Europe Will Always Be a Tower of Babel

Article published on March 5, 2004
community published
Article published on March 5, 2004

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

94 languages and dialects, many of which are under threat. An analysis of why linguistic diversity will not die out.

There are thought to be 77 autochthonous languages in Europe, a figure which climbs to 94 when dialects are included. The majority of these are concentrated in Central-Eastern Europe. But the data varies depending on the source, given that scholars themselves do not seem able to agree on the criteria defining what a dialect is and what a language is. They are all speaking a different language.

Tell me what language you speak and I’ll tell you who you are

Generally, the victims of serious violations of human rights are members of minority groups. Without collective rights, the rights of individuals do not exist either. But in many countries laws defending minorities already exist. The problem is that even if laws are passed, without the necessary financing they remain ineffectual. In Italy for example, the laws are there but not much has been achieved in terms of teaching and the use of regional languages in Institutions.

The Associazione per i Popoli Minacciati (APM, Association for Threatened Peoples) asked the Italian Presidency of the EU for an article recognising all linguistic and ethnic minorities and their rights to be inserted into the European Constitution. The appeal did not receive a response.

What, then, of the figures? According to ‘Euromosaic’, the study undertaken by the European Commission, 23 out of the 48 minority languages in existence will disappear in the future. Another 12 are considered to be ‘under threat’. Many are known to be already ‘extinct’. From its budget of more than 90 billion Euro, the EU only gave 2.5 million to the Bureau for Lesser Used Languages (EBLUL). Not enough to sustain ‘at risk’ languages.

‘Bloody gypsies!’

But the reality is even worse. Amnesty International has recently condemned the condition of ethnic and linguistic minorities in Europe, especially in the candidate countries. Take as an example the Hungarian town of Valko where, on June 13th 2003, a Romany was taken from his van and handcuffed for no reason. Faced with questions from onlookers, the police’s response was, ‘Go away, you bloody gypsies!…All gypsies should be killed!’. Amnesty’s archives are full of stories like this and tales of beatings, torture and the murder of minorities. In Hungary there are German, Armenian, Bulgarian, Croatian, Greek, Polish, Romanian, Ruthene, Serbian, Slovakian and Ukrainian minorities, each speaking a different language. Hungarians themselves represent a minority in Romania, Slovakia, Ukraine, Croatia, Slovenia and Austria.

This is a situation common to all European countries. The situation is getting worse in Central-Eastern Europe because the borders there were drawn up in a more artificial way through history. This is why minorities are often an explosive social and political problem in that region. But Hungary has at least made some determined efforts.

There are worse cases. Romania, for example, confirmed that it has created a television channel for the Hungarian minority, thanks to about 3,846 million Euros from the Hungarian Government. But in reality, the numerous daily incidents at the expense of this group have not ended, not least because of the unreliability of law.

But the problem is a wider one. For too long the need to unify people across national borders has meant that those who speak a minority language or dialect have remained in an inferior and ignorant position because they don’t speak the language of those in power. This is perhaps the first form of racism because language is the fundamental factor of identification in a community, even coming before religion, and is certainly the most important cultural factor - it creates movement of arts, trades, experience, wisdom, and irony.

Does progress equal cultural impoverishment?

Although it is true that it can seem obsolete to talk about dialect in a globalised world where only a few languages count for anything, and you may think it useless to defend their existence because ‘sooner or later they will disappear’, there are those who think differently. ‘Today there are at least 6,000 living languages’. As the linguist Tullio De Mauro explains, with regards to languages with prestige, the minority ones, ‘far from disappearing, are actually getting stronger. Thanks to new communication technology, they are experiencing a new stage of consolidation’. This is because ‘never in the past have such a wide section of various populations around the globe opened themselves up to the necessity of receiving and understanding, of producing texts in languages other than the native one’ (1).

In short, languages are not disappearing and the world will always be a Tower of Babel thanks to globalisation. As long as people remember that there are not only potential producers and consumers in the East, but also potential voters. And as long as globalisation means the globalisation of rights and democracy.

(1) Taken from Capire le Parole (Understanding Words) by Tullio De Mauro, Laterza, Bari, 1994. Tullio De Mauro, a linguist and semiologist, is a former Minister for Public Education and author of numerous works and essays.