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Review of  Minority Languages and Cultural Diversity in Europe

Reviewer: Eleni Sideri
Book Title: Minority Languages and Cultural Diversity in Europe
Book Author: Konstanze Glaser
Publisher: Multilingual Matters
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 19.597

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AUTHOR: Glaser, Konstanze
TITLE: Minority Languages and Cultural Diversity in Europe
SUBTITLE: Gaelic and Sorbian Perspectives
SERIES: Linguistic Diversity and Minority Rights
PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters LTD
YEAR: 2007

Eleni Sideri, Faculty of Communication, New York University-Skopje

Glaser's book is intended to shed light on the ways languages play a central
role even today in the midst of contradictory global socio-political forces and
national memories. She focuses on two minority languages, Gaelic and Sorbian,
and tries to examine how they are, on the one hand, found in the epicenter of
various ethno-cultural arguments that take culture, national consciousness and
language as part of the historical heritage. On the other hand, the two
languages also take part in arguments that see linguistic plurality as part of
the resistance against the forces of homogenization, which are often attached to
global economic and political interests. Glaser's rich comparison of the two
languages positions them within these various and often contradictory arguments
by alluding to each one's history and reality, highlighting how these arguments
contribute to the formation of the language's past and present. The book is
divided into eight chapters and a conclusion, followed by six informative
appendixes, and it is addressed both to academics and to readers interested in
issues of minority politics.

The Introduction presents the aims of the book, discussing how the debate
concerning minority language rights takes place at the same time with a growing
trend of assimilation and hybridization. The formation of supranational
organizations in the last decades, like the European Union, has turned the
attention to regions rather than states and to peoples rather than nations. In
this framework, the centrality of language remains at the core of minority
politics and the identity crisis of the post-modern subject. However, it can
neither be expressed nor imagined in the old nationalist framework of the
European ethno-genesis. In this context, both Gaelic and Sorbian have been
repositioned since the 1990s, with the political support of the Scottish
parliament for the former and the endorsement by the local constitutions of
Saxony and Bradenburg after the fall of the wall for the latter. As the author
argues, her purposes are the overview and evaluation of both languages'
revitalization efforts and the agenda that various sides propose in order to
achieve this aim.

These purposes are pursued through the collection of approximately 100
semi-structured interviews, almost equally divided between the two languages,
which apart from the personal profile of the each interviewee, ask for the
speakers' assumptions about the Gaelic and Sorbian status, the connection of
each language to group membership, and the idea of ethnicity. The target group
for the interviews is the ''elites'', with the term given a wide meaning as those
who take part in the decision making in the communities and provide role models
(teachers, political activists, artists, parents, etc.).

In Chapter 2, Glaser discusses in an interdisciplinary way (history, social
anthropology, theories of nationalism, linguistics) various approaches to the
idea of ethnicity and nationalism. She examines the two dominant models: the
essentialist and the constructivist, not by taking sides, but by pointing out
how the arguments of both models could be made relevant, or not, to the
arguments concerning language in the context of globalization, where old
ethno-cultural ideas are turning insufficient for the modern needs and new
emerging identities are still ambiguous.

Chapter 3 attempts an interdisciplinary approach (linguistics, medicine,
psychology) to the question regarding the connection between language, culture
and thought. The chapter begins with a historical overview of the approaches
that treated this issue since the European Enlightenment, giving emphasis to the
German contribution (the philosophical ideas originating with the work of Herder
and Humboldt). She then turns her attention to linguistic theories, especially
to that of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, offering a clear critique regarding the
underlying determinism of the theory and its inconclusive evidence. Contrasting
to the linguistics of Sapir and Whorf, Piaget's psychology stresses the fact
that language is only a part, although a privileged one, of cognition.
Furthermore, the study of bilinguality and how it is connected to human
intelligence has provoked many interesting debates, however it has not yet
provided a definite answer. The chapter closes with an examination of current
assumptions about language diversity and assimilation. Glaser highlights to what
degree the old ethno-cultural ideas regarding close ties between language and
cultures still take part in the minority rights discourses that develop in a
national or supranational field (EU). At the same time, as Glaser underlines,
today it has been noted that large mono-lingual communities can produce higher
cultural diversity than their multi-lingual counterparts. In this framework,
linguistic relativism should not be viewed anymore as a sine qua non of
clearly-defined linguistic communities, but more as a human condition that may
or may not lead to a conceptualization of a bounded community.

The two following chapters (4 and 5) give a thorough and comprehensive
examination of the history of Gaelic and Sorbian languages through a variety of
discourses, which have been developed in different historical periods. The
chapters shed light on different socio-political and economic factors and
institutions (the Church, education, economic classes, intellectual movements
and state policies) that took part in the articulation of these discourses and
their popularization. The overview clearly sketches how Gaelic and Sorbian have
become, to different degrees and supported by different agents, markers of
ethnic identity, despite the different social and linguistic pragmatics of each

Chapter 6 turns its attention to the present debates concerning the two
languages and shows how Gaelic and Sorbian speakers understand the role their
languages play in the construction of Gaelic and Sorbian selves despite today's
bilingualism and growing assimilation. Both languages are perceived by their
speakers as a window to each community's history and cultural heritage. Toponyms
and patronyms are expressions of the community's mental geography and genealogy
underlining the communal feeling of belonging. In this way, language becomes an
indispensable part of the construction of selfhood, especially for the native
speakers. Hence, losing language would result in a further distancing, if not
loss, of a crucial part of their selves. However, monolingualism in both
communities is very limited and their majority is bilingual. This fact indicates
that Gaelic and Sorbian might, today, be part of a wider and much richer
spectrum of experiences, aspirations and identity-options.

Chapter 7 treats the issue of the continuity of an ethno-cultural community
through language continuity. The chapter examines how this continuity is
possible today in a period of intensive hybridization which causes many concerns
regarding the issue of authenticity. The chapter studies how the introduction of
media and new forms of entertainment and sociality has replaced, to a great
extent, older forms of communal interaction and life. In this way, modernity
puts pressure on languages and forces the people involved in the process of
language revitalization to be inventive in order to promote their position. The
latter stresses the preservation of the communal values, and in this way, of the
community itself through the preservation of communal language, despite the
homogenizing forces of globalization. As the chapter underlines, though, this
argument tends to promote an ethno-cultural essentialist agenda supported by the
elite, which is represented as the treasurer of these communal traditions and
values - usually corresponding to ideas regarding a High Culture. In contrast,
there is a new emerging trend that argues that an agenda more open to all
regarding language learning and adoption should be applied.

Chapter 8 discusses language as a medium to group membership in the presence of
increasing numbers of bilingual speakers and a new population in the traditional
lands of the Gaels and Sorbians, who neither speak the language as native
speakers nor do they ally to the communities' pasts. What could the new criteria
for the inclusion or exclusion in the Gaelic and Sorbian communities be? What is
the role of languages within the context of the local and global changes
discussed? As Glaser underlines, the answer to this question might be connected
to the degree that these two languages can meet modern communication needs. But
as her research highlights, the various degrees of linguistic and communicative
competence in Gaelic and Sorbian create different degrees of membership; in
other words, different inclusions and exclusions into ''Sorbianess'' and
''Gaelicness''. In this complex context, though, these two categories of
identification can provoke different memories and aspirations; they can also
mean different things to different speakers. Generations, regions or
socio-economic conditions mediate in a variety of ways in the understanding of
these identities. In this sense, although the connection between language and
ethnicity is still strong, identities, like the two in question, are far more
open to interpretation.

Chapter 9 reviews the two dominant paradigms, essentialist and situational that
approach languages and cultures through different perceptions, aspirations and
agendas, which were discussed in the book. The findings of the research are
summarized within these two theoretical frameworks highlighting how both
contribute to various degrees to different agendas and arguments regarding the
revitalization of the Gaelic and Sorbian languages. The chapter concludes that
the ways through which the Sorbian or Gaelic have been known or used today lead
to the creation of new alternative spaces, which try to correspond to diverse
socio-political and cultural positions and challenges without forgetting the
pasts attached to these languages. At the same time, these spaces create a
horizon within which minority languages are imagined as necessary or not in the
modern world.

The text closes with an extensive bibliography based on printed and electronic
materials, legal texts, radio and film productions, as well as public debates
and exhibitions. There are four appendixes that include maps, which would have
been more helpful, if they were in color, and two appendixes that present the
questionnaires used in the research. The book ends with a helpful index of
authors and subjects.

The book is an excellent analysis of various issues concerning language
diversity and minority rights. It is open to an interdisciplinary examination of
these questions, which is based on a comparative research of the two least known
European languages. One of the best qualities of the book is the comparison of
the two languages, which through their differences and similarities make the
reader realize how wider theories concerning today's issues of globalization and
modernization are contextualized in local anxieties and creativity. Another
quality of the book is that the analysis is based not only on the thorough
bibliographical research mentioned above, but also on the views of the speakers
themselves. How do they perceive the role of their languages; how do they
conceptualize their future; which problems do they underline as the most
worrying; what do they suggest as solutions? We might read the opinion of an
elite in terms of decision making and opinion shaping; however, as the reader
soon realizes, this elite covers many different groups of speakers from
political activists to parents and school teachers. In this way, the book
overcomes the drawback of narrowness that many analyses based on elites present.

Another important issue is the fact that Glaser discusses the theoretical issues
involved, from below. Her emphasis is on the assumptions, evaluations and
critical opinions of the speakers. In this way, her analysis does not result in
a sterile discussion of models, but depicts the living contradictions that
tantalize the debates concerning minority/majority languages and gives the
impression that everything is in formation, a feeling that makes us realize the
reasons why the future of these languages, and the minority languages in Europe
in general, concerns us all, despite the dangers and increasing assimilation.
Furthermore, by focusing not on the heartlands of these languages, as other
research has, she manages to deconstruct the center/periphery division
transforming these ''marginal'' voices into an important expression of the
anxieties that many European citizens share regarding the future of Europe and
the challenges of diversity and unity. Finally, she highlights the fact that
globalization should not be seen as a uniform terrain of policies, agendas and
ideas. On the contrary, it is a field full of contradictions and challenges that
might be constructed through old debates, but at the same time, it
revolutionizes them, giving them a new horizon of strife and imagination.

A point that a new edition should take into account is the presentation of the
statistics based on the questionnaires. They are discussed throughout the
chapters, comparing the emerging trends between the Gaelic and Sorbian speakers.
However, I think that there should be a table comparing the two languages based
on the speakers' corresponding answers either at the end of each chapter or in
an appendix. In this way, the differences and similarities between the two
groups of speakers would be clear and the reader would have an easy access to
them at any point she/he wishes.

Eleni Sideri received a Ph.D. in Social Anthropology from the School of Oriental
and African Studies. Her fieldwork was among the various Greek communities in
the Caucasus. Her academic interests concern diasporas, language, media and

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 1853599328
ISBN-13: 9781853599323
Pages: 360
Prices: U.K. £ 59.95
U.S. $ 119.95