Introduction to the Special Issue: Political and Economic Obstacles of Minority Language Maintenance

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

Introduction to the Special Issue: Political and Economic Obstacles of Minority Language Maintenance


Saarikivi, Janne, Marten, Heiko F., Journal on Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe : JEMIE


Over the past decades, problems related to linguistic minorities and their well-being, as well as to minority languages and their maintenance, have developed as an independent branch of minority studies. Studies of language in society and sociolinguistics, strategies of minority language survival and the empowerment of their speakers have produced a considerable output of case studies and theoretical writings (to mention some of the most notable writings: Fishman, 1991; Romaine, 1995; Crystal, 2000; Nettle and Romaine, 2000; Skutnabb-Kangas, 2000; Extra and Gorter, 2001; Hale and Hinton, 2001; Harrisson, 2007; Arzoz, 2008; Edwards, 2010; May, 2012).

In this multifaceted field of investigation, language use, language practices, language policies and language politics represent interrelated aspects of social and linguistic relations that cannot be meaningfully addressed from a point of view of one scientific discipline only. This is specially the case when one wants to understand processes of language loss and maintenance, or the revitalization and empowerment of a language community. Such processes are linguistic expressions of complex social settings, and reflect group and individual identities that in turn express changing systems of collective values, human networks, fashions and social practices.

The interrelationship between political and economic participation and rights to land and other resources with ethnic and linguistic maintenance - the theme uniting the articles of this volume - is also a very complex one and reflected in a variety of ways depending on the individual context. Often minority cultures and the languages that support them start to lose ground when traditional language communities are shaken, for instance by changes in livelihood practices and land use or by urbanization or other types of demographic changes. Urbanized minority representatives who do not practise traditional livelihoods or live in the traditional area of their group are typically much more likely to lose their language than those members of the same community who continue their traditional ways of life (c.f. e.g. Fishman, 2001: 21 who includes 'cultural loss reinforces identity change, so that language becomes less important for the peoples' in his list of factors contributing to minority language maintenance or loss).

Such developments are often also connected with changes in employment. This is not only reflected in the dispersal of traditional settlements and when abandoning traditional forms of livelihoods, but also in rising educational standards in circumstances where education is conducted solely in the majority languages (c.f. Skutnabb-Kangas, 2000). During the educational process, as well as in relation to new forms of labour connected with services and creativity, languages increasingly turn from tools of communication into instruments of work (for instance, in highly esteemed professions such as teachers, lawyers or consultants in which the language functions both as a tool as well as the end product of the work process, c.f. Zamyatin, Pasanen and Saarikivi, 2012).

However, even among groups experiencing seemingly similar social shifts, a notable variation can be observed in the rate of language loss and maintenance. This depends on different types of group identities and values as well as the different ways in which language and linguistic knowledge are embedded in them. In the literature on minority language maintenance and ethnolinguistic vitality, a variety of factors affecting language loss or maintenance are regularly mentioned. For instance, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) stresses the size of the linguistic minority, language transmission, educational rights and labour-related issues (language vitality and endangerment). Edwards (2010) mentions demography, education, sociological factors, media, religion, politics/laws/government, the economic situation, linguistic factors (e. …

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