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Review of  Europäische Charta der Regional- oder Minderheitensprachen [European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages]

Reviewer: Rolf Kemmler
Book Title: Europäische Charta der Regional- oder Minderheitensprachen [European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages]
Book Author: Franz Lebsanft Monika Wingender
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Issue Number: 26.3840

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Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


The present work is a handbook in German, dedicated to the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (ECRM), initially signed by some of the member states of the Council of Europe at its headquarters in Strasbourg (France) on November 5, 1992. With a short preface, an index, as well as an introductory note by the editors (pp. 1-7), the volume offers 24 articles and an index of languages (pp. 443-445), occupying a total of 445 pages.

The signatory countries that are the object of this handbook, and in which the charter has acquired the status of general law due to its signing and ratification by the respective legislative bodies, are the following:

Armenia (Hayastan; by Natallia Savitskaya; p. 9-24)
Austria (Republik Österreich; by Ursula Doleschal; p. 191-209)
Croatia (Republika Hrvatska; by Désirée Cremer; p. 115-132)
Cyprus (Κυπριακή Δημοκρατία; by Maria Petrou; p. 433-442)
Czech Republic (Česká republika; by Tilman Berger; p. 383-396)
Denmark (Kongeriget Danmark; by Janet Duke; p. 25-37)
Finland (Suomen tasavalta / Republiken Finland; by Pirkko Nuolijärvi; p. 77-92)
Germany (Bundesrepublik Deutschland; by Claudia Wich-Reif; p. 39-75)
Hungary (Magyarország; by Zsuzsanna Gerner; p. 413-432)
Liechtenstein (Fürstentum Liechtenstein; by Felix Tacke; p. 133-136)
Luxemburg (Grand-Duché de Luxembourg; by Felix Tacke; p. 137-140)
Montenegro (Republika Crna Gora; by Ivana Barkijević; p. 141-151)
Netherlands (Koninkrijk der Nederlanden; by Heinz Eickmans; p. 153-171)
Norway (Kongeriget Norge/Noreg; by Roger Reidinger; p. 173-189)
Poland (Rzeczpospolita Poslka; by Katarzyna Wiśniewiecka-Brücker; p. 211-226)
Romania (România; By Wolfgang Dahmen; p. 227-241)
Serbia (Република Србија; By Monika Wingender; p. 283-298)
Slovakia (Slovenská republika; by Tilman Berger; p. 299-317)
Slovenia (Republika Slovenija; by Felix Tacke / Franz Lebsanft; p.319-333)
Spain (Reino de España; by Felix Tacke; p. 335-381)
Sweden (Konungariket Sverige; by Roger Reidinger; 243-264)
Switzerland (Schweizerische Eidgenossenschaft; by Felix Tacke; p. 265-282)
Ukraine (Українa; by Daniel Müller; p. 397-412)
United Kingdom (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland; by Roswitha Fischer; p. 93-113)

Among the 25 ECRM signatory countries, only Bosnia-Herzegovina is not represented by an individual article. The editors duly explain this absence with the fact that the country has been the latest state to ratify the Charter (on September 21, 2010), having omitted to submit their Country Report before the closing date for contributions to the present edition (April 1, 2012) of this handbook (p. 3).

Among the Council of Europe's 47 member states, 22 countries have not (yet) adhered to the charter's contents. Eight countries have limited themselves to signing the ECRM without proceeding to the ratification (Azerbaijan, France, Iceland, Italy, Macedonia, Malta, Moldavia, Russia), while another fourteen countries haven't even signed the document (Albania, Andorra, Belgium, Bulgaria, Estonia, Georgia, Greece, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Monaco, Portugal, San Marino, Turkey; p. 1).

Given that the internal structure of each of the articles is the same throughout the handbook, we have opted for an exemplification on the basis of the article on Germany (p. 39-75). The first chapter is dedicated to the ''previous history'' (p. 39-40), beginning with the creation of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949. Given modern Germany's federal nature, the political responsibilities for the area of culture and education lie within the purview of each of the federal states. Thus, for instance, the language rights of the Sorbs in the states of Brandenburg and Sachsen are regulated in the recent constitutions of these two federal states, which were created in the aftermath of the German reunification (1990).

The second chapter is dedicated entirely to the practical analysis of the application of the ECRM in Germany and its minority and regional languages. The first subchapter on ''implementation'' is divided in two subsections, the first of them (2.1.1) showing an insight into the ''temporal lapse'' (p. 41) with a short historic overview from the charter's signing in 1992 to the latest ministerial visit in 2011. The second subsection (2.1.2) treats ''Institutions'' (p. 41-42), that is, various associations of minority language speakers that represent their ethno-linguistic group in contact with mostly federal institutions.

The subchapter 2.2 offers an insight into languages and the linguistic situation in Germany (p. 42-45). Notwithstanding the (presumably valid) misgivings of the author Claudia Wich-Reif (p. 45) about the actuality of the data, for informational purposes we have opted for the reproduction of the number of those native speakers that are held to be able to speak and write in their respective minority or regional language:

Danish ca. 50,000
Low German ca. 4,480,000
Lower Sorbian ca. 6,600
North Frisian 10,000
Romany (Sinti) 60,000
Romany (Roma) 10,000
Sater Frisian 1,000-2,000
Upper Sorbian ca. 13,000.

Following the same pattern in all the entries, subchapter 2.3 is divided in five subsections (2.3.1 Low German, p. 45-50; 2.3.2 Danish, p. 50-53; 2.3.3 Sorbian languages, p. 54-59; 2.3.4 Frisian languages, p. 59-65; 2.3.5 Romany, p. 65-69). In what may be viewed as the article's core, along with these subsections the author offers a short historic overview and proceeds to an analysis of the current situation of the ECRM's implementation according to the criteria of Part II, namely Article 8 (Education) and Part III, namely Articles 9 (Judicial authorities), 10 (Administrative authorities and public services), 11 (Media), 12 (Cultural activities and facilities) 13 (Economic and social life) and 14 (Transfrontier exchanges). This information is offered on the basis of the periodical reports, the reports of the expert commission, the evaluation reports of the Committee of Ministers and other documents, mostly from the involved Federal States.

Chapter 3 contains the author's evaluation of the measures for the implementation of the ECRM in Germany (p. 70-71). Unlike the previous subchapter, these observations are not only based on the official documents but offer an insight into the real place of the minority and regional languages in Germany, as seen by the author.

The article ends with bibliographical references, divided into source material (p. 71-74), literature (p. 74) and a reference to the entries in the quite specific ''List of declarations made with respect to treaty No. 148'' (cf. ECRM-List) that were published by the German government as an addendum to the treaty.


As a handbook documenting the ''status quo'' of the ECRM implementation in the 25 European signatory states, the present collection of articles, organized by the German editors Franz Lebsanft and Monika Wingender seems to be quite reliable, given that its information derives mostly from the analysis of official sources, executed by an international group of researchers.

In relation to the extent of information that is offered, we could not find many shortcomings of this handbook. One minor issue is the reference of ''24 Nicht-Ratifizierungsstaaten'' (p.1) as 24 non-ratifying-countries of the ECRM. If we consider that the Council of Europe has 47 member states and the treaty was ratified by 25 member states, this does not seem to make sense. Indeed, if we add eight signatory (but non-ratifying) countries to the fourteen non-signatory and non-ratifying countries the correct result is 22 member states.

Given that the group of the non-ratifying European countries includes some of the European Union's long-time members (Belgium, France, Greece, Ireland, Italy and Portugal), one might have wished for a chapter that might offer insight into why each of these countries have refrained from adhering to the ECRM. In this context, the passing remarks on some of these countries in the book's introduction (Belgium, p 2; France p. 6) do not seem enough for a handbook on this subject. Especially the total lack of participation in the ECRM process by the fourteen member states that haven't yet signed the charter seems to require considerably more information for an adequate contextualization of the handbook.

Concerning the article on Germany, one can not help but note that the only language that has been declared by the German government to be a ''regional language'' in the purview of the ECRM is the ''Low German'' language, spoken in the federal states of Bremen (Free Hanseatic City), Hamburg (Free Hanseatic City), Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Lower Saxony and Schleswig-Holstein.

If we take into consideration the reality of linguistic fragmentation in Germany, together with the resulting quite frequent lack of intercomprehension, the fact that only the ''Low German'' is characterized as a regional language appears to be a rather restrictive and somewhat short-sighted take of the charter. The definition of ''language'' in § 32 of ECRM-List states ''the charter does not concern local variants or different dialects of one and the same language'', leaving the decision to the politicians: ''accordingly, it will be left to the authorities concerned within each state, in accordance with its own democratic processes, to determine at what point a form of expression constitutes a separate language''. This means that, due to the political decision of the German party involved in the ECRM signing, regional languages like Bavarian, Saxonian, Swabian, to name but a few, are not considered as what § 18 of ECRM-List defines ''as [...] languages spoken in a limited part of the territory of a state, within which, moreover, they may be spoken by the majority of the citizens''.

Given that these and other German regional languages distinguish themselves by means of phonetical, morphological, syntactical and lexical characteristics from what is currently known as ''Standard German'', the idyllic impression of a German linguistic unity painted by the ideological fathers of the German ECRM-List remains largely fictitious – and unpleasantly so, if we consider the ''war'' that is waged on a daily basis on many of these regional languages in the educational system of some Federal States, simply because they are commonly deemed undesirable dialects.

This is obviously not the fault of the handbook's editors, but of the politicians wanting to embellish the linguistic reality of their country. One would have wished, however, that these and other relevant questions were, at least, mentioned in the author's evaluation that closes the article on the status quo of the ECRM implementation in Germany.

Taking for another example the subsection on the autonomous region Galicia (p. 352-356) in the quite elaborate article on Spain (p. 335-381), it seems that the overall quality of the handbook would have benefited a great deal if the evaluation of the linguistic situation of the respective countries were less politically correct. The author Felix Tacke only mentions the relationship between Galician and Portuguese in passing when considering ''Galician and Portuguese in Extremadura'' (p. 371). However, he omits an explicit reference in the relevant subsection, thus failing to alert the reader to the linguistic fact that what he calls the ''eigene Sprache Galiciens'' must, indeed, be seen as one of the three big variants of the Galician-Portuguese language (which includes the Galician, the European Portuguese and the Brazilian Portuguese). During his article, the author almost entirely limits himself to the discussion of the official Spanish contributions to the ECRM reports. Given that the Spanish language has been serving as a superstratum during centuries all over the Spanish Kingdom, it seems that at least in the final evaluation in the chapter on Spain (p. 374-378) a somewhat more critical attitude, together with an appreciation of the ongoing language struggles at least in the autonomous regions (where Galician, Basque, Catalan and Valencian are spoken) would have seemed more adequate.

Finally, one could also have wished for a reproduction of the ECRM in the handbook. Even considering that the text of the ECRM can be consulted online in various languages (cf. ECRM for the English version), this item might not be totally indispensable as the possibility of in-time consultation of this document and possibly other elements like the Explanatory Report (ECRM-ER) might facilitate the use of the handbook.

Notwithstanding the above comments and the specific ''desiderata'', there is no doubt that this handbook will serve as a reference book for all those who wish to dedicate themselves to a study of the status quo of the ECRM in 2012. Given the importance of the subject matter, there rests the hope that the handbook may be updated and augmented in regular intervals so that the interested public may be kept in the loop about important developments.


ECRM = European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. (2 January, 2014).

ECRM-ER = European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages: Explanatory Report. (2 January, 2014).

ECRM-List = List of declarations made with respect to treaty No. 148: European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. (2 January, 2014).
Born in Reutlingen (Germany), Rolf Kemmler is an assistant researcher in the area of Portuguese linguistic historiography, currently employed by the Centro de Estudos em Letras (CEL), University of Trás-os-Montes e Alto Douro (UTAD, Vila Real, Portugal). He received his doctorate in Romance Philology from the Bremen University (Germany) in 2005, his Ph.D. thesis 'A Academia Orthográfica Portugueza na Lisboa do Século das Luzes: Vida, obras e atividades de João Pinheiro Freire da Cunha (1738-1811)' being published in 2007. With a considerable number of publications dedicated to his area since 1996, he is a specialist in the fields of history of the Portuguese language writing systems since the 16th century and history of the Portuguese as well as Latin-Portuguese grammaticography since the 16th century as well as historiography of linguistics in general.