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22 / 05 / 2004
Bernard Comrie: Catalan is an example of a disadvantaged language which has been culturally successful

The 141 Questions of the Forum (14): “Minority languages have less to say?” The linguists, Bernard Comrie and Irmela Neu, spoke in defense of the cultural richness of the world which is expressed in many ways, amongst them by the existence of thousands of languages. In their opinion, these languages are not ‘minority’ but ‘less spoken’.

Bernard Comrie, professor of Linguistics at the University of California and director of the Linguistics department of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, claimed that the ‘minority languages’ have “as much to say as the others”. Firstly, Comrie wanted to clarify what a minority language actually means. It is not the same for a minority language in France or Spain as it is in Papua New Guinea. In the latter country, which Comrie knows well from the fieldwork he has carried out there in past decades, there are more than eighty languages among a population of five million inhabitants. However, there are only about 1,000 speakers in some of these languages.

Comrie, who is participating in the debate “Linguistic Diversity, Sustainability and Peace”, said that an evaluation of the present situation of the world’s languages cannot be made: there are rare languages whose rights are perfectly well respected. In the Russian Federation, for example, independent states such as Tatarstan allow their mother tongue to be used in all situations. Comrie quoted the situation of other places, such as Turkey, where until a short time ago languages such as Kurdish could not be used in public. In his opinion, the future of many languages will depend on the younger generation learning them. As for Catalan, Comrie said it is one of the languages that has suffered the most historically, but that it has managed to be culturally successful.

Irmela Neu, professor of Linguistics at the University of Munich, emphasized that in Europe the term ‘minority language’ has a negative sense, as opposed to a ‘majority language’, or official language of the State. In his opinion, the results of the Catalan socio-linguistic research have replaced this term by the term ‘language less spoken’, which is more respectful and does not have ideological implications.