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close this bookThe Courier N 140 - July - Aug 1993 - Dossier: National Minorities - Country Reports: Dominica, Mozambique (EC Courier, 1993, 96 p.)
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View the documentLinguistic minorities in the European Conununtry
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View the documentSome examples of minority situations

Linguistic minorities in the European Conununtry


by Sylvia CARREL

The language map of Europe is a real mosaic, with scores of communities in north and south and east and west to bear witness to our continent's historic past and cultural wealth.

The European Community has more than 40 native languages in everyday use, but for official purposes it uses only nine of them-Danish, Dutch, English, French, German, Greek, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish. Irish, despite being an official State language, is only a 'treaty language' in the Community. All the others-and they are spoken by almost 50 million Europeans, one in seven-represent what are usually called linguistic minorities.

It is not easy to find one word to define all these 'other' languages. Their situations are very different, far too much so for them all to be grouped together under the same heading. Neither 'minority', nor 'less common', nor 'regional' really does the job.

Here are some examples. Catalan is considered to be a lesser-used language in France and Spain alike, although in fact more people speak Catalan than Danish, which is one of the official languages of the Community. The Welsh do not look upon their language as a regional language (and would be offended it it were treated as such), because they believe that Wales constitutes a nation in its own right. The Bretons, however, see nothing wrong with Breton being called a regional language, with Brittany as a region with its own specific language and culture within the state of France.

When the European Bureau for LesserUsed Languages was set up in 1982 (see box), it fixed on 'lesser-used' as being both the most neutral and the most representative term.

Five major categories of lesser-used languages

It was difficult to find the right term to describe them, but the lesser-used languages proved fairly easy to divide into five categories, as follows:

1. The languages of the two small Member States of the Twelve which are not official languages of the Community and are little used in international circles -Irish and Luxembourgish.

2. The languages of small, stateless communities within individual Member States-for example, Breton in France, Friulian in Italy, Frisian in the Netherlands and Welsh in the United Kingdom.

3. Languages of small, stateless communities living in two or more of the Member States-for example, Basque in France and Spain and Occitan in France, Italy and Spain.

4. The languages of people who constitute a minority in the country in which they live, but a majority elsewhere-for example, German in Belgium, Danish in Germany and French and Greek in Italy. 5. The non-territorial languages traditionally spoken in a state but not identifying with a particular area-for example, the languages of the gypsies and the Jews (Sinti, Romany and Yiddish).

Over and above this division, it is also important to take the degree of acceptance, promotion and usage of these languages into consideration. It is something which varies considerably from one country to another. The Member States have reacted very differently to the minority language issue and their laws reflect the fact.

Different situations

Italy, the country with the most minority languages, does not yet have a framework law on them, despite the fact that Article 6 of the Italian Constitution says that the Republic 'shall take the relevant measures to protect linguistic minorities'. A bill was tabled and passed by the Chamber of Deputies, but the early dissolution of Parliament last year meant that there was no time for it to be passed by the Senate. The Italian political agenda has, not surprisingly, been dominated by the recent upheavals, to the exclusion of much of the 'normal' legislative activity.

Any legislation so far has been ad hoc, providing separate arrangements for one or two linguistic minorities - the German minority in South Tyrol, the Ladins in the Dolomites, the Slovenes and the people in Val d'Aosta. Linguistic policies have differed widely, as Paolo Carrozza of the University of Florence points out. There is total bilingualism in the Val d'Aosta, linguistic separation for the German- and the Ladin-speakers of South Tyrol and what he calls limitation of the school system for the Slovenes of Friulia-Venezia-Giulia living in the provinces of Trieste and Gorizia. French is officially recognized in the eastern part of Val d'Aosta and German in South Tyrol. And Val d'Aosta is slightly unusual in that both French and Italian are spoken in public life, while Franco-Provengal is the language most commonly spoken in the street.

Totally different, however, is the situation of Catalan in Spain. This language, which the inhabitants of Catalonia speak with stout national pride, is now in a strong position, almost up in the ranks of the so-called majority languages. And unlike the other languages of Europe which are in a minority situation, it is in a majority situation on its own territory, where it is the working language of even the highest ranks of society. Catalan has an abundance of literature and Catalonia is considered to be one of the four driving regions of Europe.

The linguistic situation in Belgium is another example of the diversity of lesserused languages in Europe. The Belgians, of course, do not have a national language which bears their name. The creation of four linguistic regions in 1962 made the language situation and three languages-French, Dutch and German -official. German is considered to be a minority language, however, not just because the German-speaking community is very small, but because, while it is the official language of the cantons of Eupen and Saint Vith, it is not yet recognised in the Montzen area.

Lesser-used languages in the Community

'The Community shall contribute to the Powering of the cultures of the Member States, while respecting their national and regional diversity and at the same time bringing the common cultural heritage to the fore.' this is Article 128, at Title IX (Culture), of the Treaty of Maastricht and it refers to the diversity- regional as well as national-of the Member States, in which it is recognising the fact that less common cultures have the right to existence, over and above their support from the European Community. With the internal market and balanced development of the common policies in its sights, the Treaty will be broadening the scope of the EC in this way, but it clearly says that it will do this with due respect for a principle which is essential to the institutional balance of the new Union, namely, subsidiarily. This means running schemes to encourage minority-language culture and education, a drive which started long ago, even for the lesser-used languages.

At Community level, the idea first came up officially in 1981, when the European Parliament adopted the Arfe resolution, the first step towards a minority language policy, since when there has been a whole series of resolutions and motions heralding directives and practical action. The Commission has been involved in this field for some time, with its contributions to various programmes put forward by the European Bureau for Lesser-Used Languages and by the language communities themselves.

Last year, the Council of Europe decided to give the European Charter for regional or minority languages the status of a convention-a very important move given that a convention is legally binding once a Member State has signed it. By the end of 1992, the Charter had been signed by 12 countries, only five of them (Denmark, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Spain) Member States of the Community. The French Government has abstained and the United Kingdom and Greece have rejected the draft convention. The unification of Europe seems to pose problems for linguistic minorities. When the Dillinea report on minorities in the EEC was being discussed quite recently, the European Parliament Committee on Culture, Youth, Education and the Media sent the draft back and asked the rapporteur to rewrite it in the light of all the suggestions which had been made.

Yet the so-called minority languages have the great responsibility of saving the world from linguistic monotony. And although the dollar does not speak Occitan nor computer programmes Basque, it would be wrong to forget that a language is quite different from a simple translation or imitation of a so-called majority language. Language is like DNA, a kind of genetic code of a people, which is why safeguarding a people's identity means defending and promoting its language.
S.C.

The European Bureau for Lesser-Used Languages A Community response to the language rights issue

The European Bureau for Lesser-Used Languages is a nonprofit-making association which was formed on the initiative of various members of the European Parliament and of cultural organisations involved in the promotion of 'other' European languages.

On 16 October 1981, following a series of motions on regional languages and cultures, the European Parliament took a fundamental step towards a Community strategy for lesserused languages, and towards the establishment of the Bureau, with its adoption of the Arfe Resolution.

As part of its strategy for achieving ever-closer cooperation with the Community institutions, the Bureau, which has its headquarters in Dublin, last year opened a documentation centre in Brussels. In addition, it has committees operating in ten of the Member States-real local correspondents working in the field with various language minorities.

Bureau policy, which can be summed up under four headings, is: ( 1 ) to seek legal and political support in Europe, the states and the regions; (2) to seek finance for projects related to lesser-used languages; (3) to provide for exchanges of information and experience among groups involved in actively promoting these languages and (4) to set up structures to support the indigenous linguistic communities. Examples of the last mentioned include MERCATOR, a network of data bases relating to education, the media, legislation and general studies: the Secretariat de Coedition pour l'Enfance, which encourages the publication of children's books in minority languages; and Euroskol, a two-yearly meeting of primary school children at which the lesser-used language is the teaching medium.

Since 1984, the Bureau has published Contact Bulletin, its own quarterly review. this provides a link between the committee members in the different Member States as well as being a more widely distributed source of information on European minorities.