The Uncharted Territory of Linguistic Heritage

The Uncharted Territory of Linguistic Heritage

In November 2015, the inscription of the speeches along the Čabranka and Upper Kolpa rivers[1] appeared in the Register of Intangible Cultural Heritage,[2] officially recognising these dialects as part of the intangible cultural heritage in Slovenia. This was followed by 6 other similar inscriptions of language or dialect units, the last of which was the Sorica speech, which was inscribed in the Register on 3 April 2023. In the last eight years, the discourse on intangible cultural heritage in Slovenia has thus expanded to the field of dialects and raised a variety of heritage-related issues that have hardly been discussed so far.[3] As these questions resurface, with each new inscription of a dialect in the register, we have chosen to summarise them in the following overview.

What are we talking about when we consider “linguistic heritage”?

The concordances of the Gigafida 2.0 Slovenian reference corpus show that linguistic heritage is used as ‘language passed on from parents to children’, ‘words inherited from Proto-Slavic’, ‘the use of house names’, ‘the use of family names’, ‘dialect’, ‘the research oeuvre of a linguist’, ‘the linguistic continuum’[4] and also as ‘means of linguistic creativity’ – the latter being placed in a context with a so-called literary heritage.[5]

As Rajko Muršič has noted, in the Slovenian professional and popular press of the first half of the twentieth century, the term ‘linguistic[-cultural] heritage’ carried “a clear political and national connotation”, i.e. “the term cultural heritage […] used to appear and denote what has accumulated in past cultural practises and what is adopted by new generations” (Muršič 2018: 8). The meaning of ‘linguistic heritage’ in relation to the more recent syntagm ‘intangible cultural heritage’ remains unchanging, given its highly diverse uses. Even in the context of heritage discourse one cannot speak of a consistent terminology. As the linguistic heritage often coincides precisely with intangible cultural heritage in texts, it currently retains a status of somewhat ambivalence.  In contemporary usage, the term has joined the plethora of “ad hoc meanings” of the last century and now takes on a new meaning in the context of national registers of States Parties, that have chosen to include languages and dialects in heritage safeguarding processes. The latter are maintained within the framework of national registers established on the basis of the ratification of the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage and national legislation.[6]

In summary, contemporary Slovenian language’s use of the term “linguistic heritage” as an unambiguous reference to the context of the register, is therefore inaccurate. However, it is likely that as the authorised heritage discourse (Smith 2006: 10–11) continues to consolidate and expand in the field of dialects, it will increasingly refer to practises and phenomena that are recognised as part of this field.

The storyteller Joza Kravanja Marinčič during recording in Trenta in 1956. (Photo by Valens Vodušek. Archive of the Institute of Slovenian Ethnology ZRC SAZU).

What is the relationship between dialects or languages and the UNESCO Convention?

The UNESCO Convention does not define languages and dialects as elements that are to be directly protected, but does define them as an important means (i.e. “vehicles”) of transmitting intangible cultural heritage units (Mrvič 2022: 73–74). This was first pointed out by the Dutch linguist Rieks Smeets (2004: 156), who highlighted in the year following the publication of the UNESCO Convention that the Convention as such, cannot be used directly for the protection of endangered languages, as the language-planning dimension of the Convention was not intended by those who drafted it. This conclusion is confirmed 20 years later by the status of inscriptions in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, which does not include (natural) languages or dialects.

Smeets pointed out that other (more effective) means are available to the international community to protect endangered languages and the rights of different speech communities, including those developed with the support of linguists for specific local political contexts. From this derives the idea, also alluded to by Smeets, that languages and dialects need not be treated as distinct elements under the Convention and national registers in order to contribute to their preservation. Despite the desire to preserve a language, it is therefore more appropriate to redirect heritage processes from abstract linguistic models to concrete cultural practises associated with oral tradition and other practises that are realised through language and are therefore linguistic. The inscription of different forms of linguistic creativity therefore proves to be a solution to the difficulty of navigation between international frameworks and the desires and needs of local communities (Mrvič 2022: 86–87).

What are we talking about when the “linguistic heritage” refers to the framework of the Register?

The 7 linguistic or dialect units mentioned in the introduction are represented in the Register by a superordinate category called “Oral tradition and folklore”. With a total of 10 inscriptions – the category also includes the use of house names, the Reading Badge movement and folklore of the Bovec region. 6 dialect speeches belong to the subcategory “Dialects”, and the element of Slovenian sign language is placed in its own subcategory “Sign language”. Since the Register is numerically dominated by dialects, a short and generalised answer to the above question, could be that when we talk about linguistic heritage, we are talking about dialects. However, this cannot be the case if we also consider the status and meaning of other units that also fall into the same category. Given the problems with the protection of intangible cultural heritage in Slovenia (see Židov 2018, 2019), the current status of dialect elements in the Register, should not be seen as an expression of a systematic and consistent attempt at dialectal normalization, that by the inclusion and exclusion of phenomena, divides them into two groups according to the heritage norm. Namely the “acceptable” and the “unacceptable”. This would not be surprising, as intangible cultural heritage is a normative, not an analytical concept (Hafstein 2018: 163).

The essential problem lies elsewhere. Namely in the scope of the registered dialect units themselves, that in particular require an in-depth discussion about the manageability of safeguarding and other related activities. What would any of the envisaged procedures of “identification, documentation, study, evaluation, interpretation and promotion” (Židov 2018: 47) look like if all these procedures encompass, even if only declaratively, an abstract systemic phenomenon? Moreover, the question arises whether heritage recognition and safeguarding is only possible in those areas for which there is enough reliable dialectological data to adequately assess the nominated element during the inscription evaluation process. The origin of many of these problems is relatively easy to identify. The institutional framework in which the Intangible Cultural Heritage Coordinator has to work, was not designed for such complex phenomena as dialects or language systems nor was it adapted after the ratification of the Convention in Slovenia.

That this kind of heritage element is at odds with the basic principle of bottom-up initiatives, i.e. from the local speech community to the relevant institutions, can be illustrated by a simple example. If one asks a random passer-by from the speech community that has proposed the inscription of a dialect in the Register to tell a few jokes and proverbs, sing a folk song, list a few local house names and microtoponyms, and to present their background narratives, one could certainly expect to find at least a few text fragments from passer-by’s personal repertoire that reflect the state of the local oral tradition. Could the same passer-by also describe the vowel and consonant system of his own dialect speech and outline the morphological features of the verb? This is less likely and suggests that it is much more difficult for this speaker to narrate and communicate the content of the inscribed (or nominated) heritage element if the model of the non-scientific Register is inspired by the scientific linguistic model borrowed from linguistics. This linguistic inspired approach gives the Register the characteristics of a linguistic work, such as an atlas or a dictionary, which is unnecessary for the representation and revitalisation of a certain dialectal practise. The experience of the proponents of previous heritage element nominations in Slovenia also confirms that the support of a dialectologist is crucial in the preparation of the required documentation (Ivančič Kutin 2022: 115). Elements with a higher degree of abstraction, that conceptually, do not originate from the community but are derived from concepts of linguistic theories, simply have less narrative potential (Hafstein 2018: 167) for members of the dialect community. One of the dangers of such linguistic mediation is that potential proponents of new elements may perceive this within authorised heritage discourse as a distrust of their abilities to adequately represent the content of the practises they live with.

The figures called “mat” and “uača” during a ritual round in the Bohinj region in 1954. (Photo by Niko Kuret. Archive of the Institute of Slovenian Ethnology ZRC SAZU)

On the basis of the current inscriptions in the Register, can we speak of systematic, long-term and more diverse approaches to dealing with linguistic heritage?

New approaches and possible solutions depend on the long-term strategy of those responsible and their willingness to change the current status quo.  When looking at the above considerations, the inscription of individual dialects cannot be a long-term sustainable approach to safeguarding practices within the field of linguistic heritage. If heritagization processes were to shift to concrete cultural practises which are also linguistic, several approaches can be proposed. These include, 1) Inscribing oral tradition text performance that would adopt a representative role for several dialects. 2) Inscribing the practises of safeguarding, preserving and promoting dialects as an interplay between professional dialectological work and the efforts of self-organised communities. 3) Defining linguistic heritage as a descriptive category, common to all units of the Register, that can be integrated into the Coordinator’s proposal form, and could later be included into the structure of the Register. This also applies to non-linguistic elements of intangible cultural heritage, e.g. dialect terminology in embroidery or in the preparation of regional delicacies.

Possible approaches are also recognised in intangible cultural heritage registers abroad. States Parties, that do not inscribe dialects in their national registers often tend to inscribe practises that are directly related to dialectal creativity. This is the case, for example, in the national register of Germany, where “Regional Diversity of Dialect Theatre in Germany” is inscribed, and in the national register of France, where “Amateur Theatre in Occitan” is inscribed as an instance of folklore performance, tightly connected to the specific language status of Occitan. It certainly seems more promising to treat linguistic heritage as an organic and inherent part of other cultural practises when these are also, at least in part, linguistic. Because by loosening the rigid principle of “one dialect, one inscription”, we can promote awareness that a “complete inventory” of all phenomena on the national territory as part of the “absolute register” is not possible when considering either scientific or heritage criteria.

In conclusion, we can say that in Slovenia we can no longer talk about intangible cultural heritage without considering it together with linguistic heritage – and vice versa. This text highlights a few initial, and not yet fully elaborated questions and answers on linguistic heritage, to which many more could be added. E.g. on how all newly registered units will enter into a dialogue with those already registered and what should happen to the inscribed units after the introduction of possible systematic changes? And how to achieve consistency in the descriptions of the elements, so that they provide enough information and are predominantly tailored to the needs of local communities, who should have the most say in their management.

The decision to classify dialects as intangible cultural heritage elements, whether planned or unplanned, opened the door to potentially one of the most important language and cultural policy processes in Slovenia. This decision provides an institutional backdrop and allows the discovery of new ways to support communities that have a desire to learn more about their dialects and preserve their inherent creative potential, even if it is only indirectly.

For effective language planning of the selected segment of the language continuum, i.e. in the classification and conceptualisation of proposed linguistic phenomena to be included in the heritagisation, it is necessary to “adapt to each language planning objective and provide for systematics that ensure consistency within a certain framework” (Stabej 2020: 25). With each new inscription, the need for clear linguistic heritage guidelines only increases, and at the same time, the framework defined by the propositions addressed to the Coordinator by the local communities also becomes more and more varied.

[1] For a more detailed presentation of the initiative to register the dialect speeches of the area, see Smole 2019.

[2] Details of the elements inscribed in the Register are published on the website of the Intangible Cultural Heritage Coordinator or on the website of the Cultural Heritage Information System established by the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Slovenia.

[3] Some aspects of this contribution are discussed in the article Mother Language as Intangible Cultural Heritage? (Mrvič 2022), which also contains brief content analyses of documents in the field of intangible cultural heritage and the justifications for inscribing individual dialect elements of intangible cultural heritage. The discussion on linguistic heritage was initiated by the author as a continuation of a discussion that started in the course Heritages, Heritage Processes and Practises in Slovenia taught at the ZRC SAZU Postgraduate School by Špela Ledinek Lozej.

[4] For details on the contemporary sociolinguistic conceptualisation of the term “linguistic continuum” in the case of the Slovene language, see Stabej 2020.

[5] Search results with various web browsers yielded even more diverse examples of the syntagm’s meanings, but for illustrative purposes, here are just a few selected examples that reflect the very heterogeneous usage in the Gigafida 2.0 corpus.

[6] In managing their national registers, States Parties often draw inspiration from established methods of typologising elements in foreign registers and lists to adopt examples of ‘good practice’, but in doing so they also adopt principles of selection and exclusion that have different implications in different national contexts (for more observations on list managing, see Hafstein 2018: 80-81). The field of linguistic heritage is no exception, even though different states take different approaches to inscribing languages and dialects. Some States Parties do not inscribe dialects in their national registers (e.g. France, Italy, Hungary, Germany; although the German register makes an exception for German sign language), while others have been inscribing dialects since the ratification of the Convention; the closest examples of countries where dialects represent elements of intangible cultural heritage in their own right are Austria and Croatia.

  1. Ivančič Kutin, B. (2022). Govorjeno (ustno) jezikovno izročilo v slovenskem Registru nesnovne kulturne dediščine in odnos domačinov na primeru vpisanih enot z Bovškega. V Savremena srpska folkloristika 11, 113–128. Novi Sad: Centar za istraživanje srpskog folklora, Odsek za srpsku književnost, Filozofski fakultet, Univerzitet u Novom Sadu.
  2. Mrvič, R. (2022). Materinščina kot dediščina? Problematika jezikovne dediščine na primeru vpisov v Register nesnovne kulturne dediščine. Traditiones 51 (1): 69–101. DOI:
  3. Muršič, R. (2018). Od izročil do nesnovne kulturne dediščine: Politične, gospodarske in skupnostne razsežnosti dediščinjenja. Etnolog 28: 15–40.
  4. Smeets, R. (2004). Language as a Vehicle of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. Museum International 56 (1–2): 156–165. DOI:
  5. Smith, L. (2006). Uses of Heritage. London, New York: Routledge.
  6. Smole, M. (2019). Prekomejna nesnovna dediščina v dolini zgornje Kolpe in Čabranke v Registrih obeh držav. V Nesnovna dediščina med prakso in registri, 15. Vzporednice med slovensko in hrvaško etnologijo, ur. Ana Svetel, Tihana Petrović Leš, 267–282. Ljubljana, Zagreb: Slovensko etnološko društvo, Hrvaško etnološko društvo.
  7. Stabej, M. (2020). Slovenščina, kontinuum. V Slovenščina – diskurzi, zvrsti in jeziki med identiteto in funkcijo, ur. Jerca Vogel. Ljubljana: Znanstvena založba Filozofske fakultete (Obdobja, 39).
  8. Židov, N. (2018). Težave Slovenije pri varovanju nesnovne kulturne dediščine v luči Unescove Konvencije (2003). Etnolog 28: 41–62.
  9. Židov, N. (2019). Nacionalni in globalni seznami nesnovne kulturne dediščine in Unescova Konvencija (2003). V Nesnovna dediščina med prakso in registri, 15. Vzporednice med slovensko in hrvaško etnologijo, ur. Ana Svetel, Tihana Petrović Leš, 12–24. Ljubljana, Zagreb: Slovensko etnološko društvo, Hrvaško etnološko društvo.