I have judiciously avoided the topic for well over a month although in the Hungarian media over 600 articles have appeared on the new Slovak language law. The problem was that I hadn't seen a translation of the much discussed and criticized piece of legislation. I could read only interpretations. And these interpretations varied widely. The Hungarians severely criticized it as limiting the use of Hungarian within Slovakia while the Slovaks claimed the opposite. According to some Slovak commentators the new law in fact widened minority language rights.
Today I managed to find the text of the legislation in Slovak, Hungarian, and English on a Hungarian website in Slovakia called "Felvidék Ma." (http://tinyurl.com/mgswwb). There is only one problem: the English version is pretty close to incomprehensible. The Hungarian is a bit more lucid, but there are so many exceptions to the laws governing minority languages that one gets lost in the labyrinth.
The Hungarians' complaints are understandable, but it seems that even Slovak linguists are not thrilled. There are some linguists who have their doubts about the "defense" of Slovak or of any other language. René Bílik, head of the Slovak Department at the University of Trnava (Nagyszombat), very rightly points out that a language is a living organism that grows and changes and that no rules and regulations can alter its natural development. I must say that although I understood little of the legislation, I was somewhat taken aback when the law talked about "codification" of the language that will be checked periodically by the ministry of culture. Nice little situation! Some bureaucrat will decide Slovak usage and spelling. I was also amused when I read that if someone wants to change his given and family name to adhere to the Slovak spelling he can do this without paying any fees. I don't know how many people will change their names to sound more Slovak because it's free, but surely this a little push for all those Páls to become Pavols. Admittedly, it's not as bad as in Romania under Ceauşescu when every Hungarian name that had a Romanian equivalent had to appear in the Romanian form. So all those Gábors were registered as Gavrils!
In today's Europe all this sounds terribly petty, and it goes against the grain. I don't know about Slovak, but the number of English words that have appeared in Hungarian in the last twenty years is simply amazing. Sometimes it is unnecessary because there is a perfectly good Hungarian word for the concept. But sometimes the borrowing makes sense. For example, when people talk about teamwork (team munka). Teamwork is not a strong suit of Hungarians and therefore there was no good word for the notion. Jozef Mlacek, head of the Journalism School at the Catholic University at Ružomberok (Rózsahegy), claims that with this whole ridiculous attempt at "codification" the authorities are trying to make a "dead" language out of Slovak. "What will happen if a dictionary doesn't pass muster at the ministry's inspection?"
The whole thing reminds me of the Orbán government's legislation trying to do something like that in Hungary. There was no question of trampling on the use of minority languages because in Hungary there are practically no minorities, but Orbán and his party's nationalistic impulses compelled them to rush to the defense of the Hungarian language which, according to them, was in great danger. One just has to look around in Budapest or elsewhere: all those foreign names on storefronts! Terrible. Out they must go. They passed some stupid legislation that forbade the use of foreign words in the names of enterprises; if they didn't comply, the owners of the stores would have to pay a fine. Well, the law was simply never enforced and was promptly forgotten. Of course, Orbán also lost the elections. Who knows, next year if he wins again his missionary zeal in defense of the threatened mother tongue might resurface!
Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico called this piece of legislation a "holy Slovak mission." In the twenty-first century with a European Union this kind of talk reminiscent of the "Age of Reform" of the early nineteenth century is hopelessly outdated. It was about this time that the Slovak language was "codified" while Hungarians were madly creating "genuine" Hungarian equivalents for Krawatte and other German words. In the monthly literary magazines there were lists of new words to learn. Some stuck, most of them didn't. National revival started with language reform. Is this a new effort to fuel nationalism despite, or perhaps because of, membership in the EU?
The foreign papers also picked up the feud between Hungary and Slovakia over language use. I especially enjoyed this cartoon in The Economist. The Hungarian in red, white, and green asks the Slovak policeman in Hungarian, "Do you want to arrest me?" The article's title is "Language rows between Slovakia and Hungary: Hovorte po slovensky." According to The Economist "Slovakia criminalises the use of Hungarian." The paper claims that the new law is very harsh: it imposes fines of up to €5,000 on those who break rules promoting the use of Slovak in public. The Economist writes that Knut Vollebaek, high commissioner for national minorities at the Organization for Security and Co-operation In Europe, a Vienna-based international organization, thought that the bill didn't in and of itself contravene international law or Slovakia's earlier commitments to protect minority languages. But his opinion also highlights concerns over the hasty passage of the new legislation and the danger that it may be interpreted arbitrarily. The requirement that Slovak be used "in public," for instance, is not clear. Would a Hungarian poetry club have to arrange for the translation of their meeting into Slovak? Maybe yes, maybe no. In any case, these kinds of questions have an odd ring to them in today's Europe.
Finally, let's look at the objections of MKP (Magyar Koalíció Pártja, a Hungarian party in Slovakia) to the legislation: (1) disproportionate and unjustified sanctions; (2) commanding state authorities and local government to play an active role in language policing; (3) limiting the use of minority geographic names and on maps it is outright forbidden to use local place names; (4) preference for the "state language" in ads aired on local radio stations even in places where the inhabitants' mother tongue is overwhelmingly Hungarian; (5) compulsory Slovak announcements at minority functions; (6) all statues and tombs must also have a Slovak inscription and it must come first; and finally (7) conversations between doctor and patient must be conducted in Slovak in places where the minority's share of the population is under 20%. Thus, according to the Hungarian interpretation, even if both the doctor and the patient are Hungarian-speaking they must speak Slovak. I'm somehat puzzled how the authorities can check what's going on in the examination room. Surely they will not send in the language police. It's very possible that this piece of legislation will follow the fate of Orbán's ridiculous ideas about the defense of the Hungarian language. Nothing will come of it.
This is what the Hungarian foreign minister, Péter Balázs, hopes. However, all parties are putting a lot of pressure on him to do something. Fidesz and MSZP may loathe each other, but when something like this happens in Slovakia there is suddenly understanding and cooperation. Both sides may hate President László Sólyom, but this morning Zsolt Németh, Fidesz's foreign policy expert, and Béla Balázs paid a visit to Sándor Palota. The decision was made to complain to the United Nations! This is a long shot. The United Nations is not the place to resolve squabbles between neighbors. But the Hungarians came to the conclusion that the European Union was not interested in getting involved.