Minority Languages and Territorial Rights (i): Questioning the Territory-Language Link

Introduction of Minority Languages and Territorial Rights, my first entry at the Global Encyclopedia of Territorial Rights, to be published soon.

Joven-Romero, M. A. (Forthcoming 2020). Minority Languages and Territorial Rights. Global Encyclopedia of Territorial Rights. New York: Springer.

Abstract: Languages are commonly associated to territories as they are traditionally spoken by communities living in specific places. Nevertheless, languages do relate to speakers and not always to territories. This difference is highlighted by globalization, and more specifically by new possibilities for migrations, by the development of Information and Communication Technologies and by the global tendency to learn new foreign languages.

This new context calls for direct association between languages and speakers in order to preserve the rights of the latter and the languages themselves. Small minority languages are even more affected by globalization and speakers require globally recognized rights and measures according to their new reality.

Questioning Territory-Language Link

Languages are commonly associated to territories. They are usually spoken in specific territories and, in a more legal sense, they may be official or recognized by political entities associated with territories (May 2012). In this sense, most languages get their names from the places where they are spoken or where they originated. It is said that Icelandic is the language of Iceland. It is also claimed that Spanish -or Castilian- is the language of Spain, although it is also the official or common language in other 21 countries, it is not the only language of Spain and it did not originate in the whole Spain.

Nevertheless, languages do not belong to territories but to speakers, and the previous link language-territory have some counterparts (Pavlenko 2011; Heller and Duchêne 2007). While stating that Nepali and Tibetan are the languages of both sides of the Mount Everest, it is difficult to imagine Nepali or Tibetan being continuously spoken in the top of the Everest. Nomad tribes like Tuareg people move around vast spaces but their languages are not continuously spoken in such territories. Their languages are more prone to receive the name of the speakers’ tribe rather than the one of the territory -although these different categories may mix and the vast territory may receive the name of the tribe too. Some languages belong to peoples spread on different regions where other languages already established, developing minority groups along vast territories. That would be the case of the Romani languages spoken by Gypsy communities especially around Europe and Asia.

In spite of the previous rebuttals, the traditional link language-territory have been accepted and used. However, globalization processes deeply challenge this relationship and three factors must be taken into account: migrations, Information and Communication Technologies and the growing popularity of learning languages. None of these factors is strictly new. Many huge migrations happened over the history, many languages moved and new ones appeared. Celtic and Latin languages spread over Europe, and European -and even African- languages arrived to America. Nowadays migrations are increasing and the development of transport means and networks offers new temporal and territorial dimensions. Information and Communication Technologies find their forerunners in old post services, but during the 20th and 21th centuries they have become faster, more accessible and they are offering more functionalities: from the old post services to virtual social networks, people not only receive but also produce more and more information and it is possible to instantaneously share it with vast communities all over the world in a cheaper and faster manner. Telegraph, radio, phone and television are also milestones in this evolution. Finally, learning languages is something popular by more and more people and most educational systems introduce the instruction of at least one foreign language.

The challenges towards the link between languages and territories are even deeper in the case of small minority languages. For these languages, migrations and social networks are critical, and their teaching and learning present different contexts, with weaker human and material resources, and with fewer but highly motivated students. Information and Communication Technologies, and especially virtual social networks where the speakers can obtain and provide written material, may play a very positive role in its preservation, but at the same time the pressure of mainstream languages in these platforms may have a negative influence.

It must be noted that minority languages and endangered languages are not the same even when they usually correlate. Some minority languages are not endangered, as it is the case of the Sentinelese language, native language of the Sentinelese tribe with some 100-250 estimated speakers living in North Sentinel island who reject any kind of contact with the outside world and modern civilization. This community and some other groups in the Amazon or Papua New Guinea jungles are very small but at the same time they remain stable and there is not any imminent serious danger against them and their languages. Similarly, some endangered languages are not minority languages, as it happens with some Chinese languages spoken by millions of people but disappearing owing to the pressure of Mandarin Chinese. Furthermore, a specific language may be a minority or endangered language or not depending on the analyzed territory. Spanish in neither an endangered nor a minority language in general terms, but if we focus in the Philippines, then it is both an endangered and a minority language.

In the three following sections, I address the relationship between minority languages and territories with regard to the new context provided by globalization, and more specifically, by migrations, new Information and Communication Technologies and language learning.


Heller, M. & Duchêne, A. (2007) Discourses of endangerment: Sociolinguistics, globalization and social order. Discourses of endangerment: Ideology and interests in he defence of languages. London: Continuum, pp. 1-13.

May, S. (2012) Language and minority rights: Ethnicity, nationalism and the politics of language. London: Routledge.

Pavlenko, A. (2011) Language rights versus speakers’ rights: on the applicability of Western languages rights approaches in Eastern European contexts. Language Policy 10: 37-58.