Scope of Study

In the study "Local and Regional Varieties as Markers of Identity", researchers investigated the relation between majority and minority languages as well as the importance of dialects for identity in Istria (Croatia), in the Czech part of Teschen Silesia and in the Northern Kurzeme region including the so-called Livonian Coast (Latvia).

Researchers have analysed official EU documents and compared them to the ones in the countries under investigation in order to find out the status of minorities in Croatia, the Czech Republic and Latvia.

Groups of researchers have also conducted interviews in all three nations and shared the core questions in order to gain comparable data.

The last source of data was a questionnaire for secondary school pupils, which was used in the Silesia and in Istria in order to investigate their attitudes towards culture, language issues, dialects etc.

2nd Issue, December 2008

My Language, My Identity

In Istria (Croatia), the Czech part of the region Teschen Silesia and Latvia, dialects and local vernaculars serve as strong markers of identity. People tend to identify themselves most with the region they live in and consequently with their dialect. In Istria, language is used to stress independence, in Teschen Silesia to integrate into a community and in Latvia, an almost dead language still proves to be an important aspect of identity.

In Istria (Croatia), it is very clear that identity changes when its context changes: when people in Istria deal with "the outside", they stress their being Istrians and let aside the differences in dialects and culture within Istria.

On the other hand, when dealing with "the inside", both the Croatians and the Italians strongly identify with their local vernacular.

In this context, it is important to note that Istria is officially bilingual and that the majority of the inhabitants feel very positive about it. Although not all of them are bilingual in the strict sense of the term, both the Croatian majority and the Italian minority accept the other language as a normal, everyday phenomenon.


Strong local identification
In Latvia and the Czech part of Teschen Silesia, too, people identify themselves and their region with a specific dialect. In the Czech part of Teschen Silesia, people do not identify themselves with their region, but with even smaller areas. Reasons for their attachment to local areas base on personal relationships, local dialect and (in the case of the respondents who live in the Highlands of Teschen Silesia) to landscape.


Counter movement to prescriptions
The prescriptive language policy of Croatia (see page 7) seems to have resulted in a counter movement in Istria, which favours local dialects and which entailed even the development of a colloquial variant of Croatian that is perceived both by Istrians and by other Croatians as belonging to Istria. As a result, according to some interviewees, it is enough to live in Croatia for qualifying as Croatian; however, it is not enough to live in Istria to qualify as Istrian. In their view, one has to speak the language(s) of this region to qualify as Istrian.


Speak Czech be Czech
In the Czech part of Teschen Silesia, those locals who self-declare Polish ethnicity value the local way of life, tradition and, in addition to the Polish standard language, also the regional dialect highly, while those who consider themselves Czechs try to integrate as fast as possible into the Czech national community and, at the same time, often consciously abandon the local dialect in favour of Czech only.


European laws are misunderstood
Researchers have also discovered misinterpretations of the European legal provisions in the Czech part of Teschen Silesia. Minority rights and protection of the Polish language are sometimes viewed as necessary only because the Czech Republic is member of the EU and not as the right which the majority gives to a minority. The reason for this misinterpretation could be that the Polish minority is socially very active and visible and therefore not viewed as a weak minority but as a quite powerful, omnipresent group.


Identity does not die with language
In Latvia, many people think that language is one of the most important elements of ethnic identity and that therefore language has to be protected from foreign influences. Consequently, losing ones language would mean losing ones identity. However, research does not support this view in Latvia: interviews have shown that there are people who identify themselves as Livonians, even if today their language is almost lost and spoken only rudimentary by themselves. (Livonian is a language related to Estonian, spoken by very few in Latvia.)

In the region of Kurzeme, the homeland of the ethnic Livonians, the influence of the Livonian language has resulted in a "Livonianized" dialect of Latvian, which is perceived as being part of the regional identity, although few people know that their dialect is actually influenced by the Livonian language.


Old and young care for dialects
In all three regions in Latvia, the Czech Republic and Croatia it is the young and the old who aim to preserve their language and traditions. The middle generation, however, does not show too much enthusiasm for the maintenance of dialects.

This is probably due to the fact that they have lived in times in which speaking ones dialect was considered as a sign of an uneducated, primitive person or was subdued in many ways in favour of the standard.


Positive attitude towards EU
Some people in Istria feel more attached to their town than to the region of Istria, others feel more attached to the region than to their town. What interviewees have in common is the fact that they feel more attached to their town or region than to the nation or to Europe. This is true for the regions in the Czech Republic and Latvia too.

However, in all three regions, people have a positive attitude towards the EU, especially when it comes to order, employment and education.


>>> Comment by Vesna Muhvić-Dimanovski, Institute for Anthropological Research, Zagreb