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EU: Minority Languages Give Glimpses Of Other Worlds

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Housed in an office block in Brussels is an organization called the European Bureau of Lesser-Used languages, or EBLUL. EBLUL works on behalf of those in the European Union who speak minority languages, promoting favorable policy-making from European Union authorities. With the EU poised to expand eastward, scores of minority native languages from Central and Eastern Europe are eligible to join EBLUL -- a move that could help strengthen their position against the ever-present threat of extinction.

Prague, 29 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Amid the mainstream languages of modern Europe, the continent's many minority languages sound a subtle chord hinting at lost worlds. There are scores of these native languages, still clinging to life, although sometimes spoken by as few as a thousand people in total.

Often far older than today's dominant group of languages, like rare plants they may inhabit just a few mountain valleys. One such tongue is Ladin, which lingers on in the Dolomites of northern Italy and the Alps of eastern Switzerland.

Or it may be Sorbian, found in the flatlands of southeastern Germany, which is spoken by the world's smallest Slavic nation, the Sorbs, numbering some 70,000 souls.

Or it might be the Occitan language, a tongue spoken by communities in southern France, and also over the borders in Spain and Italy. In fact, the ancient languages are no respecters of borders, dating, as they often do, from before the creation of formal frontiers.

In Brussels, there is an organization dedicated to preserving these minority languages. Called the European Bureau for Lesser-Used Languages, or EBLUL, it is an independent body dedicated to promoting the cause of the minority tongues spoken by some 40 million citizens in the European Union. And, in the light of the coming eastern expansion of the EU, EBLUL is seeking to incorporate the representatives of scores more languages, from Gagauz in Moldova to Kashubyan and Tatar in Poland, to Ruthenian in Slovakia. There is also Roma, which is not bound by geographical limits, and Yiddish, which is similarly found all over Eastern Europe.

Of course, not all the languages involved are themselves rare. The criterion for EBLUL membership is that it must be spoken by a minority in a given country. For instance, there are small Italian-speaking communities in Slovenia and Croatia, and German-speaking communities in Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia. There is a Polish-speaking community in the Czech Republic.

EBLUL's office manager, Jelle Bakker, explained that if minorities in the candidate countries wish to join EBLUL, they need to set up their own national umbrella organization, which is then eligible to be an EBLUL member. Bakker said it is not necessary to have any official recognition from governments. He gave as an example the situation in EU member Greece. "Greece does not recognize any minorities except for the Turks and some others under the treaty of Lausanne. For example, Greece does not recognize at all the existence of Macedonian-speaking people called Vlachs, nor the Albanian speakers, even though there are many communities there. And [despite that], they formed at the start of this year an [EBLUL] member states' committee in which all these linguistic minorities are gathered," Bakker said.

The Greek authorities have not interfered with this process, nor would one expect an EU country to do so. But Bakker noted that conditions are also mostly favorable in the candidate states, which are trying hard to live up to EU norms in civil rights.

Bakker pointed out that his organization aims to be nonpolitical, and he said that those minority groups or movements seeking, for instance, to break away from their states will have "no allies" in EBLUL. At the same time, Bakker acknowledged that operating in Eastern Europe may be different from the West, and more difficult. "You could imagine the rise of leaders who are, to put it mildly, less sympathetic to linguistic minorities, and I imagine we could have trouble. But as long as there is freedom of association and of speech -- and [regardless of which groups] governments recognize or not -- there is room for our activities," Bakker said.

The question arises: Why go to all the effort to keep alive languages that appear to have lost the main battle in terms of size, and many of which are now struggling to survive? There is, of course, no practical answer for that. Setting up minority-language schools, bilingual road signs, and minority media costs money. But it's not a question of economic efficiency -- it is a matter of preserving cultural riches and diversity.

For instance, Bernard Blua, a writer and retired diplomat for France who now lives in San Tropez, wrote a play in Occitan. Asked why Occitan should be preserved for future generations, he used irony to turn the question around, asking, "What is the use of preserving French or Czech when [we could make do] with English?"

For Blua, who has been involved with the Occitan language for a lifetime, the beauty of its forms must live on. "It was originally the language of the troubadours, that's to say it's from the time when the [northern] 'langue d'oil' and 'langue d'oc' were formed, emerging little by little from the Vulgar Latin period. It's older than French," Blua said.

The Slavic Sorbian minority in east Germany is similarly proud of its cultural contribution to the broader community. The local government representative in Bautzen for Sorbian culture and foreign affairs, Yuriy Vushanske, quoted the great German author Goethe: "It is always an enrichment, with each new language one learns, so Goethe said, it is an enrichment, almost like having a second life."

Vushanske went on to say that the cultural life of the Sorb minority is so strong that it has influenced the surrounding Germans. "Speaking of culture, one can say that our customs, our traditional customs, whether the 'wedding of the birds' or the harvest festival or the Easter celebration, are marked not only by the Sorbs but by the Germans, because the Germans' traditions generally aren't as rich as ours," Vushanske said.

As to the ability of the Sorbs to survive and thrive in an increasingly standardized and internationalized world, Vushanske recalled an anecdote from the life of the Protestant religious reformer Martin Luther. Luther's secretary is said to have suggested translating the Bible into Sorbian. Luther is said to have replied that would be pointless, because in a hundred years Sorbian would not exist. He said that more than four centuries ago.