Languages and parliaments

Languages and parliaments: The impact of decentralisation on minority languages. By Heiko F. Marten. (Languages of the world 37.) Munich: LINCOM Europa, 2009. Pp. 360. ISBN 9783895862984. $106.68 (Hb).

Reviewed by Esther Núñez Villanueva, Bangor University

Minority issues in Europe have attracted a good deal of interest within the last few decades due to the growth of regionalism after World War II. In the process, a considerable number of regions within the European Union have become self-governed. Against this background, this book evaluates the effects of political decentralization on minority languages in Europe. To achieve this, Heiko F. Marten conducts a careful and thorough comparison of two minority languages spoken in communities who have recently established their own parliaments: the Sámi language in Norway and Scottish Gaelic in the UK.

The choice of languages for the analysis is a clever one. The situation of both languages is superficially similar. Both languages are threatened minority languages spoken in remote areas within strong political nations and have received scarce attention from central government. The process of political decentralization in the two areas has occurred within ten years of each other and both regional governments have created specific policies for language protection and revitalization.

The first section of the book is devoted to an overview of the theoretical issues relevant for the ensuing analysis. The topic of the book bridges several fields within linguistics and political sciences and, consequently, this section is somewhat eclectic, touching upon the literature on linguistic rights, theoretical models for analyzing the status of minority languages, and aspects of parliamentary functions.

The book is divided into three more sections, two of which are devoted to painting a detailed picture of the linguistic and political situation of each of the chosen regions. The history of the language, the number of speakers, the domains in which the language is spoken, and the relationship between language, ethnicity, and identity are extensively reported. The opening of the regional parliament and its work on linguistic issues follow, concluding with the assessment of the impact of such events on the choice of language in different domains (e.g. education, politics, business settings). This approach allows M to build a before and after picture of each language situation, which is one of the strongest points of the volume.

The final section is an extensive comparison of both linguistic situations. M’s analysis  reveals that the linguistic rights-approach of the Sámi parliament has been more successful than the linguistic planning carried out by the Scottish parliament. Factors that contributed to the lesser success in Scotland are brilliantly discussed in this chapter.

This volume will be of interest for researchers of sociolinguistics, language planning, and language revitalization as well as for policymakers. Some linguists might find the sections devoted to policy analysis tedious and think that such an amount of detail was unnecessary. It is possible that those interested in the fine detail of policymaking may think otherwise. The tables are extremely useful to follow the discussion. Further inclusions of maps and a glossary of abbreviations would have been desirable and would have made the volume more user-friendly.