Europe’s speckled carpet

This is a near-translation of an earlier blog post in Irish.


Tartu University

Recently, I attended the International Conference on Minority Languages in Tartu, Estonia. This conference is held every two years but this year was my first time there. It was an occasion for people who care about minority languages to come together and network.

Broadly speaking, a language is a minority language when it is not the main language of communication in its country. There are lots of such languages, for example Catalan, Welsh, Breton and many others most people have never heard of. Many of them are languages that are strong in a neighbouring country, such as the German-speaking minority in Italy or the Swedish-speaking minority in Finland. Others are on their own completely, such as Basque or Irish.

As it happens, it was an Irish person who presented the most interesting paper. Conchúr Ó Giollagáin from the University of Ireland, Galway gave a talk based on a linguistic survey of the use of Irish in the Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking territories) in Ireland. His point was that young people are failing to acquire the Irish language fully because they do not speak it with their peers, even when it is their home language. The consequence is that they have underdeveloped skills in Irish in some areas, which pushes them towards English. Conchúr claims that there isn’t much good in the local school teaching through Irish if the students talk to each other in English outside school. His analysis was logical, cold-blooded and scary at the same time.

Sorbian road sign

Sorbian road sign

Because I’m originally from the Czech Republic, I was curious if there would be any Czechs at the conference. I didn’t expect many because I know that minority languages are not a well-known issue in the country, but I did meet one Czech, Leoš Šatava who works at the Ethnology Institute in Charles University in Prague. Mr Šatava deals mainly with Sorbian, a Slavic language spoken in eastern Germany. This is a language which only has about 50,000 speakers. I’ve always had an interest in Sorbian because one of its two dialects is similar to Czech (the other is similar to Polish). I look at Sorbian as a language which was never revived successfully, in spite of attempts, and I compare it with Czech, a language which was revived successfully in the 19th century. The Czech revival happened just when nationalism was popular in Europe. If it weren’t for that, Czechs would be speaking mainly German today, just like the Sorbs speak mainly German, the Irish speak mainly English, and so on.

The conference had computers and IT as its special theme this year and there were a couple of presentations on the potential that computers presen to the promotion of minority languages. My colleague Brian Ó Raghallaigh and I did a presentation on the work we’ve done in Ireland on (the National Terminology Database) and (the Placenames Database of Ireland) and on the effect these websites have had on the Irish language. Our message was that, if you want to promote a minority language, it’s a big help to make quality reference materials such as dictionaries and terminology databases available on the Internet for free, as websites that are attractive and easy to use. We have statistics that prove such resources are in demand: handles about half a million searches each moth, and about half of that.

As far as the relationship between minority languages and computers is concerned, Wales is probably ahead of everyone else in the use of digital technology for the benefit of a minority language (Welsh in their case). At the conference, it was a privilege to meet Daniel Cunliffe, a researcher who has written a lot about bilingual websites and about bilingualism on the Internet in general. I recognized him from a picture I had seen on the Internet and I scared him when I started talking to him unexpectedly in the airport in Talinn. Poor man.

It’s a shame that there weren’t more computer-related talks at the conference but the topic was discussed a lot during the breaks. It seems that the minority language community at large is beginning to understand that computers are not a threat but a potential.

estBecause the conference was in Estonia, we had ample opportunity to learn about the linguistic situation in the Baltic countries. The biggest story is the Russian language. When Estonia, Lithuania nand Latvia were part of the Soviet Union, the authorities encouraged the relocation of Russian-speaking people there in order, presumably, to dilute local nationalistic tendencies. The Irish will no doubt recognize parallels with the plantations done by the British in Ireland a long time ago. So, when the Soviet Union imploded and when the Baltic countries regained their independence, they were left with large percentages of Russian speakers on their territories. This has been a reason for tension ever since. To simplify the situation a little, the ethnic Russians used to be a majority once but became a minority almost overnight and are finding that hard to deal with. It reminds me of what happened in Czechoslovakia between the two world wars. Czechoslovakia was made independent but there were a lot of German speakers left in it who had been a majority under the Austrian-Hungarian Empire but were turned into a minority overnight. We all know what happened as a result of that tension. It is dangerous to see the same kind of tension in the Baltic countries now.

As for Estonian itself, it is a language which is going from strength to strength now that it has its own state. If Russian was turned into a minority language overnight, the opposite happened to Estonian. This being so, it’ll be interesting to see how Estonia now deals with its own linguistic minorities, not only with Russian but also with Võro, a dialect of Estonian which is so differrent that some argue it is a separate language. People in Ireland and Scotland will recognize a similarity with the case of Scots (in Ireland known as Ulster Scots), a language about which people are constantly arguing as to whether it is a language or merely a dialect of English.

From a language geek’s point of view, Estonian is hugely interesting. It has 14 cases (ooh!) but has no gender, uses no articles, and has almost completely free word order. I am interested in free-word order languages mainly because I am a native speaker of one (Czech). The truth about free-word order languages is that they’re not really free. Word order is just a device used to convey subtle shades of meaning. It’s a topic I may return to later. Anyway, back to Estonian. It’s a member of the Finno-Ugric family, a family which is not related to any of the conventional Indo-European languages like German, English and French. It is thought that Finno-Ugric languages are descendants of languages that were once spoken in Europe before the Indo-Europeans came. The best-known members of the family are Finnish, Hungarian and Estonian but there are many others. Most Finno-Ugric languages are minority languages spoken in Scandinavia and in Russia.

One conclusion that one could take home from the conference is that there many, many more languages in Europe than one might think from looking at the continent’s political map. For every nation that has established its own sovereign state, there are many who have not been as lucky and who have remained somewhat invisible inside its borders. Others do have their own state but are nonetheless under pressure from a more successful language. While all these languages may have been invisible until recently, I get the feeling that there has been a growing interest in minority language issues over the past few years. More and more people are beginning to understand that Europe’s linguistic carpet is more speckled than might seem at first sight. And that is a good thing.


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