Slovakians watch their language

January 19, 1996

University lectures, concert halls and the opera stage, are virtually the only place the Czech language will be permitted in public under a Slovakian new state law.

The language law came into force on January 1 but the penalties for breaking its provisions will not come into force for a year. Universities are specifically exempt from some of its provisions.

The law is to raise the status of Slovak, which it describes in the preamble as "the most important characteristic of the Slovak nation, the most valuable piece of the cultural heritage and expression of sovereignty of the Slovak Republic and the general means of communication of its citizens".

The language is to be "codified" by the culture ministry on the basis of proposals by Slovakia's specialist linguistic institutes. Any "interference" with the codified language will be legally "unacceptable".

All teachers and lecturers are required to "master and use" Slovak in its prescribed form with the exception of foreign instructors, lecturers and language assistants.

All textbooks, except those for national minorities and ethnic groups, must be in Slovak. University textbooks, however, may be in any language, particularly important for science. Slovakia has too small a market for regular issue of new textbooks to be practical.

The country's Hungarian minority has opposed the law. This community, whose presence in the Slovak republic is due not to migration but to frontier changes, is a "national minority" in the sense understood by international law: a self-identifying community with its own language and culture resident on territory where it has been for at least 100 years.

The Hungarians have therefore challenged the law under the Geneva Accord on Minorities saying that it infringes their linguistic and cultural rights, while the Hungarian government in Budapest wants to take the Slovak language law to international arbitration.

The Slovak government, however, maintains that the law is an internal matter for Slovakia and stresses that in any case the law does not cover national minorities and ethnic groups which are dealt with under separate legislation. The Hungarians, however, remain unconvinced, citing numerous examples of covert and sometimes open pressure on the Hungarian language in Slovakia.

In fact, the law seems to have been targeted not so much against the minority languages of Slovakia - Hungarian, German and Ruthenian (whose speakers just a year ago proclaimed it to be not a dialect of Ukrainian, but a language in its own right), but against Czech. In the former Czechoslovak Republic, Czech and Slovak formally enjoyed equal status. But the very fact that the state was governed from Prague not Bratislava gave the Czech language, in effect, the dominant role.

The law could mean that Czech films, television shows and videos are dubbed in Slovak, even though the two languages, particularly spoken are mutually intelligible. But musical works may continue with their original texts.

Slovakia is not, of course, the only state to try to legislate for purity of its language. The campaign of the French against franglais is a classic example, while Brazil actually wrote the rules of Portuguese grammar into its constitution. But the Slovak law at least avoids the pitfall of trying to bann what it terms "common foreign usages, specialist terms or new expressions" for which Slovak provides no exact equivalent. The law-abiding citizen of 1996 may therefore, without qualms, continue at the weekend to express his joie du vivre by eating a hamburger.

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