Esperanto Congress: speech of Y. Peteers



Dr Yvo PETEERS, International academy of language law (Brussels)


It may be argued that Law and language have not much in common and the latter is the sole domain of the speakers, writers or linguists for that matter. This does however not take into due account the overriding impact of the modern state on contemporary society. As soon as the "state" in its functional sense appeared – with frontiers, armies, burocracies and its power structures the rulers wanted to regulate language use. The principle of that kind of policy was synthesised in the adagium "cuius regio cuis lingua". Thus as early as 1539, the French King ordered french to be the only official language in his realm, although at that time it was only the mother-tongue of barely a third of its inhabitants. The King of Spain quickly followed suit.

Since then, the obsession of the monolingual state has been one of those utopias continiously pursued by those in power all over the world. The language policy of the French revolutionaires epitomises the most harsch examples.

Today, decolonisation has created a multitude of states and it may be clear that the monolingual state will forever stay a utopia, even if in the mind of politicians this selfevidence has not yet appeared fully. Only 9% of the Member States of the United Nations can rightly be called monolingual. They include such states as Portugal, Iceland, Bahrein, Qatar, Bhutan, etc …

Today the statutory recognition of multilinguism has become inevitable. The utopia cannot live on. It is not sufficient to let everything be governed by traditional usage, which means, the rule of the strongest. For in such matters it is always necessary to remind one of the phrase of the French revolutionary Lacordaire: "Between the weak and the strong, freedom oppresses and the Law sets free.

This is particularly true in matters of Language.

So, many constitutions and Laws in many states contain language provisions, establishing language "regimes", creating categories of languages and defining their statute.

This has in reality given birth to a new scientific discipline, "language law" (Sprachenrecht, droit linguistique) which found its conse-cration in the Foundation of the "International Language Law", in 1985.


2.1. The Legal instruments

It is possible to establish language rights through the complete array of legal instruments: written law, customary law and jurisprudency.Formally they can be established through treaties (Cyprus), International agreements (Aaland, German-Danish Declaration, Lausanne Treaty) but generally they are embedded in the constitutions of States and consequently implemented through Laws, decrees, and other regulations. They can be elaborated through jurisprudence, but it is rather rare (e.g. Switzerland).

2.2. What languages ?

Once the legal instruments defined; it has to be established to which languages (or if one prefers to which speakers of which languages) they will be applied. As simple as this question may seem from the outset, in reality it often is a very difficult issue, sometimes (ab) used by politicuans to refuse the concept of language rights at all.

The distinction between language and dialect,not to speak of so-called "patois", the artificial standardisation of variants of languages (Corsican, Galican, Moldavian, Luxemburgian, Macedonian, etc.) are all part of the problem. This aspect does of course not interfere with the validity of the legal instruments dealt with before and even not basically with the typology of the statutes described herafter. Subjectively however a contested language will sometimes harm the cred ibility of certain language statutes.

2.3. What statutes ?

2.3.1. The official language

This is the language through which the state and its organs function, justice is rendered, education is given. A state can have two or more coofficial languages (Switzerland, Belgium, Canada, etc.)

2.3.2. The national language

This is the language which historically determined the identity of its people and this is given a particular legal status by the state, although this language may not be the most widely spoken language in that state. The first state to make this distinction was Ireland (for Gaelic) fol lowed by Switzerland (for Romanche) and later by Malta (for Maltese) in Europe. After decolonisation, many African, Asian and Latin American states declared some of their local languages to be their national languages/s), but kept the former colonial languages as well as official languages.

2.3.3. Auxiliary language

Some states have – declared or undeclared – auxiliary languages, which are neither national nor official (at least according to the law). The best example is Luxemburg, which rubberstamped its local german dialect to be the national language, declaring a foreign language – french – to be almost official and downgrading its former official language – German – to a mere auxiliary status.

2.3.4.Languages with a territorially restricted statute Non-Hierarchical

The languages are jointly all official languages of the state but are each used as sole offical language in a part of the territory of the state (e.g. Switserland, Belgium). Hierarchical

A particular official language for, the whole state is supplemented by another language which is only official in part of that state (Italy, Spain). In that area the state language usually takes precedence. Only in the case of the Aaland Islands and possibly the F„roer-Islands does the local language take precedence or is even quasi-exclusive as in the former.

3. Territorialy or personality

In multilingual states two basic systems can be implemented;

Either the state is plurilingual in its totality, and it are the citizens, who identify themselves with one of the languages (E.g. Malta, Luxemburg) or the state is divided into territories, which each have their official language (e.g. Belgium, Finland, Switzerland, Tchecoslavakia, Yugoslavia).

The two systems may coexist as in Belgium, where the bilingual
of Brussels belongs to the first category and the rest of the country to the second. (Flanders = Dutch / Wallonie = French)

4. National versus international

Not all states have gone so far as in the above-described possible framework. Some of the states even deny flatly that there are minorities in their territory, or even when not outright denying the very existence of other language communities, do not recognize them any rights.

Language activists have thus turned to international bodies with their claims and tried to obtain some recognition on that level. A particular form of international recognition of language rights is the bilateral treaty, where those rights are granted mostly on a reciprocal basis for each state’s minorities. The Danish-German agreement of 1952 is one of the most known cases, but also the Austrian-Italian (Gruber-De Gasperi) agreement on South Tiro] (1946) may be quoted as well as the Italo-Yugoslav treaty of Osimo (1976). The new German-Polish treaty will also contain minority clauses.

To a certain extend the agreement between the United Kingdom and Ireland of 1985 may also be considered in this section. However the main thrust in international codification of language rights took place in European Institutions such as the Council of Europe, and the European Parliament. In their rispective work those Institutions determinated four main fields in which language rights should be secured to all citizens. They are:

– Administration
– Education- Information
– Justice

The main instruments which try to implement these principles are the European Convention on Regional and Minority Languages (Council of Europe) and five resolutions of the European Parliament, which however have only a moral force.

5. Conclusion

Language is power. Power has to be regulated, unless one accepts domination as anarchy. In this perspective it is necessary that all multilingual states create the sequired legal standards through which the individual and collective language rights of its citizens are secured.

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