Language policies and language regimes

Language policies and language regimes

The ICELDS continues informing about the achievements of our partners’ project on territorial autonomy. The project “Securing a Balance in Interethnic Relations: Regional Autonomies, State Integrity and The Rights of Ethnic Minorities” was carried out by the group of researchers from the Perm University (Political Science Department) and the Perm Research Center of the Ural Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences (Department of Political Institutions and Processes). What kinds of language regimes and which decisions about the status of and opportunities for minority languages are most appropriate for the maintenance of the territorial integrity of a country with multi-ethnic population? This is the key issue of the monograph by Dr. Nadezhda Borisova, entitled “When languages are on fire: contestation of language regimes as a challenge to interethnic balance”.[1]

As a marker of ethnicity, language often performs as a source and fuel of ethnopolitical conflicts. Preferential language policy serves as a mechanism for their regulation and/or resolution. A strong language policy goes beyond the right to learn the minority language and speak it in private life. It usually envisages also its introduction as a means of communication in public sphere and administration. In other words, it involves the change of language mode from cultural to public one. The case of the Catalan language may serve as an example of this shift. Prior to the 1982 reform (and predominantly under the Franco rule), this language was widely used in private and family communication in Catalonia. However, Catalan lacked an official status and wasn’t a part of school curricula. Thus, “Catalans spoke, communicated, but could not write correctly in their native [Catalan] language” [2]. To counter this trend in the 1980-90s, the program on “standardization” (normalization) of the Catalan language was adopted. The language policy in Catalonia was conducted under the motto “Bring Catalan Back” [3].

Usually a language policy changes language regime, i.e. the community’s order of existence and reproduction in the context of routine, habitual and unchallenged rules and practices of the language use. There are two types of language modes: pooling regime and parting regime [4]. Language regime is a dynamically developing construct. It can be challenged in certain contextual settings and can become a part of political and power relations. Challenging a certain language’s status and capacities breaches the usual order. Thus, a language regime becomes an element of political interactions and power struggle.

Our research of the content and effects of language policies and the struggle for language at the regional level in Spain, the United Kingdom, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and India reveal that preferential language policies in different contexts and structural conditions generate different effects for maintaining territorial integrity and keeping balance in interethnic relations. Firstly, the logic of preferential policies ending up with a bilingual regime varies even when the composition of its addresses and the strength of their demands are more or less the same. The history of the struggle for the Welsh language somehow resembles the Catalan case. In Catalonia, the leading role in the politicization of language issues played intellectuals together with middle class and bourgeoisie (unlike in the Basque Country or Galicia). In Wales, the driving force in the politicization of the Welsh language were university professors, writers, publishers and clergymen, parents’ committees and civil society organizations. The difference is that in Catalonia the fulfillment of linguistic demands was a part of political and institutional regionalization. Moreover, the preferential language policy stemmed from the official recognition of the Catalan language and endowing it with the status equal to Spanish. As a result, Catalonia‘s educational system was switched to bilingualism with a dominant position of the Catalan language. On the contrary, in Wales the first steps were the inclusion of the Welsh language in school curriculum, introduction of bilingual road signs and the transfer to the bilingual judiciary. The recognition of the official status of Welsh on equal footing with English was the end and not the beginning of the story.

The examples of Catalonia and Wales show that language policies and related individual decisions significantly depend on the political context. In the case of Catalonia, the recognition of language became a part of the democratic transition, while further debates on the status of Catalan and Spanish in the 2000-10s were fostered by the conflict between Barcelona and Madrid.

The examples of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia demonstrate that both pooling and parting regimes can contribute to the territorial integrity of a political entity. However, there are still questions about the role of the language and, consequently, about the functions of preferential language policies (i.e. whether they were symbolic or pragmatic). A pooling language regime has evolved in ethnically heterogeneous parts of Serbia (especially in Vojvodina), and local communities sustainably perceive it as a legitimate and well-established order. Both the state (represented by the national, regional and local authorities) and consultative bodies (ethnic councils) are responsible for ensuring its effective functioning. The institutionalization of the pooling language regime is embodied in a functional multilingualism with a pivotal role of Serbian as the dominant language of interethnic communication. Currently, this regime rests not only upon the ethno-linguistic structure of the society and a strong historical tradition of multilingualism, but also on external impact (i.e. the kin-states and the European Union). The latter’s stances, resources and policies influence mainly a pragmatic rational individual choice, that in turn supports (and replicates) demands for institutionalized language preferences. In fact, these preferences are perceived by individuals and ethno-linguistic groups as sufficient and are not contested. The actual demands of multiethnic Vojvodina primarily concern socio-economic and financial domains. In this situation the ethno-regional parties, in fact, articulate the needs of the regional multiethnic community, rather than advocate separate minority claims.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the situation is different. Here, attempts are being made to build a new nation on the basis of the Bosnian language. However, Bosnian Croats and Serbs (both politicians and linguists) claim that there are Croatian, Serbian and Bosniak languages and refuse to acknowledge the existence of the Bosnian language. This approach blocks the integrative political role of language. It is essential that in their requests for the preservation of the glottonyms “Croatian” and “Serbian,” Bosnian Croats and Serbs appeal to their kin-states in which these languages have an official uncontested status also recognized by the international community. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, a titular language is a symbol of the political subjectness for all three constituent peoples. In this case, language does not unite the nation, but along with the external patronage rather maintains the status quo and thus ensures the territorial integrity of the country.

Indeed, the image of Bosnia and Herzegovina as an example of a parting language regime based on territorially segregated monolingual entities requires some clarifications. In fact, there are no language barriers there, because there are no significant differences at the communication level, except for different scripts (Cyrillic and Latin). Nevertheless, all three main ethnic groups insist that their languages are different. They accentuate and politicize these differences. In other words, language is not only a means of communication, but also a key political symbol there. Moreover, it is a bearer of an ethnic group’s history and literature. In particular, it concerns heroes, poets, writers and compilers of dictionaries, who all are seen as symbolic creators and guardians of the respective languages. It is possible to assume a gradual differentiation of these languages in the future. To this end, a political decision on changing the rules for the use of letters or scripts could be sufficient. Will political leaders and elites of the three constituent peoples make this decision? This is merely a question of their political intentions and a logic of their political contestation which ultimately targets the country’s integrity.

The global record of preferential language policies as a tool to ensure balance in inter-ethnic relations and to preserve territorial integrity is diverse and worth of further studies. Our research of institutionalization practices and effects of language policies in complex political entities once again confirms that the political significance of language manifests itself in its integrative and simultaneously divisive performance. At the same time, it is not a language itself that makes a society fragmented, but its political and institutional status as well as the perception of this status by its speakers.


[1] Борисова Н. 2017. Когда языки в огне: оспаривание языковых режимов как вызов балансу в межэтнических отношениях. Москва: Политическая энциклопедия, The book was issued as a part of the project “Securing a balance in interethnic relations: regional autonomies, the state integrity and the rights of ethnic minorities” supported by the Russian Science Foundation (Grant No. 15-18-00034).
[2] Interview No. 1; 26 October 2016; Barcelona, Spain [Author’s archive].
[3] Ibid.
[4] Carlá, A. ‘Living Apart in the Same Room: Analysis of the Management of Linguistic Diversity in Bolzano’, pp. 285-313, in: Ethnopolitics, no. 2, vol. 6 (2007)

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