Cornish to Walloon - diversity is key

Language and Nationalism in Europe
February 15, 2002

The most popular languages for the average learner in the United Kingdom are French, German and Spanish. There is a general awareness of the range of other languages used in Europe (and a fervent hope that most people will also speak English), but few people will be aware of the total number of official languages, much less those in widespread use.

The issue of languages and official policies on languages nevertheless remains a current one. The Council of Europe's European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages came into effect in 1998. The charter was signed by 23 countries, although only ten have ratified it so far.

But language policies have a chequered history. This book includes examples of languages that have been revived successfully (such as Welsh), and others that are a modern re-creation (such as Cornish) or that died out only relatively recently (such as Manx). It examines the fascinating question of the standardisation of a mainstream national language (such as Italian or German) as well as the rather more sinister imposition of one for political ends. Measures taken by the dictator Metaxas in Greece in the 1930s, for example, ranged from the forced adoption of Greek surnames, to dosing speakers of minority languages with castor oil. The multiple topics the book covers demonstrate the sheer complexity of the subject, and it goes into some fine detail, while remaining largely accessible to a general readership.

The question of language, identity, nationality, culture and status is central to understanding many of the blockages and flashpoints (actual and potential) within not only areas of likely expansion for the European Union, but also within the boundaries of current members. This book is part of a series that, at first sight, makes for sombre reading: Language Wars, Containing Nationalism, The Multiculturalism of Fear . But it is clear that language and language issues have been in contention for generations and that the phenomenon of language spills over into a whole range of social and political contexts. This becomes apparent in the book, which displays some problems of nomenclature itself.

Thus Finisterre appears in the text as Finistère, Holland is listed under Netherlands, while Walloon comes under France. There is a header for Flanders, but no sub-head for Flemish, which appears under Dutch. Both Yiddish and Hebrew are listed under Jewish. Gibraltar and Malta appear to have been left out, as have speakers of European languages from former colonies.

The book is divided more by region than by language family, and seems to equate language policy with a geographical focus. But if language and identity can lead to separatism in the name of self-determination, what is the connection between language and identity where there is no clear historical or regional imperative? And does this suggest that clearly defined boundaries are a prerequisite to ensuring the survival of a particular language? The growth of multi-cultural and multilingual societies may indicate that different processes are now at work. Language groups can now maintain contact across wide areas through the internet and satellite television, while established speakers of an increasing variety of languages are to be found well beyond the areas in which these languages are traditionally used.

The proliferation of languages across Europe as patterns of migration change will impact upon cultural life, and it is possible that people will not only grow up to be familiar with more than one language (as is the case with more than 30 per cent of London schoolchildren) but will expect to be competent in more than one. It is possible that languages will become gradually less enclosed or exclusive and more the banner for a particular culture, although it may be increasingly difficult to persuade second or even third-generation immigrants of the benefits of speaking their heritage language.

Even so, there can be no doubt of the psychological significance of a heritage language. I was in Bratislava during the velvet divorce between the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and was feeling uncomfortable as I did not know any of the languages being spoken around me. I recall the mental relief when my eye fell upon a monument in a language that I could recognise - Latin. This proved to be appropriate as it commemorated the life of the educational thinker and proto-European Jan Comenius, who proposed, during the thirty years' war, that children be taught about the culture of Europe as well as about their native culture, and that to make it accessible, they should learn a common language, which at the time, of course, was Latin.

A single language solution as part of a unified Europe today is hardly a viable option. In contrast to the unifying function of English in the melting pot of the United States, Article 151 of the Maastricht treaty refers to the different cultures of the member states and to respect for national and regional diversity. It also enshrines the principle of respect for linguistic diversity, regardless of any practical difficulties that may emerge with regard to interpreting services or translating the ever-increasing amount of documentation needed to run the European Union. This book gives an insight into why, historically, it has been so difficult to maintain a particular language and how some have even come to constitute a barrier to communication. One of the editors begins the section on Russia by commenting that a comprehensive account of the role of language in national identity would require another book. It can be hoped that Oxford University Press in due course will oblige.

Tim Connell is professor of languages for the professions, City University, London.

Language and Nationalism in Europe

Editor - Stephen Barbour and Cathie Carmichael
ISBN - 0 19 823671 9 and 925085 5
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £45.00 and £16.99
Pages - 319

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