Tongues tied

June 21, 1996

Linguistic rights are closely linked to civil rights. A newly signed declaration should go some way towards their preservation. Ned Thomas reports.

Where else could you meet an Arawak-speaker from Amazonia alongside someone from the Komi Republic in the Northern Urals; delegates from Senegal and Benin in West Africa, representatives of the Cordillera People's Alliance in the Phillipines, of HEDO - an organisation of the mountain peoples of Vietnam, of the Welsh Language Society, and of the Amazigh (or Berber) World Congress? There were "experts" too, many of them with an activist colouring. This was the World Conference in Linguistic Rights which brought over 200 people to Barcelona at the end of last week.

Just possibly it will also be a conference which history remembers. In the great hall of Barcelona University we all signed a document which was then handed to a representative of Unesco. The ambitious aim is to lay the foundation for an intergovernmental protocol on linguistic rights, with an eventual Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights as pendant to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The decision to work towards this conference was taken at the end of 1993 at a special meeting of the International Pen Club's translation and linguistic rights committee. Linguistic questions have come to greater prominence in PEN as new countries and regions have entered and as notorious repressions such as that of the Kurds in Turkey reveal the close connection between linguistic and other civil rights. Catalan PEN became a driving force in the committee and drew in the Catalan foundation Ciemen which already works on legislation and language rights in a European Union context. These bodies jointly ran the conference.

Somewhere along the way it must have dawned on the organisers that the new director of Unesco, Federico Garcia Mayo, is a Catalan and sensitive to language questions, though not a Catalan nationalist. Spain - curious as this may seem to many Basques and Catalans - has a lot to offer in the way of linguistic models to a world full of linguistic conflicts. Successive Spanish governments have been dragged and pressured by their citizens and constituent nations towards a pattern of strong regional autonomy and the establishment of codified language rights on defined territories. It does not work perfectly, but it works, where previously there was much prejudice and bitter memory.

Not surprisingly, given the strong Catalan influence, there was a lot of reference to territorial linguistic rights, following the pattern established in Spain. There is some uneasiness about this, though not enough to undermine the consensus achieved through consultation on successive drafts of the document before the participants arrived.

On the one hand, and many members of the drafting committee, myself included, would accept this, there is perhaps something too Eurocentric in the way the document looks at territory - this despite our best efforts and the inclusion of experts from other continents. Europe is the least linguistically various of the continents - elsewhere you find archipelagoes of small language groups often within quite a small area. A speaker from India argued that oral cultures handle language difference more successfully. Villagers may speak as many as seven languages to the degree that they need those languages to communicate with a variety of neighbours or traders. Codification of language rights in such circumstances may even foment conflict.

But an equally impassioned speaker from the Vietnamese mountains called for the peoples of the area to be helped to find scripts and alphabets appropriate for their languages. What future can there be for oral cultures? And if there is to be literacy, then in what language or languages has it to be defined in relation to territories, however small. The Republic of Benin has some 60 languages, none of them used in education. The choices are difficult in such situations. What is wrong with French or English?

It used to be an ideological question - whether or not you use the language of the ex-imperial power - but "you" never meant more than a very small percentage of the population anyhow, and that is now giving rise to practical problems. "Our economies are on their knees," one colleague told me, "and the international aid agencies are pressing us to democratise. But how do you democratise when the constitution functions in a language which 80 per cent of the population can't understand." Decentralisation in order to involve people in new grass-roots economic policies - the policy in Senegal - also means supporting people's own languages on radio and in education. The connection between cultural self-confidence and economic enterprise is being made there as it is on my home ground in Wales. And the principle of territoriality cannot be avoided, though I readily agree that we need to give more thought to its detailed application in different sets of circumstances.

The other doubt about territoriality comes from a very European direction - it is the old argument of those who start from individual human rights and find it hard to understand the need for collective or group rights - which is what territorial linguistic rights are. There is no ducking this argument.

On the one hand, group rights are not absolute; they exist for the sake of the individuals in that group, and they cannot be used to justify serious infringements of the individual human rights of those outside the group. But where that group is on its home ground and in a minority position the only way the group may be able to continue in existence, and thus guarantee its members' individual right to live as members of that group, may be by placing some restriction on some individual rights. From this point of view it will be legitimate to require in-migrants to Wales or Quebec or Catalonia to have their children learn the language of the territory. In each situation it is a matter of balance and negotiation.

In Barcelona I met a fellow-veteran. "Do you remember Ottawa 1973," he asked, "the Unesco conference on Linguistic Diversity?" Richard Hoggart was at Unesco then, and I remember his telling me of the pleas that regularly reached his desk to do something about languages that were dying - if only to find the resources to record their final gasp. In the past 23 years many of those languages will have died, and my private nightmare is that Unesco will decide it needs better information on the 5,000 to 6,000 languages remaining and spend the next 50 years assembling that information.

But I am more hopeful this time. Majority cultures now find it harder to see themselves as the universal culture. Minorities know more about each other and are learning fast that other kinds of discrimination - political, economic, environmental - go hand in hand with linguistic discrimination. While we hope the Declaration of Barcelona will be adopted by the nation-states of the world if only as a means of preventing conflict, we are not counting on it. The declaration will be translated into many languages and this in itself should give hope to people in many places.

I admit that it was easier to believe this in the solidarity of a Breton dance as the multicoloured line of faces wound through the gardens of the University of Barcelona than it was when the Sunday papers at Heathrow enveloped me again in the meanness of British politics. Perhaps it depends what calendar you work by. In the closing session, the man from the Academy of Mayan Languages told us he had looked at the Mayan calendar and found the day for the launching of the declaration most propitious. May his calendar be right.

Ned Thomas is president of PEN Cymru/Wales. and director of the Mercator Media Project at University of Wales Aberystwyth, a project concerned with minority languages in the European Union.

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