TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17. Nr. September 2010

Sektion 2.2. Identity, Authenticity, Locality, Urbanity and Speech Community: A New Sociolinguistic Perspective | Identität, Authentizität, lokale- und städtische Veränderungen und Sprachgemeinschaften: Eine neue soziolinguistische Perspektive
Sektionsleiter | Section Chairs: Meryem Şen (Kocaeli University, Turkey), İmran Karabağ

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Historic language minorities in the age of globalization:
ideology and practice

Carmela Perta (Università “G. d’Annunzio” – Italy) [BIO]

Email address :


The acceptance of minority language rights as a fundamental human right has been achieved with the Council of Europe’s Charter for Regional or Minority Languages only: states committing to the Charter should promote the use of minority languages on their territory in a number of public domains, such as education, the media, the courts and state bureaucracy. Since the Charter is not a bill of rights but a simple list of recommendations to the States, European members have debated about the extent and location of these rights, giving birth to different legislation according to each country approach to minority rights.

In this paper I want to explore the concept of linguistic homogenisation in relation to minority languages, a process which historically comes from the introduction of a language in public settings. In the second part of the paper I hope to demonstrate through a case study what legislation and policymakers are trying to protect: language as ideology, coming from a process of standardisation, rather than real practice, not reflecting what the speakers actually use.

1. As Wright suggests (2007) it should be understood what is meant when a language spoken by a group should be protected: are we conceiving language as an object or as an individual practice? She claims that the core of the problem is understanding the nature of the language itself, whether it is conceived as an autonomous, ideal system or as a subjective creativity. This debate has been opened till now: the idea that language exists outside its speakers within a collectivity, one of the basic Saussure’s positions, was soon widely accepted in the world. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries the idea that each national group is unique and needs its own state to be truly authentic was central for numerous groups. Indeed, an early objective in the nationalistic project was thus to achieve linguistic convergence within the group and to differentiate the national language from all allied dialects on the continuum. Hence, in the context of nation building the tension between heterogeneity and an invariant system was solved on the basis of a homogenising process: accepting the assimilatory wave means to accept language as the ideal, artificial system devised by scholars and intellectuals from outside the core community of speakers (c.f. Wright 2000, 2007; May 2001).

In other words, the introduction of a language in public settings has historically always led to standardisation, with pressure on the periphery to accept the variety of the centre. It is a normative pressure: it is unlikely that speakers use their own variety in public arena, they will employ an ideal, agreed system. “Nationalist language planning is normative and entails the imposition of a standard […]. Nationalist language planners thus embraced the concept of language as system […]”(Wright 2007: 3).

1.1. Legislation for protecting minority languages can reproduce the centre-periphery conflict that accompanied the spread of national languages, and people fighting for minority languages rights need to consider whether all the speakers concerned by the changes that standardisation will provoke will want to converge. But, following the example of nation building, does it mean to defeat minority ethnic languages? The fundamental dilemma of the practical implementation of linguistic rights for groups speaking minority languages lies here: how to reconcile political exigency, which tends to be centripetal, with actual language practice, which tends to be centrifugal? This topic, with reference to Italian situation, will be discussed in the following sections.

2. Italian policy towards language minorities is expressed in art. 6 of the Constitution: “Italian State sustains minority languages with special regulations”(1). However, the application of the Constitutional provision has been regulated by different regional legislative measures only and not on a national basis(2). The border regions of Valle d'Aosta, Trentino-Alto Adige, Friuli-Venezia Giulia have enjoyed limited legislative and administrative autonomy within the state for several decades, including the right to use the regional language(s) in certain public settings; for other, smaller, linguistic groups there was less autonomy, but various Regional initiatives since 1945 introduced minority language rights legislation piecemeal throughout the state(3).

The absence of national regulations caused that the last three decades have seen an intensification of initiatives aiming to establish a national law for protecting  minority languages rights. After working its way slowly through Parliament(4), following the example of both International and European legislation, on 15th December 1999 the national law 482/1999 Regulations regarding the protection of historic language minorities(5), gave a national framework to minority languages maintenance.. After confirming Italian as the national official language, article 2 of the law proclaims: Italian Republic sustains the language and culture of people speaking Albanian, Catalan, German, Greek, Slovene and Croatian, French, Franco-Provençal, Friulan, Ladin, Occitan and Sard. In other words, the legislation made it possible to use these languages in education, in public offices, in local government, in the judicial system, in mass media, and allowed for the reinstatement of place and personal names.

Hovewer, several theoretical and practical problems continue to impede the law enforcement(6). One of the most delicate concerns which linguistic variety should be used in education, in official documents and in other formal domains. The answer seems to be easy, since art. 1 sub-section 3 of the decree for the law application proclaims “The language which is to be protected [by the State] is the way a minority group speaks”(7), but the history of language rights in Italy exemplifies how they are linked to standardization: seven out of the twelve languages recognised by Law 482/99 (Albanian, Catalan, Croatian, French, German, Greek, and Slovene) could have recourse to written standards developed as official languages in other states. In practice, the reluctance of majorities to countenance minority language rights have not proved major difficulties in the Italian case even before signing the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages(8), but the nature of the language to be protected has been a stumbling block. This is demonstrated by the results of a fieldwork I carried out in a small town in the South of Italy where people speak Francoprovençal, one of the protected minority languages.

3. As is known, with Francoprovençal is meant a set of gallic-romance varieties spoken in France, Switzerland and Italy, differing from French on the one hand and from Provençal on the other on a phonetic basis (Ascoli 1878). Though such dialect group is effectively Abstandsprache within the larger group of Romance languages, it does not have an elaborated standard which covers and unifies the whole range of related dialects, and functioning as an identification symbol. The fact that the identity of Francoprovençal as a language is mainly scholarly has important consequences for its official status and for its maintenance today. In Italy Francoprovençal varieties are spoken in Valle d’Aosta, in six valleys in Piemonte and in two little Southern villages in Puglia. Even though they present common traits, each variety differs from another, at the point that a common ethnic-linguistic identity among the communities does not exist even throughout Italy.  

3.1. Members of Faeto(9), the Southern town I fieldworked, speak Faetano, the local variety of Francoprovençal. Here the minority language is largely used by the community, (92% of the informants declare to speak Faetano), only a low rate of subjects (8%) states to know Faetano passively(10).

Unlike previous studies on minority communities where language loyalty is associated with elderly, rural areas, and primary sector employment, here the minority language is used by almost all members of the community in informal domains and in some public settings. Community members are proud to know and speak Faetano and to transmit it to the next generation. In other words, they show a deep sense of loyalty towards the language, firstly because it is their heritage language, the symbol of their identity and also because, according to them, speaking it they could be associated to a high prestige language, French. A profound sense of minority identity can also be observed through speakers’ positive opinions about the use of Faetano in education: they reasoned that it is a “natural” use, since it is the language linked to their origin and culture(11).

In conclusion, a deep sense of loyalty towards the variety they use and a performed minority identity can be observed analysing the speakers’ attitudes: this community has maintained a sense of distinctive identity and were extremely resistant to the construction of Italian national identity. Even though Italian was increasingly becoming their primary language, they remained bilingual, resisting national homogenisation against all expectations. Cultural capital, in Bourdieu’s sense of economic value and political advantage does not seem to be constituted by standard Italian only: the situation seems to suggest a dichotomy between the knowledge of the two languages forming speakers’ repertoire: knowing Italian provided a certain kind of urban-oriented cultural capital, a tool which permits social mobility, i.e. taking a job in the city; while knowing Faetano provides a different cultural capital which is not concerned with social mobility, but with staying rooted in the place of one’s origins. However, these positive attitudes speakers show are towards the vehicle for their distinctive history and culture, and not for an “external” standard. Indeed, as said before, Faetano is the local language, a variety lacking in the marked common features of Francoprovençal and containing Italian regional variety characteristics, particularly in the lexicon and at the morpho-syntactic level.

3.2. After the passing of Law 482 local authorities and planners having legal instruments are carrying out several operations to strengthen their language position and to promote it in new settings. The principle courses of action in the language maintenance and revitalisation programme involved top-down strategies related to corpus and acquisition planning. Regarding the former people from outside the core community of speakers have just finished preparing a bilingual dictionary Italian / Francoprovençal (Sportello Linguistico Francoprovenzale2007a) and a text book for primary school (Sportello Linguistico Francoprovenzale2007b). Having the support of the majority of parents, the other action is to be courses in and through Francoprovençal in schools. Until now studying the minority language in schools was related to local teachers’ free work which taught the local variety of Francoprovençal without any codified grammar, carrying out a sort of comparative study between Italian and Faetano. This rudimental and bottom up method has been really appreciated by students and by the community in general, since they did not have to accept an external and artificial language. However, things have changed since the recent codification gave birth to a system exterior and slightly alien, according to the speakers’ reactions. Opponents to its adoption, coming from the core of the community, reasoned that there is little point in struggling to maintain a language, if what is conserved is not the group’s language but another. In other words, in this case too, planners need to deal with language as system in order to introduce Francoprovençal into institutions and promote its acquisition in education. Thus, it was language as system not language as practice that policymakers set out to protect and promote in these initiatives. This was not, however, what speakers had hoped for.

Paradoxically, where the speakers use a language maintained in private and as expression of cultural heritage differing practices are tolerated. This is what happened in Faeto and explains the reason of its maintenance till now, but where a language starts being used in public settings the cost is acceptance of language as system, a codified, stable written standard, that may not entirely reflect what the speakers actually use.

4. It might be argued that minority language rights are always going to be problematic: a constant tension will exist between the acceptance of the heterogeneity of use and the necessity of fixing a set of norms forming a system which remains invariant across all domains. As said before, in the context of nation building this problem was solved on the basis of a homogenising processes: accepting the assimilatory wave means to accept language as the ideal system. This ideological framework is mainly missing in the context of minority groups: it might seem reasonable to use the ready made standard of reference, accepting the Ausbausprache, where there is one, or a variety which could exist alongside the different dialects as a koiné, rather than the language as practice, that is the local variety. However, this is not what speakers really want. The case study illustrates that if the desire of the community is to use their language to underpin the homogeneity of their own small group and be a vehicle for its distinctive history and culture, then trying to impose an external standard is pointless. A language similar to one’s own but with distinctions that make it appear alien may not be any more acceptable than a language that is radically different.

As Wright suggests (2007), in theory, policies and actions grounded in the recognition that language is practice should be different from those deriving from the belief that language can be treated as system. In practice there may be little difference because of the difficulties of translating recognition of diversity into policy. Even conceiving language as real practice, we tend to implement policy as if language were an ideal system.





1La Repubblica tutela con apposite norme le minoranze linguistiche”.
2 The difference among the regional legislative measures is due to the fact that in the Sixties the Italian Parliament, triggering a federalist process that is a matter of renewed political struggles still now, enacted norms about the legislative autonomy of the regions.
3 The regions which, in different times and ways, emanated norms for the protection and maintenance of minority languages are Sardegna, Molise, Basilicata, Piemonte and Puglia. For a general discussion see Ajello 1984, Bartole 1995 and Gusmani 1996.
4 The first legislative proposal dates back to the 1960s. In 1991 the proposal of law 612 about the maintenance and protection of minority languages was approved by the Chamber, but the final approval did not come due to the premature end of the legislature. Most of the content of this proposal was introduced in law 482. 
5 Norme in material di tutela delle minoranze linguistiche storiche.
6 For further discussion see Dal Negro 2000, Gusmani 2001, Orioles 2003, (ed.) 2003, 2007, Perta 2004, Savoia 2001, Telmon 2006, 2007.
7La lingua ammessa a tutela è il modo di esprimersi dei componenti della minoranza linguistica”.
8 At the time of writing (December 2007), the Charter was still to be ratified in Italy. It is expected that ratification should happen soon, since parliament gave approval in 2001.
9 In Faeto, the highest village in Puglia region live 799 inhabitants (2001census).
10 These results were obtained through the analysis of data on a representative and stratified sample (Perta 2007, in press[a], in press [b]).
11 As said before, on the basis of Law 482, the minority language could be used as an object and/or medium of education.

2.2. Identity, Authenticity, Locality, Urbanity and Speech Community: A New Sociolinguistic Perspective | Identität, Authentizität, lokale- und städtische Veränderungen und Sprachgemeinschaften: Eine neue soziolinguistische Perspektive

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For quotation purposes:
Carmela Perta: Historic language minorities in the age of globalization: ideology and practice – In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 17/2008. WWW:

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