LINGUIST List 6.339

Sun 05 Mar 1995

Disc: Language policy

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. , 6.258 Linguistic Human rights (Latvia's language policy)
  2. "Marc Eisinger, Language policy
  3. , Re: 6.306 Language Policy
  4. Harold Schiffman, Language Policy, linguistic minorities

Message 1: 6.258 Linguistic Human rights (Latvia's language policy)

Date: Mon, 27 Feb 1995 09:08:56 6.258 Linguistic Human rights (Latvia's language policy)
From: <>
Subject: 6.258 Linguistic Human rights (Latvia's language policy)

Date mon.27 Feb 1995
>From August Cluver (
Subject linguistic human rights violations

The debate on Latvia's language policy seems to be moving in a more
general direction but one topic remains clear: when does a government
violate the individual's language rights? Tove Skutnabb Kangas
identified some of the language rights of a government: the state has the
right to prescribe certain linguistic prerequisites for jobs in the official
sector. But the most basic one is that the state has the right (in
consultation with the population) to declare one or more national
languages as official languages. How this consultation should take place
is not at all clear.
The question that I want to pose is: does it constitute a language
violation if a government selects as only official language a
non-indigenous language spoken by less than 5 percent of the
population? In a small economy the government naturally tends to
spend as much funds as possible on spreading the new official language
so that very little funds remain for the development of the indigenous
languages (this is related to the point made by Deborah Du Bartell).
Thus, even though the indigenous languages may be declared as
"national languages" and "part of our cultural heritage that must be
cherished" they remain underdeveloped and cannot be effectively used
outside the domains of the household and friendship circles. This leads
to the perception that these languages are "incapable of expressing
technical and scientific concepts". Once this perception becomes
internalised as part of the subconscious set of language attitudes, we are
at the beginning of a possible language shift cycle.
There are various African countries that fit this model but the most recent
one is the Republic of Namibia which introduced English as only official
language. English became the language of liberation in Namibia but prior
to independence it was spoken by a very small group (less than 5% of the
total population) in fairly restricted domains, mainly in commerce and
industry. The reasons why the existing official languages were
unacceptable to the democratically elected government will take us into
a debate other than this one on language violations by a government (of
which the previous Namibian government was also guilty).

The proceedings of the Third International Conference of the
International Academy of Language Law was held in Pretoria in April
1992 and the proceedings is publishead as Prinsloo, K.P., Y. Peeters. J.
Turi and C. van Rensburg (eds) 1993 Language, law and equality.
Pretoria: University of South Africa. (price: $13,56).

August Cluver, Department of Linguistics, University of South Africa, PO
Box 392, Pretoria .
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Message 2: Language policy

Date: Mon, 27 Feb 95 15:50:45 FWLanguage policy
From: "Marc Eisinger <eisingerVNET.IBM.COM>
Subject: Language policy

I think most of the participant intermixed two different levels.

)From a linguist point of view, we are widely against any "normative"
fonction and we back people who want to speak, print, film in any
language they want.
)From a political point of view, well, it depends on our own ideology.
Is there anything wrong for a country to have an official language
in which are printed the official papers (laws, jugements, correspondance
between the "authority" and the individuals, etc.) ? Of course there is
bilingual (and more e.g. Switzerland) countries but it is expensive to
have every official document translated (the EEC have a huge budget for
that) and not all countries are willing to spend money on that (don't
you think that emerging countries have better things to do than translate
in I-don't-know-how-many languages all their papers ?).
For example, in France, since 1539 (Edit Villers-Cotteret) French is
the official language of France thus replacing - at the time - Latin.
There's still people speaking, writing, TV shows in Provencal,
Breton, Alsacien, Corse, Basque but French is still the official
language of France and one strong element of its unity (and culture ...).
About the Litvian case, there's something more : Russian is not just
a simple foreign language spoken by a large minority, it is the
language of the former oppressor and, from my point of view, it
changes a lot of thing.
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Message 3: Re: 6.306 Language Policy

Date: Wed, 01 Mar 1995 13:18:44 Re: 6.306 Language Policy
From: <>
Subject: Re: 6.306 Language Policy

James Kirchner writes/comments:
)And further: When does accommodation of minority language speakers become
unwieldy and absurd?

Not a bad question. I don't know what language policies JFK international
airport has, if any, but last August when I got off the plane, a Finnair
flight direct from Helsinki, airport personnel shouted at us passengers in
Spanish the directions to customs and passport control. No English at all.
Being fatigued with jet-lag I remember just laughing at the absurdity of
the situation. The Finns looked confused, if not startled, and of course
had no idea (unless they could speak Spanish) what was going on. Being a
good-samaritan-linguist I mentioned to the airport personnel that it was
useless to speak Spanish to a planeload of passengers from Finland! Also,
although no one from JFK probably reads our network, do you have to scream
at us passengers, whatever the language?!

Deborah Du Bartell, Ph.D.
Linguistics Program
Edinboro University of Pennsylvania
Edinboro, PA 16444 USA
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Message 4: Language Policy, linguistic minorities

Date: Wed, 1 Mar 1995 11:15:49 -Language Policy, linguistic minorities
From: Harold Schiffman <>
Subject: Language Policy, linguistic minorities

The recent discussion raises a number of issues about "egalitarianism" in
language policy. I think we have enough examples now to declare that
egalitarianism in language policy does not result necessarily in equal
outcomes. Examples: (1) Finland's lg. policy is pretty egalitarian, as
described in the literature, anyway, but it does not result in Swedish
holding its own; Swedish is losing speakers rapidly, and its speakership
is aging rapidly (young speakers switchng to Finnish?). Swedish has some
historic territories (Jakobstad, other coastal areas, islands) associated
with it, but this may not be enough.

(2) French in Canada, esp. in Quebec, is also threatened by an ocean of
English speakers, both in Canada and in the US. Attempts to control
domains for FRench only result in outcry from anglophone Canadians, but
if Quebec were to allow equality of language, (i.e. egalitarianism) the
result would be to the advantage of English. Quebecois see territorial
guarantees as more important for survival of French than egalitarianism,
because they know that egalitarianism alone won't work.

 (3) In Singapore, an egalitarian policy in language is leading to
attrition for the Tamil minority, which weighs in at perhaps 4% (7% of the
population is of Indian descent, but only 60% of them are Tamil speakers).
Tamil is taught in schools and appears in public signage etc. but many
Tamil speakers are losing their language and becoming English speakers. A
housing policy that requires strict percentages of the population in each
housing estate (77% Chinese, 14% Malay, 7% Indian) results in Indians
(thusTamils) dispersed in housing, with no concentration of speakers
anywhere. I.e. no territory belongs to Tamil.

(4) Switzerland seems to maintain a balance at least for GErman and
French, but Italian and Romansch are definitely disadvantaged, and
Romansch is losing speakers. This with strict territoriality.

It may be the case that a combination of factors, such as egalitarianism
and territorial rights, may help to maintain a language, but if this isn't
combined with a critical mass of speakers (who knows what this is, but 7%
probably doesn't qualify) and maybe some other factors, egalitarian
POLICIES alone will not do much. I realize it's fashionable to attack
rights issues through the courts, and get "equal" rights enshrined in laws
and constitutions etc. But rights alone won't do the trick (though it's
being attempted both for minority lgs. in the US and for English, e.g
English-only laws). Both approaches, I think, are doomed to failure, if
we ignore demographics and other issues.

Hal Schiffman
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