International Mother Language Day 2019

On the 21st of February each year, we observe the International Mother Language Day, a day dedicated to promoting linguistic and cultural diversity as well as multilingualism. As such, today seems like a good opportunity to share some facts and figures about the distribution of languages globally and in Greece, and also share some thoughts about the forces that threaten linguistic diversity.

Multilingual welcome sign (Guernésiais on top) at Guernsey tourist information
Multilingual welcome sign (Guernésiais on top) at Guernsey tourist information
Credit: Man vyi (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Languages in the world today

It is not easy to tell how many languages there are in the world today. This is not only because there are places in the world that are hard to reach, and languages that are hard to document; it is also because it’s often complicated to decide whether a particular linguistic variety is a language or a dialect. The figures quoted below come from a recent (2018) chapter by Tove Skutnabb-Kangas and David Harmon [1], but they should be treated with some caution:

  • There are anywhere between 6,500 and 10,000 spoken languages in the world today. This includes a large number of sign languages.
  • Of these, 275 languages are spoken in Europe. This is about 4% of the total.
  • There are 11 countries in the world where more than 200 languages are spoken. These countries account for more than 4,700 languages.
  • Fewer than 90 languages number more than 100 million speakers.
  • The top 10 languages (in terms of number of speakers) account for more than half of the world’s population.
  • About one language in five is spoken by communities of fewer than 1,000 speakers.
  • With 838 documented languages, Papua New Guinea seems to be the most linguistically diverse country.
Bilingual grafitti wishing travellers a safe journey in Greek and Turkish (Pomak regions in Eastern Greece)
Bilingual grafitti wishing travellers a safe journey in Greek and Turkish (Pomak regions in Eastern Greece)

Languages spoken in Greece

Greece is, officially, a monolingual country where Modern Greek is the official and dominant language. Greece does, in general recongise the existence of any linguistic minorities within its borders, however it acknowledges Turkish as the language spoken by the Muslim minority in Eastern Greece.

According to a survey by Prof. Eleni Karantzola [2], other languages spoken natively in the country include:

  • a variety of Macedonian (“σλαβομακεδονικά”), which is often dismissed by some Greek linguists as an idiomatic form of Bulgarian;
  • Aromanian (“αρουμανικά ή (κουτσο)βλαχικά”), a language derived from Latin, similar to Romanian;
  • Pomak (“πομακικά”), a language spoken by a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority near the Greek-Bulgarian border; and
  • Romani.

The list by Karantzola can be supplemented with multiple languages spoken by refugees, among which Arabic is predominant but by no means unique. Anecdotally, I also know that Hebrew is spoken by members of the Isreali community, but I am not sure how widespread this usage is. English is also spoken extensively, often as an intrafamilial lingua franca in mixed-marriage couples. Finally, some Deaf in Greece use Greek Sign Language. [3]

Linguistic imperialism, repression and linguicide

When languages come into contact, they do not usually co-exist in harmony. Rather, some languages seem to be more powerful and ‘crowd out’ the less powerful ones. Following Robert Phillipson (1992) [4], this phenomenon is called Linguistic Imperialism.

Sometimes the dominance of a linguistic community is also expressed with administrative or police measures, ‘with teachers’ rods and gendarmes’ whistles‘, as I have been known to say with reference to the Greek context. Such linguistic policies [5] usually aim to invisibilise linguistic minorities (linguistic repression), or wipe out linguistic communities (linguicide). Repressive and linguicidal polices are sometimes enacted in subtle ways: For example, when the Greek government recently established an International Greek Language Day [6], the mandatory celebrations in schools and embassies invisibilised all the heritage and refugee languages spoken in Greece.

Policies of repression and linguicide are usually based on an ideology that fuses three elements: people, territory, and language. These are brought together under a familiar umbrella term, the ‘nation’. The unity of people, territory, and language that is assumed by nationalist ideology is a fiction. In fact, most nation-states contain multiple languages, sometimes spoken in monolingual enclaves, and sometimes spoken by multilingual users. Where such diversity is not visible, this is normally the result of ethnic cleansing, linguicide, or repression.

The processes and motives of linguicide, linguistic repression, and linguistic imperialism are multifaceted and diverse. However, they are equally unacceptable from a linguistic human rights perspective. That is why it is possible to be sceptical about the global dominance of English, and at the same time critical of the linguistic priviledge that Greek enjoys in Greece. There is nothing hypocritical, for example, about resisting a proposed law that seeks to counteract the incursion of English by mandating the exclusive use of Greek in storefront signs, if such a measure does not take into account the Vlach- and Pomak-speaking enclaves in the country.

Invisibilising linguistic diversity

This is not the first time I have written in this blog about the ways in which monolingual policies are used to repress linguistic diversity. At a time of increased political correctness, such policies are often subtle, but this has not always been the case. To illustrate, here’s a document I stumbled upon while doing archival research in a Greek school.

Official document, by a Greek Local Education Authority, asking headteachers to withdraw maps depicting linguistic diversity in Greece (1989)
Official document by a Greek Local Education Authority, asking headteachers to withdraw maps depicting linguistic diversity in Greece (1989).

The document, dated 5th April 1989, has been issued by a local education authority, and is addressed to all headteachers in the region. In line 4ff. of the document, one reads that a number of maps issued to schools contain “certain historical inexactitudes (e.g., regions in Greece are depicted as places where Slavic or Neo-Latin languages are spoken…)”. The document goes on, in the second paragpraph, to order the headteachers to immediately withdraw all such maps, in compliance with a classified (l. 8: “ΑΠ[όρρητο]”) document issued by the Ministry of Education [7] .

Preserving minority languages

Although the two previous sections paint a grim picture for minority languages, this need not be the case, and the shifting geopolitical conditions may actually offer opportunities for positive change. I will borrow the words of Albert Bastardas-Boada [8] to delinate this opportunity and close this post:

This extended language contact and the plurilingual needs of more and more members of human groups wwho were, up until now, non-minority (in the traditional sense of the word) are generating feelings of cultural threat and defensive reactions, previously only experienced by groups habitually minoritised… Although these feelings of linguistic insecurity and threat may be exaggerated in most cases, this effect of globalisation is a good starting point for a serious review of the foundations of the linguistic organisation of [hu]mankind as a whole. Now that this feeling of being threatened is not exclusive to politically subordinated groups, now that it encompasses those that are beginning to suffer from the (inter)dependence of economies, technology and the mass media, it should be used to increase understanding of the classical situation of minoritisation by larger, monoritising groups.

Albert Basterdas-Boada (2018). The Ecology of Language Contact.
Thank you note, written in multiple languages.
Ελπίζω να βρήκατε ενδιαφέρον το κείμενο αυτό, και θα χαρώ να διαβάσω σχόλιά σας.

Notes

  1. Skutnabb-Kangas, T. & Harmon, D. (2018). Biological Diversity and Language Diversity: Parallels and Differences. In A. F. Fill & H. Penz (Eds), The Routledge Handbook of Ecolinguistics (pp. 11-25). London: Routledge. [back]
  2. Καρατζόλα, Ε. (2016). Γλωσσικές πολιτικές στις χώρες της Μεσογείου [Language Policies in Mediterranean Countries]. Athens: Epikentro. [back]
  3. I have tried, and probably failed, to make this a comprehensive list. I would be very grateful if you could point out any omissions. [back]
  4. Phillipson, R. (1992). Linguistic Imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [back]
  5. I use the term ‘policies’ loosely here, to include official state policy, educational and administrative practices, and everyday communication practices, whether overt or covert. [back]
  6. This is to be observed internationally, every year on February 9th. You might be forgiven for failing to notice, although language enthusiasts and statesmen in Greece seem frustrated that the world has not complied with the edicts issued by the Greek Ministries of Foreign Affairs, and Education & Religous Affairs. [back]
  7. The document is also interesting because of the other “historical inexactitude” it points out. Apparently these maps used the designation “Macedonian” to refer to the inhabitants of the southern part of Yugoslavia. This is, to my knowledge, the only example of a public document that acknowledges the use of the term in Greek education, prior to the dissolution of Yugoslavia. The withdrawal of the maps, shortly before the outbreak of the naming controversy, may be of interest to historians. [back]
  8. Bastardas-Boaga, A. (2018). The Ecology of Language Contact: Minority and Majority Languages. In A. F. Fill & H. Penz (Eds), The Routledge Handbook of Ecolinguistics (pp. 26-39). London: Routledge.

About this post: This post was written on 21st February 2019, on the occassion of the International Mother Language Day observance. Do feel free to share it with anyone who might find it interesting, using the social links below.

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