Supporters of minor languages fight for their survival in integrated Europe

June 21, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

CARDIFF, Wales -- Travelers know they are in Wales when the sign they see on the British rail station here reads, "Caerdynn Canolog," the Welsh term for "Cardiff Central." It is one indication that in an increasingly integrated Europe, millions of people cling to local, minor languages.

Some of these small languages may be dying, but the insistent use of Welsh reflects a growing trend in parts of Western Europe to keep regional languages alive. In major nations such as Britain, France and Spain, local language usage has increasingly become a political issue.

Why this interest in minor languages at a time when easy travel and mass communication seem to be blurring cultural lines?

Besides citing the usual reasons of pride and tradition, supporters of minor languages say that the breakup of the Soviet Union and upheavals in Eastern Europe show the value of local tongues within a majority national language. Suppressing minority culture weakens the nation, they suggest.

"Conflicts are breaking out in Eastern Europe because minorities were suppressed in countries where only the national language and culture were permitted," said Donnal O'Riagain, secretary-general of the European Bureau for Lesser Used Languages. "Europe must respect regional languages. Diversity itself never caused conflict. It is the refusal to recognize diversity that leads to conflict."

Supporters estimate that 50 million people in Western Europe speak minority languages. Some tongues are alive and well. Welsh is in daily use in Wales, where all public information signs are in both Welsh and English, and Welsh backers intend to press for bilingual schools. Breton is a serious second language in northwestern France, and Catalan, Basque and Galician are alive in Spain, where Catalan will be an official language of this year's Summer Olympics in Barcelona.

But elsewhere the picture for minority languages is not so bright. In Scotland and Italy, for instance, they are fading. And even such prominent languages as Dutch and Danish could eventually be threatened.

The European Community has a long-standing policy of favoring minority linguistic and ethnic bodies. This year, the EC has budgeted about $3 million, the highest amount ever, for organizations protecting minority languages.

One of these, the Bureau for Lesser Used Languages, opened its office in Dublin, Ireland, in 1984 to provide a permanent bridge between various language associations and the EC. Another such protective group is the International Association for the Defense of Menaced Languages and Cultures, headquartered in Liege, Belgium.

Belgium is a multilingual nation -- French, Flemish, German -- and southeastern Belgium is home to a minority language, Walloon, that its advocates say is not a derivative of French but a distinct Romance tongue with traces of Old English, ancient German, Celtic and Norman. Its prospects are uncertain.

Raymond Mouzon, an abbot who teaches Walloon to schoolchildren in Neufchateau, says young people look more favorably on the re-emergence of Walloon than do their elders.

"They were conditioned to think that French was the proper language and Walloon a gross dialect," he said. "But if nothing more is done for Walloon, it will die."

Elsewhere in Europe, minor languages face similar problems:

* Luxembourgian. Or Letzburgesch, it is the state language in Luxembourg but it is not a working language of the EC -- which maintains its parliamentary secretariat in the country's capital. It is less threatened than Walloon and other minority languages because almost all Luxembourgers use it in their daily life. But French is the administrative language, and students learn German in primary schools. They may also study English. Thus Luxembourg lawyer Jean Wagener writes his jury speeches in French, pleads his cases in German and speaks Luxembourgian to colleagues and at home.

* Frisian. The mother tongue of hundreds of thousands along the North Sea coast of the Netherlands and Germany. In the Dutch province of Friesland, it is the first language for more than half of the 600,000 inhabitants, while 75 percent can speak it and 85 percent understand it. In Germany, Frisian, an Anglo-German language with east and west Frisian versions, seems to be dying out; it is not taught in school and is not permitted in the transaction of local government business.

* Low German. Plattdeutsch, or Low German, is commonly thought of as a dialect, but those who speak it -- 2.5 million in rural north Germany -- insist that it is a separate language.

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