Untying Europe's lesser tongues

The Changing Voices of Europe:
May 26, 1995

The Changing Voices of Europe is an edited collection of informative articles on linguistic issues in contemporary western Europe. The book concentrates on Germanic, Romance and Celtic languages, and places considerable emphasis upon the contemporary status and development of minority or "lesser-used" languages of Spain, Italy, France and the United Kingdom. This is supported by articles on the social and political development of language use and structure in the past in French, Spanish, Occitan and Maltese Arabic.

Yet it is a pity that other language groups, particularly Slavonic and Baltic languages, have not been included in the book, especially when one considers that it is in central and eastern Europe that national identity and language politics have had the greatest impact.

In western Europe the employment of lesser-used languages requires that speakers have a positive attitude towards the social prestige and status of their language if that language is to thrive. Often in the past when a competing language has been associated with social advancement and urban wealth, as opposed to poverty and rural backwardness, it has dominated to the detriment of the lesser-used language. The dominance of French over Flemish or Walloon in Belgium before the first world war might have provided a good example of this.

But what is a lesser-used language? A true definition would relate more to a language's political status than to the actual number of speakers. For example, one would not normally classify German as a lesser-used language, yet when employed by German ethnic minorities in Italy, Hungary or Transylvania, German loses its majority status. Likewise with a population of only 2,000,000 speakers, many continue to place Slovene among the lesser-used languages of Europe. Yet since 1991 Slovene has become the majority language of the relatively ethnically homogeneous independent state of Slovenia.

Similarly the language situation in Romania provides the reader with an interesting study of the role of particular dialects or registers based upon social and political prestige. Since the second world war, two registers have emerged. One has been the official language of the Communist Party and the other is the language employed by Romanian intellectuals.

Whereas the intellectual register has been very much influenced by French and other western European languages, the register of the "official party press" was often made up of terms of avoidance. Examples of this are provided, such as replacing the word for inflation by the more anodyne term, "resettling of prices"; perhaps reviving memories of the Newspeak of George Orwell's 1984. Furthermore, since the events of December 1989, there has been a total rejection of words or expressions which are associated with the communist period.

The Changing Voices of Europe provides much food for thought and serves as a stimulating contribution to the field of language identity. It will appeal not only to linguists, but also to a variety of scholars working in European politics, the social sciences and multidisciplinary subjects such as European studies.

Robert Hudson is a senior lecturer in European studies, University of Derby.

The Changing Voices of Europe:: Social and Political Changes and Their Linguistic Repercussions, Past, Present and Future

Editor - M. M. Parry, W. V. Davies and R. A. M. Temple
ISBN - 0 7083 1259 4
Publisher - University of Wales Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 334pp

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