Academic journal article European Studies

Language Sectarianism: Regional Languages between the National Past and a European Future

Academic journal article European Studies

Language Sectarianism: Regional Languages between the National Past and a European Future

Article excerpt


The European Union is home to national, regional and minority languages, only some of which have some recognition and the support of state language policies. To demonstrate this we proceed in three steps. First, we demonstrate that the current approach of European institutions and nation-states, providing support for languages is at odds with the commitment for equality of citizens, i.e. language communities and their members on the entire territory of the Union. Second, we demonstrate that most European languages with a stringently defined homeland territory are likely to survive, while those with no support from territorially defined language policies struggle to compete for speakers with the majority/official state languages. Thirdly, we discuss regional efforts to increase the currency of what is frequently seen as regional variety of the state language Samogitian, Latgalian and Võru in three new EU member-states undergoing processes of nation-cum-institution building. Finally, we review minority language activism of languages, 'officially distinct' from the state language, Kashubian and Silesian, contending that activism of these communities reflects the stark centripetal logic in state language policies. The salience of non-standard idioms, as we conclude, reflects both the European emphasis on linguistic diversity and nation-state linguistic cohesion - both trends resulting in 'language sectarianism.'


The European Union today counts around 90 national, regional and minority languages, only some of which enjoy recognition of the EUmember-states. Although the EU places great value upon linguistic and cultural diversity of its citizenry advocating 'unity in diversity' and promoting multilingualism to facilitate intercultural communication of Europeans, providing each of these languages equal degree of recognition will inevitably constrain operational capacity of the Union. This leads us to believe that while the numbers of officially recognised national and regional languages are likely to grow as a result of EU outstanding enlargements, the rationale for providing for linguistic diversity while ensuring functionality requires urgent revision. Our chapter starts with an analytical assessment of the current European language regime and outlines implications languages are likely to face in the long-run should this regime remain unchallenged.

The EU's agenda on multilingualism is highly commendable. It purports respect for the linguistic heritage of each group residing on the territory of the Union and thus appeases members of minority communities, reverberating strongly groups' past experiences of paying high cost for adopting standards of writing and speech which were not their own. While we support the aim of European multilingualism in general and the EU's concern for minority linguistic communities specifically, this chapter draws attention to implications of such commitments for minority language activism. This particular focus leads us to question the normative backbone of the emerging European language regime that favours protection of diverse identities on the one hand, but places territorial polities in charge of determining identity groups they prefer to protect.

While the EU institutions rhetorically advocate protection and support of linguistic diversity at the European level, it is entirely up to states to determine the degree to which these minority (or minoritised) groups fit with the political concept of nationhood of their polities. In a nutshell, communities of minority language speakers in each of the EU memberstates engage in negotiating the recognition of and support for their distinctness with the polity on which territory they find themselves. This stewardship of nation-states over identities of its minority citizens is precisely the point of concern in this chapter. As we demonstrate in the following, contemporary European polities maintain considerable leeway to exercise cohesion over their populations in an ongoing process of state and institution building, the processes that are accepted as inevitable in the European context of the day. …

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