. Zaleilah was “a unique juxtaposition of Cuban and Romanian sounds”, they stated.
The Italian case
If we look for the most recent best placing of a song performed in a language other than English, we don’t need to go far: 2019's runner-up, Soldi, was performed in Italian, with one line in Arabic, by Mahmood. The song was only 26 points short of winning the Contest and well ahead, by 102 points, of third place.
It looks like Italy found a key to success in the Eurovision Song Contest and the Italian language might play a big role in that. Despite not winning since 1990, they’ve achieved good rankings both before well as since their much-awaited comeback in 2011. That year, they placed second. Volare, Non Ho L’Età, Si, Gente Di Mare, Grande Amore, Occidentali’s Karma, Non Mi Avete Fatto Niente, Insieme 1992 are just some of their Top 10 entries.
Even Estonia performed in Italian last year in Lisbon, and it paid off: La Forza by Elina Nechayeva placed 8th, one of their best results in the last 10 years.
Hits in other languages
The Italian case proves that you can enter the Eurovision Song Contest in a different language than English and not only do well or win, but also have an international hit with it. Songs like Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu (Volare) or Poupée De Cire, Poupée De Son hit the charts in many countries across the world, despite not being in English. Others, like L’amour Est Bleu, topped the charts in their instrumental version. Some others released versions in English and other languages to succeed internationally, including Ein Bisschen Frieden:
And of course, we have the Eres Tú phenomenon: the runner-up of the 1973 Eurovision Song Contest performed by Mocedades on behalf of Spain was released as a single which included the original Spanish version as the A-side and an English version, Touch The Wind, as the B-side. Radio stations all around the world preferred to play the A-side and thus Eres Tú became one of the few Spanish language songs to reach the top 10 in the United States and Canada and in participating Eurovision countries such as Belgium and the Netherlands.
Novelty in languages
La, La, La, Boom Bang-A-Bang, Ding-A-Dong, Diggi-Loo Diggi-Ley. Trying to stand out by inventing a language to perform a song in the Eurovision Song Contest? Check! Belgium almost won the contest in 2003 with Urban Trad with Sanomi, performed in a completely made-up language. They tried it again in 2008 with O Julissi, but missed a spot in the Grand Final. The Netherlands tried it in 2006 with Treble’s Amambanda and, even if they mixed it with a little bit of English, they too found it was another non-qualifier.
Mixing languages is another well-performing trend in Eurovision. The entry which used the most languages is Norway’s It's Just A Game, sung in English and French by the Bendik Singers in 1973. The song also included some lyrics in Spanish, Italian, Dutch, German, Irish, Serbo-Croatian, Hebrew, Finnish, Swedish and Norwegian. It placed 7th in a field of 17 participants, their best placing in the 15 years period from 1967 to 1982.
Bulgaria was not so successful in 2012 with a similar gimmick in the song Love Unlimited sung by Sofi Marinova, which narrowly missed a place in the Grand Final in Baku. It’s mostly performed in Bulgarian but includes some lines in Turkish, Greek, Spanish, Serbo-Croatian, French, Romani, Italian, Arabic and English. It also includes one phrase in Azerbaijani, the only song in the Contest’s history to do so as Azerbaijan has never entered a song in their national language.
The only country to have won by mixing languages in the live performance at the Grand Final is Ukraine. And it did so both times it won. In 2004, Ruslana sang one verse of Wild Dances in Ukrainian and, in 2016, Jamala performed the chorus of 1944 in Crimean Tatar.