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Review of  Sprachminderheiten: gestern, heute, morgen/Minoranze linguistiche: ieri, oggi, domani

Reviewer: Marco Caria
Book Title: Sprachminderheiten: gestern, heute, morgen/Minoranze linguistiche: ieri, oggi, domani
Book Author: Ludwig Fesenmeier Sabine Heinemann Federico Vicario
Publisher: Peter Lang AG
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): German
Language Family(ies): Romance
Issue Number: 26.5004

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Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


This publication, belonging to the collection “Studia Romanica et linguistica”, brings together all the papers of a study meeting under the title “Alte und neue Sprachminderheiten / Minoranze linguistiche – vecchie e nuove” that took place in October 2012 at the Friedrich - Alexander - Universität of Erlangen – Nürnberg.

In the introductory paper Sebastian Kürschner investigates the general definitions that could outline the research of “new and old linguistic minorities”. As the author points out, a linguistic minority exists only if a “linguistic majority” exists, but this can obviously be seen neither as sufficient nor as an exhaustive factor to delineate the many problems presented by a minority. Actually, several aspects must be analyzed according to the special situation of each linguistic minority, in the frame of the different perspectives involved in the research, i.e. the necessity to recognize that an area with a minority status has not only a different language, but even a different ethnic and cultural background. Furthermore, it is important to consider how a linguistic minority can originate or die, how the minority language itself can develop, and eventually its relationship with the linguistic majority territory.

In the second paper of the volume Marián Sloboda and Katja Brankačkec aim to answer the question of whether the knowledge of Sorbian can help speakers or learners of this language with the study and comprehension of other Slavic languages and ''whether the mutual intelligibility of Slavic languages can adequately serve as an argument in the efforts to gain more learners and speakers for this minority language”. The study, an audio listening task- experiment about the intelligibility of Czech, Slovak and Polish (closely related to the Sorbian languages) to students of a Sorbian-language secondary school in Bautzen/Budyšin (Lusatia, Germany), shows many interesting aspects. First of all, the experiment confirms that being a speaker or learner of Sorbian can really help to understand other Slavic languages, particularly Czech and Slovak (Polish in a lower degree, with an intelligibility score close to zero). Concerning the second question of the authors, they conclude asserting that Sorbian speakers’ ability to understand other Slavic languages as an instrument to promote the study and knowledge of the minority speakers among the non-speakers should be seen as adequate and even useful for other small linguistic minorities, such as the Slovene or the Molise Slavic in Italy.

Johannes Kramer, the fourth contributor of the meeting, focuses his study on the situation of Belgium, today a country hosting three different communities: the French-speaking Wallonia in the south, the Dutch-speaking Flanders in the north and the German-speaking Community of Belgium in the east. After giving the historical and cultural background which has led to the formation and to the establishment of the linguistic borders in the modern State of Belgium, the author analyses the problems which can be noticed in territorial matters by the point of view of the two major linguistic groups: the Walloons and the Flemings. As the author clearly points out, bilingualism in Belgium has always been problematic: all the essays, whether from the Dutch or French side, to convert the country from bilingual into monolingual have led to failure. After a period of general Frenchification and social promotion of the French language, a solution was seen in the drawing up of regional linguistic areas along the municipal boundaries, with the consequence of a sort of jus soli for the two main languages of the country: if someone resides in a place belonging to the Flemish community, he/she must be considered of Dutch mother tongue, and vice versa for the French speaking region. An exception to this model is represented by the Capital, Brussels, which geographically belongs to Flanders but is considered a francophone enclave. In the end, one question seems to be the most relevant: if nowadays problems related to the cohabitation of French and Dutch speakers still exist (problems that sometimes involve the unity of the country itself), how can Belgium afford its own future? The answer given by the author sounds clear: the only solution can be seen in the so-called solutions belges, the many Belgian political and linguistic compromises adopted from the unification of the country until the present day.

In the next paper Simone Ciccolone tries to compare two different minority areas in Italy: the bilingual region of South Tyrol and the Cimbrian village of Luserna in Trentino. The paper aims at investigating the different sociolinguistic perspectives offered by the two examined areas, and the language policies adopted in consideration of the role of German. In such a study it is important to highlight two important issues: a) the protected linguistic variety and its eventual relationships with a roof language; b) the different varieties seen as sociolects. Regarding the case of South Tyrol where the many German dialects spoken are roofed by Hochdeutsch, the language policies aim to defend and promote standard German in almost every field of the daily life of the speaker (school, TV, newspapers, etc.) but on a “lower pole” of daily communication South Tyroleans normally use their dialects with almost no interference from the standard language. On the contrary, with regard to Luserna where the distant standard German cannot be considered the roof language for the minority language, the preserved code is the variety of Cimbrian really used by the community and, thanks to the elaboration and the lexical implementation, it is becoming more and more competitive even in the communicative fields where Italian as majority code is normally used.

Quite pessimistic and in contradiction with Ciccolone seems to be Roger Schöntag’s paper about the survival of the Cimbrian language. After giving some information about the history of the Cimbrians in Northern Italy, the author describes the sociolinguistic situation of Luserna, the only place where the Cimbrian language is still actively spoken. Due to the increasing reduction of the resident population and a strong assimilation of many active speakers in favour of Italian because of social prestige reasons, Luserna represents a model of language decay and of seriously endangered language. One of the reasons that still prevent Cimbrian from being totally extinct is the intensive promotion of the idiom with some public and private initiatives, but if such initiatives certainly contribute to the survival of the linguistic minority as language island, the real needs of the speakers in their everyday life are scarcely taken into consideration, with an obscure future for Cimbrian as a living language.

Sabine Heinemann writes in her paper about the legislation concerning language minorities in Italy, from the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages to the most recent national and regional laws. In her paper the author focuses in particular on the Friulian and Sardinian situations. Thanks to the Charter the language minorities in Italy are not only locally (national or regional/provincial laws) preserved, but even internationally. In particular for the case of the two big areas which are the object of the paper, Friuli and Sardinia, the laws present some positive aspects as the promotion and the official use of the minority language, even if the standardization still remains an open issue for both the regional idioms.

Federico Vicario discusses in his paper Friulian lexicography and the GDBTF (Grant Dizionari bilengâl talian furlan), which can be seen as one of the most important results of the Friulian language policy in the context of regional and national laws in matters of minority language. This dictionary consists of 7000 pages, and it is quite difficult to judge it for its utility or adequacy. Vicario highlights some mistakes or inadequate choices of the editors, especially when giving grammatical or linguistic indications. The author concludes his paper saying that the GDBTF hasn’t been able to give the expected results, i.e. the creation of a dictionary with normative value for the modern Friulian, regretting the fact that the participation of specialists in the project could have avoided the evident mistakes. The possible alternatives are two: a completely new edition or a revision of the existing one, taking into consideration all the difficulties deriving from the enormous size of the work.

Georges Darms speaks about Romansh, the autochthonous Romance idiom of the Grisons in Switzerland and one of the most endangered languages in the world. The extinction of Romansh was predicted already in the XIX century, but fortunately such negative predictions haven’t come true. The survival of this idiom can be considered a sort of language miracle due to the fact that the zone where it is spoken has been under the influence of German for over 1200 years and still today German is the first language in the Canton considering the number of mother tongue speakers. Though the current situation of Romansh cannot be considered really comfortable, there is no reason to predict the death of Romansh, the survival of which can be guaranteed at least for the next 100 years.

Heidi Siller-Runggaldier discusses Ladin in her paper, describing the many features of the idiom, the areas where the language is spoken, its historical origins, its status and the different measures taken from the Italian State, the Autonomic Provinces of Bolzano-Bozen and Trento and the Region of Veneto to preserve the survival of the Ladin communities and to promote the language.

Daniela Marzo investigates the situation of Sardinian, focusing her attention on the question of whether modern experimental psycholinguistic methods and instruments can be successfully used to analyze minority languages. The result is that in the case of Sardinian most of these modern methods cannot be used and the causes can be traced to the lack of a common standard language (both written or oral) for all Sardinians, the attitude of the speakers of a given Sardinian variety towards the other varieties and the demotivation of the youngest people in speaking the minority idiom.

In the last paper Adriano Mazziotti reports on the situation of the ancient Albanian linguistic minority called Arbëreshe and living in seven regions of southern Italy. The author offers a portrait of the identity, the history, the language and the traditions of the so called Italian-Albanians, completing his work by offering a presentation of the most important cultural initiatives created in the different Arbëreshe communities, showing an ethno-linguistic minority which is really vital from the point of view of the promotion of its peculiar identity and which is still proud of its language and traditions.


The aim of the meeting was to give, or at least to try to give, a clear definition of what linguistic minorities really are, with regard to several communities in Central Europe and especially in Italy, by analyzing politics, geography, history, the everyday life and every aspect related to the peculiar fact of being set in a context with a language and a traditional culture which are different when compared to those of the “hosting” countries. Though the minorities discussed during the meeting do not belong to the same linguistic branch (Germanic, Romance or Slavic), the given guidelines for what concerns the methods of analysis are useful and can be considered a valid instrument for linguists interested in minority situations. As almost every author states at the end of his/her paper that it is not easy to define in an exhaustive way the future of a linguistic minority, due to the many sociolinguistic aspects which are involved in the survival or in the death of a minority idiom and to the many differences that characterize every single situation. For this reason every paper highlights new issues and new possible approaches to the investigation of a minority language and of a linguistic minority.
I focuse my interest on linguistic minorities, with particular attention to the German speaking areas in Northern Italy. I have been awarded a Ph.D. in Linguistics at the University of Sassari, Italy, defending a dissertation on the plurilingualism (German, Italian, Friulian and Slovenian) and on the sociolinguistic situation of the small valley of Valcanale/Kanaltal/Kanalska Dolina/Val Cjanâl in Friuli venezia Giulia. I would like to continue my research comparing the Valcanale with South Tyrol, because the two regions share the same history.

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9783631654484
Pages: 223
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