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Unofficial Minority Languages - A Languages Of The World Primer

Mar 27, 2008
Although France is a signatory to the European Charter for Regional Languages, it has failed to ratify it because to do so would be in contravention of the current French constitution. In any event, it has been official French state policy since 1539 to promote French to the detriment of the other regional languages.

This primer only focuses on languages native to France so it excludes languages such as Portuguese and Arabic (in all its forms) spoken by large but more recent immigrant communities.

Some of the languages are spoken by very small minorities (such as Franco-Provencal, Ligurian, Picard) whilst others (such as Alsatian, Basque, Breton, Catalan, Corsican, Dutch, Luxembourgish, Occitan) are more or less dominant in their respective regions. Given the relative importance of the latter group of languages, some of them are the subject of separate primers and are not directly covered here.

It is an Alemanic German dialect spoken in the Alsace region. Whilst closely related to other Alemanic German dialects, such as Swiss German, Swabian and Badisch, it is not readily intelligible to speakers of standard German. A 1999 survey found that over half a million people spoke Alsatian in France. As is typical of declining languages, the bulk of the speakers are adults and fewer and fewer children are both learning and using it.

It is a Romance language spoken on Corsica. Classed as a southern Romance language, it has more in common with Sardinian and Italian than it has with French. According to UNESCO, the language is currently in danger of dying out and whilst official figures put the number of active speakers at around 400,000, 100,000 would probably be a more realistic number. Although the French government has promised to provide greater protection for the language as part of increased autonomy, for various political reasons nothing has been done.

Not to be confused with Provencal, which is a variant of Occitan, Franco-Provencal is a Romance language (also known as Arpitan) born in eastern France and Switzerland now spoken to varying degrees in France, Switzerland and Italy. Franco-Provencal never achieved the importance of French, Italian or Occitan and has little official protection outside the Aosta Valley (near Turin) in Italy. However, in recent times the language has declined significantly and is on the UNESCO endangered list. Official figures put the number of speakers at around 100,000 but some studies have indicated that it is significantly lower and declining at such speed that the language could become extinct in the coming decades.

The language is a Romance language that is very distinct from the other Romance languages spoken in France and has definite Italian features. In addition to being spoken along the Southern Mediterranean Coast of France (near Nice), it is spoken in pockets of Northern Italy (Liguria, Northern Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna), on the islands of Corsica and Sardinia and in Monaco. Indeed the local variety, known as Munegascu, has been adopted as an official language. It is, however, very difficult to come up with reliable statistics as to the number of active speakers and all signs point to the language being in a very precarious state.

Closely related to French, and often mistakenly taken for a French dialect, Picard is spoken in Picardie, the Pas-de-Calais as well as in parts of Belgium (it should not be confused with Walloon, which is a separate Romance language). Due to its geographical proximity, Picard has been heavily influenced by modern French but is nevertheless very distinctive, in particular phonetically speaking. Although it has no official recognition in France, Picard has been recognised as a regional language by Belgium's French Community since 1990. Although by no means extinct in the sense that it is very present in regional culture, the language is being increasingly confused with regional French and ever fewer people are able to speak it. How bad the situation actually is remains unclear as reliable statistics are very hard to come by.
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