As of today there are 24 official languages in the European Union (EU). However, Europeans use approximately 60 additional local and minority languages, which, according to the estimated statistics, are used by some 40 million EU citizens. The linguistic and cultural diversity of Europeans is perhaps the EU’s greatest strength – but, at the same time, it can be the source of many issues.
The issue of the necessity to protect national minorities is admitted in international law. The Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (hereby referred to as ‘the Framework Convention’), was signed by all of the members of the EU with the exception of France. The Framework Convention introduces complex and wide-reaching protective measures regarding the rights of minorities. Under Article 11 of Act 3 of the Convention, all countries are obliged to include traditional local names, street names and other public topographical signs written in minority languages. It is worth noting this when considering the current discussion on bilingual signs which is taking place in Lithuania.
It is important to remember that signboards with multilingual location names were not introduced in the 21st Century. They existed before the First and Second World Wars. However, it must be acknowledged that their existence was as a result of the actions of the local inhabitants, and not necessarily the result of any legal regulations. During the post-war era Communist countries like the German Democratic Republic (GDR), Romania, and Hungary allowed bilingual names on their territories.
What does the situation presently look like in EU countries? Below we present several case study examples.
The issue of bilingual names in Poland is regulated by the National and Ethnic Minorities Act, issued in 2005. According to the Ministry of Administration and Digitalization, names written in minority languages are used in 51 boroughs, and in 33 boroughs a minority language holds the status of an ancillary language. The majority of bilingual signs can be found written in German (Silesia), and Kashubian (Pomerania). However, there are also names in the Lemkos’ language, Belarusian and Lithuanian.
In light of the operative law, the national minorities in Poland are: Belarusian, Czech, Lithuanian, German, Armenian, Russian, Slovakian, Ukrainian and Jewish. The ethnic minorities are Karaite, Kashubian, Lemkos and Romany.
In Austria, bilingual signs can easily be found in Carinthia, which is highly populated by the country’s Slovenian minority. However, this topic has been the subject of much dispute. The right to use bilingual signs was granted to minorities in the Austrian Independence Treaty of 1955. This right was also strengthened by the 1976 National Minorities Act (Volksgruppengesetz). Nevertheless, the first bilingual signs only appeared in 2000. In earlier years any bilingual signs were frequently damaged or destroyed by Carinthians of German descent.
On the other hand, the federate state of Burgenland is highly populated by Croatians and Hungarians – and bilingual names are also used on this territory.
Heated discussion among Austrians was raised by the pronouncements G-213/01, V-62/01 B-2075/99 of the Constitutional Tribunal of Austria from 13th of December 2001. The tribunal agreed that placing bilingual signs with street names or village names is possible if at least 10% of the villagers of a given borough uses the language of a national minority. Prior to that, the law stipulated that this figure had to be at least 25%. The tribunal indicated that the same sized font should be used when designing the signs, in order not to favour any one group over another.
National minorities accredited by Austrian law are: Croatian, Czech, Slovakian, Slovenian, Hungarian, Romany and Sinti minorities.
In Croatia, the youngest EU member state, bilingual signs are placed despite the bloody Balkan war of the 1990s. This war was mainly caused by ethnic conflicts. The Serbian minority is currently the only significant minority in Croatia (being around 4.5% of the population). The Croatian Constitution guarantees minorities respect for their rights. Further, when considering the use of minority languages and writing, Croatian law grants minorities the right to place bilingual topographical signs.
Under the pressure of international public opinion, the Croatian government granted many rights to Serbian people, the country’s national minority. Nevertheless, such actions still meet with resistance and dissatisfaction from a large proportion of Croatian society. Mutual resentment on the part of the two nations is fully visible in Vukovar city, which is situated near the Serbian border. Over thirty percent of the city’s inhabitants are Serbian. According to the operative law, street and building names are written in Serbian Cyrillic.
In 2014, one of the Croatian associations for war veterans tried to organize a nationwide referendum in order to curb the possibility to establish bilingual names. According to the originators’ postulates, the referendum’s aim was to decide whether it is possible to use bilingual names only in those places where a given minority represents not less than 50% of the inhabitants (as it stood one third was enough). The voting was supposed to be nationwide, however, in fact it applied to Vukovar, which for many Croatians is the epitome of Serbian cruelty. Despite collecting the signatures of over 500,000 advocates, the referendum did not take place. At the request of the Croatian government, The Constitutional Tribunal of Croatia questioned the referendum’s legitimacy.
However, the attitude of the Croatian authorities deserves attention, which, as shown by the Vukovar example, put a lot of effort in order to respect the rights of national minorities in the country. One can suppose that it is possible to change the Croatians’ attitude towards the minorities’ rights.
Estonia, similar to Latvia and Luxemburg, is a country whose territory is inhabited by a large proportion of people from different nations in the EU. Almost one fourth of Estonia’s population is represented by ethnic Russians. Beside these, there are also Germans, Swedes and Jews, all of which are considered national minorities.
The Estonian 1992 Constitution, in several places, directly refers to these national minorities and their rights. The Constitution grants them, for example, the right to keep their national identity, the right to education in their minority language, and the right to communicate in a minority language at offices in the boroughs where at least half of the inhabitants are of a different nationality than Estonian.
In 2003, Estonia passed an act on place names, which introduced more liberal legal resolutions. Although the rule to write topographical names in the Estonian language was kept, exceptions were permitted, motivated by historical and cultural reasons. If a given local government decides to introduce bilingual signs, they must first seek approval from the Minister of Regional Affairs, who is, in turn, consulted by the council.. Moreover, research is carried out to check which language was used by the majority of the inhabitants prior to the 27th of September 1944, that is, before the time Soviet military bases were positioned on Estonian territory. Such actions are taken to avoid a situation in which the presence of a given minority was the direct effect of actions taken by the Soviet authorities.
France is inhabited by many ethnic groups and nationalities. Bilingual topographical signs are used in many regions. The prevalent regional languages are: Occitan, Alsatian, Corsican, Breton, Provencal, Basque, and languages from the Oïl group.
The 1992 French Constitution clearly states that the French language is the country’s official language. All of the effective authorities must use only French. Over the past few years, the central government has subsidized the education of the regional languages. The most interesting situation is in Alsace, a territory which shares a borderline with Germany. Due to the repeated changes to the borderline in the past, and the close vicinity to Germany itself, a significant number of inhabitants speak both French and German. The Alsatian language is also used, this being a dialect of the German language. Alsatian is used primarily in speech, while German seems to often play the role of a literary language. That is why, on the bilingual signs, besides French, German names are used instead of Alsatian.
Nordic countries – that is Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden – are known for their specific sensitivity when it comes to the rights of minorities, including national minorities and ethnic minorities. Over the past few years, the Nordic countries have taken serious actions in order to strengthen minority rights, including the right to use a minority language.
In Southern Jutland, in Denmark, German is considered a minority language. Taking into consideration Danish-dependent territories, minority language status is granted to the Faroese language and Greenlandic. Name-place signs are written in all of those languages.
Although Finland is inhabited by only around 6% of ethnic Swedes, the Swedish language is an official language there. The Lappish languages are regional languages not only in the Northern part of Finland, but also in Norway and Sweden. Additionally, the Meänkieli language is a minority language in Sweden. In Norway such a status is given to the Kven language. All of these languages are used on the topographical signs there.
Similar to the situations of the Nordic Countries, Germany is inhabited by a large number of immigrants from all over the world. However, the right to use bilingual signs, which, as written in the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages should be introduced in EU countries, applies only to the country’s official national or ethnic minorities.
In practice, signs can be found in Germany with street names in such languages as: Danish (Schleswig-Holstein), Frisian (Schleswig-Holstein and Lower Saxony), Low German (in many regions), Upper Sorbian (Saxony), and Lower Sorbian (Brandenburg). The Romany language is also treated as a minority language (Hesse).
In Slovenia, Hungarians and Italians are considered national minorities. Specific legal status is given to Romani people. The Slovenian Constitution pays especial consideration to those minorities (in Articles 5, 64, 80) and provides them with a number of privileges. The most important part, from the point of view of this research, is Article 11, which states that Slovenian is the official language, but in the boroughs which are traditionally inhabited by Italian or Hungarian minorities, their languages are also granted the status of an official language. This also applies to bilingual topographical signs.
Some 80% of society in Slovakia declares their nationality as Slovakian, with 8, 5% declaring themselves as Hungarian. Among other ethnic groups, the biggest are Romani people (around 2%).
Slovakian law does not expressly state which groups are considered to be national minorities. Nevertheless, in the Slovakian Government’s reports concerning the introduction of the Framework Convention, there are 11 minorities mentioned: Hungarian, Romani, Czech, Russian, Ukrainian, German, Moravci/Silesian, Croatian, Jewish, Polish and Bulgarian.
Despite xenophobic rhetoric from different extremely right-wing governments, in the 90s Slovakia accepted a fairly liberal solution regarding bilingual topographical signs. According to law that is still effective, 20% of inhabitants who declare their affiliation with a national minority in a given place is enough to introduce bilingual signs with the names of the streets or places. The only exceptions are where there are place names with the surnames of celebrated Slovakians. These must be written only in Slovakian.
Hungary is a country with a unitary nationality. On the other hand the Diaspora living in neighbor states is numerous. National minorities exist in the areas near the border.
For example, in Bezenye (Croatian Bizonja), near the Slovakian border, the Croatian community is dominant. In Újhartyán (German Hartian), which is located in the central part of the country, almost half of the inhabitants declares their nationality as German.. A similar situation can be found in Diósd (German Orasch). Both the Croatian minority and the German minority are considered multicultural heritage of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Great Britain – Scotland
None of the languages in the United Kingdom holds the status of official language (similar model to the USA). However, English is in fact the official language. Additionally, by the power of a special act, Welsh is a formal regional language. The Gaelic language did not have such a status for a long time. In contrast to the Scottish language, which belongs to the Germanic family of languages, considered by many as a dialect of English, Gaelic comes from the Celtic family of languages.
Only in 2005, by the power of the Gaelic language act, did the Scottish Government grant an official language status to Gaelic in Scotland (alongside with Scottish English). However, Gaelic is not an official language in the EU. Despite the fact that only 60,000 people use this language, the Scottish authorities do not take any measures to promote the language. Its status is reflected in the widely-used bilingual topographical signs.
Therefore, bilingual signs can be found in Scotland and Wales.
The above-mentioned examples from different parts of the EU show that, on the whole, member countries pay attention to the rights of their national minorities. This can be seen through governments allowing bilingual signs in areas inhabited by minorities. Usually, such signs carry a symbolic meaning for the minority groups and demonstrate respect for their traditions and language.
Despite not signing the Framework Convention, even France has granted many rights to minorities living in their territories, including the possibility to use bilingual signs.
Over the past 25 years, the countries of the former Eastern Bloc have made great improvements when it comes to the protection of the rights of national minorities. These countries have introduced very liberal regulations, due to which national minorities are entitled to an array of privileges. Only Croatia is still struggling with a lack of social acceptance, hindering the government from granting all rights to minorities. The Croatian Government’s firm reaction to all of the symptoms of discrimination in case of minorities, gives hope to overcome historical events.
It seems as if the attitude of the Croatian authorities could be a good example for Lithuania, whose Government appears to marginalize the issues of national minorities. What is more, the Government openly denies the contribution made by national minorities to the development of Lithuania. Also Estonia, in which the Russian minority is abundant, granted their citizens the right to use topographical signs in different languages. It shows that with the determination of the authorities, the proper legal resolutions can be found, and this can be satisfying for everyone.
Central-Eastern European countries model themselves after Western countries, and try to concern themselves with taking special care of the representatives of national minorities. Such actions are not always successful, but, overall, these good intentions should be praised. One of the simplest expressions of respect towards a given minority is to allow them to use topographical signs written in their own language. It is worth remembering that such bilingual signs can usually be found in areas that have been inhabited by those minorities for centuries. Therefore, it follows that bilingual sings should not be treated as a special privilege granted in order to favour a certain group. Rather, it should be treated as the normal duty of a country towards its citizens who speak a different language.
As it has already been mentioned, the Council of Europe has reminded Lithuania to take intensified measures in order to implement the regulations of the Framework Convention, especially those concerning the as of yet unresolved issue of bilingual street name signs. If Lithuania wants to be a real member of the Western community, the rights of its national minorities must be respected. In other EU countries bilingual signs come as standard.
Picture 1 Two signs with the name in Polish and Lemkos’ languages in front of the entrance to Bielanka village (phot. Wikimedia Commons).
Picture 2 Polish-German entrance sign to Osiny/Rothaus village (phot. Wikimedia Commons).
Picture 3 One of the many bilingual signs in Carinthia (phot. Wikimedia Commons)
Picture 4 German-Croatian entrance sign in Großwarasdorf (phot. Wikimedia Commons).
Picture 5 German-Hungarian entrance sign in Oberwart (phot. Wikimedia Commons)
Picture 6 The name of Vukovar police station, written in both the Latin and Cyryllic alphabet. (phot. Croatia Week).
Picture 7 Estonian-Swedish entrance sign to Elbiku/Ölbäck village in North-Western Estonia (phot, http://www.skyscrapercity.com).
Picture 8 Trilingual sign in the town ofBeyonne in South-Western France: written in French, Basque and Occitan (phot. Wikimedia Commons).
Picture 9 Bilingual sign with the names of a street in Enontekiö, written in both Finnish and Sámi (phot. Wikimedia Commons).
Picture 10 Entrance Sign in Flensburg, also written in Danish (phot. Wikimedia Commons).
Picture 11 In the Slovenian town of Piran, official information boards are also written in Italian (phot. Wikimedia Commons).
Picture 12 Bilingual sign in Southern Slovakia written in both Slovakian and Hungarian (phot. Wikimedia Commons).
Picture 13 Bilingual sign with the name of Bezenye, written in both Hungarian and Croatian. It is worth noting that the Croatian name has a different meaning than the Hungarian name (phot. Wikimedia Commons).
Picture 14 A sign with the name of Dabas-Sár Street in Central Hungary, written in both Hungarian and Slovakian (phot. Wikimedia Commons).
Picture 15 Road sign in Mallaig port, written in both English and Gaelic (phot. Wikimedia Commons).