Europes regional or minority languages
by Ferdinando ALBANESE
The dossier on national languages in No 119 of The Courier
mentioned that the developing countries were not the only ones to have a problem
with their regional - or minority - languages. It is something that crops up all
over the world, including Europe, the USSR and the USA.
This article outlines the situation in Europe.
We do not know exactly how many people in Europe speak a
language other than the main or official one of the state in which they live.
The European Bureau for Lesser Used Languages has suggested a figure of almost
50 million for the European Community alone and this will, of course, be higher
if all the countries of the Council of Europe () are taken into account.
Yet the concept of regional or minority language and the way it
differs from a dialect are not always easy to define. And in many cases what
counts is the de facto situation, not the official status of the language. Irish
(Gaelic), for example, is one of the official languages of Ireland and Ladin one
of the national lanuages of Switzerland, although they are both minority
languages in comparison with the number of speakers of the other official and
national language(s). And Catalan, for example, is the majority language of one
area of Spain, Catalonia, but a minority language in the state as a whole.
It is not easy to produce a list of the minority and regional
languages of Europe, but here, with no attempt at being exhaustive, are some
examples - Ladin in Switzerland; German in Denmark; Danish in the Federal
Republic of Germany; Lapp in Norway, Sweden and Finland; Catalan, Basque and
Galician in Spain, German, Slovenian, French, Albanian, Greek, Provencal and
Ladin in Italy; Catalan, Corsican, Occitan, Alsatian, Basque and Breton in
France; Irish Gaelic in the UK, and Slovenian in Austria.
Great variation in status
The de facto and de jure situations of these minority and
regional languages are very different.
The de facto situations vary widely, with the language being
spoken in a homogeneous region or part - region of a state in some cases, on
either side of a frontier astride two or even three states in others, or, as
with Albanian in Italy, in a whole series of separate villages in different
The legal status varies widely, too, with some languages being
protected by domestic laws and some by international treaties and others having
no legal protection at all. The practical content of such protection, where it
exists, varies from one country - and often from one language - to another
within the same country.
This is the very varied background against which the initiative
taken by the Standing Conference of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe
(CLRAE), which represents local and regional authorities on the Council of
Europe, is set. In 1988, this body adopted a Resolution suggesting that the
Committee of Ministers adopt a convention - type Charter on regional and
minority languages - a proposal which the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council
of Europe approved.
The CLRAEs idea was 1Dasica\y a cultural one. It was not
to safeguard the rights of national, ethnic or linguistic minorities, but to
protect the various languages spoken by minorities in the different parts of the
countries of Europe, thereby preserving the cultural wealth of our continent.
This essentially cultural concern is reflected in various
paragraphs of the CLRAEs draft Charter, which clearly state that the drive
to protect linguistic and minority languages must respect the territorial
integrity and traditions of each state and do nothing to interfere with the
development of the official language(s) of that state.
In other words, a knowledge of minority languages is both the
natural expression of a population locally and a cultural bonus nationally.
Lallans, sometimes also called Scots, is the
vernacular language of Scotland south and east of the Highlands - an area which
contains four - fiths of Scotlands: 5130175 population within a total
area: of 78 763 sqkms. With the retreat of Gaelic from the loulands in the
fourteenth c entury, Lallans became the everyday language of: the population in
the lowlands. It remained so until three events led to ihe upper classes turning
ro English - the publication of the Bible in English in 1560, the Unio n of the
Crouns of England and Scotland in /603 and the Union of the two Parliaments in
1707 - and of course, the a7On?inanCe of English in government and commerce for
the last 250 years. T1ere is no census or estimate of the number of
speakers of fallans.
The Lailans tongue has no lega I status. There is no formal use
in public administratio7? although it is used in spoken communication. Similarly
there is no formal educational use of the language. Use of the language on
television and roatio is restricted to informal situations. Greater use is
moae of it in the press, especially in one Sunday newspaper.
Regional or minority languges of the
From LINGUA to MERCATOR: fostering communication between
Proof of the European Communitys interest in the language
problem is supplied by its financing of various programmes in this feld - LINGUA
and MERCATOR, for example, adopted in 1989.
LINGUA, which has heen allocated ECU 200 million for 1990 - 94,
has been designed to proyide Communitv measures to support and back up the
national schemes in each of the Member States of the EEC. The idea is to
encourage Europeans to spealc languages other than their mother tongue properly
- including those u hiclt are less common and less taught. The: particular aims
of the Community measures are to promote the in - service training of foreign
language teachers, the learning of foreign languages in universities and, more
especially, the initial training of foreign language teachers, a knowledge of
the foreign languages used in work relations and economic lite, and the
development of educational exchanges Jor young people following a technical or
vocationul training course and those undergoing specialist or rotational
training within the Community.
It should he remembered that the language question is of
particular operational importance in the European institutions because the
Community currently uses nine oJ:ficial ku~guages - Danish, Dutch, English,
French, German, Greek, Italian, Pornighese and