Languages Find a Friendly Ear in Dublin

Associated Press

On Diarmaid Breathnach's desk at the European Bureau for Lesser Used Languages sits a publishing first--a Breton-Irish dictionary.

Breton and Irish are just two of two dozen minor European languages that find a friendly ear at the bureau's headquarters in an elegant back street of Dublin.

Breathnach, 26, is the bureau's administrator and a leader by example who can switch effortlessly between Irish and English, his country's two official languages. His name in English would be Dermot Walsh, but like any good Gael, he makes a point of spelling his name the Irish way.

Set up by the European Economic Community in 1983, the bureau's job is to keep a place in the Eurobabble for minority languages which, however obscure, are still spoken by up to 50 million people.

Powerful Tool

Some might dismiss the lesser used languages as more linguistic clutter in a 12-nation political bloc that already conducts its business in nine languages.

But to their defenders, minority languages are a powerful instrument for preserving a cultural separateness in a Europe that wants to standardize everything from school history books to the size of rear lights on tractors.

As the Dublin bureau's newsletter points out, the minority languages "are an integral part of the cultural heritage of Europe. They include some of the oldest languages of Europe with a rich literature and folk tradition."

Indigenous minority languages stubbornly ignore modern borders. Euskara is spoken by Basques in southern France and northern Spain. Occitan and Franco-Provencal straddle France and Italy. German hardly seems like a minority tongue, but it is to those in Denmark, Italy and Holland who still insist on speaking it.

Language Used as Weapons

Britain has four languages listed by the bureau as lesser used--Welsh, Scottish, Cornish and Irish. Italy has 12--Albanian, Catalan, Croatian, French, Franco-Provencal, Friulan, Greek, Ladin, Occitan, Sardinian, Slovene and the Gypsy tongue called Rom.

France has seven--or eight, if Alsace and Lorraine ever settle a longstanding dispute over whether their languages are different or the same.

Countries outside the European Economic Community also have minority languages. Romansch, although spoken by only 1% of the Swiss, is one of that country's four official languages. Lappish speakers from Arctic Sweden, Norway and Finland regularly turn up as observers at conferences organized by the bureau.

In some countries, minority languages are weapons in separatist struggles, as in the Basque country, Wales and Brittany. Irish may be the Irish Republic's official language, but in British-ruled Northern Ireland it raises the hackles of the fiercely pro-British Protestant majority.

Day-to-Day Recognition

When the bureau was set up four years ago, it settled in Dublin because Ireland was the only country in the European Economic Community whose premier official language, Irish, also qualified as a minority tongue.

Since then, however, Ireland has been joined by tiny Luxembourg, which made Letzeburgische its official tongue in 1984.

The custodians of minority languages spend most of their time campaigning for day-to-day recognition--the right to broadcast, write checks or file election papers in their native tongue.

These quarrels can go on for decades, as Holland's Frisian nationalists found in their struggle to register election candidates in Frisian rather than Dutch.

The 1983 European Parliament resolution that set up the bureau appeals to member governments to accommodate regional differences by redrawing district boundaries.

No Politics, Please

It asks for schools, local media and courts to use the minority language where appropriate, and for laws discriminating against minority languages to be reviewed.

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