Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Minority languages

All two or three of you reading may be saying by now, "enough with the languages, you dolt!" But, as a self-confessed linguiphile, I carry on.

Foolishly—or naïvely—I had learned that the Romance languages were Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French and Romanian, and I believed that was the whole story. "Minority languages" in Europe would have meant oddball exceptions like Basque, or the Urdu that Pakistani immigrants spoke, or something like that. I never would have guessed that minority languages could include twice as many more extant Romance languages than the list of ones I did know.

My ignorance there isn't really surprising, though—I was surprised and saddened to learn that many speakers of Asturian, for example, weren't even aware of their own language and only assumed that they spoke some really bad hillbilly Spanish. It's only in the last couple of decades or so that awareness of and promotion of these minority languages has been important to the European community.

I have mixed feelings about efforts to preserve languages—if you think about it, you're not really doing the native language speakers of some really obscure language, such as Aragonese with it's highly optimistic number of 30,000 speakers any favors by trying to make them keep it up instead of learning Spanish and entering the broader, cosmopolitan world around them. However, as a self-confessed linguiphile, I also believe that languages are fascinating cultural artifacts worth preserving for their own sake. Ideally, I'd like to see numbers grow for languages, and diversity foster, but in today's increasingly cosmopolitan world-culture I recognize that that's unlikely. Languages grow because they're already big, successful and cosmopolitan, so you can expect to see languages like English, Spanish, Mandarin, etc. grow, at the expense of minority languages. Sadly.

Because of amateur research of late has been into Romance languages, it's there that I'm seeing this most clearly. Have you ever heard of Galician or Asturian, or even if you have, did you recognize that they were completely different languages from Spanish and Portuguese, although closely related to both? Did you realize that a huge chunk of France speaks Occitan as its native language rather than French, or that Occitan and Catalan make up a separate branch of Romance languages? Did you realize that Sardinian was a separate Romance language on it's own little branch, or that Sicilian, Venetian, Piedmontese, Lombard and a number of other languages in northern Italy and southern Switzerland actually aren't Italian, but are instead separate languages? To name just a few!

I did not. And I find the whole thing fascinating. The Romance languages have gone just recently from a fairly pedestrian and utilitarian topic to me (not unusual given the growing prevalence of Spanish in the United States) to one full of mystery, surprise and excitement.

I'm lovin' it. And not in a MadDonald's way.

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