In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Minority Languages

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Minority Language Policies
  • Evaluation of Minority Language Policies
  • Journals
  • Ethnic Identity and Minority Languages
  • Minority Languages and Education
  • Sign Languages
  • Economics and Globalization
  • Media

Related Articles Expand or collapse the "related articles" sectionabout

Forthcoming Articles Expand or collapse the "forthcoming articles" section


Linguistics Minority Languages
Lenore Grenoble, Adam Roth Singerman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 September 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0176


The term “minority language” enjoys a natural, but problematic, definition. In the most straightforward sense, a minority language is simply one spoken by less than 50 percent of a population in a given region, state or country. The key criterion here is the size of the speaker population within a specific geographic context: an individual language may be a minority language in one region or state but a majority language in another. Such is the case with many immigrant languages, whose speakers may continue to be a majority in the homeland but have smaller speaker bases elsewhere. Furthermore, a single language may have different degrees of minority status within a given country. To cite one of the most obvious examples, Spanish is a majority language in a number of countries but a minority language in the United States overall. At the same time, in US states, counties, or regions with large Latino populations it is much more prevalent and even valued, and is indeed spoken by a majority of the population in some counties in Texas and New Mexico. This example highlights the most problematic part of the definition given above; namely, that it makes no claim about the economic, social, or political prestige of a minority language. In many of France’s former colonies, French is a minority language, as is Ainu in Japan, but the former is frequently associated with education and economic advancement, whereas the latter is stigmatized and subject to discrimination. Given such differences, it may make good sense to distinguish between indigenous, immigrant, and ethnic linguistic minorities, and to characterize minority languages in terms of their social and economic functions. Doing so follows the precedent set by landmark documents such as the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, adopted in 1992 by the Council of Europe. The charter defines minority languages based on two criteria: a numerically smaller speaker population and a lack of official status. Accordingly, languages (such as Irish) that have official status but are spoken by smaller segments of a given population do not count as minority languages. But at the same time, the charter excludes dialects and migrant languages, even though the classification of a language variety as a dialect is as much a sociopolitical judgment as a linguistic one. In assembling this annotated bibliography, the authors have sought to keep in mind the various, sometimes conflicting ideas of what minority languages are or should be. The sources cited have been grouped under headings related both to geographical regions (North America, Africa, Australia, and so on) and to issues of broader import.

General Overviews

For readers who would like a broad take on minority languages and on the issues concerning their maintenance and revitalization, the following works are recommended. Note that the overlap with resources on language endangerment is largely unavoidable, given that so many minority languages are losing speakers due to language shift and, as a result, face significant challenges for long-term vitality. Readers should keep in mind that while there are major global trends and typologies, the specific issues can vary from country to country, and even from region to region within countries. Several of the works here are introductions to theoretical considerations. Ricento 2006 is an excellent, textbook-like overview of the field; Edwards 2010 and Fase, et al. 1992 present introductions to the topic from the standpoint of minority-language settings. Fishman 2001 is a foundational text that should prove useful for those interested in the process of language maintenance and of documentation. Spolsky 2009 provides a crucial discussion of language management, through which various players and institutions (e.g., churches, families, governments) seek to shape speakers’ choices about language use. Case studies are to be found in Gorter, et al. 2012, situating minority language issues within the larger context of linguistic ecologies. The articles in King, et al. 2008 engage with the topic from a variety of stances, providing an introduction to different theoretical approaches.

  • Edwards, John R. 2010. Minority languages and group identity: Cases and categories. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

    Excellent overview of issues of minority languages, with a survey of existing typologies of minority-language settings. Particularly valuable for its discussion of theoretical issues of language ecologies and contact, policy implications, and conflict. Includes case studies on Irish, Gaelic in Scotland and Nova Scotia, and Esperanto.

  • Fase, Willem, Koen Jaspaert, and Sjaak Kroon, eds. 1992. Maintenance and loss of minority languages. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

    Each of the sections of this anthology includes chapters on larger issues, such as contact, language shift and loss versus maintenance, policy implications, and misunderstandings in bilingual settings.

  • Fishman, Joshua A., ed. 2001. Can threatened languages be saved?: Reversing language shift, revisited; A 21st century perspective. Multilingual Matters 116. Clevendon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

    This is a classic study of how to revitalize and maintain a language undergoing shift.

  • Gorter, Durk, Heiko F. Marten, and Luk van Mensel, eds. 2012. Minority languages in the linguistic landscape. Basingstoke, UK, and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

    This collection of essays examines the position of minority languages through linguistic landscapes, using empirical data and innovative theoretical approaches. Case studies cover a range of areas, including the Baltic countries, Italy, Spain, and a number of other regions.

  • King, Kendall A., Natalie Schilling-Estes, Lyn Fogle, Jia Jackie Lou, and Barbara Soukup, eds. 2008. Sustaining linguistic diversity: Endangered and minority languages and language varieties. Washington, DC: Georgetown Univ. Press.

    The essays in this collection represent a range of views. In particular, the contribution by William Labov challenges several widely held notions concerning language endangerment and linguistic diversity.

  • Ricento, Thomas, ed. 2006. An introduction to language policy: Theory and methodology. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    Provides a broad view of the issues involved in language policy; seven chapters in Part III are directly concerned with language policy and minority languages, national identity, education and basic human rights of minorities, and language policy and language shift.

  • Spolsky, Bernard. 2009. Language management. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511626470

    Excellent overview of language policy issues from the level of the family to that of the nation. Language management is defined as explicit efforts made by language managers to control the choices speakers make about which language they use.

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