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
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
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.
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.
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