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Endangered Languages Are Not Like Endangered Species

Wednesday, Sept. 26, marks European Day of Languages. DW-WORLD.DE spoke with linguistics professor Wolfgang Schulze about the difference between a language and a dialect and the reasons why many tongues die out.

Boy reading Yddish book

Yiddish is one of Europe's endangered minority languages

Wolfgang Schulze is a professor for general linguistics at the University of Munich.

DW-WORLD.DE: How many languages are there in Europe?

Wolfgang Schulze: That depends on how you define Europe. Usually people demarcate Europe as a geographic border that stretches south from the Ural to the Caucasus Mountains, following the so-called Georgian Military Road, and that includes Armenia and ends just to the north of Turkey in the Black Sea. Europe is bordered to the north, west and south by bodies of water. Europe in this sense is home to more than 200 languages of extremely diverse origin ... But Europe is definitely not the part of the world with the greatest density of languages. You have to remember that there are some 900 languages on the island of Papua New Guinea alone. Nonetheless the diversity of European languages is certainly impressive. And the number of speakers can vary dramatically -- from some 80 million in the case of German to 100 or fewer as is the case with some Baltic-Finnish tongues.

What about dialects?

Wolfgang Schulze

Schulze says languages are very political

If you broaden the question to include dialects, the situation gets even more opaque. Not every language has the same number of dialects, but we can determine a median that's accurate to within plus or minus 10. So we can say there are around 2,000 dialects in Europe. That's a lot compared with the 23 official languages of the European Union.

What the difference between a language and a dialect?

There's no consensus about that among researchers. But basically you could say that a dialect is a "local" language that shares the grammar, but not necessarily the vocabulary or pronunciation, with neighboring linguistic spaces. That makes it part of a "dialect continuum" or "total language." You could say that what dialects have in common constitutes their common language. But this language would also have attributes of its own. In the abstract sense, a "language" would then be one dialect among many. But the reality is that the language of a country, in contrast to its dialects, gets promoted by the state and is supposed to encourage a linguistic sense of identity among the inhabitants of that country. Basically the distinction between language and dialect isn't a question for linguistics. It's a sociological and historical-political question.

Which European countries have the most languages and dialects?

France and Italy are the regions with the most dialects, followed by Germany and England. Russia is where you'll find the most languages -- more than 200 if you include the Asian part of the country. In western Europe, it's Britain, France, Switzerland, Italy, and, thanks to the large number of immigrants, Germany.

Are any European languages in danger of becoming extinct and why?

A finger points to a word in a German dictionary

Politicians in Germany recently changed some of the country's spelling and grammar rules

Of course there are dying languages in Europe. That's unavoidable. Languages died out in Europe during the Classical Age -- think of the many languages in Italy that were replaced by Latin during the Roman Empire. The main reason is that language speakers fear they won't be equal to social and economic tasks if they use their "own" language. They're afraid of being marginalized. But there can be other reasons, too. For example, today, languages can be endangered by the massive presence of another language in the public sphere. Languages can also be burdened with ideological premises -- a minority language can be a stigma, a sign of provincialism and backwardness.

What's the predominant language in Europe?

That's a good question. Here we have to distinguish between reality and political emphasis. In reality, it's English -- American English, not the British form. The situation might look different from a French perspective. The political discourse of the EU is heavily influenced by French -- but that doesn't reduce the role played by English.

How "healthy" are minority languages in Europe?

If I were a doctor, I'd describe the patient's condition as "serious" to "critical." But again the question is how we define a minority language. In many cases, it can be a language of a minority, in terms of percentage, that is still spoken by a significant number of people. That's the case with Catalonian in Spain, Breton in France or Welsh in Britain. Other minority languages are indeed on death's doorstep. That's the case with Frisian and Sorbian in northern and eastern Germany, Friulian in the eastern Alps, Ruthenian in eastern Slovakia or Minderico in central Portugal. Of Europe's 200 languages, we can safely say that around 50 percent are threatened with extinction.

Are minority languages subject to political misuse?

Bordered by dictionaries, a woman holds an electronic translation machine

Not every European language has a spot in translation machines

That's a difficult question. Basically I think that minority languages don't get any real political attention so they can't be misused. But now and again, nationalist circles do use the topic of minority language to oppose the European idea.

Should we encourage linguistic diversity and, if so, why?

That's a question of perspective. No doubt, languages transmit the cultural knowledge of a group of speakers so the loss of a language can mean the loss of that knowledge as well. But I've observed that preservation of linguistic diversity is less an issue for the speakers of an endangered language than a need on the part of European cultural elites for diversity as such. Diversity, in of itself, is not a positive value. It's the expression of a cultural or political need. The question here is not the same as whether the extinction or endangerment of certain forms of animal or plant life would disrupt ecological balance. The comparison between endangered languages and danger to the environment is purely political and has no foundation in science.

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