Helena Drysdale


Mother Tongues, travels through tribal Europe.

This map shows Europe as a collage not of states but of 'tribes'. The map was bought in the Basque Country, where people are obsessed with such things. Each coloured area indicates a different tribe, with their name in Basque and in their own name for themselves. These tribes or nations or peoples are the subject of Mother Tongues.

Click the map opposite for a large scale version of the map. It may take some time to load. (139 kb)

Mother Tongues

Occitania, the southern half of France, is inhabited by 12-13 million people, of whom an estimated 2 million are able to hold a brief conversation in their mother tongue. One of the dialects, Provencal, was a Medieval language of chivalry, courtly love, and law. Like so many of France's minority languages, it is now virtually moribund. Although the elderly often speak Occitan amongst themselves, they suffer from a sense of shame instilled at school, when speaking their language was a punishable offence. This lack of prestige inhibits its revival. Occitan receives no encouragement, financial or political, from the state.

Alsace lies on the French side of the Franco-German border, but during its history has frequently been on the German side. Alsatian is a German language spoken by around 75% of Alsatians, mostly in rural areas. Historically, Alsatian towns were the first to adopt German as an official language during the Lutheran reforms, and the first Bible in German was published in Strasbourg, capital of Alsace, in 1466. Alsatian is not officially recognised in France, and is referred to in Ministerial documents as an 'Alsatian dialect whose written form in German.' The 1951 Deixonne Act permitted teaching of most minority languages in France, but Alsatian was excluded, and not given official status in primary schools until 1982. One problem is that it is the language of a country long seen as the enemy, and this still impacts on its status. French now dominates in education, politics and the media.

Of the 6000 Åland Islands, which link Sweden and Finland across the Gulf of Bothnia in the Baltic, only a handful are inhabited. Most of the 25,000 inhabitants live in the capital, Mariehamn. Ålanders are Finnish, but Swedish-speaking. Finland is officially bilingual with Finnish and Swedish - and in the far north trilingual with Sami too - but the Ålands are monolingually Swedish. Swedish is used in schools, law, administration, the church and the media. The Ålands even have a law of domicile which allows people to buy property there only if they are Finnish citizens who have lived at least five years on the islands, and can demonstrate their command of Swedish.

Samiland covers 400,000 square kilometres across the northernmost tips of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula of Russia. The Sami, traditionally nomadic reindeer herders, number 70-101,000 people, approximately 0.5% of the total national populations. There are numerous different Sami dialects, but 70% of Sami speak North Sami. Despite being condemned during the eighteenth century as 'the Devil's tongue', then during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries deliberately assimilated by the majority languages, Sami has now been formally legitimised as a language of instruction in schools. However, there is little political and financial support, and with the decline of nomadism it is difficult to see how it can be sustained.

Frisian is like Ladin, Basque, Catalan and Sami in that its speakers are spread across state frontiers, but there is very little communication between the different communities. North Frisian (Friisk) is spoken by 10,000 people on the North Sea coast of Schleswig-Holstein in Germany; East Frisian is spoken by a dwindling 2000 in the Saterland of north west Saxony; West Frisian (Frysk) is spoke by a healthy 400,000 people in the northern Netherlands. Emigration of Frisians, mostly across the Atlantic, and immigration of Germans and 'Hoolanders' have lowered the status of the language. While national governments have a policy of repressive tolerance towards Frisian, the provincial Government of Friesland in the Netherlands does actively promote the language and culture.

Basque is spoken by around 650,000 people, of whom 80,000 live on the French side of the border, and the rest on the Spanish side. Basque is a unique language, unrelated to any other, either living or dead. Following repression under Franco, Basque is now co-official with Spanish within the Basque Autonomous Region in Spain. Basque can be used in government documents and publications. By contrast - and predictably - Basque does not enjoy such rights in the French Basque Country. Only since 1993 have French Basques been permitted to give their children Basque names.

Flemish is a dialect of Dutch spoken across the norther half of Belgium. Traditionally Flanders was a land of workers, while the educated elite spoke French. Now the roles have reversed as Flanders is experiencing an economic revival, while Frencophone Wallonia has succumbed to post-industrial recession and unemployment. Walloon, a Romance language traditionally spoken in Wallonia, is rapidly dwindling. There is also a substantial German minority in Belgium. Since the 1960s Belgium has seen a process of 'cultural federalism', with each language region increasingly independent of the other, with the mother tongue the main language of instruction, government and media in each region.

Catalan has seen a dramatic renaissance in recent years. Following Franco's repression, Catalan has bounced back to such an extent that of the 6 million inhabitants of Spanish Catalonia, 94% understand Catalan, and 40% can write it. Most Catalan-speakers use the language daily, and are served by numerous Catalan newspapers, periodicals, radio and TV. This is not the case in French Catalonia, where French dominates.

Corsica, part of France for two hundred years, has seen a dramatic decline in the use of its native tongue. A Romance language, Corse is closer to Italian than French. In 1951 the Deixonne Law legalised the teaching of France's four minority languages - Basque, Breton, Catalan and Occitan - but this was not extended to Corsican until 1974. Today there are 11 bilingual primary schools, and since 1987 teachers have been encouraged to teach Corse for one to three hours a week. Nevertheless, by the mid-1990s only half the population could hold a conversation in Corse, a loss of 30% since 1977. Only 10% now consider it their first language.

Sardinian, a Romance language close to Italian, is virtually unrecognised not just in Italy but in Sardinia itself. With no official support, Sardinain plays a dwindling role at every level of society. Despite being the largest linguistic minority in Italy with 1.3 million speakers, there is no Sardinian media. One problem is that traditionally Sardinian (or Sard) is associated with backward, rural life, while italian is the more socially prestigious language. There is no scholling in Sard, and though it is officially protected by the state, the precise nature of that protection has never been defined.

Macedonia is a hugely complex region in the Balkans, traversing northern Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. It once also included most of Bulgaria, with a mixed population of Slavs, Greeks, Turks, Jews, Albanians, Vlachs, Poles and Gypsies. Despite huge exchanges of populations during the first half of the twentieth century, and early forms of ethnic cleansing, we still find Slav-speakers on the Greek side of the border, and Greek-speakers on the Macedonia side. The Slavo-Macedonians in Greece claim they are discriminated against. Legally the Slavo-Macedonian language (very similar to Bulgarian) is not recognised, and there is no media , although people in and around Florina in norther Greece can pick up broadcasts from Skopje. There is no Slavo-macedonian education in greece, since throughout the 20th century there was seen to be a need to Hellenise an otherwise culturally disparate region, and thus create a coherent Greek state. There have been Slavo-Macedonian demands for the return of political refugees who went to Yugoslavia or the USSR after the Greek Civil War, and for rights to preserve their language and culture, but to little effect.

After the First World War the South Tyrol was ceded to Italy. Overnight a region that had been Austrian became Italian. Mussolini pursued a policy of deliberate Italianisation, leading eventually to discontent and terrorism. Today jobs, state housing and schooling in the mother tongue are apportioned to Italian and German-speakers according to a quota system, which has helped to allay fears of discrimination.

30,000 Ladin people live in the Italian Dolomites. Their Romance language, a mix of Latin, Rhaetian, Celtic and Germanic, struggles to survive. One problem is that the narrow valleys where it is spoken are cut off from each other by vast mountain ranges. Although state support is limited, Ladin is recognised in the South Tyrol as one of three official languages, alongside Italian and German. Ladin is also one of the official languages of Switzerland, where it is known as Rhaeto-Romansch, and is psoken in Friuli in Italy where it is called Eastern Ladin or Furlan. The Autonomous Statute for Bolzano and Trentino (1972) gives Ladin certain status in Bolzano Province, including proportional representation in the provincial government, but like the Frisians, they suffer from being dispersed over a wide area, and have virtually no media in their mother tongue.

The west coast of Brittany is one of the last hide-outs of Breton. A Celtic language similar to Welsh and Cornish, it is spoken in the most Breton parts of Cornouaille by around one in five of the population. Some Breton-medium nursery schools are opening, and folk festivals have helped to revive traditional Breton music, but like all French minority languages, its future is not bright. During the 20th century Bretons felt increasingly ashamed of the peasant associations of their language, and the upwardly mobile strove to speak French. Breton's reputation was also tarnished during World War II by association with Nazi occupiers. However, this is now being shaken off and young urban activists have adopted Breton as a cause. A few Breton-language nursery schools have opened, and the frist Breton language teacher qualified in 1992.

Wales has around 500,000 Welsh speakers, around 18.6% of the population. Despite being dominated by English, Welsh media has flourished in the last decade, thus increasing the language's prestige, which in turn has encouraged younger speakers. Welsh, a Celtic language, is one of Europe's oldest literary languages, but conquest by the English in 1282 made it a stateless language. Today, Welsh is taught at all educational levels to varying degrees, and over 500 Welsh language books are published annually. Generally it is quite dynamic, with a growing band of enthusiastic supporters.

Gaelic in Scotland Scotland is home to c. 65,000 Gaelic speakers, of whom 40% live in the Western Isles and Skye and Lochalsh. Gaelic came to Scotland in c. 500AD from Northern Ireland an soon dominated all of present-day Scotland and northern England, but it theng retreated until the break-up of the clans, and the outlawing of highland dress and music after the Jacobite defeat at Culloden in 1745, and the final blow of the 19th century highland clearances. Economic pressures have traditionally seen the migration of Gaelic speakers to urban lowland Scotland, which continues today, although there have been valiant efforts to keep the language alive. By 1994 there were 42 primary schools offering Gaelic-medium education. Its current legal position is indeterminate, but much support has been provided both by the Scottish government, and the EU.

© Helena Drysdale 2006
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