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A minority language is a language spoken by a minority of the population of a territory. Such people are termed linguistic minorities or language minorities.

International politics

With a total number of 193 sovereign states recognized internationally (as of 2008) and an estimated number of roughly 5,000 to 7,000 languages spoken worldwide, it follows that the vast majority of languages are minority languages in every country in which they are spoken.

In Europe and in some other parts of the world, like in Canada, minority languages are often defined by legislation or constitutional documents and afforded some form of official support. The term, for example, appears in the Constitution of Canada in the heading above section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees minority language educational rights.

Some minority languages are simultaneously also official languages, including the Irish language (Gaelic) in the Republic of Irelandmarker. Likewise, some national languages are often considered minority languages, insofar as they are the national language of a stateless nation.

Definition in international law

For the purposes of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages:

"regional or minority languages" means languages that are:
  1. traditionally used within a given territory of a State by nationals of that State who form a group numerically smaller than the rest of the State's population; and
  2. different from the official language(s) of that State


Minority languages are occasionally marginalised within nations for a number of reasons. These include the small number of speakers, the decline in the number of speakers, and their occasional consideration as uncultured, primitive, or simple dialects when compared to the dominant language. They are also occasionally viewed as a threat; for example the recent resurgence of Celtic languages (Irish, Manx, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Cornish and Breton) are viewed by some to be support for separatism, thus as a threat to the political establishment. Immigrant minority languages are often also seen as a threat and as indicative of the non-integration of these communities. Both of these perceived threats are based on the notion of the exclusion of the majority language speakers. Often this is added to by political systems by not providing support (such as education and policing) in these languages.

There is a difference of views as to whether the protection of official languages by a state representing the majority speakers violates or not the human rights of minority speakers. In Slovakia for example, the Hungarian community generally considers the 'language law' enacted in 1995 discriminative and inconsistent with the European Charter for the Protection of Regional or Minority languages, while majority Slovakians view that minority speakers' rights are guaranteed in accordance with the highest European standards and not discriminated against by the preferential status of the state language. The language law declares that 'the Slovakian language enjoys a preferential status over other languages spoken on the territory of the Slovakian Republic' and as a result of a 2009 amendment, a fine of up to € 5.000 may be imposed for a misdemeanor from the regulations protecting the preferential status of the state language, e.g. if the name of a shop or a business is indicated on a sign-board first in the minority language and only after it in Slovakian, or if in a bilingual text the minority language part is written with bigger fonts than its Slovakian equivalent, or if the bilingual text on a monument is translated from the minority language to the dominant language and not vice versa, or if a civil servant or doctor communicates with a minority speaker citizen on a minority language in a local community where the proportion of the minority speakers is less than 20%.

Signed languages are often not recognized as true natural languages even though they are supported by extensive research. In the United States, for example, American Sign Language is the most used minority language yet almost the only minority language which lacks official government recognition.

Auxiliary languages have also struggled for recognition, perhaps partly because they are used primarily as second languages and have few native speakers.

Notable minority languages

The largest communities of speakers that of a language not recognized as a nation-wide official language anywhere:

Linguistic communities that form no majority in any country, but whose language has the status of an official language in at least one country:

Languages that have the status of a national language and are spoken by the majority population in at least one country, but lack recognition in countries where there is a significant minority linguistic community:

  • Russian language: official in Russia, co-official in Belarus and Kazakhstan, lacking official status in Ukraine, Estonia and Latvia (more than 25% of the population in the latter two).
  • Hungarian language: official in Hungary, co-official in Serbia's Vojvodina province (293,000 speakers), lacking official status in Romania (1,447,544 speakers, 6.7% of the population), Slovakia (520,000 speakers, approximately 10% of the population) and Ukraine (170,000 speakers),


See also

External links


  1. ONU members
  2. Celtic languages. The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2001-07

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