Latgalian in Latvia: A Continuous Struggle for Political Recognition1

By Lazdina, Sanita; Marten, Heiko F. | Journal on Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe : JEMIE, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Latgalian in Latvia: A Continuous Struggle for Political Recognition1


Lazdina, Sanita, Marten, Heiko F., Journal on Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe : JEMIE


This article discusses the situation of the Latgalian language in Latvia today. It first provides an overview of languages in Latvia, followed by a historical and contemporary sketch of the societal position of Latgalian and by an account of current Latgalian language activism. On this basis, the article then applies schemes of language functions and of evaluations of the societal position of minority languages to Latgalian. Given the range of functions that Latgalian fulfils today and the wishes and attempts by activists to expand these functions, the article argues that it is surprising that so little attention is given to Latgalian in mainstream Latvian and international sociolinguistic publications. In this light, the fate of the language is difficult to prognose, but a lot depends on whether the Latvian state will clarify its own unclear perception of policies towards Latgalian and on how much attention it will receive in the future.

Keywords: Latgalian, Latvia, minority language, language policy, language activism, language functions

This article discusses the societal position of the Latgalian language in Latvia today. In introducing the situation of the Latgalian language to a broader international audience, it documents the impact of current debates in Latvian society and politics on the Latgalian speech community. This is based on an evaluation of Latgalian in the framework of the ethnolinguistic vitality of linguistic minorities and of language policy, legislation and rights.

Language policy in Latvia is a well-known case in international sociolinguistic circles: the organization of post-Soviet multilingualism, with the reversal of language shift from Soviet Russian back to native Latvian as the Latvian state's aim, and the struggle for linguistic rights by the Russian-speaking population, have dominated international debates and, partly, raised considerable attention and emotional uproar. The individual position in that debate has largely depended on whether authors saw the Latvian state's policies as a legitimate attempt to engage in post-colonial societal transformation. In light of this debate, other linguistic debates were heard far less often in Latvia in recent years, and other minorities have found it difficult to gain a voice. Traditional groups, such as speakers of Polish, Lithuanian or Belarusian in the South-East of Latvia, have suffered from a lack of attention in a similar way as non- Russian Soviet migrants, with their languages and cultures often being downgraded to purely folkloric items. Those minority schools which exist in Latvia today, such as Polish or Ukrainian schools, do not normally function in the respective minority language, but only teach it as a second language.

In this context Latgalian is in a rather specific situation. Whereas Latgalian enjoys some official recognition, in that it is mentioned in the Latvian constitution, it suffers from being traditionally perceived as a dialect of Latvian rather than a language in its own right. The debate on Latvian and Russian has been a considerable obstacle to discussing Latgalian issues, although in terms of users Latgalian-speakers are clearly the third-largest speech community in Latvia. Riga-dominated political and academic circles often do not show interest in Latgalian issues - an overtly political agenda which has only in recent years been slightly counteracted by some active individuals from Latgale.

The aim of this article is to place the Latgalian language within the context of ongoing debates on languages and their status in Latvia. For this purpose, we will first give a sociolinguistic and historical overview of Latgalian from a comparative perspective. We will then discuss recent developments and political discussions on Latgalian before putting Latgalian and its functions into theoretical frames of minority languages and discussing possible future scenarios. In this context, we will show the degree to which political (and to a lesser degree economic) obstacles may indeed shape the present and the future of a speech community and its language. …

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