Which European languages need help?

For the fist time, it is now possible to measure the vitality of minority languages, thanks to Riho Grünthal, Professor of Finnic Languages, and his associates.

Research in the humanities and social sciences plays a key role in the development of society. This is also what LERU, the League of European Research Universities, is emphasising in its talks with the European Commission.

LERU’s latest list of significant research efforts includes projects carried out at the University of Helsinki, such as European Language Diversity for All (ELDIA), led by Professor Anneli Sarhimaa. In the ELDIA project, eight European universities promoted the multilingualism of individuals and society in a novel manner.

Riho Grünthal, Professor of Finnic Languages, was in charge of two important sub projects concerning the Finno-Ugric language family. “I and my colleagues were worried about the status of minority languages and wanted to create a new analysis method to help policy-makers,” Grünthal says.

When ELDIA drew to a close in 2013 the group had successfully built a barometer for measuring the vitality of minority languages, known as EuLaViBar. The toolkit enables support to be targeted at areas where the survival of languages is under threat.

Meänkieli, Karelian and Kven in peril

"Language offers a cross-section of society. It reflects how society works," explains Professor Grünthal. In other words, a wide perspective on society is needed when looking for ways to improve the status of minority languages.

ELDIA approached the topic from several angles, applying linguistics, legal studies, sociology, statistics and media studies. The project focused on Finno-Ugrian languages, since research had already been conducted on Western languages.

Many of the minority languages examined in the case studies were at least to some extent endangered.

"The status in Russia of Karelian and Vepsian, which my own research focuses on, is truly alarming," Grünthal points out. "If things don't change, they will become extinct."

According to ELDIA, the three most endangered languages in the Nordic countries are Meänkieli in Sweden, Karelian in Finland and Kven in Norway. Karelian was only recently given official status in Finland, and it remains invisible in practice.

Revival hinges on good will

The ELDIA project has restored belief in the survival and revival of languages.

"In Scandinavia the status of, say, Northern Sami has strengthened," says Grünthal. "This has been supported by a growing awareness of the Sami identity and the significance of the language's survival to the whole culture."

Language policy decisions must influence individual and social structures on a wide scale. Permitting the use of a language or prohibiting discrimination do not alone suffice.

Social sciences, humanities and interdisciplinary research: A showcase of excellent research projects from LERU universities (PDF)


Correction: The titles of Riho Grünthal and Anneli Sarhimaa have been corrected 23.1.2015 at 2 p.m.