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Greece: Minority Languages, Plea For More Recognition (Part 1)

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Greece is being urged to grant more recognition to its minority languages -- Vlach, Macedonian, Albanian, Turkish, and a version of Bulgarian called Pomak. At present, only Turkish is recognized. Now the European Bureau for Lesser-Used Languages (EBLUL) has undertaken an initiative designed to highlight the plight of these neglected minorities. In this first of a two-part series on language issues in the Balkans and East Europe, RFE/RL reports on the situation in Greece.

Prague, 26 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Greece, the cradle of European culture, appears less than sympathetic to its own minority languages. Among the country's minority cultures with their tongues and dialects other than Greek, only one -- Turkish -- is fully recognized by the Athens government, and then only because the Turks are categorized as a religious minority.

The other languages, although largely ignored by Athens, reflect the rich history of the region through the millennia. For instance Vlach, or Aromanian, spoken by several tens of thousands of people, is an echo of Imperial Rome. It is found in northern Greece, along what used to be in ancient times the road linking Rome and Constantinople. The marching legions, as they disappeared into history, left behind them settlers and the language now known as Vlach, a Latin tongue similar to Romanian.

The other minority languages in Greece are Macedonian, an Albanian Tosk dialect called Arvanitika, and what's called Pomak, a version of Bulgarian used by a Muslim minority.

Johan Haeggman is an official with EBLUL, the Brussels-based European Bureau for Lesser-Used Languages, a nongovernment organization working on behalf of the European Union's minority-language speakers. He explained the difficulties faced by those in Greece who use unrecognized languages like Vlach. "They have no rights whatsoever. They have no education in their language, no schools, no media in their language, they can't use it in administration."

According to EBLUL, the Greek authorities are apparently unaware of the number of citizens who speak minority languages. The last census in which minority-language speakers were counted separately was in 1951.

Looking to focus attention on the plight of these neglected languages, EBLUL recently held its first conference in Greece. The gathering, held in the northern city of Thessaloniki, was organized by EBLUL's recently formed Greek chapter. A score of journalists were among those attending, and it's hoped they will help inform the Greek public about a subject rarely dealt with in the national media. "We hope, of course, that this will give a more positive picture of minority languages and lesser-used languages, and that they will not be seen a threat. Our message is that lesser-used languages are a richness; and we are not going against any language. We think that these languages should be taught alongside Greek," Haeggman said.

EBLUL President Bojan Brezigar said that, "putting it politely," Greece has not reached the level of its European Union partners in recognizing linguistic diversity. He said that the situation regarding the Macedonian minority, for instance, is "terrible." "The situation we found was worse than we were expecting, because specifically in some areas where the Macedonian language is spoken, that language is not allowed at all in public. I'm not talking about only the official use of the language in public -- also the public use of the language by private individuals."

Brezigar said in one area he visited, even the singing of Macedonian songs is prohibited -- a severe restriction he calls a kind of "linguistic genocide." He said he understands that for historical reasons linked to chronic instability in the Balkans, Greece has not been willing to see the fragmentation of its national fabric. But now, he said, it is time to move forward. "We [at EBLUL] would like to start [talks] with the Greek government, to start a discussion on specific topics. For example, we would like the Greek government to sign the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages."

In Athens, Greek Foreign Ministry spokesman Nicholas Giotopoulos declined to acknowledge the existence of minorities in the country, with the sole exception of the Turks. "We understand that there are certain people who see the existence of other minorities in Greece. But the reality is that there are, in certain parts of the country, bilingual Greeks, who may also have adopted an oral tradition, but [who] do not consider themselves to be minorities."

He said he cannot comment on EBLUL's desire for talks with Greek officials on the minority-language issue. In view of Athens' unyielding stance on the issue, it would seem that EBLUL is going to have an uphill struggle.

(Part 2 on minority languages will focus on efforts to help the 20 million minority-language speakers in Central and Eastern Europe. It will be issued on 27 November 2002.)