On 5 November 2022, the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages celebrated its 30th anniversary. This charter lays down the principles for protection and promotion of minority languages and their use in education, cultural life, public services, and other sectors within the EU. Undoubtedly, such supra-national and similar national policies generally improve the rights and lives of minority members.
My Identities article, ‘Drifting borders, anchored community: re-reading narratives in the semiotic landscape with ethnic Lithuanians living at the Polish borderland’, discusses a concrete example of one such minority protected on national and supra-national levels – the national Lithuanian minority in Poland. I provide a glimpse into the realities of its members’ language use, identification and narratives of belonging. I learned that they find some official minority protection attempts more concerning than helpful.
At first glance, the national Lithuanian minority is well supported on the Polish side of the Polish-Lithuanian borderland which they long inhabit. It is easy to notice that the Lithuanian language is visible in some areas of the Polish border landscape for several reasons. In another article (Kudžmaitė and Juffermans 2020), my colleague and I found that some of this bilingual signage targets Lithuanian shoppers often crossing to Poland for cheaper goods and services. The other reason for bilingualism is directly related to the presence of the protected Lithuanian minority. As I learned from the local Lithuanians, events organised by the minority community (e.g. Lithuanian national celebrations) are advertised in Lithuanian and Polish because both ethnic groups are invited. Overall, Lithuanians seem to enjoy living among their majority group ‘neighbours’, though memories of received negative treatment under a different political climate before minority protection regulations were implemented in Poland still occasionally linger in their narratives.
Delving deeper into this borderland dynamic, its overshadowed aspects begin to shine through. The local Lithuanians are sceptical towards economically-driven bilingualism in the area: shoppers from Lithuania mostly negatively affect their lives by causing local prices to gradually increase. Complex multi-layered identification narratives allow them at the same time to identify and not-identify with the Lithuanians across the border (and their cross-border shopping habits, among other things).
Surprisingly, the minority holds a similar reaction towards the official bilingual billboards, such as those baring towns’ names. Local Lithuanians consider these bilingual billboards as superfluous and unnecessary, contrary to the assumption that improving the minority language use and visibility automatically pleases the minority. They all speak Polish and are citizens of Poland, so what is the purpose for doubling the towns’ names, which are quite similar in both languages anyway, and who exactly is the target group? Locals speculate about political reasons for that, but they are mostly affected by controversies and vandalism outbursts they inflame. For these and similar reasons, they prefer to use the Lithuanian language on their own terms (and there are plenty of opportunities for that), and they are equally content to use their Polish language and cultural skills when they choose to.
When the majority ‘stresses cultural differences and turns them into virtues, minority members may feel that they are being actively discriminated against’ (Eriksen 1993, 142). Introducing some bilingual aspects in the area seems to have increased the feeling of differentiation between Lithuanians and Poles. Negotiating overly complex identification which stretches between two countries, nations, languages and historical moments, this local minority seems to have drawn a fine line between what protects and what harms their minority status.
The question that also translates to other places and contexts remains: To keep improving the wellbeing of minorities through policies and action, how do we find the balance between the minority protection that encourages flourishing and dialogue, and the overwhelming emphasis of uniqueness and distinctiveness which instead invokes segregation and isolation?
Eriksen, T. H. 1993. Ethnicity and Nationalism. Anthropological Perspectives. London: Pluto Press.
Kudžmaitė, G., and K. Juffermans. 2020. “Politically Open - Sociolinguistically Semi-permeable: A Linguistic Landscape View into the Lithuanian-Polish Borderland.” In Reterritorializing Linguistic Landscapes: Questioning Boundaries and Opening Spaces, edited by D. Malinowski, and S. Tufi, 261-282. UK: Bloomsbury Academic.
Image credit: Author’s own.
Blog post by Gintarė Kudžmaitė, Tampere University, Finland
Read the Identities article:
Kudžmaitė, Gintarė. (2023). Drifting borders, anchored community: re-reading narratives in the semiotic landscape with ethnic Lithuanians living at the Polish borderland. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2023.2189351 OPEN ACCESS
Read further in Identities:
Border dispositifs and border effects. Exploring the nexus between transnationalism and border studies
Restructuring locality: practice, identity and place-making on the German-Polish border
Introduction to the construction and the interplay of European, national and ethnic identities in Central and Eastern Europe
The views and opinions expressed on the Identities Blog are solely those of the original blog post authors, and not of the journal, Taylor & Francis Group or the University of Glasgow.