Minority Languages and Territorial Rights (ii): Languages and Migrations

Extract of Minority Languages and Territorial Rights, my first entry at the Global Encyclopedia of Territorial Rights, to be published soon: discussion on language policies and migrations.

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

Migrations affect the origin community, the destination community and the very migrants, and it may affect the origin community languages, the destination community languages and the very migrants languages (Lewis 1982, Britain 2002). With reference to the migrants influence, two different migrations can be distinguished: one in which the migrant community is bigger or more powerful than the destination community, and the other one in which the migrant community constitutes a minority, many times in a weaker position in comparison with the already established community. In the former case, the language of the migrant community may become the main one, as it happened in most American countries with Spanish and English. In the latter case, it may vanish and disappear in a few generations, as it is happening with Galician language in Argentina or the Italian language in the USA. In both cases, three different kind of factors describe the migrations and their linguistic consequences: spatial, temporal and socio-cultural factors (Kerswill 2006).

Long distance migrations were traditionally associated with lifelong migrations, but as means of transport become faster and cheaper, that is not longer the case. Spanish, English, French and Dutch colonizers of America migrated for a very long -even lifelong- time, while nowadays many European people go to America just for holidays. On the contrary, short distance migrations traditionally allowed for the maintenance of linguistic and cultural ties. With regard to minority languages, they are usually associated with rural areas and during the rural exodus of the 20th and 21st centuries many of their speakers are moving to bigger towns and cities to study and to work. Many of the Aragonese speakers located in the Aragonese Pyrenees move from their small villages to the head of the regions for their High School, where they sometimes commute while other times they stay in the new town. The same speakers may move to bigger cities like Huesca, Zaragoza or even Madrid and Barcelona -where they cannot commute anymore- for higher training or work (Reyes et al. 2017). As people get older, migration pressure increases, such migration points to further distances, links with the original rural area vanish, the native language is no longer used in the new localities and in many cases it is only recovered during the summer or winter holidays. Sometimes the migrant community settle in particular districts or areas of the bigger heads and cities, forming their own districts, suburbs or ghettos, where the language may still remain, as it happened with Jewish languages in different European countries over different times.

From a linguistic point of view, migrations also cause diglossic processes in which the different languages adopt characteristics of the others, what may also cause the emergence of new creole languages and pidgins. Jewish languages like Yiddish or Judaeo-Spanish are examples. If different varieties of the same language merge, natural dialect leveling or koineization into a simplified variety happens (Trudgill 1986, 127; Kerswill and Williams 2000). So far, when the inhabitants of the different deep Aragonese valleys moved into the south plains during the Reconquista, a quite homogeneous Aragonese koine emerged (Conte et al. 1977).

Temporal factors are strongly related with the spatial ones, but this correlation is weakening as means of transport are increasingly faster and cheaper. Migrations may have different duration and four different categories are usually listed: daily, periodic, seasonal and long term migrations (Gould and Prothero 1975, cited in Kerswill 2006). Daily migrations are cyclical and they do not suppose overnight stays. Such direct steady contact between different languages or dialects may play a fundamental role in linguistic leveling processes (Trudgill 1983). Periodic migrants move from their origin places for a short period of time establishing weak contacts with the destination community. They often circulate by various places and countries for short periods. This kind of migration favors the establishment of a lingua franca, like English in Western countries or Tagalog -and also English- inside the Philippines, damaging the image of local minority languages. Business workers, researchers or tourists are some examples of periodic migrants. Seasonal migrants stay for months or years in the destination place with the intention of returning. Romanian migrants-speakers in Aragon were a few hundred in 2001, to increase to almost 70.000 in 2013 and then decrease to less than 50.000 in 2016. Some of these seasonal migrants may change their mind and stay in the destination place becoming long-term migrants, like many Turkish people living in Germany. Long-term migrants often leave their origin place without the intention of returning, as many European migrants who went to the USA in the 19th and 20th centuries did, or many Occitan people moving from rural areas to cities like Toulouse or Paris. While seasonal migrants are likely to preserve their language and pass it into their children, many long-term migrants forget it and the minority language disappears in one or a few generations.

Socio-cultural factors may explain why some minority languages remain while others do disappear when presenting similar temporal and territorial contexts (Sallabank 2010; Edwards 2010). According to these factors, the relationship of the migrants with the destination community can be classified into segregation or participation relations. Segregation spirit in migrating groups is a factor for the conservation of their origin -and now minority- language. That is the case of German language of Amish and Mennonites communities in North America (Coleman 1997). Participation does not necessarily suppose the lost of the minority language, although its weaker position may demand special measures for its preservation. Furthermore, a difference between voluntary migrations and forced migrations, like the one of refugees, can be made. In the latter case, groups are more likely to develop a deep sense of pride towards their origins.


Britain D (2002) Space and spatial diffusion. In: Chambers JK, Trudgill P, Schilling-Estes N (eds) The Handbook of Language Variation and Change. Oxford University Press, p. 603-637.

Coleman DA (1997). The origins of multi-cultural societies and the problems of their management under democracy. In: Proceedings of the 23rd International Population Conference, Beijing 1997, Vol 3. Presses Universitaires de Liege.

Conte A, Cortes Ch, Martínez A, Nagore F, Vázquez Ch (1977). El aragonés: problemática e identidad de una lengua. Librería General de Zaragoza.

Edwards J. (2010). Minority Languages and Group Identity: Cases and Categories. John Benjamins Publishing.

Gould WTS & Pothero RM (1975). Space and time in African population mobility. In: Kosinski LA, Pothero RM (eds) People on the Move: Studies on Internal Migration. Methuen.

Kerswill P (2006). Migration and language. In: Mattheler K, Ammon U and Trudgill P (eds) Sociolinguistics/Soziolinguistik. An International Handbook of the Science of Language and Society, 2nd ed, vol 3. De Gruyter.

Kerswill P & Williams A (2000). Mobility and social class in dialect leveling: evidence from new and old town in England. In: Mattheler K (ed) Dialect and Migration in a Changing Europe. Peter Lang Publishing, p 1-13.

Lewis GL (1982). Human Migration: A Geographical Perspective. Palgrave-Macmillan.

Reyes A, Gimeno Ch, Montañés M, Sorolla N, Espluga P, Martínez JP (2017). L’aragonés o lo catalán en l’actualidat. Analisi d’o Censo de Población y Viviendas de 2011. Available via Zaguan. https://zaguan.unizar.es/record/60448.

Sallabank J (2010) The role of social networks in endangered language maintenance and revitalization: The case of Guernesiais in the Channel Islands. Anthropological Linguistics 52(2): 184-205.

Trudgill P (1983). On Dialect: Social and Geographical Perspectives. Oxford University Press.

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.