Brexit a ‘potential disaster’ for minority languages

Language groups warn referendum result could be ‘disastrous’ for minority languages

Language groups have warned of the dangers to lesser-used languages under the jurisdiction of the UK government in the event of a leave vote in Thursday's Brexit referendum.

An open letter jointly signed by Irish, Welsh, Scots and Cornish groups highlights the benefits derived by lesser-used languages from EU membership and warns that the consequences of a Brexit would be "potentially disastrous".

“We represent many of the minoritised commonwealth of these islands, including Kernewek, Gàidhlig, Gaeilge, Cymraeg, and Scots. These islands have comprised, since time immemorial, diverse language communities,” the letter writers state.

“We, as equal citizens of these islands, are often overlooked by government policy makers and have been so far in the ‘Brexit’ debate, despite harbouring a cultural wealth that is only found in these islands.”


The letter points out that respect for linguistic and cultural diversity as well as the prohibition of discrimination on the grounds of language "is European Union primary law".

“If our countries left the European Union, we would be excluded from the rights shared by European citizens. We would furthermore be at the mercy of governments that have shown neither the interest nor the desire to protect and promote the rights of speakers of our nations and regions’ languages, and have throughout much of our shared history conducted aggressive language policies designed to eradicate our languages.

“Neither would we have access to European language project funding, which would be detrimental to non-governmental and educational bodies.

“Leaving would impede our young people’s prospects and employability; European funding has offered vital investment for many of our communities’ economies.

“The EU has been, and can be further still, a great bastion of hope for the minoritised languages of our countries.”

The letter points out that “at no point under the current ‘Brexit’ debate has there been any informed deliberation concerning the future of the lesser used indigenous languages of these islands.”

“We fear that Brexit would lead to an insecure future for our communities, as the UK government’s recent abolition of funding for the Cornish language demonstrates.”

“Being a part of a heterogeneous European Union with its robust congregation of minority and majority cultures allows for a better understanding and protection of our own languages.”

"We, as representatives of indigenous lesser-used language communities in these islands, therefore conclude that in order to ensure the safety and prosperity of our languages and their communities we must remain within the European Union, contribute towards its further development in the spirit of the European Union as a human rights project, as a guarantor of peace, social justice, cooperation, and equal opportunity for the peoples of our continent, and for a Europe united in diversity".

Signatories of the letter include Davyth Hicks of the European Language Equality Network (ELEN), Garry Nicholas of Eisteddfod Genedlaethol Cymru (National Eisteddfod), Dòmhnall MacNèill, Comunn na Gàidhlig (The Scots Gaelic Society) and Liam Ó Flannagáin, Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta (Council of Irish-medium education).

Éanna Ó Caollaí

Éanna Ó Caollaí

Iriseoir agus Eagarthóir Gaeilge An Irish Times. Éanna Ó Caollaí is The Irish Times' Irish Language Editor, editor of The Irish Times Student Hub, and Education Supplements editor.