The EU currently boasts 24 official languages, but the European community is also home to numerous regional languages, from Sicilian to Silesian, Gaelic to Basque. Often pushed to the sidelines, some have even been threatened with extinction. But recent efforts within local communities across Europe mean that many are thriving again. They offer a fascinating window into the history of Europe’s language families, into historical communities whose pasts are woven into the narrative of Europe, and they act as a reminder that Europe is much more nuanced than the rigid national borders we see on modern maps.
Historically, languages such as English, Spanish and French took off due to a number of factors including medieval population movements, colonialism and the vagaries of chance. They are the product of thousands of years of intermingling of different civilisations.
But every widely spoken language has less visible language siblings, which often reveal a lot about the language family evolution in general. For example, Corsican, Catalan and Galician reveal a lot about how Latin evolved into Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. Similarly, Frisian provides us with a missing link between Dutch and Old English. Welsh, Irish, Gaelic, Cornish and Breton are all reminders of the cultural link and shared history of Europe’s Celtic communities.
Nurturing smaller languages is often a matter of pride in our heritage and culture. There is a fine line to walk here, aspects of the Catalan independence movement show that such pride can quickly morph into something more complicated. We must learn to value our cultural and linguistic heritage without regarding it as superior to others. We have to be content and secure within our own cultures while also valuing others as equal and celebrating diversity.
One argument against recent revival efforts is that they are futile. Language has always changed. It took a great deal of linguistic evolution to go from humanity’s most primitive grunts to the level of linguistic diversity and complexity which we enjoy today. Why get angry that your language is adopting more and more Anglicisms, or that new generations are naturally veering away from the regional languages of their forefathers, in favour of the national language which enables them to connect more with the wider world? You are wasting effort trying to prevent language change and evolution.
But learning a second language is never a wasted effort. And it is perhaps the threatening homogeneity of globalisation that has triggered a revival of local languages in the first place. Recently we have seen local communities ignore the naysayers and make concerted efforts to save their language in places like Friesland (the Netherlands), Silesia (Poland) and Scotland. Local language speakers in these places fight to keep their languages in use within the education system, on road signs or in local media because they want to see their linguistic heritage live on.
Our regional languages are important branches of Europe’s vast language tree. Each branch, and even the tiniest of twigs, adds to its overall span and complexity. Although many have risked snapping off, we continue to see cases where real effort is made by local communities to preserve them. Even the most fragile of languages can come back fighting. Whether or not we come from one of these communities, it is important that we all see the value in preserving these unique little pockets of European culture.