Greece: Minority Languages, Plea For More Recognition
Radio Free Europe, 26 November 2002
Greece is being urged to grant more recognition to
its minority languages -- Vlach, Macedonian, Albanian,
Turkish, and a version of Bulgarian called Pomak. At present, only
Turkish is recognized. Now the European Bureau for Lesser-Used
Languages (EBLUL) has undertaken an initiative designed to highlight
the plight of these neglected minorities. In this first of a
two-part series on language issues in the Balkans and East Europe,
RFE/RL reports on the situation in Greece.
Prague, 26 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Greece, the
cradle of European culture, appears less than sympathetic to its own
minority languages. Among the country's minority cultures with their
tongues and dialects other than Greek, only one -- Turkish -- is
fully recognized by the Athens government, and then only because the
Turks are categorized as a religious minority.
The other languages, although largely ignored by
Athens, reflect the rich history of the region through the
millennia. For instance Vlach, or Aromanian, spoken by several tens
of thousands of people, is an echo of Imperial Rome. It is found in
northern Greece, along what used to be in ancient times the road
linking Rome and Constantinople. The marching legions, as they
disappeared into history, left behind them settlers and the language
now known as Vlach, a Latin tongue similar to Romanian.
The other minority languages in Greece are Macedonian,
an Albanian Tosk dialect called Arvanitika, and what's called Pomak,
a version of Bulgarian used by a Muslim minority.
Johan Haeggman is an official with EBLUL, the
Brussels-based European Bureau for Lesser-Used Languages, a
nongovernment organization working on behalf of the European Union's
minority-language speakers. He explained the difficulties faced by
those in Greece who use unrecognized languages like Vlach.
"They have no rights whatsoever. They have no education in
their language, no schools, no media in their language, they can't
use it in administration."
According to EBLUL, the Greek authorities are
apparently unaware of the number of citizens who speak minority
languages. The last census in which minority-language speakers were
counted separately was in 1951.
Looking to focus attention on the plight of these
neglected languages, EBLUL recently held its first conference in
Greece. The gathering, held in the northern city of Thessaloniki,
was organized by EBLUL's recently formed Greek chapter. A score of
journalists were among those attending, and it's hoped they will
help inform the Greek public about a subject rarely dealt with in
the national media. "We hope, of course, that this will give a
more positive picture of minority languages and lesser-used
languages, and that they will not be seen a threat. Our message is
that lesser-used languages are a richness; and we are not going
against any language. We think that these languages should be taught
alongside Greek," Haeggman said.
EBLUL President Bojan Brezigar said that,
"putting it politely," Greece has not reached the level of
its European Union partners in recognizing linguistic diversity. He
said that the situation regarding the Macedonian minority,
for instance, is "terrible." "The situation we found
was worse than we were expecting, because specifically in some areas
where the Macedonian language is spoken, that language is not
allowed at all in public. I'm not talking about only the official
use of the language in public -- also the public use of the language
by private individuals."
Brezigar said in one area he visited, even the
singing of Macedonian songs is prohibited -- a severe
restriction he calls a kind of "linguistic genocide." He
said he understands that for historical reasons linked to chronic
instability in the Balkans, Greece has not been willing to see the
fragmentation of its national fabric. But now, he said, it is time
to move forward. "We [at EBLUL] would like to start [talks]
with the Greek government, to start a discussion on specific topics.
For example, we would like the Greek government to sign the European
Charter for Regional and Minority Languages."
In Athens, Greek Foreign Ministry spokesman Nicholas
Giotopoulos declined to acknowledge the existence of minorities in
the country, with the sole exception of the Turks. "We
understand that there are certain people who see the existence of
other minorities in Greece. But the reality is that there are, in
certain parts of the country, bilingual Greeks, who may also have
adopted an oral tradition, but [who] do not consider themselves to
He said he cannot comment on EBLUL's desire for talks with Greek officials on the minority-language issue. In view of Athens' unyielding stance on the issue, it would seem that EBLUL is going to have an uphill struggle.