Michael McCarthy: Minor languages, major importance

Nature Notebook: Praise be for the encouragement that the EU has given these languages

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Everyone knows what we mean by a troubadour, I imagine. (A sort of generalised wandering minstrel). But the original troubadours were something specific – the first poets in Europe to write in a Romance language, one which had developed from Latin, and they began the European poetic tradition in southern France in the 12th century, writing in what used to be called Provençal (but is now referred to as Occitan).

The most famous troubadour poem is "Amor de Lonh", "Love From Afar", by Jaufré Rudel, pictured, a young nobleman who was so taken with reports of the beauty of a faraway princess – she was meant to be Hodierna of Tripoli – that he set out on a pilgrimage to see her, the legend has it, fell ill as he arrived, and died in her arms. The poem itself is mesmerisingly repetitive, and if you want to get a feel for what the original troubadours sounded like, the first two lines go like this: " Lanquan li jorn son lonc en mai / M'es belhs dous chans d'auzelhs de lonh" ("When the days are long in May, the song of faraway birds is very sweet to me").

I mention this because I spent the latter half of last week in Barcelona, covering the final session of negotiations prior to next month's international climate summit in Copenhagen, and it was too dark at the end of the working day to look at what nature had to offer in the capital of Catalonia (apart from the dismal caged birds on the Ramblas), so I found myself listening to Catalan, on the hotel room TV.

Catalan and Provençal/Occitan are very close, except that the latter seems to be slowly dying in France, whereas in Spain Catalan has never been healthier, with 10 million speakers and several TV channels, such as Barcelona's all-Catalan TV3. And I found myself watching the adverts for shampoo and insurance, and the Europa Cup match between Slavia Prague and Valencia, all in Catalan, and closing my eyes and letting the language wash over me, and thinking, is this what Jaufré Rudel sounded like?

Praise be for the survival of Europe's minor languages, and for the encouragement that the EU has given them. There are worlds locked up in each one.

A real talking point

If you have a feel for threatened species, it is hard not to have sympathy for threatened languages. In each case we are taking of wondrous, complex creations which are likely to be streamrollered by modernity. There are perhaps 6,000 languages in the world, but a mere 30 account for the vast majority of the world's people. Many are likely to go the way of the dodo – unless they fight a rearguard action, Catalan-style.

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