German tops minority league

October 18, 1996

A comparative study of the strengths and weaknesses of the European Union's 48 minority languages identifies German spoken in Belgium and Italy, and counted as a minority language by the EU researchers, as the most successful minority language in Europe.

The study, called Euromosaic, was compiled by researchers from the University of Wales Bangor, the Catalan Sociolinguistic Institute in Barcelona and the Catholic University of Brussels.

The report explores the effects of economic change, migration and linguistic status on the languages' survival chances. It evaluates each language's relevance in situations including the home, the community, the media, and in education and employment. The researchers devised a linguistic league table to pinpoint which languages are likely to survive, which need help and which, like Cornish in 48th place, are doomed to extinction.

The four most successful languages are German (spoken in Belgium and Italy) Luxemburgish, Catalan and Galician. They are all either the national language of a neighbouring state, an official national language (Luxemburgish in Luxembourg) or nationally recognised regional languages, such as Catalan and Galician in Spain. They enjoy high status and are spoken regularly by thousands of people.

Among the next group are Basque in Spain, Welsh, Irish, Occitan in Italy and, somewhat surprisingly, Ladin, which has only 56,000 speakers in the Alpine valleys of northern Italy.

These languages can withstand pressure from neighbouring majority languages and, often with government support, are able to adapt to meet the current economic needs of their communities.

Less happy is the plight of Gaelic in Scotland (with 59,000 speakers) Sorbian (with 50,000 speakers in eastern Germany) Slovenian and Friulian in Italy (85,000 and some 400,000 speakers respectively) and Turkish in Greece. Marginalisation and the effects of buoyant tourist industries have tended to erode the status of these languages.

But the European Commission believes that initiatives such as the cross border Inter Reg programme could help bring speakers together to undertake joint ventures such as developing media links. One of the first such projects being recommended by the report would link Irish speakers in Ireland with Gaelic speakers in Scotland.

An endangered group of languages which lack status and receive very little or any official support includes virtually all minority languages in France. These tend to be spoken by older people rather than by the young. The future therefore looks bleak for Breton, Corsican (down to some 25,000 native speakers) and Occitan in Provence. Despite numbering 100,000 speakers, the Albanian language in Italy is facing a similar fate.

According to the report, the final group, few of which can muster 30,000 speakers, face extinction. They include Sardinian, Slavo-Macedonian in Greece, north and east Frisian in Germany, Mirandese in Portugal and Cornish.

Bangor's Glyn Williams said: "Diversity is the basis of innovation, and the way in which language affects meaning is essential ingredient of such diversity. For that reason alone, the survival of the pool of linguistic diversity within Europe is essential."

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