Some Remarks on the Minority Languages Question

Note: Repost from the old blog.
The recent posts on minority languages have elicited some interesting comments. Commenting on The Record of Communist Language Policy, silver, a Serb, notes:

In Eastern Europe, a similar thing occurred with the fall of the Communist regimes. In general, nationalist regimes took their place and quickly began attacking minorities and minority tongues. This has been most pronounced in the former Yugoslavia.
I’m not aware of Serbian nationalists attempting to suppress Hungarian or Albanian. Even throughout the supposedly nationalist Milosevic era I think Hungarians were able to graduate university in Hungarian (and, of course, Albanian in Kosovo). I’m pretty sure Albanian has fared better in Macedonia under independence than during Yugoslavia; little-known Vlach certainly has.

A new poster, A Jew Coming to Get You, notes:

A relevant book discussing Soviet nationality policy is called Affirmative Action Empire. Regarding the Chinese dialects, dialect speakers don’t consider themselves members of a separate nation, hence there is no demand for linguistic autonomy. In Taiwan the issue is politicized, maybe it will become so in China if ever it becomes a Democracy.In Tibet (and in Xinjiang) you have a colonial situation which differs substantially with the relationship between Mandarin and the smaller Chinese dialects.

It’s nice to hear that Milosevic’s repression did not extend to national languages. He kept the Tito position (that I had never heard of) that allowed even Hungarians and Albanians to have all of their education in their native tongue, all the way through university. Impressive! A
And in Macedonia, while there have been serious problems, the regime has tried very hard to accommodate the often-difficult demands of local Albanians. And it’s nice to hear that there is support even for little-known Vlach.
I would not really call the Macedonian government an ultra-nationalist regime, though. It’s well-mixed with Macedonians and Albanians. Allowing national minorities to have education their native tongue seems shocking in a US context, but it’s fairly common in Europe. Some tongues even get to take university courses in their native language, though that’s not very common.
That book, Affirmative Action Empire, seems very interesting. The now-dominant line that the USSR was uniformly hostile to all non-Russian tongues was shown to be a lie. Nationalism for all of the non-Russian nationalities was encouraged by Lenin to make them less hostile to a revolutionary movement led by Russians.
Until World War, Russian nationalism, and not just Great Russian chauvinism, was not only not promoted, but was actively discouraged. Each large nationality was given its own republic, and many smaller ones were given their own autonomous republics.
In many cities, the local nationality was not even the most common nationality. In Tbilisi, Armenians were a majority for many years. In Kiev and Minsk, it was Russians and Jews. Prague had a German majority. Yerevan often had a Muslim majority.
The Soviets attempted to rectify this situation in their nation by moving members of the national ethnic group into the cities to make them a majority in their own cities. Amazing. These Communists could be seen as champions of ethnic nationalism.
Alphabets, grammars, school texts, etc. were created for nearly every tongue in the USSR. These were often the first attempts at literacy for these languages. At the same time, national minorities were expected to become proficient in Russian.
Attempts by local minorities to “become Russian” were actively discouraged! Ukrainian nationalists will be loath to admit this, but for years, a Ukrainization policy was actively encouraged. It is interesting that this attempt was not very successful. Most Ukrainians were not interested. They wanted a dual Russian-Ukrainian culture rather than a Ukrainian one.
In terms of the Chinese minorities, most still live in places where they form the majority. I think they all have a right to education in their native tongue and I think most of these small languages are still in very good shape.
The case with Mandarin and the other Chinese lects is different. Although these are full languages and not dialects, the fact that they are all Chinese is probably seen as evidence that they are competing with Mandarin. Hence, it is true that they are discouraged, but they all still have many speakers.
It is certainly true that Xinjiang and Tibet are colonial situations.
The aboriginal languages of Taiwan are not in good shape at all. Most young people are speakers, but not very good speakers. They speak aboriginal languages mostly with their grandparents, who are not very proficient in Mandarin. The kids’ education has been in Mandarin, and this is the language they are most able to speak. I’m afraid that in 60 years, they might be history.
There are a few classes offered in aboriginal languages, but it only boils down to 1-2 hours a week, and it’s not really working. Taiwan has no mother tongue education policy and for decades, aboriginal tongues were suppressed by the Nationalists (fascists). What else is new?


Lee, Hui-chi Lee. 2004. A Survey of Language Ability, Language Use and Language Attitudes of Young Aborigines in Taiwan. In Hoffmann, Charlotte & Jehannes Ytsma (Eds.) Trilingualism in Family, School, and Community pp.101-117. Clevedon, Buffalo: Multilingual Matters.
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