September 26, 2016 11:08 am
Since 2001 every 26th September we celebrate the European Day of Languages. Why do we celebrate a day like this? As stated by the Council of Europe, one of the aims of the European Day of Languages is to promote “the rich linguistic and cultural diversity of Europe, which must be preserved and fostered” . We have 24 official languages in the European Union – i.e. Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Maltese, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Slovak, Slovenian, Spanish, and Swedish -, which means that every EU citizen has the right to communicate in his/her own language. This fact turns the European Union into one of the most important linguistic institutions in the world. Actually, the European Union also works with other languages, such as Russian, Arabic, and Chinese.
However in the European Union there are not only 24 languages; there are many others in different regions and they are also important as part of Europe and part of the world, as they also have their own specific cultural features. This is why, “[o]f course, not only the 24 official languages are encouraged, but also the approximately 60 regional and minority languages spoken across the EU, as well as other languages used by various migrant communities that live in Europe” . So let’s present some facts about some of those languages that along with the 24 official languages are part of the European Union, particularly those that we can find in the outermost regions.
The outermost regions (ORs) are nine remote areas of the European Union, belonging to France (Guadeloupe, French Guiana, Réunion, Martinique, Mayotte and Saint-Martin), Portugal (the Azores and Madeira), and Spain (the Canary Islands). Because of their geographic particularities, their culture and language present features that differ from those that we can find on the European continent.
Let’s start by the most distant place: Réunion, an island located in the Indian Ocean near Magadascar. The official language of Réunion is French, like in the other French ORs. However, almost the whole population communicates in Reunionese Creole, and there are also important communities of speakers of Chinese, Comorian, Hindi, and Tamil. The Reunionese Creole is the native language of most of the population, and it appeared because of the contact of those languages, having a big influence over vocabulary from French, and also from Portuguese and Malagasy. Some researchers have divided this language into different types, depending on the area, or the group of people who speak it. Relatively close to Réunion we find Mayotte, where French is also the official language, although some people cannot communicate in it but in Maore, especially older population. Like many coastal places, we can also find communities of speakers of different languages, such as Comorian, Swahili, or Arabic.
Let’s move now to the American region. On the continent, French Guiana is located to north of Brazil, and French is the official language, but they especially speak French Guianese Creole, that has some similarities with Antillean Creole because of their vocabulary of African origin, but that has been more influenced by Brazilian Portuguese. In the Caribbean Sea, we can visit the rest of the French ORs. On the island of Martinique, where French is the official language, Creole resembles French a lot and it is the mother tongue of most of the population, but both languages can be learnt at school. It is very interesting to mention that in both Martinique and French Guiana it is possible to study Creole at university and to obtain a degree in a master course or a doctoral programme in the field. In Martinique there is also a group of researchers working on decoding the origins of their Creole: the Groupe d’études et de recherches en espace créolophone (GEREC).
Near Martinique we find Guadeloupe. On this island, apart from the official language, French, they have the Guadeloupean Creole, as well as some communities of speakers of Haitian Creole and English, and actually Guadeloupean Creole is considered to be a fusion of French, English, and African languages. Finally, we have the island of Saint Martin, where people speak Creole and have French as the official language – in the French part; the south, Sint Maarten, is the Dutch part, considered as a country under Dutch law. English is also commonly used.
Let’s see the Portuguese group: the Azores are located in the Atlantic Ocean, around 3 600 km east of North America. There people speak Portuguese, but a dialect of it: the southern dialect, also spoken in Madeira, an archipelago located in the Atlantic Ocean near the African coast. In both groups of islands Portuguese is the official language, and the dialect differs from the standard one, especially regarding phonetics, even from one island to another.
Finally, let’s present some details about the Spanish outermost region: the Canary Islands are seven islands located in the Atlantic Ocean, to the north-west of the Sahara, Africa. Spanish is the official language on the islands, but the variety spoken is also considered a dialect that differs from the standard and varies from one island to another in pronunciation and vocabulary, especially due to the contact with Portuguese and English merchants. Nowadays there is also a community of speakers of African languages. In the past, a Berber language called Guanche used to be spoken by natives, but it disappeared around three centuries ago. In order to avoid this with the vocabulary that still remains, anywhere in the world, any initiative to preserve language and culture is applauded. For example, on the Spanish islands we find CanariWiki, a termbase run by the Educational Department of the Regional Government. But probably the most curious linguistic fact in the Canary Islands is the Silbo Gomero. The Silbo Gomero is a whistled language of the island of La Gomera inscribed in 2009 on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, and there is a similar system in Turkey and Morocco, where it actually may come from. If you want to learn more about this European whistled language, just visit this UNESCO webpage where you can find a video.
The Silbo Gomero was introduced in schools in 1999, a great measure to prevent languages from disappearing. Indeed, languages are a precious treasure: we use them to communicate and they themselves communicate about culture and how people understand reality. So do not wait until next 26th September, and celebrate every day Europe’s linguistic richness!
Written by Ana Bennasar
Terminology trainee at TermCoord
Sources: Council of Europe, European Centre for Modern Languages: “What is the European Day of Languages?”.
– European Commission: Official EU Languages, 2016.
– European Commission: The Outermost Regions: European Regions of Assets and Opportunities, 2012.
– European Parliament: Outermost regions (ORs), 2015.
– Gobierno de Canarias: CanariWiki.
– InterActive Terminology for Europe (IATE).
– Leclerc, J.: “Guadeloupe”, L’aménagement linguistique dans le monde.
– Leclerc, J.: “Île Mayotte”, L’aménagement linguistique dans le monde.
– Leclerc, J.: “La Réunion”, L’aménagement linguistique dans le monde. Tuser, M.: IATE: The Official Terminology Database of the European Union (Master’s Diploma Thesis), Masaryk University, 2014, p. 8.
– United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO): “Whistled language of the island of La Gomera (Canary Islands), the Silbo Gomero”, 2008.
– Wikipedia: “Créole réunionnais”.
– Wikipedia: “French Guianese Creole”.
– Wikipedia: “Langues à Mayotte”.
– Wikipedia: “Langues en Martinique”.
– Wikipedia: “Lenguas guanches”.
– Wikipedia: “Portuguese dialects”.
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