Linguistic minorities in the Italian law: an overview

By: Valeria Piergigli, law professor at the Università Di Siena in Italy 


According to Art. 6 of the 1948 Italian Constitution: “The Republic safeguards linguistic minorities by means of specific measures”. As a matter of fact, the Italian jurisdiction recognizes the coexistence, on its territory, of a majority group – those who speak Italian, the official State language – and of numerous linguistic minorities located in the various regions with special or ordinary statutes. More specifically, the special statute regions of the Valle d’Aosta/Vallée d’Aoste and Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol are home, respectively, to French and German minorities, whose languages are officially recognized as equivalent to Italian at the local level. The system of linguistic rights is structured according to the model of “full bilingualism” in the Valle d’Aosta/Vallée d’Aoste region and “linguistic separatism” in Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol. In contrast, the Slovene minority, settled in the region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia – which also has a special statute – enjoys more limited protection, partly because Slovene is not officially recognized as equivalent to Italian.


On the basis of the distinction between national minorities, who speak the official language of another state (France, Austria, Slovenia) and other minorities, who lack a kin-nation beyond national borders, the Italian legislature gave the first a strong protection and denied the second almost any form of protection at all. The non-national minorities have benefitted for a long time from certain disconnected provisions by the State lawmaker and others by the regional lawmaker, among which the latter have been gradually more sensitive to the promotion of the public use of minority languages.


Parliament’s favourable approach towards members of (only) national minorities has long been endorsed by the Constitutional Court, which acknowledged the notion of “recognized linguistic minorities” (starting with judgment no. 28/1982). This notion resulted in the distinction/discrimination between recognized linguistic minorities, coinciding with the three largest minority communities in the Alpin arc (French, German and Slovene), which have been able to count on special guarantees thanks to the provisions of the respective regional statutes and specific international commitments (such as the 1946 De Gasperi-Gruber Agreement and the 1954 London Memorandum), and unrecognized linguistic minorities which, although present in many regions, remained without a general law of protection until 1999.


As well as finally implementing the provision of art. 6 of the Constitution, the approval of the State law no. 482/1999 led to the demise of the artificial distinction between recognized and unrecognized minorities and heralded, at least from a formal standpoint, a new era in the protection of all autochthonous minority groups and their respective languages which are expressly listed. They are: the Albanian, Catalan, German, Greek, Slovene and Croatian populations as well as the minorities speaking French, Franco-Provençal, Friulian, Ladino, Occitan and Sardinian (art. 2 of the law). The speakers belonging to these minorities (around 2.500.000 people) are granted a catalogue of linguistic rights in different fields (school, public administration, personal names and toponomastics), according to a territorial criterion.


The law no. 482/1999 came to the attention of the Constitutional Court, for the first time, in 2009. The Court took the opportunity to remind the cornerstones of its own case-law concerning the protection of minority issues in the Italian legal system. Nonetheless, some passages of judgment no. 159/2009 demonstrate a restrictive and possibly over-formalistic approach. Upholding almost all the claims proposed by the government against a law of the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region that was aimed to protect the Friulian language (regional law no. 29/2997), the Court stated its inconsistency with art. 6 of the Constitution and the law no. 482/1999. The Court underlined that the protection of linguistic minorities is a fundamental, even supreme, principle of the Italian legal system, alongside pluralism and equality. Nevertheless, only the State – and not the regions, even in the case of regions with a special statute and special autonomy – is competent to identify the linguistic minorities and minority languages, as well as to choose the models for their protection.


The Court’s approach was confirmed in subsequent judgments regarding similar issues (judgments no. 170/2010 and no. 88/2011). In short, according to the Constitutional Court, language is an element of individual and collective identity and the regions will not be prevented in the promotion of local languages as long as they restrict themselves to cultural interventions and economic support. The important condition, according to the constitutional case-law, is that they refrain from officially recognizing linguistic minorities/minority languages and extending to other languages the protection that the law no. 482 lays down for the languages mentioned above which are expressly listed, because such a recognition belongs to the State legislature only.


*The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of the National Observatory on Language Rights.

*Toutes opinions exprimées dans cet article sont celles de l’auteur et ne reflètent pas nécessairement la vision de l’Observatoire national en matière de droits linguistiques.

Ce contenu a été mis à jour le 22 septembre 2016 à 13 h 05 min.


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