The End of Minority Languages? Europe's Regional Languages in Perspective

Article excerpt

The European Union (EU) today counts 23 national languages with as many as 65 regional and minority languages, only a few of which enjoy recognition in the EU. We assess the perspectives of regional and, particularly, endangered languages in Europe in three steps. First, we argue that current approach of nation-states, defining both national and regional/minority languages from the top down, is increasingly at odds with the idea of cross-border migration and communications. We illustrate this with the examples of Estonian and Latvian, official languages of EU member-states with around one million native speakers each. Second, we attest the end of "traditional" forms of minority language, contending that if they are to survive they cannot do so as mirror copies of majority languages. To make our point clear, we discuss regional efforts to increase the use of the Breton and the Welsh languages. We outline a research agenda that takes into account the nation-state dominated linguistic regulations and the future of an increasingly borderless Europe, and suggest how both can be accommodated.

Key words: EU; regional languages; minority languages; Welsh; Breton; Latvian; Estonian; multilingualism; language policy

Today the official languages of the European Union (EU) member-states enjoy de jure equality across the union, even outside the territory of the state that recognizes them as official. In a context where speakers of diverse official languages share a common European public space, there is a growing need to revisit our understanding of languages bound to particular territories and defined as state, regional, official, majority or minority languages. Increasing mobility of citizens across the EU has led to a stronger emphasis by the European Commission (EC) on the promotion of multilingualism across the European citizenry to ensure the effective communication between EU citizens, either in their native or their vehicular languages. Ultimately, this means that speakers of all European languages, however large the number of speakers "at home", regularly find themselves in a minority status when travelling into another EU country. Our article highlights the implications of the processes that are taking place across the EU today as a result of advanced functional integration of the European public on the one hand, and the lack of dynamic in the institutionalized relations of European states with the populations they serve.

The research programme introduced in this article advocates for the expansion of the current understanding of the "majority/minority language" dichotomy. From our point of view, the previous emphasis of scholarship on minority/majority status issues largely overestimates the territorialization of linguistic regimes without paying enough attention to linguistic heterogeneity in contemporary Europe. To clarify our point, we start with a review of the approaches to linguistic diversity visible across European nation-states. In the first section of the article, we investigate how the EU and its nation-states deal with the languages spoken on their territories, and conclude that many of these approaches are limited. This allows us to depart from traditional classifications of European languages in subsequent sections of the article. All EU languages only have a limited use beyond the geographic regions where their status is ranked as more advantageous as a result of official recognition. In the second section of the article we analyse the two state languages, Latvian and Estonian, which provide a fertile basis for reconceptualization of the idea of "Europe's regional language". We then focus our attention on linguistic situation in Brittany and in Wales and attest the end of "traditional" forms of minority language, contending that if they are to survive they cannot be mirror copies of majority languages. We conclude by highlighting the logic of linguistic territorialization inherent in all EU member states, which simultaneously reinforces the identity-based claims of speakers of state languages at the expense of speakers of all other languages and non-standard varieties. …


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