Lesser used languages: a treasure to preserve

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Languages’ status and presence depend on how many people speak them

LUL might look like a voguish new abbreviation on Twitter but actually this is a term referring to lesser-used languages, such as CatalanBasque, or Welsh, and all other around 60 regional and minority languages spoken by 46 million Europeans. These languages usually  become an issue when there is a political crisis or dispute to resolve which concerns their community. For decades they have been challenged by the dominance of the nation-state and global processes, but nonetheless many of them have survived and some have even thrived. Today, 26th of September, the European day of Languages, is probably the right moment to mention the efforts, successful or not, to find the place of these languages place on the diverse linguistic map of Europe.

First of all, the status and presence of lesser-used languages depend on how many people speak them –  the fewer speakers they have, the lower their chances of  survival. Legislative or constitutional recognition is another major factor, and often it varies considerably between Member States. Third, the initiatives of supranational organizations are also to be mentioned in terms of their support to LUL, because this defines whether the languages fit into the globalized world. When there are high-profile policies to back these languages in their quest for recognition, they perform better.

The European Union and other international organizations have played a role in boosting small languages. The institutional steps taken regarding LUL could be qualified as somewhat small and humble, and yet some of them contribute to the linguistic construction of Europe.  One flagship initiative with impact and grit is “The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages”, which has been in force since 1989. This Charter is fruit of the work of the Council of Europe and the noteworthy role of the EP and it marks the beginning of political activity in the area of LUL.

25 European states are signatories of the Charter; however, not all of them have ratified it, and its implementation is not identical in each country. In Spain, historically speaking, the BasqueCatalan and Galician languages were restricted under Franco’s regime. Nowadays Spain is an example of a European state trying to apply the principles of linguistic equality, where the best example is with Catalan. The Catalan language, spoken by about ten million people, is a language which gained strong positions at both national and supranational level. It is a co-official language in Catalonia, the official language in Andorra, and can also be used in communication with citizens at European Union level. The so-called Reding Resolution from the European Parliament on languages, along with the situation with Catalan from 1990, stood up for the right of Catalan to be used in institutional matters. This language succeeded where others were not as persistent.

Other regional language speakers are less fortunate and sometimes stigmatized as being irrelevant to the modern world. They might fall prey to linguistic imperialism because there is an assumption that one language is preferable to another. The dominant one is entrenched through the allocation of more resources and legal support and it overwhelms the smaller. A few examples could be evoked of regional languages in Italy trying to stay afloat while their attempts remained futile. Italy has signed the Charter but did not ratify it, thus the principles are not fully applied. In Italy some minority languages are recognized, but have not gained serious acceptance. The Sardinian language has been legally recognized since 1999, yet its acknowledgment in the society is not very easy. This language along with 30 other languages in Italy are classified by UNESCO as being threatened with some degree of endangerment.

Another country which has signed and not ratified the Charter is France. It did not ratify it because it contradicts an article from the Constitution saying that the language of France is French. Eventually France reluctantly granted the ‘regional’ status to some languages, but the institutional, legislative or financial support for languages like Occitan and Breton is limited and their presence in education is a polemical issue.

UK speakers of IrishWelsh and other minority languages were for centuries under significant pressure to drop their language. This oppression illustrates the English imperialistic desire to dominate the neighbouring territories. Irish started to recover from the historical injustice once it became the official language of the Republic of Ireland in 1973. This language is an example of a linguistic survival because in recent decades it has experienced an urban revival and its use has increased. It is an official language of the EU and the Irish authorities have committed to preparing translators and interpreters needed for the smooth functioning of the EU.

Despite the fact that minority and regional languages have been subject to vast pressures by the nation-state, which sought to monopolize linguistic power whether in France, Spain or Britain, small languages survived. The spirit of the Charter of 1998 is a good example of cooperation resulting in a high-profile language policy. There is still a long way to go for some languages, but globalization should be thought of as a double-sided coin. Normally it threatens the existence of smaller languages, but on the other hand it might actually give the chance to these languages to open up to the world and be more visible. The United Nations encourages the monopoly of the “big” languages, especially English; however, the European Union is a unique structure which grants the status of “official languages” regardless of the number of speakers. In spite of the centrifugal forces of the globalized world, there is still hope that minority and regional languages will be preserved and strengthened.

Published in OneEurope on 26 Sep 2014