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  • Print publication year: 2003
  • Online publication date: December 2009

8 - Language rights



With all its complexity, the language policy of the United States revealed an overarching monolingualism (the hegemony of a single national if not official language), with the large number of speakers of minority languages protected by language rights, or more precisely, by the application of civil rights to language, which emerged largely from the interpretation of courts, legislators and bureaucrats of constitutionally protected civil rights for minorities, as part of the understanding of the fourteenth Amendment and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.

Many countries of the world have a similar “monolingual but …” policy. They may name in their constitution or in their laws a single national or official language, but then modify the intolerance by proclaiming protection for one or more minority languages. Even in France, there are occasional signs of attention to the rights of speakers of previously ignored regional languages. This chapter will trace the development and current state of minority language rights, a common factor in much contemporary discussion of language policy.

There are difficulties with the term “minority”. The numerical implication of the term is not always appropriate, the relationship in fact generally being superordinate or subordinate status (Paulston 1998). Some ethnic minorities, Paulston pointed out, can be dominant (e.g. English-speakers in South Africa), and others (e.g. Christians in Lebanon) are not primarily linguistically different. The term must therefore be used with care.