From English bookcases to German newspapers, language "protection" is a flourishing European hobby. We spend a huge amount of time and trouble defending our native languages against the influence of fools and foreigners, as can be seen not only from the notorious insistence of the Academie française on the cumbersome phrase fin de semaine in place of the fashionable English le week-end, but also from the popularity in England of the book Eats, shoots and leaves, a humorous diatribe on the evils of bad grammar. Germany, meanwhile, has seen furious arguments on the question of whether it's really a good idea to spell the word Flussschifffahrt a triple s and a triple f.

These are the sort of linguistic questions the speakers of major European languages get upset about. But when it comes down to it, English apostrophe-lovers and French English-haters all go home at the end of the day and speak their native language without even thinking about it - the very language whose life-blood is being sucked out by the grammar thugs and franglais-speaking vandals. They say "á table," "tea's ready" and "Essen ist fertig" without drawing a dramatic sigh, without nostalgically considering the evocative melody of the word "tea" - probably because they know that in spite of the horreur of the degoutânte word "week-end" or the malformed Hässlichkeit of the triple f, their language is far from the brink of death and destruction. In fact it is not even mildly ill, but is in a healthy state of change and development.

Language politics is complicated. If you consider the fact that some Englishmen can become catatonic with fury over the misuse of the apostrophe, it is easy to understand how people whose language is seriously endangered will fight tooth and nail to keep it alive. A language is not just a collection of words: it has a powerful symbolic value. But once a language is declining, what it needs most is young people - young people who still believe in this symbolic value, who consider the language part of their identity and who are willing to fight for it.

Since 1535, when the English set down in law their intention "utterly to extirpe alle and singular the sinister usages and customes" of Wales, the Welsh language has struggled to survive.

Photo: wikipedia.org
Caernarfon in Wales

Welsh is a Celtic language closely related to Cornish and Breton, but also more distantly to Scottish Gaelic and Irish. It has barely any similarities with English and can not be understood by an English person, which might have been part of what made the monolingual English so determined to get rid of it. They made English the only language of the law courts and ensured that those who spoke Welsh could not hold a public office, thereby anglicising the Welsh ruling class. The notorious Blue Books of 1847 further damaged the language: they were originally conceived by the English government as a report on the state of education in Wales but were conducted by three Anglican barristers who spoke only English. The report contained insulting comments about Welsh morals and recommended that ignorance and lawlessness in Wales could only be overcome if English were more widely introduced as the language of education. It was in this period that the Welsh Not, or Welsh Note, came into use at some Welsh schools; this was a stick or plaque which was given to any child heard speaking Welsh at school, which had to be handed on to the next child who spoke the language. The child who had the Welsh Not at the end of the day was punished. Although it is unclear how widespread this punishment was, it has achieved symbolic status as an example of English cultural oppression.

Photo: www.myfyrwyr.org
Campaign for Education in Welsh
- a UMCA protest

The long-term effects of English persecution combined with the decline of Welsh industry between the two World Wars to mean that by the 1960s, Welsh was dying out. However, in the last forty years it has been supported by a series of dramatic measures: it is now taught in Welsh schools as a compulsory subject up to the age of sixteen, Welsh and English have equal status at the bilingual Welsh Assembly and the language has become essential for many jobs. Thus Welsh is no longer on the brink of disappearing: the 2001 census indicated that it was spoken by 582 000 people, or 20.8% of the Welsh population, and this number is increasing.

But what does the revival of Welsh mean in practice? What's it like to learn Welsh at school instead of French? And what does the language mean to young Welsh people?

Photo: Nick Edwards
Nick Edwards

Nick Edwards, 22, began learning Welsh when he was seven and his family moved to Wales. He says that his classmates were unenthusiastic about learning Welsh: "People would often ask the teacher things like "Miss, what's the point of learning Welsh?" One of our teacher's favourite responses was that they speak Welsh in Patagonia!" (There is indeed a Welsh-Argentine community of about 20 000 people in Patagonia, Argentina: the first Welsh settlers came to Argentina in 1865, when a Welsh nationalist preacher recruited emigrants and provided finances for "a little Wales beyond Wales.")

Despite the lack of enthusiasm amongst his classmates - and despite the fact that he no longer uses Welsh on an everyday basis - Nick does see it as important that Welsh be kept alive: "I think it is important the language is preserved. I think if minority languages are not preserved we're one step further down the road towards monoculturalism. I think it's a basic right be able to use the language of your people in your own country."

The revival of Welsh is largely due to the fact that many young people agree: Welsh is their language, and they should be able to speak it whenever they want. Geraint Rhys Edwards is the  student President of the UMCA, the Welsh language student union of Aberystwyth, which has staged protests against the lack of Welsh medium teaching at universities in Wales. When talking about the problems facing Welsh, he compares them to the oppressive measures of the past: "It is important to change the way some people still see the Welsh language: those who are still saying that one will go nowhere with Welsh are completely out of touch with reality and are sticking to an opinion similar to those of the dreaded Blue Books written in 1847... In the strongholds of the Welsh language (such as Gwynedd where over 70% speak Welsh), it is used as normal as breathing. And in places like Cardiff and many communities in South Wales, there is a huge demand for the Welsh language and mainly for the next generation. So it is important for us to start thinking forward instead of being like an ancient colonial from the Victorian era."

The growth of the language amongst young people has been helped by the Welsh-language television channel S4C, as well as by the youth organisation the Urdd, which organises a wide range of Welsh-medium activities for young people, and by the National Eisteddfod, an annual celebration of Welsh culture. The revival of Welsh has clearly been helped by generous funding, but also by the fact that there are enough young people in Wales who see themselves as Welsh and who consider the language an essential part of their culture. Mark Daniels, 21, learnt Welsh at school up to the age of eighteen. He says: "If Welsh is lost, Wales becomes more and more a part of England and loses its identity."

However, not everyone is positive about the revival of Welsh. On the BBC message-board "Welsh Language - Your Views" the discussion develops into a heated argument in the course of one or two posts: whilst some posters pour scorn on the idea that there is such a thing as Welsh culture and insist that making the language compulsory in schools is ridiculous, others reply that this only demonstrates non-welsh-speakers' jealousy of bilingual people and their fear of a language they don't understand. One user sees the compulsory teaching of Welsh as part of "the hidden agenda of the nationalist faction."

It's a difficult question: does the support for the Welsh language indicate a positive, self-confident trend in Wales or a worrying strain of separatism? Or is it just a bit impractical?

And do the arguments about Welsh actually have anything to do with the language itself or has "the Welsh language" just become a dummy which people fight over when really they are arguing about questions which are even more difficult to solve - like the question of whether "the English" have any right to exist in Wales, and whether "the Welsh" have any right to complain about it. The 1970s and 1980s saw Welsh nationalists resorting to violence, with arson attacks on holiday homes and businesses owned by English people. A language, with its symbolic power and its emotional associations, can easily become a tool for political aggression.

Looking at the case of Welsh, it seems as if political symbolism sometimes just gets in the way and turns a language into something it shouldn't have to be. But if we go to Lausitz in east Germany (Łužyca in Lower Sorbian and Łužica in Upper Sorbian), we can see the other side of the coin: if a minority language doesn't have sufficient political force behind it, it is in far greater danger of death.

Sorbian is a West-Slavic language, related to Czech, Slovak and Polish and more distantly to other Slavic languages such as Russian and Bulgarian. It exists in two variants, Upper Sorbian and Lower Sorbian (as well as many regional dialects within these) and is one of only very few surviving Indo-European languages which have a dual: different endings are used instead of singular or plural when the speaker is talking about exactly two things. The Sorbian languages are characterised by the heavy influence of German on their pronunciation and vocabulary: "school" is Schule in German and šula in Upper Sorbian.

Just as Celtic languages were spoken in Britain before the arrival of the Saxons and Normans, Slavic languages were spoken across eastern Germany. This can be seen from the place-names in the area: even the name "Berlin" comes from a Slavic word meaning "swamp."

Photo: wikipedia.org
Town hall in Bautzen

Due to a series of bans on Sorbian from medieval times up to the repressive Germanisation policies of 19th century Prussia, Upper and Lower Sorbian survived only in the inaccessible countryside of Lausitz: the centre of Upper Sorbian is the town of Bautzen, whereas Lower Sorbian is spoken around Cottbus. After a short-lived revival of Sorbian literature, art and music in the Weimar Republic, the Nazis outlawed the Sorbian culture and languages. Following the end of the war, the SED government of East Germany officially placed Sorbian under protection and funded Sorbian education and arts, but in fact economic policies subjected the Sorbs to further assimilation and once again placed their culture under threat. Lausitz was devastated by coal mining, and the number of people speaking the Sorbian languages decreased massively as a result of collectivisation and the repression of the church. After 1989, the region - like the rest of East Germany - was affected by unemployment, and many people, especially young people, moved away to seek better conditions elsewhere in the country. So although the German government promised to support the language and fund the protection of Sorbian culture, the younger generation which could inherit the language and pass it on was greatly reduced.

Now, optimistic researchers suggest that the Sorbian languages are used by only about 40 000 people, whereas more pessimistic figures suggest that only 13 000 speak Upper Sorbian and fewer than 5 000 Lower Sorbian." Lower Sorbian is expected to die out in the next hundred years, whilst Upper Sorbian is spoken by more young people and thus has a greater chance of survival. The Sorbian culture, meanwhile, features in guidebooks as a tourist attraction which brings curious visitors to the region to admire the traditional costumes and buy Sorbian gherkins.

One thing the Sorbian language is missing is a strong, aggressively patriotic movement pushing it to become more dominant: the revival of Welsh is, to a great extent, due to its fervent support from young people who believe that Wales should have a high degree of autonomy and should be recognised as a nation, and that Welsh, therefore, should be the official language of Wales. Although the Sorbs do have a strong sense of being a "nation" in terms of their identity, it would be impractical to suggest that the comparatively tiny region of Lausitz become an autonomous nation and throw off the bonds of external rule, particularly since the biggest chance of survival the Sorbian language has is through funding from the German government.

So Sorbian doesn't have an army of defenders fighting for its right to exist. Does that mean it's become nothing more than a tourist attraction? And are there any young people left who want to speak it?

Photo: www.serbski-institut.de
Professor D. Scholze

Professor Dr. Dietrich Scholze-Šołta is sceptical. As the director of the Sorbian Institute, he has an overview of people's commitment to Sorbian. His staff work to preserve the Sorbian language and culture not only by archiving Sorbian literature but also by active intervention: by publishing dictionaries, writing articles in Sorbian and teaching Sorbian at universities. He says that few young people want to be involved in supporting the language: "amongst the Sorbs, as in other places, young people are often individualists." Professor Scholze-Šołta connects this problem with overarching changes in our society: "The greatest problem when it comes to motivating people to learn Sorbian is the fact that according to today's criteria, knowledge of a minority language doesn't normally "count." Because the core values God - fatherland - mother tongue have been replaced by money (possessions) - individualism - cosmopolitanism (Globalese, i.e. English)."

Photo: Lubina Hajduk-Veljkovic
Comic in Sorbian by Lubina Hajduk

So does this mean the language has lost its importance for young Sorbs? I asked some of the former pupils of the Sorbian School in Bautzen (Sorbisches Gymnasium) about the meaning of the language for them. Although they had many different view-points when it came to the preservation of Sorbian, they were linked by the idea that the language has a unique place in their sense of identity. Kajetan Dyrlich, 25, said: "Speaking Sorbian is something special. The sounds, the character of the language are unmistakable. It's also part of my home and my identity." Another former pupil said, "Of course it's important [to preserve the language]. Sorbian is not only a language, but a culture." Maja Sauer, 23, said, "The Sorbian language is my mother tongue and therefore very deeply ingrained in me; my family speaks it and my friends too. I only need German in order to live in Germany. German is important for me too, but isn't as personal as Sorbian, because it's in Sorbian that I recognise myself."

In contrast with the Welsh-speakers whom I asked about Welsh culture, the young Sorbs were surprisingly sure about what they meant by Sorbian culture. Sylvia Brützke, 20, said, "What really sets us Sorbs apart is our sense of community!!!! ... In the villages the young people stick together and look after each other, they sing together a lot and dance... Whenever I invite German friends over, they're sad when they have to leave... and I can only say: I AM PROUD TO BE A SORB and my friends see it the same way." Sabina agrees: "Of course there's a distinctive culture. I'd even say that the mentality is different! It definitely goes in the direction of the Slavic mentality. We love singing and dancing! ... Lots of young people are involved in dance groups or choirs... and our culture is very closely linked to the church... The only really important thing to know is that these things aren't just some kind of show for tourists, they really are part of family life."

Most of these young people are dedicated to preserving the language by passing it on to their children and by staying connected with the village traditions they see as the centre of Sorbian culture. But of course, they represent a small group of people who were educated at a Sorbian school - it's the other young Sorbs whose enthusiasm needs to be won.

Photo: Lubina Hajduk-Veljkovic
Detective novel in Sorbian by
Lubina Hajduk

Various initiatives are working to keep Sorbian alive, often focussing on young people and children: these include the WITAJ project, which encourages parents - including German parents - to send their children to Sorbian-speaking kindergartens, and the Sorbisches Gymnasium in Bautzen and the Niedersorbisches Gymnasium in Cottbus, secondary schools which provide pupils with a bilingual education in German and Sorbian. The newspaper Serbske Nowiny is published in Sorbian and the television programmes Wuhladko and Łužyca in Upper and Lower Sorbian are broadcast monthly. All these initiatives, as well as many others, are constantly endangered by a lack of funding: the difference between the situation in Wales and in Lausitz is undoubtedly related to the fact that the British government has been able to allocate far more substantial funding to Welsh, and over a far longer period of time, than has been the case with the post-1989 German government. The decline of Upper and Lower Sorbian has certainly been worsened by school closures and by the expense of producing print media in the languages.

However, funding alone cannot provide the answer. Sebastian Locke, who is 28 and a former pupil at the Sorbian School in Bautzen, explains: "Funding is obviously desirable, but it can actually even be damaging, if not enough determined people are there behind it and the rest of the population get the wrong impression. The sense of hostility must not be underrated... So we probably need even more commitment and platforms to show that the money isn't being wasted... I think that recently more young people have become conscious of their Slavic roots and have begun to think more about what they mean. In my opinion, that's the basis on which we can preserve Sorbian culture."

According to Professor Scholze-Šołta, the end of Sorbian would mean the end of the Sorbs: "The ethnic identity of the Sorbs is fundamentally based on their language. Both from within the community as well as from outside it, someone who can no longer speak Sorbian is no longer seen as a Sorb ... therefore, without the Sorbian language, the Sorbian people or nationality could only exist as a memory." This view is supported by many comments from former pupils of the Sorbian school, such as this one: "Without this language I'd feel like a stranger in my own country."

So how can the disappearance of a culture be avoided? How do we create enthusiasm amongst young individualists and keep the declining language a part of youth culture?

The cybervillage "Internecy" is an example of an attempt to retain and expand the currency of Sorbian amongst young people: set up by a group of students in 1999, it was conceived as a way of trying out the possibilities of the new Web2.0 in the Sorbian language. Bosćij, one of the site's creators, says, "The language was to be the medium, but not the reason - forcing people to use a language (as we knew from earlier times in Lausitz) does not usually bring the desired result - especially not among young people." The site includes links to useful Sorbian sites, downloads of software compatible with Sorbian characters and a dictionary of Sorbian-German placenames - but most importantly, it provides young people with a place to use Sorbian even if they no longer live in Lausitz or are away at university. Bosćij emphasises the importance of a modern, inclusive approach to supporting the language: "In order to preserve or support a small language, it's important to make sure it's used on an everyday basis, meaning also in modern forms of communication such as email, chat-rooms, blogs, online services and so on. New modes of expression such as youth language shouldn't be excluded, even if this means that the language is enriched with English words. The language is being used and stays in people's consciousness."

Photo: Lubina Hajduk-Veljkovic
Lubina Hajduk

Bosćij is not the only young supporter of the language who believes in the importance of young people's freedom to express themselves. The Sorbian writer and translator Lubina Hajduk has initiated various projects to open up new possibilities for the language, such as crime novels and science fiction in Sorbian. She says that for her, Sorbian is a beautiful language with unique idioms and that she would like it to be preserved, but that that isn't the most important thing: "It's more important for me personally that people speak to each other, and which language they speak doesn't matter. Language preservation shouldn't be forced; we shouldn't always be checking up on who's speaking the most Sorbian. For me, the content of a conversation is more important. So one could say, if the content is right, Sorbian is a wonderful mode of communication."

One of the fundamental fascinations of Europe is its combination of diversity and similarity. There's the fact that Romania and France are at opposite ends of the continent, but both use the greeting "salut" - the fact that in Slavic languages, Germans are called "the dumb people" - the fact that the English word "pistol" comes from the Czech word for whistle. Europe is full of bizarre links, of cultural blind-spots and utter misunderstandings, and this is reflected in its languages, which are chaotically entangled, lending words to each other, mishearing words and distorting and recycling them. What would we lose if we lost Welsh or Sorbian? A good answer comes from Kajatan Dyrlich, one of the former pupils of the Sorbian School in Bautzen: "Looked at rationally, it's certainly unimportant that Sorbian is preserved as a language. It has neither an economic nor a material use. But still: every small language has its conceptual value. It's part of our European culture and history. To look after that and to preserve it is absolutely essential - for non-Sorbs, too."

It's difficult to say how languages like these should be managed - whether it's more important for a Welsh child to speak Welsh than French, whether Sorbian tourist attractions do more harm or good, whether the language of a conversation should ever be more important than its content, but one thing is certain. Next time you settle down for a rant about the amount of American music played on Polish radio, or the murderous effect of the dative on the genitive in German, or the evils of apostrophe-abuse in English, you could use your time more positively: learn a Sorbian proverb, or a Welsh greeting - or an Aromanian insult, a Kaschubian curse or a Leonese song - and use it, just because you feel like it. It might not save an entire language, but it could preserve part of it, and eventually enrich your own long-suffering language at the same time.

Language fact-file: Welsh

Wales, especially in the North

Number of speakers: roughly 611,000, or about 20% of the Welsh population

Growing or shrinking: growing

Family of languages: Celtic

Interesting features: Welsh uses several sounds which are rare in Indo-European languages, such as the "voiceless lateral fricative" (this is written as a double l and sounds like a combination of h and l), which apparently also occurs in Greenlandic and Zulu.

Cenedl heb iaith, cenedl heb galon - a nation without a language is a nation without a heart
Na ad i'th dafod dorri'th wddf - let not your tongue cut your throat

Language fact-file: Upper and Lower Sorbian

Region: Lausitz, in east Germany

Growing or shrinking: both are shrinking; Lower Sorbian is declining faster

Family of Languages: West Slavic

Interesting features: the dual (special endings when talking about exactly two things)Lower Sorbian has nine different sibilants: c (sounds like ts), ć (soft tsch), č (hard tsch), z, ź (like the s in pleasure, spoken softly with relaxed lips), ž (like the s in pleasure but spoken more harshly with rounded lips), s, š (sounds like sh) and ś (softer sh with relaxed lips)

Sample of Lower Sorbian: Kužda medalja ma dwa boka - Every coin (or medallion) has two sides

Sample of Upper Sorbian: Bojeć so kaž małe dźěćo bobaka - To be scared like a little kid who's afraid of a marmot, ie to be frightened for no good reason.

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