Part of a series of English language articles published, for foreign visitors, in the cultural supplement of El País in 2004, this article explains the situation of 'minority' languages in Europe today.

There are fifty-eight native languages spoken in Europe, and just half that number of states to speak them in. Which leaves us with an impressive amount of what the European Union calls 'regional and minority languages'. These have several traits in common: first, they tend to be seen as a threat to national unity by the state or states in which they are spoken, and have therefore been subject to relentless prohibition over many years; second, the areas in which they are spoken are usually bilingual, due to the imposition and/or adoption there of the official language of the state in question; third, given that (as Barcelonan sociolinguist Carme Junyent has pointed out) a bilingual situation will always lead to the elimination of the weaker of the two languages, they are facing almost certain extinction in either the short or the long term.

What options are open, then, for those members of stateless cultures who have not resigned themselves to the demise of their own languages? One possibility is to set up their own state, which is what the Latvians, Estonians and Lithuanians have done, all of them once linguistically marginalised on their own territory by the overwhelming (and overbearing) presence of Russian. There might, however, be a less radical option for regional-language speakers in Europe: that of convincing the authorities, at the state and European level, to concede political autonomy and consequent freedom of linguistic use in bilingual territories. This is what has in fact happened, albeit to some extent only, in the UK, Spain, Belgium, Luxembourg and several other countries, with differing degrees of success. These local initiatives, moreover, have been sanctioned by the 1992 European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages, which the Council of Europe has urged all EU members to sign. The intention is to bring the EU into line with the international community, which has long recognised the equal status of all languages, no matter how small, as well as the right of their speakers to use them freely. Most of the EU countries duly signed – Spain (26% of whose inhabitants speak a first language other than Spanish) rather reluctantly - but there were two significant exceptions: Greece, and, above all, France.

Ken Hale, a linguist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has declared that: 'Languages embody the intellectual wealth of the people who speak them. Losing any one of them is like dropping a bomb on the Louvre'. To borrow Hale's imagery, then, it could be said that France has been zealously carpet-bombing its own minority languages for years, with a disregard for human culture frankly unbecoming to a democratic country. French-born speakers of Breton, Catalan, Corsican, Basque, Occitan and other languages were humiliated and physically and mentally abused in French schools for generations, simply for using the language they spoke at home, a process which resulted in an incalculable number of psychological and cultural scars. (And still it goes on: just a month ago, for example, Georges Frêche, the socialist president of the Regional Council of Languedoc-Roussillon, publicly ridiculed the two non-French languages spoken in the area under his jurisdiction – Catalan and Occitan, each of them with a formidable literary history stretching back a thousand years – as 'patois').

However, large numbers of Europeans are refusing to let go of their regional mother tongues, no matter how often the powers that be – French and otherwise - bad-mouth them. The official influx of several small ex-regional languages (Slovenian, Slovakian, the above-mentioned Baltic vernaculars etc.) into the UE will give everyone food for thought. If most European states balk at the idea of ceding independence to the speakers of minority languages, they will surely have to face up to the fact that they are going to have to cede something to them, that they will at least have to openly celebrate and encourage rather than ignore or vilify the linguistic diversity of Europe. To do otherwise would be tantamount, many believe, to telling the stateless cultures within the UE that there is no middle path between statehood and oblivion.

- Textos i contingut: Matthew Tree - Disseny i programació: Nac -