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Supporters of minor languages fight for their survival in integrated Europe


CARDIFF, Wales -- Travelers know they are in Wales when the sign they see on the British rail station here reads, "Caerdynn Canolog," the Welsh term for "Cardiff Central." It is one indication that in an increasingly integrated Europe, millions of people cling to local, minor languages.

Some of these small languages may be dying, but the insistent use of Welsh reflects a growing trend in parts of Western Europe to keep regional languages alive. In major nations such as Britain, France and Spain, local language usage has increasingly become a political issue.

Why this interest in minor languages at a time when easy travel and mass communication seem to be blurring cultural lines?

Besides citing the usual reasons of pride and tradition, supporters of minor languages say that the breakup of the Soviet Union and upheavals in Eastern Europe show the value of local tongues within a majority national language. Suppressing minority culture weakens the nation, they suggest.

"Conflicts are breaking out in Eastern Europe because minorities were suppressed in countries where only the national language and culture were permitted," said Donnal O'Riagain, secretary-general of the European Bureau for Lesser Used Languages. "Europe must respect regional languages. Diversity itself never caused conflict. It is the refusal to recognize diversity that leads to conflict."

Supporters estimate that 50 million people in Western Europe speak minority languages. Some tongues are alive and well. Welsh is in daily use in Wales, where all public information signs are in both Welsh and English, and Welsh backers intend to press for bilingual schools. Breton is a serious second language in northwestern France, and Catalan, Basque and Galician are alive in Spain, where Catalan will be an official language of this year's Summer Olympics in Barcelona.

But elsewhere the picture for minority languages is not so bright. In Scotland and Italy, for instance, they are fading. And even such prominent languages as Dutch and Danish could eventually be threatened.

The European Community has a long-standing policy of favoring minority linguistic and ethnic bodies. This year, the EC has budgeted about $3 million, the highest amount ever, for organizations protecting minority languages.

One of these, the Bureau for Lesser Used Languages, opened its office in Dublin, Ireland, in 1984 to provide a permanent bridge between various language associations and the EC. Another such protective group is the International Association for the Defense of Menaced Languages and Cultures, headquartered in Liege, Belgium.

Belgium is a multilingual nation -- French, Flemish, German -- and southeastern Belgium is home to a minority language, Walloon, that its advocates say is not a derivative of French but a distinct Romance tongue with traces of Old English, ancient German, Celtic and Norman. Its prospects are uncertain.

Raymond Mouzon, an abbot who teaches Walloon to schoolchildren in Neufchateau, says young people look more favorably on the re-emergence of Walloon than do their elders.

"They were conditioned to think that French was the proper language and Walloon a gross dialect," he said. "But if nothing more is done for Walloon, it will die."

Elsewhere in Europe, minor languages face similar problems:

* Luxembourgian. Or Letzburgesch, it is the state language in Luxembourg but it is not a working language of the EC -- which maintains its parliamentary secretariat in the country's capital. It is less threatened than Walloon and other minority languages because almost all Luxembourgers use it in their daily life. But French is the administrative language, and students learn German in primary schools. They may also study English. Thus Luxembourg lawyer Jean Wagener writes his jury speeches in French, pleads his cases in German and speaks Luxembourgian to colleagues and at home.

* Frisian. The mother tongue of hundreds of thousands along the North Sea coast of the Netherlands and Germany. In the Dutch province of Friesland, it is the first language for more than half of the 600,000 inhabitants, while 75 percent can speak it and 85 percent understand it. In Germany, Frisian, an Anglo-German language with east and west Frisian versions, seems to be dying out; it is not taught in school and is not permitted in the transaction of local government business.

* Low German. Plattdeutsch, or Low German, is commonly thought of as a dialect, but those who speak it -- 2.5 million in rural north Germany -- insist that it is a separate language.

* Sorbish. A Slavic language spoken around the southeast German cities of Cottbus and Bautzen by about 68,000 Sorbs, who were protected by the former Communist regime that held them as an example of how well East Germany treated its minorities. Today there are eight high schools that teach only Sorbish. The Sorb Cultural Foundation has its own publishing house, and there are several hours a day of radio programs in Sorbish. The Bonn government has pledged $20 million for the preservation of Sorb culture. But it will be an uphill struggle: It is an insular language, and describing any technical development past the automobile usually requires a switch to German. "The colloquial language between Sorbs is more and more German now," said Rolf Hrjehor, an official at the Sorb Cultural Organization. "Only the old grandmothers speak our language now."

* Breton. An estimated 500,000 French people among the 2.8 million in Brittany, in northwestern France, understand Breton; 200,000 to 300,000 speak it fluently. "Breton is still a very much spoken language," said Joel Bochet, who works for the center of Breton information in Rennes. "People speak it in everyday life." He notes that the Breton language suffered because French authorities once forbade its use in schools. Indeed, before the French Revolution in the late 1700s, only a third of the people spoke French. But the revolutionary authorities, in a move to unify the country, insisted that French should be the national language.

* Corsican. There is renewed interest in the Corsican language on the French Mediterranean island of Corsica. As Jean-Josef Franchi of the University of Corsica put it: "Parents spoke Corsican, and their children spoke French. It was a social promotion to speak French. But more recently, there has been a return to nostalgia, a search for roots. The government used to consider Corsican an Italian dialect, a foreign language. But in 1982, they agreed to consider Corsican as a French regional language. Now Corsican is being revalued. More than half the kids entering secondary schools study Corsican as an optional subject."

* Basque. About 75,000 of the 250,000 Basques in southwestern France speak fluent Basque, and 55,000 more can use the language. There are some bilingual Basque-speaking schools outside government control.

* Occitan. The language of the Old French troubadours is sometimes called Provencal and is spoken in rural southern France. But officials say the use of Occitan is declining, particularly in urban areas. It is spread widely and thinly without any central group pushing to protect it.

In Spain, the Basque, Catalan and Galician languages flourish partly because they are strongly tied to autonomous political movements and distinctive geographical regions. They may have the brightest future of Europe's minor languages.

But experts believe other tongues are threatened, including Occitan; Ladin, spoken in a pocket of the Italian Alps; Sard in southern Sardinia; Frisian; and Highland Scots Gaelic and Lowland Scots Lallans.

Surprisingly, even such languages as Dutch and Danish, spoken in prosperous, sophisticated countries, may be threatened eventually. Dutch and Danish officials say they are worried that European integration and the growing use of English in the EC may overwhelm the relatively few native speakers of these two languages, and that Dutch and Danish may be the Sorbish and Gaelic of tomorrow.

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