What are contested languages?

We’ve heard of minority languages, indeed, Welsh is a minority language, but is recognised and supported as such, and there are lists of endangered languages, but there’s another category:   contested languages. Contested languages are languages which are sufficiently linguistically different from the main language of the country where they are spoken, to be categorised as separate languages, but have not gained official language status, often being classified as dialects. Most contested languages are also endangered languages, and they are as such listed in the UNESCO Atlas of endangered languages, published in 2010.

A conference at Bangor University next week (8-10 September), will bring a range of experts to discuss the fate of these languages.

Dr Marco Tamburelli of Bangor University’s School of Linguistics- himself a speaker of Lombard- a contested language is one of the Conference organisers and explains:

“In the UK Scots was a contested language, until it was recognised by the Scottish Parliament. My own mother tongue (?) Lombard is recognised by UNESCO as an endangered language as it is linguistically different to Italian but is not recognised as a minority language in either Italy or Switzerland, where it is natively spoken.

“People assume that the issue of minority languages has been dealt with- we know where they are and so forth, but there are other languages that may be slipping through the net and in danger of being lost. This may be because of a variety of historical, political or economic reasons.

In some cases, there are millions who speak the language- but they do not have access to education, services and so forth in the language. For example, there is no more linguistic difference between, say, Galician and Spanish that between Asturian and Spanish and yet Asturian is not recognised as a minority language in Spain, although it is spoken by more than a hundred thousand people.

The Conference brings together linguists with political scientists and legal experts to discuss these issues and the way forward.  These languages need to be identified before a true process of language rights and recognition can be established.

The Conference will hear a keynote speech from Prof. Christopher Moseley, author of the UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger.

Dr Tamburelli said: “One of my ideas in arranging this Conference in Wales was to highlight the recent success of the Welsh language, to celebrate the Welsh language and encourage speakers of contested languages to strive for the same achievements we have seen in Wales.”

Find out more...

Find out more at the new International Research Group on Contested Languages website.

Publication date: 6 September 2013