Blog of the International Journal of Constitutional Law

Constitutionalizing Language

Figure. Proportion of constitutions that specify an official language

Constitutions are often about defining a political community. Adding official (or national) language requirements is a powerful — if potentially exclusionary — way to do so. The figure at left, drawn from the just-uploaded report on language provisions (see the reports!), suggests that officialdom in this domain is on the rise. The figure plots the proportion of constitutions in force that specify an official language. As of 2000, approximately 40% of constitutions identify one or more official languages.
Most of this increase is coming from the post-soviet cases, 80% of which specify an official language in their current constitution. These potentially exclusionary provisions are almost always balanced by language protections, which presumably afford the Russian minorities some sense of security. Not so in northern Africa, where official languages also thrive (75% of countries in 2000) but without the counterbalance of equal protection clauses!

To be sure, official language lists could conceivably be inclusionary. However, by far, the modal number of languages listed on these texts equals one (about 85% of constitutions that list an official language list only one). Some (e.g., Iraq (4) and Switzerland (3)) list more. South Africa’s list of 11 languages on its latest constitution holds the current record, although certainly other multiethnic states could contend for the title if they did not adopt explicitly unifying arrangements that go the opposite direction (e.g., Nigeria).


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