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Endangered Languages
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Language and Identity

UNESCO - the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation - lists over 100 European languages it describes as "endangered" or which have disappeared entirely in modern times. Sami, Sorbian, Friesian, Kashubian, Istro-Romanian cling on in various corners of Europe. But how long before they go the way of Gothic, Old Prussian, Polabian, Judaeo-Spanish, Manx, Cornish and a host of others, which have become extinct in the past couple of hundred years? 

"Languages are the pedigrees of nations", said Samuel Johnson - 18th century writer, critic and compiler of the first English dictionary. When a language dies, a way of seeing and interpreting the world dies with it. But new languages emerge as well. Political imperatives have split Serbo-Croat into Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian. Macedonian is still thought of by many Bulgarians as a Bulgarian dialect. So when DOES a dialect become a language? Alistair MacPhail of the European Commission's Language Policy Unit: 

"It's a slightly flexible thing. As language is very closely linked to identity - as people's sense of their group identity changes - their perception of their language as being a dialect or a separate language tends to change also. So we see new languages emerging." 

One of the great literary languages of Europe - though the chances are you've never even heard it. Occitan - the traditional language of southern France, and of the medieval troubadours, whose poetry of courtly love had a formative influence on the literary languages of Italy, Germany, England and Spain. Suppressed by a succession of centralising French governments, and degraded to the status of a peasant patois, it lingers on in outlying country areas: 

"This speech, which sounds so mellow on our maidens' lips, Once was the language of the troubadours. Now our maidens are ashamed to speak it." 

European states, from ancient Rome onwards, have been great destroyers of languages - usually in name of ideas like national unity or cultural progress. Bertrand Merciassi, comes from Brittany, at the other end of France. Breton - a Celtic tongue, related to Welsh - is enjoying a revival. Before the Second World War, schools in Brittany displayed signs saying, "Do not spit or speak Breton" - and teachers were instructed to beat children for using it: "There is no minority problem - there is a majority problem. If we compare the French Revolution with the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. This revolution wanted to change the people itself, the mentality, the human beings themselves. The Russian culture would represent the Bolshevik culture. The French culture would represent human rights, democracy - the credo of the French revolutionaries. But most of the time it is just a way to disguise national imperialism, such as the Russian or the French one." Margret Oberhofer comes from South Tyrol - a former Austrian region acquired by Italy at the end of the First World War: 

"Imagine yourself growing up. You can't express yourself. It's as simple as that. I strongly agree with Bertrand. It's not the minority that's causing the problem. We are asking for a basic right, that's all. In the case of South Tyrol, it was not allowed to speak German at all. You were really beaten up for speaking German in the street.

Demonstrators in Spain's northern Basque country, demanding language rights and self-government soon after the death of the Spanish dictator, General Francisco Franco, in 1975. Franco's slogan - "One, Great and Free" - implied the suppression of all Spain's languages, except the dominant Castilian. Basque, an ancient tongue believed to pre-date the arrival of the Indo-Europeans, was to be stamped out of existence. The Basque region today enjoys considerable autonomy - but the violent legacy of separatist terrorism lives on. Do linguistic minorities want too much? Over the water, in Canada, the once despised French-speakers of Quebec province are getting their own back. Marc Angenot, is a francophone professor who teaches at Montreal's anglophone McGill University: 

"The most ludicrous law is about the size of letters that you can use on posters. In Quebec, English must be one third the size of letters used in French. And the colour, of course. The hue of the colour must be also more prominent in French. That means that all the time people are in front of the courts, challenging such and such aspects of laws that are not applicable in many ways, because they are contrary to the Charter of Rights in terms of freedom of expression". 

Laurence McFalls, meanwhile, is an anglophone professor at the francophone University of Montreal: 

"The only thing that's keeping Montreal from losing its French face is the official protection given to the French language. If the city were officially biligual, the forces of assimilation to English would be even greater. The language laws which, for example, force immigrants to send their children to school in French, end up with the result that their children at least know some French by the time they're adults because they learn English anyway. At least the bilingual character of the city is maintained - as certain anglophones would say - by ramming the French language down people's throats." 

None of which stops the Metropolitan French from sneering at French Canadian linguistic barbarisms like "changez le tire" - "change the tyre" - or "cul de sac" instead of "voie sans issue". Insecurity is a feeling which many linguistic minorities - or communities that straddle national boundaries - have to live with. Eva Blaessar belongs to Finland's once influential Swedish-speaking community. Her experience is not unlike Margret Oberhofer's: 

"I grew up speaking Swedish in school, with friends, at home. Everywhere it's completely Swedish-speaking. But by heart I'm Finnish. I'm definitely not Swedish." 

"Has a Finnish-speaker ever pointed you out and said, 'Look, you're not a real Finn, are you, because you come from a Swedish-speaking background?' 

"Oh yes, it happens constantly. Finnish people might call Swedish-speaking Finns bad names etc. Finnish-speaking people actually have to study Swedish for a certain number of years at school - and this they protest against regularly." 

"Outside of South Tyrol you always have to explain your situation. If you go to Firenze (Florence) or somewhere, you have to say, 'I'm Italian but my mother-tongue is German'. If you go to Austria, they will say, 'Ah, you are a kind of Austrian'. If you go to Germany you also have questions like, 'Oh, is South Tyrol belonging to Germany?' It's sometimes very annoying that you always have to justify yourself." 

But speaking two major European languages like German and Italian also has its advantages: 

"In the case of South Tyrol, there are actually companies coming to South Tyrol because they know it's bilingual. The people there can communicate with Italians but also with the big German-speaking market. So South Tyrol is one of the wealthiest regions in Italy and it's always ranking in the top five in everything." 

But how much effort, realistically, should be expended in saving lesser-used languages? Gaelic - the official language of the Irish Republic. A century ago, English-speaking Irish intellectuals believed that a nation aspiring to independence should revive its old native language. Yet today, barely 20,000 people speak Gaelic on a regular basis - proving that you don't always need a separate language to have a sense of national identity. The Swiss have four languages - three of which they share with their neighbours - without feeling any the less Swiss. For the fledgling democracies of Central and Eastern Europe, their West European neighbours do NOT provide any obvious models. 

The Council of Europe's "Charter for Regional or Minority Languages" talks of the "value of multiculturalism and multilingualism" - but France and Greece refuse to ratify it. Advocates of "major" European languages, like French, German or Italian, often claim to be defending their own heritage against an encroaching tide of English: not the language of Milton and Shakespeare, so much as the international "demotic" of mass consumer culture. A trawl of European language websites turned up the following proposed solution: 

"I am sure that Latin, better than other languages, can help the peoples of Europe rediscover their roots and traditions". 

Theoretically a nice idea - after all, Latin was traditionally the international language of Europe - but almost certainly a lost cause. Eva Blaessar and Bernard Menciassi maintain that liguistic diversity is one of the glories of Europe - and can be accomodated within the "European project": 

"I think evolution will take its course no matter what you do. You're hearing us with our experiences of being minority speakers. I think the question of when is it worth preserving a minority language - that is very individual and very much up to each country and each population. What unifies Europe today are the different cultural identities and languages. This actually unifies Europe - it does not divide. When you are here in Brussels, for instance, you hear all the languages of Europe on the streets every day. And here it is very common that you meet people who speak four or five languages fluently." 

"I don't have a crystal ball. But I would see something like the full application of the subsidiarity principle regarding the language aspect. We could image that French and Breton would be official in Brittany. Then at the European level we could maybe think that there would be three-four official languages. The European 19th century decided that we should be monolingual human beings. Now I think we should have to get rid of this stupid idea, develop our natural skills and then the problem will be solved. In fact, we should forget about the concept of language itself, and just speak." 

The European Union is a unique experiment, whose final outcome - if such there will be - remains unclear. Some would obviously like to see a "Europe of communities", in which the nation-state - with its organising and corecive powers - is diluted away. In fact, this itself is one of the major areas of controversy, which the EU will have to address in the coming years - and the future status and viability of Europe's many languages could be strongly influenced by whatever solution is eventually arrived at. But after a couple of centuries of existence, the nation-state is unlikely to surrender easily. 


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This page is compliments of Marisa Ciceran

Created: Friday, April 05, 2002; Last Updated: Thursday, October 15, 2009
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