Untangling language, intangible cultural heritage and rights

May 16, 2017 10:00 am

Language and culture are two elements that are embedded in an individual as footprints of her/his identity. On the one hand, culture is a complex collection of knowledge, beliefs, arts and letters, value systems, laws, customs, traditions, modes of life and any other capabilities and habits distinctive of a particular group (UNESCO, 1982, Tylor, 1986). However, culture should not necessarily be considered as an isolated product, but rather as an on-going process with undefined boundaries and various influencing factors (Donders, 2012, Fraser, 2015). On the other hand, language is the result of the ability to speak or sign, but language can also be defined as a set of conventions that has been adopted by a social group to allow individuals to exercise the faculty of speech (Saussure, 1966). Languages play an important role in society not only as bearers and transmitters of culture within a same community, but also as the channels through which identity is constructed and expressed across countries and regions (Nic Craith, 2010).  Taking this into account, we can say that language and culture are part of communities’ shared cultural heritage (CH).

[N.B. The following post is an extract of the author’s unpublished PhD research and it should be referenced accordingly]

Untangling language

The concept of (intangible) cultural heritage

Heritage is often defined as ‘what we value’, or ‘what we wish to pass on to future generations’. Heritage resources provide living communities with a sense of continuity with previous generations. They are important to cultural identity as well as to the conservation of the cultural diversity and creativity of humanity” (Deacon et al. 2004:7)

The concept of (tangible) cultural heritage was very much influenced by a Western approach, which understood heritage from a monumental and physical point of view (Deacon et al., 2004; Nic Craith, 2008). stones-1149008_1920UNESCO states that tangible cultural heritage (TCH) is comprised of architectural works, monumental sculpture and painting, archaeological elements or structures, inscriptions, cave dwellings, and other features, as well as groups of separate or connected buildings and works of humans which are of outstanding universal value from the point of view of history, art, or science (UNESCO, 1972; Fraser, 2015). It is for this reason that there is a distinction in the literature between tangible and intangible cultural heritage. Speaking about heritage in Europe in the 20th Century mostly implied referring to built heritage, which somehow solemnly symbolised History, memory and permanence. However, after the eclosion of globalisation, new voices shouted against the homogenisation effect of globalisation and claimed for the protection of local forms of heritage. It was in this context that a new interest on intangible cultural heritage became increasingly important (Deacon et al. 2004:7).

Intangible heritage has been defined as those aspects of heritage that, unlike places or objects, are ephemeral: these include oral traditions, languages, traditional performing arts, knowledge systems, values and know-how” (Deacon et al. 2004:7)

The concept of intangible cultural heritage (ICH) includes the means and practices, representations, memories, expressions, values, know-how, knowledge systems, skills—as well as the instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces associated therewith— that communities, groups, and individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage and may want to pass on to future generations (UNESCO, 2003; Deacon et al. 2004; Nic Craith, 2008; Fraser, 2015).women-365150_1920 More specifically, the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage mentions oral traditions and expressions, including language as a vehicle of the intangible cultural heritage, as well as performing arts; social practices, rituals and festive events; knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe; traditional craftsmanship, as the main categories that form ICH (UNESCO, 2003). It should be noted that there are currently two conventions on tangible (World Heritage Convention) and intangible cultural heritage (Intangible Heritage Convention) and, although this dichotomy is the result of the historical evolution of the concept of cultural heritage, society, academics and institutions will eventually need to reconcile both sides of this same coin.

Legal instruments protecting intangible cultural heritage

As highlighted by Deacon et al. (2004:5) most legal instruments that explicitly protect intangible cultural heritage are of international nature and are promoted through international organisations like UNESCO and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). Logan et al. furthermore explain that the UN does not play a direct role in the conservation of cultural heritage, although it does promote heritage conservation activities through UNESCO. These conservation activities include tangible heritage, such as in the case of management of museums or libraries, and intangible heritage (under the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Heritage), mainly through practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills (e.g. language, oral history, song, dance, music or intellectual property). However, although UNESCO does not hold the primary responsibility over the conservation of both tangible and intangible cultural heritage, all these initiatives for the promotion of cultural diversity and human rights do have an impact on cultural heritage’s protection, evolution and conception (Logan et al., 2010).

The adoption of the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Heritage, together with the increasing cultural tensions deriving from migration and globalization and the development of the United Nations and its agencies since the 1940’s, have given birth to a new debate on the relationship between cultural diversity, heritage and human rights (Logan et al., 2010). The link between these three concepts, however, has just started to be addressed by the scholarly community -which has rather studied them separately- and is still not very well understood by the heritage conservation profession (Logan et al. 2010).

Inangible cultural heritage & human rights


In order to trace the link between cultural diversity, heritage and human rights, it is necessary to understand the different layers underlying human rights, especially in regard of those rights referring to culture after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UN, 1948). Article 2 of the UDHR mentions culture and language very vaguely, suggesting that there should be no discrimination for the exercise of the rights described in such article based on race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status (Nic Craith, 2010). Article 22 on the other hand addresses culture in a more specific way and shows a tension between collective and individual rights (Logan et al., 2010; Nic Craith, 2010):

Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.

This tension has somehow been addressed by other UN instruments (Logan et al., 2010, Nic Craith, 2010), such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (UN, 1966), which in its article 27 states that:

In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practise their own religion, or to use their own language.

Article 5 of the Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity (UNESCO, 2001), another instrument developed under the umbrella of the United Nations, furthermore introduces the notion of cultural rights as human rights:

Cultural rights are an integral part of human rights, which are universal, indivisible and interdependent. The flourishing of creative diversity requires the full implementation of cultural rights as defined in Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in Articles 13 and 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. All persons have therefore the right to express themselves and to create and disseminate their work in the language of their choice, and particularly in their mother tongue; all persons are entitled to quality education and training that fully respect their cultural identity; and all persons have the right to participate in the cultural life of their choice and conduct their own cultural practices, subject to respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

The link between human rights and cultural rights has also been addressed from the lens of language rights. Language has been often identified either as a problem, like in highly nationalist contexts (Barbour and Carmichael 2000; McColl Millar 2005), or as an asset that needs to be protected as a means to protecting a minority in a context of asymmetry (Nic Craith, 2010). old-man-1739154_1920That is the case of policy instruments designed in the context of multilingual societies, such as the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (Council of Europe, 1992) in the European Union. The Charter, for instance, is aimed at promoting languages, rather than protecting language users from discrimination (Nic Craith, 2010). However, in the same context there are other instruments, such as the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (Council of Europe, 1995) or the Treaty of Lisbon (European Union, 2007), which focus on language users and not on languages themselves, and in which rights are conceived from an individual perspective (Nic Craith, 2010). Again, the tension between collective and individual rights arises and forces the question of whether linguistic human rights can be conceived to protect the balance between collective and individual interests (Nic Craith, 2010).

Nic Craith (2010) explains what are some of the main scholarly arguments addressing this issue. According to Nic Craith, de Varennes’ (2001) stand is that there is no contradiction between protecting the rights of minorities and protecting the human rights of individuals. Nic Craith continues explaining that the stand of Phillipson et al. (1995: 2) is that the individual and collective nature of linguistic human rights are equally important, since in combination they offer the possibility to guarantee the rights of individual speakers to use a language irrespective of its social consideration (minority or majority).

The individual or collective value attributed to language rights is also interrelated with the bond established between language and identity. This determines the scope and hierarchy of the rights that address language diversity and language use (Nic Craith, 2010). It is important to be aware of which perspective is taken in each policy instrument to understand to what extent language is conceived as a channel to allow holders of rights to exercise those rights (e.g. access public services, receive information, etc.) or as an asset that has to be protected and promoted for the sake of diversity, because this has an impact on the enforceability of linguistic rights as human rights.

A different argument that supports the need of drawing the lines and overlaps between human rights and cultural/language rights is that, despite the unifying potential of cultural heritage, often cultural/language rights are (mis)used at the expense of human rights (Logan et al. 2010; Nic Craith, 2010; Fraser, 2015). The hierarchy status and the conflict between individual and collective is even more relevant, especially in the events of groups claiming cultural practices to be acknowledged as intangible cultural heritage and/or human rights while other groups point out that those particular cultural practices actually violate human rights in some form (Logan et al., 2010). This is particularly evident in the case of cultural practices or expressions (e.g. female genital mutilation, forced marriages, honour crimes) that endanger or expose the rights of vulnerable groups, such as women or children (Moghadam & Bagheritari, 2007; Logan et al., 2010). In this sense, the Convention (UNESCO, 2003) states in its article 2 that it only covers intangible cultural heritage compatible with international human rights instruments (Fraser, 2015), “as well as with the requirements of mutual respect among communities, groups and individuals, and of sustainable development”. However, concern over this issue continues to be manifested (Kurin 2004; Logan 2007; Moghadam & Bagheritari, 2007; Logan 2008; Logan et al., 2010).

In any case, this is an issue that continues to be of utmost interest and which needs critical and constant reflection from all stakeholders. What are your thoughts? Do you think we will eventually see linguistic rights recognised as human rights? We hope you enjoyed the post and you found it useful.

[N.B. This post is an extract of the author’s unpublished PhD research and it should be referenced accordingly]

Written by Doris Fernandes del Pozo – Journalist, Translator-Interpreter and Communication Trainee at the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament. She is pursuing a PhD as part of the Communication and Contemporary Information Programme of the University of Santiago de Compostela (Spain).


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