Some Remarks on the Minority Languages Question

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Sun Oct 12 18:03:00 UTC 2008

Some Remarks on the Minority Languages Question

The recent posts on minority languages have elicited some interesting
comments. Commenting on The Record of Communist Language Policy,
silver, a Serb, notes:

In Eastern Europe, a similar thing occurred with the fall of the
Communist regimes. In general, nationalist regimes took their place
and quickly began attacking minorities and minority tongues. This has
been most pronounced in the former Yugoslavia. I'm not aware of
Serbian nationalists attempting to suppress Hungarian or Albanian.
Even throughout the supposedly nationalist Milosevic era I think
Hungarians were able to graduate university in Hungarian (and, of
course, Albanian in Kosovo). I'm pretty sure Albanian has fared better
in Macedonia under independence than during Yugoslavia; little-known
Vlach certainly has.

A new poster, A Jew Coming to Get You, who will be tolerated as long
as he behaves, notes:

A relevant book discussing Soviet nationality policy is called
Affirmative Action Empire. Regarding the Chinese dialects, dialect
speakers don't consider themselves members of a separate nation, hence
there is no demand for linguistic autonomy. In Taiwan the issue is
politicized, maybe it will become so in China if ever it becomes a

In Tibet (and in Xinjiang) you have a colonial situation which differs
substantially with the relationship between Mandarin and the smaller
Chinese dialects.

It's nice to hear that Milosevic's repression did not extend to
national languages. He kept the Tito position (that I had never heard
of) that allowed even Hungarians and Albanians to have all of their
education in their native tongue, all the way through university.
Impressive! And in Macedonia, while there have been serious problems,
the regime has tried very hard to accommodate the often-difficult
demands of local Albanians. And it's nice to hear that there is
support even for little-known Vlach.

I would not really call the Macedonian government an ultra-nationalist
regime, though. It's well-mixed with Macedonians and Albanians.
Allowing national minorities to have education their native tongue
seems shocking in a US context, but it's fairly common in Europe. Some
tongues even get to take university courses in their native language,
though that's not very common.

That book, Affirmative Action Empire, seems very interesting. The
now-dominant line that the USSR was uniformly hostile to all
non-Russian tongues was shown to be a lie. Nationalism for all of the
non-Russian nationalities was encouraged by Lenin to make them less
hostile to a revolutionary movement led by Russians.

Until World War, Russian nationalism, and not just Great Russian
chauvinism, was not only not promoted, but was actively discouraged.
Each large nationality was given its own republic, and many smaller
ones were given their own autonomous republics.

In many cities, the local nationality was not even the most common
nationality. In Tbilisi, Armenians were a majority for many years. In
Kiev and Minsk, it was Russians and Jews. Prague had a German
majority. Yerevan often had a Muslim majority.

The Soviets attempted to rectify this situation in their nation by
moving members of the national ethnic group into the cities to make
them a majority in their own cities. Amazing. These Communists could
be seen as champions of ethnic nationalism.

Alphabets, grammars, school texts, etc. were created for nearly every
tongue in the USSR. These were often the first attempts at literacy
for these languages. At the same time, national minorities were
expected to become proficient in Russian.

Attempts by local minorities to "become Russian" were actively
discouraged! Ukrainian nationalists will be loath to admit this, but
for years, a Ukrainization policy was actively encouraged. It is
interesting that this attempt was not very successful. Most Ukrainians
were not interested. They wanted a dual Russian-Ukrainian culture
rather than a Ukrainian one.

In terms of the Chinese minorities, most still live in places where
they form the majority. I think they all have a right to education in
their native tongue and I think most of these small languages are
still in very good shape.

The case with Mandarin and the other Chinese lects is different.
Although these are full languages and not dialects, the fact that they
are all Chinese is probably seen as evidence that they are competing
with Mandarin. Hence, it is true that they are discouraged, but they
all still have many speakers.

It is certainly true that Xinjiang and Tibet are colonial situations.

The aboriginal languages of Taiwan are not in good shape at all. Most
young people are speakers, but not very good speakers. They speak
aboriginal languages mostly with their grandparents, who are not very
proficient in Mandarin. The kids' education has been in Mandarin, and
this is the language they are most able to speak. I'm afraid that in
60 years, they might be history.

There are a few classes offered in aboriginal languages, but it only
boils down to 1-2 hours a week, and it's not really working. Taiwan
has no mother tongue education policy and for decades, aboriginal
tongues were suppressed by the Nationalists (fascists). What else is


Lee, Hui-chi Lee. 2004. A Survey of Language Ability, Language Use and
Language Attitudes of Young Aborigines in Taiwan. In Hoffmann,
Charlotte & Jehannes Ytsma (Eds.) Trilingualism in Family, School, and
Community pp.101-117. Clevedon, Buffalo: Multilingual Matters.
N.b.: Listing on the lgpolicy-list is merely intended as a service to
its members
and implies neither approval, confirmation nor agreement by the owner
or sponsor of
the list as to the veracity of a message's contents. Members who disagree with a
message are encouraged to post a rebuttal. (H. Schiffman, Moderator)

More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list