What are minority languages?
Europe has many languages which are not main languages of a country. Some of these languages have come to the continent only through migration in recent decades, but many others have been spoken here for many centuries. Some of these so-called autochthonous minority languages are used by hundreds of thousands or even several millions of people and have official status in one or several regions – e.g. Catalan or Basque in Spain or Welsh in the UK. Others are spoken only by a few hundreds or thousands of speakers and are by far less stable – for instance Breton in France, Sorbian in Germany, or Rusyn in Poland, Slovakia, Ukraine and other countries.
Often, growing up with or in a language other than the majority language is closely related to having an identity as part of an ethnic group different to the majority population. Other languages, however, are very similar to the main languages of the country where they are used, and their speakers would usually not consider themselves to be part of a distinct ethnic group. Among these regional collateral languages are, for example, Scots in the UK, Kashubian in Poland, or Low German in Germany.
The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages is an important document by the Council of Europe with the aim to protect autochthonous languages, develop them into fully fledged contemporary means of communication, save the smaller of these languages from becoming extinct, and generally enable the speakers of minority languages to live their lives in the languages of their choice. In this spirit, many NGOs, research organisations, and educational institutions such as schools or universities carry out educational, promotional, and political activities. They try to maintain and develop language diversity, pass cultural heritage on to the next generations, and aim to empower speakers of minority languages to find equality among the languages of Europe.
The languages of the OWL+ project
For this purpose, the OWL+ project gathers researchers and educators who work on four different autochthonous minority languages: South Saami in Norway (also spoken in Sweden), West Frisian in the Netherlands, Mirandese in Portugal, and Latgalian in Latvia. These have been chosen in order to represent different regions in Europe and a diversity of situations: South Saami has only very few speakers, but receives some notable support, not least from Nord University, the partner from Norway involved in this project. West Frisian has enjoyed the status of an official language in the province of Fryslân for many decades, and the partner Fryske Akademy/Mercator has been one of the leading players in working with minority languages in Europe for a long time. Mirandese, on the other hand, is a small, regionally-bound language that has only recently received more attention – the project partner CIDLeS advises on the early efforts to document the language and create resources. Latgalian, finally, is a collateral regional language close to Standard Latvian which, however, struggles to receive even a limited level of official support, in spite of Rēzekne Academy of Technology’s decade-long efforts in language development.