Languages of Europe
The European Union has more than 60 indigenous regional or minority language communities. As many as 40 million people regularly speak regional or minority languages.
Many EU Member States use the definition of regional or minority languages contained in the “European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages” an international treaty supervised by the Council of Europe. This defines regional or minority languages as “those traditionally used by part of the population in a state, but which are not official state language dialects, migrant languages or artificially created languages”.
Many languages fall into this bracket. The most widely spoken is Catalan, with 7 million speakers in Spain, France and the town of Alghero in Sardinia. Most speakers live in Spanish communities where Catalan is spoken by the majority and has official status alongside Spanish.
The definition also covers languages whose status is more precarious, or languages that are majority languages in one country but are used by minorities in another:
- Saami - a family of languages spoken by indigenous people in northern Finland, Sweden, Norway and the Kola peninsula of Russia; some Saami language communities have only a few hundred speakers and their languages are in danger of becoming extinct
- German speaking communities in Belgium, Denmark, France and Italy, Danish speakers in Germany, Albanian and Greek speaking communities in Italy and Croatian and Slovene speaking communities in Italy and Austria
Languages that are majority languages in one country, but minority languages in another, are generally not threatened. However, in just the same way as Breton and Gaelic experience difficulties, even these minority cultures and languages can come under pressure.
The definition also includes mobile languages spoken by racial groups living in or travelling through different parts of Europe. Languages in this category include Yiddish and Romani and Sinti languages.
Regional or minority languages may also have official status, for example Irish and Luxembourgish, which have national language status in their respective countries but share many of the characteristics of regional or minority languages.
As well as languages such as German that spill across frontiers, some minority languages, or related languages, also cross borders, often linking particular cultural communities.
Examples include the Basque and Catalan speaking communities of Spain and France, and the Celtic languages in France, Ireland and the United Kingdom. These links are important and continue to be promoted at inter-regional level, but nearly all regional and minority language communities share a range of deeper interests concerning the survival and development of their languages and cultures and the realisation of their potential within the European Union.