People often forge their specificity from the languages spoken in their territory. However, this is not the only element of their identity. Thus, Europe has over two hundred languages and language varieties that are practised today. However, the European Union acknowledges only twenty-three of these while the states which comprise it often concentrate on only a single language, granting some rights to other languages to a degree. Indeed, language discrimination is a major issue in recent years.
The Europeans speak languages of all origins, the most represented groups being Germanic, Romance and Slavic. These are Indo-European languages, i.e. with common characteristics in linguistic terms (original vocabulary, syntax, grammatical traits etc.), although they are sometimes difficult to detect. Other Indo-European language groups are made up of Celtic and Baltic languages. Other groups exist in Europe, notably the Finno-Ugric language (Hungarian and Finnish are the two most spoken in the group). Similarly, a few isolated languages are also present on the continent. Thus, the Turko-Altaic languages are used in a few regions of Eastern Europe. Finally, the Basque region, whose origin will be discussed, closes this simplified table on the diversity of European languages.
State-nations have used linguistic assimilation as a means to integrate people and have usually imposed a single language to the detriment of others spoken in captured territories. Most states have behaved in this way, including Germany, the Netherlands, France, Spain and Italy.
However nowadays, multiculturalism and tolerance have become international norms, with many states recognising native languages. Driven by local populations and supra-national institutions like the Council of Europe, they have no other choice but to allow their citizens to use their languages freely and also to recognise them officially in order to enable their dissemination and their survival. This new European order has encouraged specific legislation on regional languages.
For example, the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages provides a better account of languages. It defines a regional language as one being traditionally spoken in a region without it being the language of all the citizens of the state, but prasticed by a group that is numerically inferior to the rest of the population of the same state. However, this language may be a majority in this region.
The term “minority language” is often used in the sense of “regional language”, a distinction between the two often being difficult to make. Indeed, the first term is often perceived in a derogatory manner and does not always match the reality of the situation. The second supposes that the language is regionalised and spoken in a defined region. Thus, the expression “less common language” is often substituted. The lesser-used languages are less practised than the other languages of the territory. In fact, Catalan is not a minority language in Catalonia since it is spoken by almost the entire population. Moreover, it is a language spoken by nearly ten million people. On the other hand, on a state scale this term can represent a definite reality. Certain regional languages can be equally spoken in two different states, like the Basque region which is recognised at different levels by both autonomous communities of the Euskadi and the Navarre but has no official status in Iparalde, i.e. the northern Basque region, which is part of the French state.
Equally, cross-border languages can be official in one state and considered a minority language in another. This is the case for German, Hungarian and Danish for example. German is the official language in Germany but it is in the minority in Belgium, Hungarian is the official language in Hungary but it is in the minority in Romania and Danish is for its part a minority in Germany.
Finally, the third case of minority languages in Europe concerns the languages that are not spoken in any particular region, such as Romani or Yiddish. They are dispersed or nomadic languages.
The list of regional languages is quite long. We estimate that 50 million citizens of the 450 million that make up the EU speak a lesser-used language. This table would not be complete if we did not consider the way a language is lived, often in a hostile, monolingual environment.Regional languages must often mix with other languages, which are official at state level. This creates a situation of bilingualism or diglossia.
Bilingualism has the tendency to favour one language in relation to another. Certain languages become the language of exterior communication, while others are used in more restricted circles, at home for example. This situation often contributes to the extinction of the spoken language in private. Thus, integral bilingualism is often difficult to impose, but vital for each language to live in equality. The only way to achieve this is to teach the languages spoken in the territory, the minority languages being preferred in the early years of learning (the solution of immersion teaching is advocated in these conditions). As a consequence, its spread in the media (television, radio, newspapers) and its use in social life (justice, administration) is essential. It involves an ambitious and voluntarist linguistic policy.
List of regional languages according to the European Bureau for Lesser-Used Languages
|Mócheno – Bernstoler
|Русинська / Rusyns’ka
|Tatarlar / Татарлар
|ייִדיש / Yiddish
In italics, the idioms whose language status is discussed