Protecting Language Minorities: Europe’s Path and the Case of Italy

“The Republic safeguards linguistic minorities by means of appropriate measures”, states article 6 of the Italian constitution proposed by Tristano Codignola, ratified in 1947. Thanks to this article, linguistic heritage is protected in Italy. 

The intention of the members of the Italian constituent assembly was to ensure the survival of linguistic minorities. Moreover, the article marked a change in direction for the Italian administration. Indeed, it represented a reversal of the nationalistic attitude that had characterised fascism. However, this issue goes back further than fascism; generally, in the past; regional languages were seen as a threat to national unity. Multilingualism was seen as divisive. This is why during the 18th and 19th century, standardised languages were imposed in several countries to boost nationalism in several countries. This article, together with others included in the constitution, protects plurality against any form of discrimination based on language, religion, sex, political orientations, or personal conditions. 

Many of the constitutions adopted by European countries in the aftermath of WWII, such as the Italian one, provide for measures to protect linguistic minorities. One of the most striking examples is the case of Spain. Its constitution, adopted in 1978, not only provides for particular features as regards to regionalism, but it also strongly safeguards linguistic pluralism through various principles. Indeed, thanks to article 3, some of the autonomous regions, such as Catalonia, Valencia, Basque Country and Galicia enjoy a degree of autonomy that allows two official languages. This article states that Castilian is the official state language, meaning that “all Spaniards have the duty to know it and the right to use it”. Moreover, it allows local communities to recognise their own languages according to their statutes. The legacy of different languages is defined as a cultural heritage, which requires special respect and protection. 

Spain is just an example of a trend that involves all European countries. It is estimated that at least 40 million citizens in the European Union regularly use a regional or lesser-used language. JCER, Journal of Contemporary European Research, estimates that 60 or more European regional languages are currently spoken.

Language protection has become a priority not only for single nation states, but for the European Union as well. In 1992, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe adopted the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages (ECRML), which entered into force in 1998. On the other hand, Article 3 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU) stipulates that the EU shall respect its rich linguistic diversity. Another step towards European protection of lesser-used languages is the resolution adopted by the European Council for the promotion of linguistic diversity and language learning. These are just a few of the resolutions and initiatives taken by the Union for the preservation of languages that are not official at the state-level. 

With regards to Italy, the official language of the state is Italian. However, twelve other languages are also recognised. These are: French, Occitan, Franco-Provençal, German, Friulian, Slovene, Sardinian, Catalan, Arberesh (a variant of Albanian), Greek, and Croatian. Furthermore, Italy also possesses a vast diversity of dialects and regional languages. Indeed, regions, local areas, municipalities and villages all have their own language, centuries old languages.

It is, therefore, safe to say that Italy is a country with a wealth of traditions, cultures and linguistic identities. Language is a crucial communication tool able to bring people together but it needs to be appropriately valued. According to a European Parliament briefing of 2016, the richness of human expression has been diminishing over the past years.This was caused by a number of factors, the main one being, the pressure of dominant language population, which often determines the extinction of minor languages. The UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger estimates that, since 1950, almost 4% of the world’s languages have disappeared.

Given its huge linguistic diversity, is Italy  and its legislation  able to support local languages? Is linguistic diversity actually appreciated as it should according to the constitution? The principle contained in article 6 is translated into a number of different measures undertaken by various institutions. In Italy, there are diverse laws governing the protection of languages.

One of the most important is Law n. 482 promulgated in 1999, “Norms regulating the protection of language minorities”. Article 2 of the Law expressly states the significance of the languages recognised in Italy. Moreover, it also establishes the need to respect article 6 of the constitution and the general principles of European and International organisations, adhering to the principle of openness. Municipalities are allowed to use their second language in pre-schools and schools for teaching, in accordance with the decrees of the Ministry of Public Education. Moreover, article 10 of ‘said’ law states that these municipalities can also deliberate the adoption of place names compliant to the local customs and language. 

Among the main examples of language protection are Trentino-Alto Adige, Valle D’Aosta, and Friuli-Venezia Giulia, three of five regions that have “a statuto speciale” (special statute). These regions have a higher level of autonomy compared to ordinary regions, and their statutes provide for measures to protect German, French, Ladin, and Slovenian minorities. 

In 2017, the Chamber of Deputies approved the draft of a bill regarding the Ladin minority which was ratified by the Senate. Ladin is a Romance language mainly spoken in northern Italy, especially in the provinces of South Tyrol, Trentino, and Belluno. Its name derives from “latin”, as it is a form of Vulgar Latin.

However, in the past, Ladin protection has not always been guaranteed. In 1918, after the end of WWI, Italy annexed the southern part of Tyrol, including Ladin-speaking areas. At the time, Italian nationalists disparagingly referred to Ladin as a dialect. However, Ladin speakers rejected this definition. They had suffered at the hands of the fascist regime’s Italianisation process initiated by fascism. For example, fascists began to change Ladin place names into their Italian equivalent. 

Indeed, the “Italianisation” pursued by fascism was an attempt to force the use of the Italian language, but it also attempted to prohibit the use of dialects. Ideologically, fascists aimed to enhance centralism and the control of the regime over the whole country. 

After the fall of fascism, the original place names were introduced once again in the relevant areas and regions. In some territories, such as in some territories of Trentino-Alto Adige and Friuli-Venezia Giulia, regions adopted a “perfect” bilingualism. 

Although Italy has signed the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, it has yet to ratify it. At the same time, the Ladin Autonomist Union and the Fassa Association have sought more rights for Ladin speakers. In the 1970s, South Tyrol, established a system called “ethnic proportion” to guarantee the proportionate allocation of minority-language speakers in the public job market. 

In conclusion, since language is such a powerful communication tool and way of expressing one’s identity, it should be protected and valued both by citizens and governments. The language we speak reflects our roots and our local history. This is why it has the power to bring people together. Divisions, instead, are not based on the language people choose; they are created by people’s interests. A country’s linguistic diversity is never an element of destabilisation per se. Ultimately, everyone has the right to their precious legacy of their language. The duty of governments is to produce laws on measures that can guarantee it.

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