• June 16, 1996


A large number of linguistic associations and specialists have been working throughout the past three years to produce a Declaration on linguistic rights. This group acknowledges the fact that, traditionally, colonising language groups have marginalised and oppressed languages spoken by indigenous peoples absorbed by the expansion of political entities. This group further acknowledges that it is the right of everyone to use and maintain their own language in their territory, irrespective of whether or not this territory lies within or is divided by other political territories.

It is accepted that there are, even yet, well over 6,000 languages still spoken in the world today. Around 80% of these are considered threatened. According to a representative of the Summer Institute of Linguistics, over three thousand may have no written form.

These facts, together with the acceptance that cultural and linguistic diversity is an essential part of human existence, led to the drafting of a Declaration of Linguistic Rights during 1995. This draft was then circulated to interested groups internationally, including the Celtic League, for comment and amendment. From the 6th to the 8th of July, over 300 delegates gathered in Barcelona to ratify the Declaration at a World Conference on Linguistic Rights.

This conference was hosted by CIEMEN (Mercator: Law and Linguistic Legislation) and International PEN (Committee for Translation and Linguistic Rights) with moral and technical support from UNESCO. The City of Barcelona also gave its support. The delegates, representing several thousand languages, heard the Declaration proclaimed in the Auditorium of Barcelona’s University, and then signed it. Representing the Celtic League, were Chairman Cathal Ó Luain (Éire) and Assistant General Secretary Mark Kermode (Mannin).

Throughout the next two days, delegates discussed the implementation of the Declaration and heard submissions from representatives of UNESCO. It was the unanimous wish of the conference that the Declaration be submitted to UNESCO to be introduced as an International Convention on Linguistic Rights. Unfortunately, UNESCO has no power to act upon its own volition, requiring instead, a mandate from the appropriate National Committees of UNESCO. It is the intention of the Celtic League to involve as many organisations as possible in the Celtic countries in lobbying their respective governments to give UNESCO the necessary mandate and to honour its intent, which is unquestionable.

Statement from the Celtic League to the World Conference on Lingustic Rights, Barcelona, June 1996.

The following statement was presented to the Conference by Celtic League Chairman, Cathal Ó Luain.

“I would like to say a few words on the situation of the Celtic Languages from the perspesctive of the Celtic League. The Celtic League regards the Celtic Languages as essential elements in maintaining the Celtic identity of each country. The present position of each of the six Celtic languages varies considerably. The language of one of the smaller countries, Kernow (Cornwall), was considered to be eradicated well over a century ago but nevertheless, in recent decades, a revival is under way. A revival with limitations, of course, but a revival nonetheless. In Mannin (Isle of Man), the historical continuity of the language has been maintained and the autonomous government has been pressured into introducing Manx lessons into schools in recent years. Demand for these classes is buoyant.

“In Alba (Scotland), while Scottish Gaidhlig is marginalised, significant gains have been made in regard to education and communications, particularly T.V. The case of the Irish Republic, the one Celtic country with full sovereignty, illustrates well the difference between theory and practice, one could say, between declaration and implementation! The Irish language is the first officila language of the state according to the Irish Constitution, yet the number of native speakers has declined steadily and Irish speakers in Ireland could hardly be said to enjoy full linguistic rights. In the north of Ireland, under British rule, they hardly exist at all and if a final political settlement is arrived at, the guarantee of linguistic rights must be an intergral part of any such settlement.

“The position of the Welsh language is seen to be the strongest and this is through the efforts of the Welsh language community themselves, where major gains were made in administrative, legal and communication areas in recent decades. The position in the French state has been referred to earlier (in the Conference) and the Breton language has suffered badly, with a severe decline in in the number of native speakers and only limited assistance for Breton medium schools. Has anything really changed from the time when, in public places in Brittany, signs read, ‘Defense de cracher par terre et de parler Breton'(No spitting or speaking Breton) ?

“The Celtic League feels that the long periods of colonisation and enforced cultural assimilation endured by the Celtic countries must be taken into account when addressing the situations of the Celtic languages today.

“With regard to the Declaration, it was the very definition of language specific to a territory which allowed us to sign the Declaration, as it made it applicable to the varying situations in the Celtic countries. To ensure the positions of the Celtic languages, they must have a place in the legal, administrative systems and mass media of their countries. The Celtic League will be working at the implementation stage to ensure that this crucial definition is maintained.”

Cathal Ó Luain, Chairman, Celtic League. 07-06-96

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