′English banned′ at song contest for minority languages | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 24.11.2011
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'English banned' at song contest for minority languages

A song contest to raise awareness of Europe's most endangered languages has been held in Italy. Organizers hope they can galvanize support to keep Asturian, Sami, Romansch and other languages alive.

Awards presentation at the Liet International Song Contest 2011

It's all about taking part...

A 2000 strong crowd turned out for this year's final of the Liet International Song Contest - featuring 12 artists - in the northeastern city of Udine, home to the Friulan minority language.

The team behind Liet International, which is now in its eighth year, is proud of its blanket ban, preventing contestants from singing in English. And officials said the finalists were not obsessing over whether the average European could understand them.

The audience was made up of young people who were the first or second generation never to learn their centuries-old regional dialect.

Languages on life support

In Scotland, the Gaelic language - which is pronounced gallic - is mostly spoken in the highlands and islands in the north.

Scottish Gaelic band Macanta

Scottish Gaelic band Macanta

"People who speak Gaelic are choosing instead, as I am right now, to speak in English," said Dol Eoin, lead singer with Macanta, Scotland's entry for the competition.

Born on the island of Harris in the Outer Hebrides, Dol Eoin's parents taught him Gaelic from a young age. But over the years, English became more predominant.

"All these different languages are in similar positions," the singer-songwriter told Deutsche Welle. "I think that hopefully the song contest will help each respective language to smell the coffee because we're not called a minority language for nothing."

"There's not many of us left. How long will we survive?" asked Dol Eoin, whose six piece band was picked in a regional heat to perform at the so-called Eurovision for dying languages.

In Europe alone, around 40 million people speak a minority language. UNESCO estimates that worldwide more than 2500 languages are endangered. At least 200 became extinct over the past three generations. Some have just one native speaker left alive.

One estimate suggests that 80 per cent of the world's languages will vanish in the next 100 years.

Lingo Losers?

Organizers of Liet's more outlandish cousin, the Eurovision Song Contest, recently allowed performers to drop their national mother tongue if they wanted to.

The Coffeeshock Company

The Coffeeshock Company won the Public Award

The result is that many acts have in fact chosen to sing in English. Musicians say the international 'lingua franca' instantly offers more exposure for their songs. But critics warn some artists are forgetting their domestic audience - not to mention their cultural roots.

"Eurovision has become practically mono-lingual English," said Onno Falkena, coordinator of Liet International.

Falkena, a linguist, has nurtured the competition from a local event in the Frisian speaking part of the Netherlands into a Europe-wide live concert.

"It's a huge misnomer that all contemporary music should be in English," Falkena says. "Every year we get confirmation that this minority language music deserves attention and that it is a worthwhile and interesting event."

Across Europe, there is evidence that artists are prepared to try creative ways to help endangered languages survive. Lower German, or Plattdeutsch, is spoken by millions of people in northern Germany. But until recently, young people perceived it as a language of their grandparents' generation.

"There was no idea that you could actually rap in Lower German," said Falkena. "Now there are quite a few bands doing it. So you can see some sort of revitalization of the language."

Perhaps surprisingly, previous winners of the Liet contest have gone on to national fame. A cab driver with a passion for performing became a celebrity in France after a national TV network heard him singing in Corsican.

Somby, a Finnish Sami-band who won the contest two years ago, have just wrapped up a tour of Europe. Former Frisian winners have even had number one hits in Belgium and the Netherlands.

And the winner is...

Janna Eijer, Frisian singer-songwriter

Eijer took the main prize

On Saturday, once again, a Frisian singer emerged victorious. Janna Eijer's power ballad 1 Klap (One Breath) was awarded the first prize of 2000 euros ($2700). The dance teacher wowed the jury, made up of representatives of the 12 finalist languages.

Despite winning the accolade, Eijer accepts that it's hard to change perceptions about her language.

"Many people think that if you speak Frisian, you're just like a farmer, a lower class of people. So when you go to the city, people say, you must speak Dutch because it is fancier. I don't think it is."

Frisian speakers also have to contend with the fact that many Dutch people speak English to near native level.

The Coffeeshock Company, an Austrian band, singing in Burgenland-Croatian, grabbed second place and took home a 1000 euro check. The audience most appreciated their Balkan-influenced mix of rock and reggae and awarded them top points for Gusta mi se je znicila (My violin got broken).

Other languages featured this year were Asturian, spoken by about a quarter of a million residents of northern Spain, Vepsian with about 6000 native speakers in Russia's Karelia region and Sami, a group of languages that span Norway, Sweden and Finland.

Author: Nik Martin, Udine/London
Editor: Zulfikar Abbany

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