Language or Dialect?: The Politicisation of Language in Central and Eastern Europe

Catherine Gibson

Abstract


Language formed the ideological foundation of many national movements in Central and Eastern Europe during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The decision on whether a people spoke a language or a dialect was not based on arguments about linguistic proximity or distance, but rather on political definitions of who constituted the ethno-linguistic nation. This led to languages being combined or split in accordance with nation-building projects. Often overlooked is the impact of this politicisation of language on sub-national and regional dialects, which are today not accorded the status languages. This paper focuses on the case study of Latgalian, which is used as a means of everyday communication by 150,000-200,000 people in eastern Latvia. It is officially classified as a ‘historical variety’ and ‘dialect’ of Latvian, but linguists have made the case for it being a separate language. The debate over the distance and proximity of languages/dialects is especially pronounced in this ‘peripheral’ (from the perspective of Riga) and highly multi-ethnic region that borders Belarus, Lithuania, and Russia.

 

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DOI: 10.14324/111.2057-2212.019


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