Welcome to Linguis Europae, the EUC's language blog!

Linguis Europae is dedicated to a range of topics involving official state, regional, and minority languages in the EU. Posts are written in five languages by UI students and faculty! Check back regularly for updates!

Bridging the Gap: Language and Community in Action in East Central Illinois

Skye Mclean discusses the East Central Illinois Refugee Mutual Assistance Center (ECRIMAC), which provides services essential to refugee and immigrant resettlement in East-Central Illinois and aids in the exchange and preservation of their respective cultures.

Place and Space: Another Perspective on Crimea

Senior Andrey Starosin offers his perspective on the current events taking place in Crimea.

French Professor Revamps Course on "Language and Minorities in Europe"

Linguis Europae's own Zsuzsanna Fagyal and her course "Languages and Minorities in Europe" were featured in a recent issue of the School of Literatures, Cultures, and Linguistics.

Un'Ode al "Dialàtt Bulgnaiś": An Ode to the Bolgnese Dialect

Kaitlyn Russell muses on her fondness for the Italian dialect, Bolognese.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Russian-language Minorities in Latvia and Estonia: An Alternative Weapon in the Russian Arsenal?

by Eastman Klepper

Eastman Klepper is a graduate student in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Eastman will start working for the government after graduation and is interested in the Russian language and culture and the current use and future development of the conventional ground forces of the Russian Federation. He wrote this text as a student enrolled in 418 ‘Language and Minorities in Europe.’

Figure 1 Russian-speaking minorities in the Baltics (Image Source)
The Russian annexation of Crimea and the Russian-supported separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine have has become a major focus for the Baltic countries of Latvia and Estonia.  Due to their NATO membership, and active support “of Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, and other countries that have resisted Russia’s pressures” (Bugajski),  these two countries have become a prime focus of Russian activities to gain the support of the Russian-speaking minorities within the countries.  The ultimate goal of these activities is to spark social unrest, thereby averting the influence of the Western-supported governments of Estonia and Latvia.

Russia has a tendency to use military force in the region to ‘protect’ Russian-speaking minorities.  For instance, during the 2008 Russian-Georgian conflict, Russia utilized military force to ‘protect’ Russian-speakers/citizens in South Ossetia.  In 2014, Russia used a covert military force of ‘little green men’ without national insignia or markings in Crimea to “defend peaceful towns and villages" (Shevchenko). Both these scenarios are not viable options for Latvia and Estonia.  The most glaring reason is their membership in NATO, which has already stated that the “alliance would consider it a military attack under article five” (Borger & Harding), if Russia attempted a military operation similar to Crimea.

The new focus by Russia is to use both mass media and local organizations in Latvia and Estonia to intensify the already contentious debate over the position of the minority Russian-language within larger society.  Both Latvia and Estonia contain “sizeable Russian-speaking populations,” and in both countries Moscow claims they are “subject to discrimination and repression” (Bugajski). Based on population size, roughly 28 percent of Estonia’s population identify as Russian-speakers, while Latvia contains around six percent.

An area in which Moscow claims discrimination against the Russian-speaking minority is the “absence of any official status for the Russian language in Latvia,” as well as the requirement in Estonia for “Russians born before independence to pass an Estonian language exam” for citizenship (Borger & Harding). In Latvia, Russia has utilized their state-funded media that is widely viewed by Russian-speakers in the country as a way to exasperate issues related to language status. A recent statement by Latvia’s State Language Center, which urged people to use Latvian at work, was portrayed by Russian media “as a ban on use of Russian in workplaces in Latvia” (Baltic Times). Russian provocations towards Latvia became so rampant in early 2014 that the Latvian government went so far as to place a temporary ban on some Russian-language media outlets (Birnbaum). In the Estonian city of Narva, the University of Tartu’s Narva College reported that 90 percent of the residents speak Russian, and as a result they are strongly influenced by Russian media (Stratfor Global Intelligence).

Russia also supports organizations within both Latvia and Estonia who work to further the Russian-language cause.  In Estonia, a major issue to which the Russian-speaking minorities have objected is the requirement that 60 percent of instruction to students must be in Estonian, even in areas with a very high amount of Russian-speaking populations.  A major opponent to this is the Russian-financed Russian School in Estonia, which has organized student protests in front of government buildings, as well hosting forums intended to unite the Russian-speaking minority against the official government policy (Vedler). Groups, such as the Headquarters for Support of Russian Schools, have been very active in demonstrating against similar educational requirements in Latvia.  One of the recent language protests in Riga was supported by MEP (Member of the European Parliament) Tatyana Zdanoka who is currently under investigation by Latvian security agencies for “being a Russian agent of influence in Latvia and the European Parliament" (Musch).

So what can Latvia and Estonia do to curb this attempt by Russia?  Both countries have already begun work on a Russian-language media outlet which will be used to counter the disinformation campaign by Russia.  While it will not be the ultimate answer to the issue, it does present a two-fold win for both countries: first, as designed, it will present an alternative view of situations affecting the Russian-speaking minority; second, the target audience could see it as an attempt by the government to indulge their specific needs as a language minority; although some might claim that it could also be viewed as just a mouth-piece for the government.

Both countries also need to address the two major issues that Russia claims are held over the Russian-speaking minorities: citizenship policies and educational language instruction.  Both Latvia and Estonia require those who wish to gain citizenship to have the ability to communicate in the official state language.  Why not either remove that obstacle or add Russian as an official minority language?  I understand that both Latvian and Estonian were repressed languages during the Soviet period, but it makes prudent sense to do this, as it would allow for the Russian-language minority to become citizens—and Russia has less claim to defending Latvian or Estonia citizens.  Furthermore, both countries need to look at altering their language education requirements.  Instead of the 60 percent requirement for Latvian/Estonian language instruction, why not format these languages as required classes during secondary school, no different than say a course in history or science?  That way the Russian-speaking minorities are presented with state-language instruction, but are still able to take the remainder of courses in Russian.  Both of these recommendations are drastic and will no doubt bring a fair share of criticism.  However, by making Russian an official minority language and allowing educators in Russian-speaking areas to instruct in Russian, both Latvia and Estonia will weaken, if not eliminate, the argument that Russian-speakers need protection.  This will consequently invalidate any excuse the Russians could use for military action.

Works Cited

Birnbaum, Michael, “In Latvia, Fresh Fears of Aggression as Kremlin Warns about Russian Minorities,” washingtonpost.com, September 27, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/in-latvia-fresh-fears-of-aggression-as-kremlin-warns-about-russian-minorities/2014/09/26/b723b1af-2aed-44d1-a791-38cebbbadbd0_story.html

Borger, J., and Luke Harding, “Baltic States Wary as Russia Takes More Strident Tone with Neighbors,” theguardian.com, September 18, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/sep/18/baltic-states-wary-russia-strident-estonia-latvia-lithuania-nato

Bugajski, J., “The Baltics Confront Moscow’s Ambitions,” the-american-interest.com,  October 3, 2014, http://www.the-american-interest.com/2014/10/03/the-baltics-confront-moscows-ambitions/

Musch, S., “Russian Speakers Protest in Riga for Preservation of Their Language,” euroviews.eu, April 13, 2014, http://www.euroviews.eu/2014/2014/04/13/russian-speakers-protest-in-riga-for-preservation-of-their-language/

“Russia Looks at Protests in the Baltics,” Stratfor Global Intelligence, April 10, 2014, https://www.stratfor.com/analysis/russia-looks-protests-baltics

“Russian Media Claims that Russian Language Banned in Latvian Workplaces,” baltictimes.com, January 20, 2015, http://www.baltictimes.com/russian_media_claims_that_use_of_russian_banned_in_latvian_workplaces/

Shevchenko, V., “Little Green Men’ or ‘Russian Invaders?” BBC.com, March 11, 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-26532154.

Vedler, S., Divide and Conquer in Estonia,” rebaltica.lv, March 20, 2012, http://www.rebaltica.lv/en/investigations/money_from_russia/a/610/divide_and_conquer_in_estonia.html

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Monday, September 7, 2015

Platt is Back: the Rejuvenation of Low German

by Andrew Schwenk

Andrew Schwenk is a first year graduate student in European Union Studies at the University of Illinois at Urana-Champaign. Andrew is planning on graduating in December 2016 and is interested in heritage management in Europe. He wrote this text in 418 ‘Language and Minorities in Europe.’

Image Source
In Thomas Mann’s perpetually popular debut novel from 1901, Buddenbrooks, the German author helps make the Buddenbrook family’s unnamed hometown more real through the language he uses. The novel’s characters use a mixture of Standard German, Low German, Lübeck merchant slang, and French. All of this helps situate the family in their mid-19th century, northern German (Low German), upper-class (French) context (Wolf). If Thomas Mann was born a century later, however, would he still use Low German to give his characters their north German credentials? And what even is Low German anyway?

Low German, known in German as Plattdeutsch, is a German dialect located in the north of Germany. It was very widespread in the Middle Ages, where it was the language of the Hanseatic League—a union of city states that traded along the Baltic coast. Over time, these Baltic trade routes lost their importance and more southerly German dialects became preferred. This trend only increased when Martin Luther published the first German-language Bible in 1534 in High German. Low German’s importance continued to decrease in the 18th and 19th centuries, as the German of Luther’s Bible became the educated standard throughout the German-speaking lands. As a result, use of Low German became associated with the uneducated (Young Germany).

Since 1999 Plattdeutsch has been protected under the European Charter of Regional and Minority Languages and has been recognized as a regional language in Schleswig Holstein and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (Schleswig-Holstein). This recognition has resulted in Low German being included as a topic in northern German schools and universities (Finetext). This is a very important change that will bolster Low German’s chances of survival, if even by a little bit. The Charter has helped the language in other ways as well.

According to Article 1 of the Charter, “regional or minority languages” means languages that are different from the official language(s) of the State (ECRML).” This would seem to suggest that Low German, since it is protected by the charter, is considered more a separate language than merely a dialect of High German. Does this seeming recognition of Low German as its own separate language mean that it can overcome its previous reputation as a language of the uneducated and gain a new legitimate status?

Image Source
Today, there are approximately 700,000 speakers of Plattdeutsch in the northern German states of Schleswig-Holstein, Bremen, Hamburg, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, and Lower Saxony (Young Germany). As many as 10 million people across these northern states can at least understand it (of approximately 16 million inhabitants in this region) (Ethnologue). Among those with some ability in Low German, it is often the older generations and those who live in more rural locations who have more knowledge of the language (Schleswig-Holstein).  If Low German is to survive and remain healthy, it has to overcome this demographic challenge by appealing to youth culture.

There have been some attempts in the last few years to do just that. The Institut für Niederdeutsche Sprache and the Plattdüütsch Stiftung Neddersassen have launched one such program called “Plattsounds.” With the motto “Platt is cool,” this program lets musicians of 15-30 of age living in Lower Saxony enter an original song in any language to be translated in Plattdeutsch into the contest. The contest’s prize is 1000 Euros (Young Germany). The success of Platt-singing bands such as Tüdelband and the hip-hop act Fettes Brot point to the allure of such a contest (Goethe Institut).  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fLLyROmZkkw

While Plattdeutsch’s reach has shrunken since its medieval heyday and faces some modern demographic challenges, there is hope for this regional language. With the support of the ECRML, the German school system, and the Institut für Niederdeutsche Sprache and the Plattdüütsch Stiftung Neddersassen, among other institutions, Low German is making a comeback. Maybe when the next great German novelist decides to represent her life in northern Germany, she does it in Plattdeutsch.

Works Cited

"Das Plattdeutsche." Schleswig-HOlstein. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Mar. 2015.

Die Tüdelband - Sommerkinner (Official Video). Perf. Die Tüdelband. Youtube. N.p., 15 Sept. 2014. Web. 
       27 Mar. 2015.

"European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages." Council of Europe. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Mar. 2015.

"Finetext." The Changing Fortunes of Low German: From Dialect to Literary Language. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 
       Mar. 2015.

"German Dialects: The Sound of Plattdeutsch." Young Germany. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Mar. 2015.

"Platt Ist Modern – Ein Paar Einblicke." Goethe Institut. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Mar. 2015.

"Saxon, Low." Ethnologue. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Mar. 2015.

Wolf, Ernest M. "Scheidung Und Mischung: Sprache Und Gesellschaft in Thomas Manns Buddenbrooks." 
       Orbis Litterarum. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Mar. 2015.

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