Linguistic mosaic in danger?

Article published on June 20, 2005
community published
Article published on June 20, 2005

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

Europe has 250 indigenous languages, the majority of which are unofficial or minority languages. This great linguistic wealth is difficult to preserve, especially at a time when more and more languages demand dominance.

If modern-day Europe is a complex Tower of Babel, then linguistic diversity was even more important in medieval times. The Ancient Languages, some by their own evolution, others by political decisions, have died out or are struggling to survive. But even though European countries have tried to achieve linguistic homogenisation and to marginalise their minority languages since the 16th century, the latter half of last century saw the public resisting the decline of their respective languages. So, while English is gaining ground as the common European language, the “small” languages are trying to rise from the ashes.

In recognition of this situation, in 1992 the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers adopted the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which recommends that individual states recognise the right of all European languages to be present in all aspects of daily life and that their use is promoted.

But is it too late?

The health of such languages varies greatly. While some enjoy considerable vitality, such as Catalan, which is the 10th most spoken language in the newly expanded Europe with 10 million speakers; for others, this resurgence may have come too late.

In France, for example, where there are seven regional languages (Breton, Catalan, Basque, Occitan (or Langue d'Oc), the German dialect of Alsace-Lorraine, Corsican, and Picard) a study by the National Institute for Statistics and Economic Studies in France (Institut National de la Statistique et des Études Économiques) shows that French continues to gain ground compared with the others and that the minority languages are used less and less.

Alsatian is currently one of the country’s stronger languages with around 900,000 speakers. Sonia Zannad, who has lived in Alsace for six years explains: “When I arrived, I was surprised by the importance of the language here. The Alsatian people are proud of their cultural heritage.” However, she admits that she doesn’t feel “obliged to learn the language”.

Breton is one of the languages currently benefiting from a great deal of effort to maintain its use. Breton, the majority of whose 300,000 speakers are advanced in years, can once again be studied in schools, although there is now an intermediate generation between the young and the old which has lost the language. Marie Beyou, a Breton who divides her time between her native country and Catalonia has taken a decision which demonstrates the differences between the two linguistic realities: “I don’t speak Breton, although if one day my children wanted to speak it, I would be happy. I, on the other hand, am starting Catalan lessons in September.”

A language which will not find it easy to survive is Basque. Spoken between the Spanish and French states, Basque is present in the education and institutional systems in this part of the linguistic territory. However, its survival is complicated by the difficulty of the learning process and the large differences between the language and those which surround it.

The English case

Irish is a typical example of the minority languages in the British Isles. With just 200,000 speakers, it is the most protected European minority language. It is the official language of Ireland and has just been recognised as an official EU language. However, for Irishman John Kennedy, this recognition of status is excessive: “Now it is obligatory in school and there is a television channel in Irish, but I think that we have to accept reality and invest in other things. Nonetheless, the majority of Irish people are happy with this policy.” Nuala Morgan, also Irish, considers that continuing to promote the language merely perpetuates the myth that it is a living language.

Similarly, Welsh, Cornish, Scots and Scottish Gaelic are also trying to keep themselves above water. Welsh, with 570,000 speakers, seems to be regaining strength. Victoria Donavan, who is Welsh, explains one of the reasons for this: “With the economic growth of Wales, the nationalist sentiment has increased, which has also been accompanied by a cultural boost. The efforts to keep Welsh alive are increasing significantly.” This support has sometimes led to situations such as those in some pubs where “you have to sign a declaration saying that you at least understand Welsh before you can go inside.”

A trilingual model

Italy is one of the countries often used internationally as a successful example of understanding between languages. South Tyrol is a trilingual region (German 69%, Italian 26% and Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) 4%), and so enjoys a special autonomy. Sabine Hofer, a South Tyrolean, explains that it is a “well organised” multilingualism and that although language continues to be “one of the main points of political discussions”, Tyroleans are used to going shopping in cities like Bolzano-Bozen where “in the first shop you speak German, and in the next you speak Italian, and for many people this is an advantage”. As well as these three languages, another nine regional languages are spoken in Italy.

In Germany, Frisian, Dutch, Sorbian, and Low German are spoken, as well as German. Low German, for example, is spoken by 8 million Germans. Northern Frisian on the other hand is only spoken by around 9,000 people. Max Schmied, a student from Föhr Island (in North Frisia), is one of the youths who are going back to their roots: “It isn’t my mother tongue; I started to study it because it was my grandfather’s native language. For me it is a way of fighting against the extinction of the language.”

In Eastern Europe, minority languages are more numerous still. According to the Commission’s Euromosaic III study, in the new member states there are around 90, the majority of which are languages which cross state boundaries.

Diglossia and the future

An action plan drawn up by the European Commission in 2003 represents an valuable opportunity for these languages, given that one of the plan’s objectives is that languages will be taught at all levels of education, giving special attention to those languages which lose speakers generation after generation.

However, the vast majority of these languages suffer from diglossia, meaning that they are only used in certain situations and as a complement to the major languages, and hardly ever in a context of real multilingualism. This fact, together with the political use of these languages, which often means that they are used to accentuate possible differences between communities, suggests that the future of this linguistic mosaic is far from assured.