Majority or Minority Languages? for a New Discourse on Languages

By Argemí, Aureli | Journal on Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe : JEMIE, July 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Majority or Minority Languages? for a New Discourse on Languages


Argemí, Aureli, Journal on Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe : JEMIE


Enough of discriminatory terminology

There are majority languages and there are minority languages. This distinction between the two types of language is not only made as if there was evidence to support it, but also as if it was an acceptable and accepted one; at least for a part of the many people who represent civil service institutions and the media.

To begin with, it is taken for granted in this division that majority languages are the ones most widely spoken whilst the minority ones are least so. The truth, however, often dispels this assumption. It all depends on the parameters employed. For instance, there are those who claim that Catalan is a minority language in the Spanish state, where Spanish is precisely the majority language spoken. But within the autonomous community of Catalonia, Catalan is the majority language spoken, where it is so as the mother tongue, accompanied by Spanish, which, in this same community, the citizens who speak it are in the minority.

This perspective of the reality leads one to immediately believe that this division and the corresponding terminology bear a certain political content, that it is not neutral. A further example will illustrate my previous statements: the people living in Catalonia - where Catalan, after much upheaval, has been granted status as the official language besides exist as the mother tongue - are people who have the simultaneous right and obligation to understand Spanish as well, the official language of Spain. In other words, from the institutional perspective, if from no other, Catalan speakers, whether they wish to or not, must be bilingual: the subjects of a State in which Spanish is the predominant language of the majority, and members of an autonomous community or autonomous communities where a language is spoken which, within the entire set of communities constituting this State, becomes peripheral and minority. In this sense, Catalan has had to endure the constant pressure from another language, deemed a majority one, being actively used beside it in its territory (a situation which has not been experienced in Spanish territory; Spanish is not shadowed by another language).

We could expand the debate and create any number of combinations on the meaning of the terms "majority" and "minority" in the case of languages. We will always come to the same conclusion: the concepts "majority language" and "minority language" have very little to do with what they appear to mean. Moreover: they are distinctions in which, even if there is nothing else, discrimination, which goes against the fundamental principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is always a feature of the condition of minority language. The division of the languages harbors strong ideas and the excuse to consider them without respecting the right to equality in the framework for human rights

This is the reason why, as if it was common in a democracy, majority languages are considered to be treated in legal and political spheres as languages which ensure the equality of the inhabitants in certain territories defined by state borders; a set of borders which thus determine the meaning and the scope of linguistic equality and in their capacity as borders place limitations on the citizens. From the perspective of those who speak minority languages, the majority languages are presented to them as the predominant ones whilst their own language continues to be dominated, to say the least, because they are not allowed to develop like the majority ones are. Therefore, the terminology employed for these linguistic circumstances comes to be a reflection of how some people, who think their language is superior, behave towards others who, from a linguistic perspective, are to settle for being subordinate subjects.

These classifications have many consequences. I will highlight a few which I believe to be particularly important: in many parts of Europe the classification of languages is directly proportionate to the political situation and the laws in and under which the speakers are living. …

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Majority or Minority Languages? for a New Discourse on Languages
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