The history of minority languages in the last 200 years is in many places a history of their suppression. In the context of the emergence of nation states, the languages of minorities were and still are often discriminated against, in some cases banned, and their speakers often silenced in various ways. With the beginning of the 1970s, a reversal in the interpretation of the status of minority languages took place, which was linked to a recognition and strengthening of the rights of minorities at international and national level.
Since 1998, the Council of Europe has included the “European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages”. The Charter defines regional or minority languages as those languages “traditionally used within a given territory of a state by nationals of that state who form a group smaller in number than the rest of the state’s population” (also known as autochthon languages); “they are different from the official language(s) of that state; and they include neither dialects of the official language(s) of the state nor the languages of immigrants”.
Though considered minority languages, in some cases they are the majority language in the region where they are spoken, though not within the state as a whole. An example of this is Galician in Galicia (Spain) or Frisian in Friesland (the Netherlands).
Those regions where a Regional or Minority Language is spoken are bilingual, but the proportion of bilingual speakers varies greatly from region to region. The higher the proportion of the speakers, the more stable the language.
The expression “non-territorial languages” means languages traditionally used by nationals of a state which differ from the language(s) used by the rest of the state’s population, but cannot be identified with a particular area. Yiddish and Romani are examples of “non-territorial languages”.
A United Nations definition describes the following as criteria for indigenous languages: Historical continuity (territorial ties), marginality (current marginal position due to settlement/conquest from outside), cultural distancing from the dominant culture of the state (own culture, own forms of organisation), self-identification. The terms “autochthon” and “indigenous” have a similar meaning in terms of content.
The Treaty of Lisbon, put into force by the European Union in 2009, says: “(The Union) … shall respect its rich cultural and linguistic diversity and shall ensure that Europe’s cultural heritage is safeguarded and enhanced” and thus follows on from the work of the Council of Europe.
UNESCO identifies in the Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger five degrees of endangerment for languages, which can be distinguished more precisely in terms of transmission from one generation to the next – the basis for the vitality of a language (UNESCO, 2003). According to the Atlas, at least 43% of languages spoken in the world are endangered.
Five degrees of endangerment for languages
Language is spoken by all generations; intergenerational
transmission is uninterrupted
Most children speak the language, but it may be restricted to
certain domains (e.g., home)
2. Definitely endangered
Children no longer learn the language as mother tongue in
3. Severely endangered
Language is spoken by grandparents and older generations; while the parent generation may understand it, they do not speak it to children or among themselves
4. Critically endangered
The youngest speakers are grandparents and older, and they
speak the language partially and infrequently
There are no speakers left >> included in the Atlas if presumably
extinct since the 1950s
In 2019, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the resolution to declare the UNESCO Decade of Indigenous Languages 2022 – 2032. The decade is intended “to draw attention to the critical loss of Indigenous languages and the urgent need to preserve, revitalize, and promote Indigenous language” and to “take urgent steps at the national and international levels.”
The Federal Union of European Nationalities (FUEN) – our associated partner – initiated “Minority SafePack”, a package of law proposals for the safety of national minorities to enable the promotion of minority rights, language rights and the protection of their cultures. The initiative was supported by over 1 million citizens across the EU and is the fifth successful EU initiative.
However, the gap between international law/statements and everyday reality is huge. Most of the indigenous languages are barely present in public life, socially marginalised and spoken exclusively in private. Many endangered languages are found in relatively sparsely populated, economically underdeveloped regions where there is an increasing imbalance between the center and periphery of the country or region.
In the context of globalisation, a more general culture (mainstream) is promoted in the world where the English language is predominant. In this context, it is even more difficult for many lesser-spoken languages to exist and survive. The international community – as the United Nations, the Council of Europe and EU authorities – has recognised the importance of cultural and linguistic diversity and has found its preservation worthy of protection and promotion. Linguistic diversity is therefore to be considered both in terms of language rights and in its capacity as cultural heritage of the EU.