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View the documentEurope’s regional or minority languages

Europe’s 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 regions.

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 CLRAE’s 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 CLRAE’s 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 (Scotland)

Lallans, sometimes also called “Scots”, is the vernacular language of Scotland south and east of the Highlands - an area which contains four - fiths of Scotland’s: 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. T1’ere 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 moa’e of it in the press, especially in one Sunday newspaper.

Regional or minority languges of the European Community

From LINGUA to MERCATOR: fostering communication between languages

Proof of the European Community’s 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 Spanish.