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The who?! Europe's lesser-known ethnic minorities

Sophie KirbyOctober 14, 2014

From the Samis in Lapland to the Sorbs in Germany, there are many ethnic minorities living in Europe. But who are the continent's lesser-known peoples and what makes them who they are?

Ostern Sorben Bräuche Eier Verzieren
Image: DW/V. Kern

Our reporter Gönna got to know members of a Roma community in Paris while filming her report for our #WhoAmI episode. Watch it and you’ll see just how much they feel their ethnicity is intertwined with their concept of identity. The Roma people are Europe’s largest ethnic minority group, a term that refers to a group of people who share common origins and experiences - and sometimes even language and religion - distinct from those of the majority.But which are the continent’s lesser-known peoples, and what makes them who they are?

The Samis

Lapland is not just home to Santa Claus, it’s also the territory of the Sami people, who number around 100,000 in the Scandinavian countries Lapland stretches across: Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia.

In Norway, the Sami are said to have been around for an incredible 11,000 years. They were repressed for a large part of history, but now they count as one of the world’s stronger indigenous minorities.

Lapland’s native people are traditionally reindeer herders and there is even speculation they invented the image of Santa’s flying reindeer after consuming some local magic mushrooms.

The Manx

This might help you narrow down their geographic origins: Paul McCartney of The Beatlesfame has Manx ancestry. The Manx are from the Isle of Man, an island off the coast of Great Britain, in the Irish Sea. Although their land has also become home to hordes of English and Scottish, the Manx still number around 40,000 people.

They are categorized as a ‘linguistic minority’ of the British Isles – descendants of the Celtic peoples who built their first settlements in around 400 B.C. The last person to speak Manx as a first language died back in 1974, but attempts to revive it are underway. Venture to the Isle of Man and you might well hear a little bit of Manx Gaelic being spoken. In case it helps you decipher things, “Moghrey mie” translates into English as “good morning”, and “Kys t’ou” means “how are you?”

A particular claim to fame of the Manx people is that they possess the oldest continuous parliament in the world: Tynwald, which is more than 1,000 years old.

The islanders’ resilience is even captured in their own emblem: the Three Legs of Man, which depicts three legs running in a clockwise direction, bearing the Latin motto “quocunque jeceris stabit”, or “whichever way you throw it, it will stand.”

Speaking of Latin...

The Ladini

If you spotted that the word “Ladin” bears a distinct resemblance to “Latin”, then you’re on the right track. The Ladini took on a type of people’s Latin from the Romans that became enriched over time by German and Italian influences.

Yes, they are a minority in northern Italy, and they enjoy quite a view, living across several valleys in the Dolomites. Their distant ancestors were hunters in the Stone Age, who ventured into the mountain range after the glaciers started to melt.

Modern-day tourism has helped bring more prosperity to the some 30,000 Ladini in the region. Many make a living by selling handcrafted wares, like wood carvings or paintings.

The Sorbs

Another people with a craft: the highly religious Sorbs are known in Germany for their beautifully decorated Easter eggs, which they make using duck feathers, wax and dye.

Like many Sorb traditions, the egg decorating custom has pagan links: Sorbs see them as a fertility symbol and embellish them with motifs, like circles, that represent the sun, or triangles, to ward off evil.

Most Sorbs live in Lusatia, a historical region that takes in parts of modern-day eastern Germany and western Poland, and are divided into Upper and Lower Sorbs. They are a Slavic minority. An estimated 50,000 people speak the Sorbian language – but many community members see their culture under threat and have appealed to German and European authorities for financial support.

The Livs

The indigenous people of today’s Latvia almost saw their language and culture completely wiped out in the nineteenth century and suffered decades of repression under Soviet rule in the twentieth. Fishing had traditionally been how they earned their keep, but Moscow banned them from sailing far enough offshore to fill their nets.

Things are now looking up a little for the Livs, or Livonians, as they are also known - in the 1990s, Latvia passed laws supporting the preservation of their culture and linguistic heritage. But the last native speaker of the Livonian language died a few years ago and the population of the ethnic group is tiny, at little more than 200 people.