A minority language is a language spoken by a minority of the population of a territory. Such people are termed linguistic minorities or language minorities. With a total number of 196 sovereign states recognized internationally (as of 2019) and an estimated number of roughly 5,000 to 7,000 languages spoken worldwide, the vast majority of languages are minority languages in every country in which they are spoken. Some minority languages are simultaneously also official languages, such as Irish in Ireland or the numerous indigenous languages of Bolivia. Likewise, some national languages are often considered minority languages, insofar as they are the national language of a stateless nation.
Law and international politics
For the purposes of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages:
- "regional or minority languages" means languages that are:
- traditionally used within a given territory of a State by nationals of that State who form a group numerically smaller than the rest of the State's population; and
- different from the official language(s) of that State.
In most European countries, the minority languages are defined by legislation or constitutional documents and afforded some form of official support. In 1992, the Council of Europe adopted the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages to protect and promote historical regional and minority languages in Europe.
Refraining from signing or ratifying the Charter is also caused by the refusal (for instance, in Estonia or Malta) to recognize such postimperial world languages as English, French or Russian as minority languages, even if they are spoken by minority populations. The symbolic, cultural and political power vested in such world languages empowers any demographically minority population to such a degree that any additional rights (for example, the status of a minority language) granted to their given world language may precipitate the rapid decline of the state (national) language in favor of the world language. That is the situation in Belarus, where after 1995 Russian empowered as an 'equal co-official language' marginalized the use of Belarusian. The Charter was employed to achieve the same effect in Ukraine after 2010 by marginalizing Ukrainian through empowered Russian, a scenario which was only prevented by the Revolution of Dignity in 2014.
In Canada the term "minority language" is used in the Constitution of Canada, in the heading above section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees educational rights to official language minority communities. In Canada, the term "minority language" is generally understood to mean whichever of the official languages is less spoken in a particular province or territory (i.e., English in Québec, French elsewhere).
Minority languages may be marginalised within nations for a number of reasons. These include having a relatively small number of speakers, a decline in the number of speakers, and popular belief that these speakers are uncultured, or primitive, or the minority language is a dialect of the dominant language. Support for minority languages is sometimes viewed as supporting separatism, for example, the ongoing revival of the Celtic languages in the British Isles and France (Irish, Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, Manx, Cornish and Breton). The dominant culture may consider use of immigrant minority languages to be a threat to unity, indicating that such communities are not integrating into the larger culture. Both of these perceived threats are based on the notion of the exclusion of the majority language speakers. Often this is added to by political systems by not providing support (such as education and policing) in these languages.
Speakers of majority languages can and do learn minority languages, through the large number of courses available. It is not known whether most students of minority languages are members of the minority community re-connecting with the community's language, or others seeking to become familiar with it.
Views differ as to whether the protection of official languages by a state representing the majority speakers violates the human rights of minority speakers. In March 2013, Rita Izsák, UN Independent Expert on minority issues, said that "protection of linguistic minority rights is a human rights obligation and an essential component of good governance, efforts to prevent tensions and conflict, and the construction of equal and politically and socially stable societies".
In Slovakia for example, the Hungarian community generally considers the 'language law' enacted in 1995 to be discriminatory and inconsistent with the European Charter for the Protection of Regional or Minority languages. The Majority Slovaks believed that minority speakers' rights are guaranteed, in accordance with the highest European standards, and are not discriminated against by the state language having preferential status. The language law declares that "the Slovak language enjoys a preferential status over other languages spoken on the territory of the Slovak Republic." As a result of a 2009 amendment, a fine of up to €5,000 may be imposed for a misdemeanor from the regulations protecting the preferential status of the state language, e.g. if the name of a shop or a business is indicated on a sign-board first in the minority language and only after it in Slovak, or if in a bilingual text, the minority language part is written with bigger fonts than its Slovak equivalent, or if the bilingual text on a monument is translated from the minority language to the dominant language and not vice versa, or if a civil servant or doctor communicates with a minority speaker citizen in a minority language in a local community where the proportion of the minority speakers is less than 20%.
Sign languages are often not recognized as true natural languages, although extensive research supports the case that they are independent languages.
Speakers of auxiliary languages have also struggled for their recognition. They are used primarily as second languages and have few native speakers.
Languages lacking recognition in some countries
These are languages that have the status of a national language and are spoken by the majority population in at least one country, but lack recognition in other countries, even where there is a significant minority linguistic community:
- Albanian – recognized minority language in many countries, including Romania, but not recognized as a minority language in Greece, where 4% of the population are ethnic Albanians.
- Bulgarian – recognized minority language in the Czech Republic (4,300 speakers), but not officially recognized as minority language in Greece.
- German: classified as an official language in Germany, Austria, Luxembourg, Belgium and Switzerland, but as a minority elsewhere in Europe. It is recognised in South Tyrol, but not in France.
- Hungarian: official in Hungary, and co-official in Serbia's Vojvodina province (293,000 speakers). It is a recognised minority language in the Czech Republic (14,000 speakers), and in Romania (1,447,544 speakers, 6.7% of the population), in those communities where the Hungarian speakers exceed 20% of the population; in Slovakia (520,000 speakers, approximately 10% of the population); in Slovenia (6,243 speakers in 2002), and in Ukraine (170,000 speakers).
- Macedonian – Macedonian is not recognized as minority language in Greece and Bulgaria.
- Polish – recognized minority language in the Czech Republic (51,000 speakers), but it is not officially recognized as a minority language in Lithuania.
- Romanian: official in Romania and co-official in Vojvodina province, Serbia, with (30,000 speakers), but it does not have official status in Serbia, where another 5300 speakers live outside this province. Note: Ethnologue estimates 250,000 Romanian speakers in Serbia. It is a minority language in northwestern Bulgaria (estimated 10,566 speakers); and in Ukraine (estimated 450,000 speakers).
- Russian: official in Russia, and co-official in Belarus and Kazakhstan. It lacks official status in Estonia and Latvia, likely for historical reasons following Russian dominance during the Soviet Union era. (More than 25% of the population in the latter two nations are Russian speakers).
- Serbian: official in Serbia, and co-official in Bosnia and Herzegovina . It has minority status in Montenegro, Kosovo, Croatia, Macedonia, Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic, and Romania. The minority status in Montenegro is controversial because the majority of the population (63.49%) declared Serbian to be their mother tongue. Serbian was an official language there until 2007, when Montenegro ratified a new constitution.
Significant languages having no majority of speakers in any country
Linguistic communities that form no majority of population in any country, but whose language has the status of an official language in at least one country:
- Tamil: 78 million speakers; official status in India, Sri Lanka, and Singapore
- Marathi: 83 million speakers; official status in India
- Berber: 45 million speakers; official status in Morocco, Algeria, and Libya
- Kurdish: 22 million speakers; official status in Iraq
- Afrikaans: 13 million first or second language speakers (16 million speakers with basic knowledge), official status in South Africa, recognized regional language in Namibia
- Catalan: 10 million speakers, official status in Andorra, regional official status in Catalonia, the Valencian Community under the name of Valencian, and the Balearic Islands, Spain. Recognized regional language in Italy, and specifically on the island of Sardinia in Alghero. It has no official status in Northern Catalonia, or France.
- Dutch Low Saxon: 4.8 million speakers, a minority language in the Netherlands, and in Germany.
- Galician: 3–4 million speakers, regional official status in Galicia, Spain.
- Limburgish: 2 million speakers, a minority language in Netherlands, Belgium and Germany.
- Welsh: 622,000 speakers, regional official status in Wales, UK; minority in Chubut, Argentina, with no legal recognition.
- Basque: 665,800 speakers, regional official status in the Basque Country and Navarre in Spain. It has no official status in the Northern Basque Country in France.
- Frisian languages: 400,000 speakers, regional official language in Netherlands, Denmark and Germany.
- Irish: 291,470 native speakers (1.66 million with some knowledge), official status in Ireland and an officially recognised minority language in the United Kingdom.
- Māori: 157,110 speakers; official status in New Zealand
- Romansh: 60,000 speakers, official status in Switzerland (Graubünden).
- Cherokee: 2,000 speakers; official status within the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, a sovereign nation
- Scottish Gaelic: 87,000 people with some ability, 57,375 of which are first and second language speakers. Official status in Scotland, UK. 300 native speakers, 2,320 overall in Canada, minority status. About 1,900-speaker minority in the United States.
- Sardinian: 1,350,000 native (first or second language) speakers, more with some knowledge, regional official status in Sardinia
- Corsican: 125,000 native (first or second language) speakers; regional co-official status in Corsica
Languages with no official status
- Alexander v. Sandoval
- Arsenault-Cameron v. Prince Edward Island
- Casimir v. Quebec (Attorney General)
- Charlebois v. Saint John (City)
- Devine v. Quebec (Attorney General)
- Doucet-Boudreau v. Nova Scotia (Minister of Education)
- Gosselin (Tutor of) v. Quebec (Attorney General)
- Katzenbach v. Morgan
- Mahe v. Alberta
- R. v. Beaulac
- Société des Acadiens v. Association of Parents
A treasure language is one of the thousands of small languages still spoken in the world today. The term was proposed by the Rama people of Nicaragua as an alternative to heritage language, indigenous language, and "ethnic language", names that are considered pejorative in the local context. The term is now also used in the context of public storytelling events.
The term "treasure language" references the desire of speakers to sustain the use of their mother tongue into the future:
[The] notion of treasure fit the idea of something that had been buried and almost lost, but was being rediscovered and now shown and shared. And the word treasure also evoked the notion of something belonging exclusively to the Rama people, who now attributed it real value and had become eager and proud of being able to show it to others.
Accordingly, the term is distinct from endangered language for which objective criteria are available, or heritage language which describes an end-state for a language where individuals are more fluent in a dominant language.
- Convention against Discrimination in Education (Article 5)
- Cross-border language
- European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages
- Global language system
- Indigenous language
- Indigenous Tweets
- Language education
- Language minority students in Japanese classrooms
- Language policy
- Language revitalization
- Linguistic demography
- Linguistic rights
- List of language self-study programs
- List of largest languages without official status
- Lists of endangered languages
- Minoritized languages
- Minority group
- Regional language
- ONU members
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