Language, Ethnicity,
and the State:
Minority Languages
in the EU
Ch1: Introduction: Minority
Languages…in the EU
By Camille C. O’Reilly
The changing political climate
• By end of 20th c, ethnicity & nationalism
displaced class as defining political issues
• Culture, ethnicity, nation are key to modern
identity politics, but they need to be defined
Ethnicity: a “natural” part of
being human
1) Common proper name
2) Myth of common ancestry
3) Shared historical memories
4) Common culture, customs, or language
5) A homeland
6) Group solidarity
Three approaches to ethnicity
• Primordialist:
– Ethnic identity is ancient, essential
• Instrumentalist:
– Ethnic identity is a resource
• Constructivist:
– Ethnic identity is a modern construct of social
All three have their advantages and disadvantages…
“State” and “Nation”
• State -- a contiguous demarcated territory
within which all citizens are subject to same
• Nation -- a state that is ethnically, culturally,
and linguistically homogeneous
– [note of disagreement -- there are nations that
do not have states!]
– Shared culture gives legitimacy to nation
Primordialist vs. Constructivist
• It is true that nationalism is a modern
ideology motivated by industrialization
• It is also true that many ethnic groups can
claim significant time depth
Gellner’s zones
• Zone 1: Atlantic coast (Lisbon, Madrid, Paris,
London) -- uniform culture coincided with state in
medieval times -- little change required to adjust
to nationalism (except: Ireland)
• Zone 2: Holy Romany Empire (Germany, Italy) -historic fragmentation made unification a pressing
need -- strong destructive nationalism developed
The role of language
• As nationalism developed, language was
seen as essential to unification of the state
• Some languages became the languages of
state, others became minority languages
• Minority languages had no place in the
ideology of “1 nation, 1 state, 1 language”
and became stigmatized and disadvantaged
What dilemmas do
minority languages face?
• In order to assert their rights and be economically
viable, speakers of a minority language must learn
and express themselves in the majority language
• By using a majority language, minority speakers
are endangering their own language
• A minority will be lost if not strongly supported
by the state, especially in the education system
• Minority languages add up to tens of millions in
EU and multilingualism
• Member states identify strongly with their various
state languages (thus EU monolingualism is
• Support of multilingualism is advantageous for
minorities, but there has been little concrete action
or support
• Little funding is available, and is spent mainly on
multilingualism for the state languages
What problems are there with the
Council of Europe Charter on Regional
or Minority Languages?
• Not legally binding
• Does not define minority language, but sets
standards according to European heritage,
territory, and distinctiveness
• Gives no list of minority languages
• Just a set of priorities -- states can choose
what they want to implement
Nationalism and Globalization
• Despite nationalistic pressures for
homogeneity, multilingualism is on the rise
• “2 ± 1” – what does this stand for?
– State language speakers also speak English
– Minority language speakers speak state
language + English
W vs. E Europe
• W Europe has moved on
from homogenization, and
now lays more focus on
regional identity and
linguistic diversity
• E Europe is still pursuing
homogenization, with
some destructive effects

Langugage, Ethnicity, and the State