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Sociolingüística internacional
Winter 2001

Language Policy and Protection of the State Language in Latvia, by Ina Druviete

This paper gives an overview of the Latvian language policy, special as regards the linguistic laws of 1989 and 1999, and some prospects about the further development of the sociolinguistic situation in Latvia taking into account the positive and negative trends which can affect the Latvian language in the future.

  en català    

1. Introduction

2. Changes in language hierarchy

3. The 1999 Law

4. Language skills and language attitudes

5. Sociolinguistic functions of languages

6. Development of language situation: prognoses

7. Literature


1. Introduction

After 50 years of incorporation into the USSR the independence of the Republic of Latvia (founded in 1918) was re-established in 1991. The foundation of the renewed Baltic State was the principle of the legal continuity of the state. The 1922 Constitution was re-established in 1991; since 1998 it includes the article about the Latvian language as the official state language. In 1989 the first Language Law aimed to re-establish lost sociolinguistic functions of Latvian was adopted (amendments in 1992). This pre-independence language law had been drafted by special governmental commission including linguists, governmental officials, writers, layers. Their task was not the easiest one: nobody has experience in language policy making. Only the main goal of this Law was clear: to promote the use of Latvian and to develop local language skills among the Russian-speaking population. This law de facto was supposed to establish bilingual society, as Russian would retain the functions of the official language.

Besides the historical heritage (Latvia had well-developed linguistic legislation before WWII) one of the main sources for law-making was the experience of other countries. Contrary to the widespread opinion, the Soviet sociolinguistics did not develop in complete isolation from the Western world; translations of the contributions of the most prominent sociolinguists had been published in Russian, although supplemented with compulsory criticism of bourgeois science in prefaces and footnotes. Many investigations about language policy in Western European, African, Asian or Pacific countries contained deep analysis of language situation and sociolinguistic processes and their evaluation corresponded to the universally accepted scholarly criteria. Among the countries whose language policy was well-known to Baltic specialists was Canada, Quebec in particular. The Catalan experience was lesser known until 1995 when Latvian sociolinguists visited Catalunya for the first time. The Canadian linguistic legislation became one of the cornerstones for Latvian linguistic legislation.

The first reason for this was similarities in language situation. French in Quebec as well as Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian in the former USSR were "regional majority languages – "languages of populations who, though a majority in their historic territory (where they may nevertheless be experiencing some form of assimilation), are minorities at the national level" (Maurais 1997: 135). In Quebec and Lithuania there were about 80% of majority population; in Latvia and Estonia about 50%. Policy-makers consider that in similar situations similar measures could be taken for protection of languages.

The second reason was more pragmatic. Behind the iron curtain very few pieces of linguistic legislation were available, and the Charter of the French Language was among them. There were two Laws adopted by Quebec’s National Assembly available in Latvia in 1988: Bill 22 and Bill 101. They were partly translated in Latvian and studied intensively. Later, after the independence, the other information from Quebec become available.

The goal of language policy was similar to the one in Quebec: to prevent language shift and to change language hierarchy in the public life. The idea of bilingual state was completely rejected. The main sectors of intervention were language use in State government and administrative bodies, in meetings and office-work in particular, language use in names and in information and language use in education. The principle of territorial language rights was implemented. These first Laws did not correspond to the concept of the monolingual state, as Russian retained the functions of an official language in a number of spheres. Though the local languages had the status of the sole State language, the parallel use of Russian in the majority of the sociolinguistic function was allowed. Access to services in Russian for those who did not speak the State language were guaranteed. The main principle was the availability of language choice for lower-ranking persons, as a consequence of which state officials and holders of certain jobs which included contacts with the general publics had to be bilingual.

2. Changes in language hierarchy

Full implementation of the 1989 Language Law was postponed in. A special decree specifying the implementation of the Language Law was issued. There was a three-year transition period during which state employees lacking Latvian language skills could acquire them. In almost all work places Latvian classes were organised free of charge during working hours. The implementation of the 1989 Language Laws was hampered by the unstable political situation during the period 1989-1991. Intensified activity in resolving issues related to the status and role of Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian took place only after the restoration of independence in August 1991. Nevertheless, the quite slow and quiet three-year transition period was very important if the society was going to adapt psychologically to the planned changes in the language hierarchy.

On August 1991 the Republic of Latvia was proclaimed sovereign state. The Language Law was simultaneously revised to strenghthen the status of the state language. In 1992 additions and amendments were made to the 1989 Language Law.

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