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Some minority languages fade away without anyone noticingImage: picture alliance/dpa

Silent words

August 14, 2009

There are 23 official languages in the European Union and numerous regional languages and dialects. The German representative for minority languages in the EU told DW which ones are most in danger.


Karl-Peter Schramm volunteers as the president of the German Committee for Regional and Minority Languages in the EU. He is a retired special education teacher.

Deutsche Welle: Mr. Schramm, Livonian is only spoken in a part of Latvia. Why do you think languages like this one are especially in need of support?

Karl-Peter Schramm: This small language in the northern part of Europe has been spoken for more than one hundred years. It should be kept just as it is - like a local plant species, for example - because it is part of the country's culture.

How are languages like Livonian protected by the European Union?

First of all, they have to be recognized as minority languages. Then, they are protected under the Charter for Regional and Minority Languages. If the country where this language is spoken ratifies the Charter then it is entitled to certain benefits from the state's culture department. That means, people can approach the German state of Lower Saxony or the country of Latvia and request support in retaining the language. Direct funding from the EU is only granted on a project basis. That can be very difficult, however, because the sums of money attached to these projects are more than these small languages can ever spend.

How many languages are there in Europe?

I think there are at least 150.

And which ones are particularly in danger?

All of the Regional or Minority languages mentioned in the European Charter are especially in danger. Some of these are spoken by as few as 2,000 people - like Saterland Frisian in Northern Germany, or by only 10,000 people - like Sorbian (Editors' note: Sorbian is the language of a Slavic minority in eastern Germany). But the differences in support for these languages aren't so dramatic. Each one has to wait its turn and sometimes they have to take it upon themselves to protect their language - with local Sorbian or Frisian organizations, for example.

Cottbus city sign in German and Sorbian
One way of preserving Sorbian is using is on public signsImage: DW

What actually happens when a language disappears?

Usually, languages disappear quietly. Since the Middle Ages, thousands of languages have disappeared - many due to colonization, for instance in South America and Central America. There, many of the regional languages disappeared and were replaced by Spanish.

In Germany's Saterland region, it happens because people move out of the region and others move in, so mobility is another cause. Also after wars, because of refugees leaving, there are fewer people left in a region who speak a given language.

And at some point, regional languages weren't taught anymore in schools. And they stopped being spoken colloquially as well. People would say, 'Speak German, then it'll be easier for you.'

And that's how languages become endangered. Now we are trying to preserve languages but not only through the European Office for Regional and Minority Languages but also the local organizations.

Do you speak any minority languages?

Karl-Peter Schramm
Schramm represents Germany's minority languages in the EUImage: picture alliance/dpa

I am a Saterland Frisian, but I can't speak the language very well. It is very hard to speak. I wasn't born in the region, but have been living in the Saterland for 30 years and have been able to learn quite a bit.

Can you give us an example of Saterland Frisian?

If you ask 'Wie heißt du?' (What's your name?) it's 'Wo hats du?' in Saterland Frisian. And the answer is 'Ick hete Karl,' instead of 'ich heiße Karl' (My name is Karl) in German.

Interview: Silke Wuensch (cn)
Editor: Kate Bowen

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