Published online by Cambridge University Press: 13 July 2019
‘Minority’ literally refers to a group that makes up less than half of a whole, but in the politico-legal discourse that surrounds culture, it has less to do with numbers and rather more with balances of power. So while it would be problematic to describe the Welsh heard by the Romantic-era gentleman traveller in Wales as a ‘minority’ language (because it would have been spoken by the majority at that time), it would be correct to describe this language as oppressed, though the said traveller is more likely to have described it as a vestige, some fascinating survival of the past. ‘Minority’ describes the results of a process that takes place over time, and has to do with power and powerlessness, both economic and political.
In Europe the term grew out of a political concern for minorities, especially in the aftermath of war (Okey 2000), but of course has a comparable evolution in other parts of the world. It also extends to other groups such as the ‘disabled’, or (and here's proof that it has little to do with numbers) women, or can refer to ethnicity, race, wealth, religion or sexual orientation (see sex/sexuality), and its main collocations are ‘ethnic’, ‘language’ and ‘rights’. It is also a word in a major language that has been imposed on ‘minorities’ from the outside, in the same way that whole languages have been imposed by one powerful group on another (such as French imposed on Bretons). Translation studies have shown how the ‘minority’, in writing in the imposed language, can subvert it from within, by creating texts that are ‘radically bilingual’ (Mehrez 1992, 132). Taking a similar trajectory, this term, imposed from without, mainly used by politicians and sociolinguists, was seized, only to be shaken off.
Travel writing is necessarily about crossing borders between cultures, and there is invariably a power relation separating different cultures. The attitude of travel writing in majority languages (and this is the main source material used in travel writing studies to date) towards less powerful or ‘minority’ cultures, and the ethical question of travelling all over these is varied and evolving. Of course, travel and tourism shoulder some of the blame for the decline of cultural difference, even of language death (Minhinnick 1993; Cronin 2010, 335; 2014, 16).