The Slovak Language Law: Hungarian reaction

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.Slovak-Hungarian 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.

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Eben
Guest

If the Slovakian government wants to see an example of how effective trying to govern language is they should look at France, the Académie française tries and tries to stop the spread of English loanwords but the French still shop at le supermarket and leave their cars at le parking. Interestingly it has argued against recognition and protection for regional minority languages.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Eben: “If the Slovakian government wants to see an example of how effective trying to govern language is they should look at France, the Académie française tries and tries to stop the spread of English loanwords but the French still shop at le supermarket and leave their cars at le parking. Interestingly it has argued against recognition and protection for regional minority languages.”
Of course! One cannot artificially “change” natural development of a living organism.

Sophist
Guest

Eva,
” One cannot artificially “change” natural development of a living organism.”
Well, Noah Webster did, that’s why you write ‘labor’ and I write ‘labour’ etc. The history of English is full of successful (and unsuccessful) reforms, French monks and William Caxton being the worst offenders.

NWO
Guest

It seems to me the EU’s refusal to weigh in just shows it remains preoccupied by “big country” issues. If Belgium tried to introduce similar rules that favored Flemish over French or the Italians did something similar in the small pockets of German speaking areas, there is NO WAY that the EU would not intervene.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest
Sophist: “Eva,” One cannot artificially “change” natural development of a living organism.” Well, Noah Webster did, that’s why you write ‘labor’ and I write ‘labour’ etc. I didn’t think of a small change in spelling. I think of much more serious changes in language. I’ll give you two examples from Hungarian. (1) In the last decades–definitely after I left the country–people have been referring to parties, organizations, banks, i.e. non-living entities as “akik” instead of “amik,” that is “who” and not “what.” You can enact any rules that development will not be stopped. Very few people correct themselves. Mostly older, highly educated people but even they are just following the trend. (2) Another to my ears strange development has occurred in the last fifty years or fewer. Certain verbs that didn’t have perfective forms now have. Let me give you an example: “támogatni” = to assist. Suddenly, you hear “megtámogatni.” This sounds very strange because it has the definite meaning that you assisted someone and that person will never need any further assistance. However, modern Hungarian ears don’t notice the absurdity of such a grammatical form. They got used to it. Today, “megtámogatni” is a perfectly OK verb. Fifty years… Read more »
Sophist
Guest

Eva,
“I didn’t think of a small change in spelling”.
Nor did Noah Webster: “As an independent nation, our honor requires us to have a system of our own, in language as well as government. Great Britain, whose children we are, and whose language we speak, should no longer be our standard; for the taste of her writers is already corrupted, and her language on the decline. But if it were not so, she is at too great a distance to be our model, and to instruct us in the principles of our own tongue.”
http://edweb.sdsu.edu/people/DKitchen/new_655/webster_language.htm
And if Webster wasn’t so successful, at least he is a writer you would be immediately familiar with.
For something rather more dramatic, how about modern Hebrew or Filipino.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Sophist: “And if Webster wasn’t so successful, at least he is a writer you would be immediately familiar with.”
I’m afraid you are comparing apples and oranges. The British, the American, and the Australian English have developed somewhat independently of each other. Think of pronunciation, certain idioms or new words. These varied developments are due to distance and independent development. In case of Slovakia or Hungary that is not the case.

Sophist
Guest

Eva: “The British, the American, and the Australian English have developed somewhat independently of each other”
Yes, but artificial stimulus has been part of development. What the Hungarians have done, and what the Slovaks are trying to do is artificially develop their language. All languages that have been standardised have been artificially developed.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Sophist: “Eva: “The British, the American, and the Australian English have developed somewhat independently of each other”
Yes, but artificial stimulus has been part of development.
What kind of artificial stimulus? The English language–whether in Britain or elsewhere–is the least artificially influenced language. No academy, no centralized authority trying to influence it. There are dictionaries. That’s all. As far as American English is concerned already by the time of the War of Independence, there was such a thing as an American accent. The British already noticed it. There were even vocabulary difference because the original settlers around Boston came from East Anglia. Thus, “fall” for “autumn,” for example. These vocabulary differences are continuing even today. Cell phone here, mobil phone there. For Pete’s sake: some kind linguistic nationalism in the middle of the eighteenth century? I think you’re wrong.

Member

Is “szia” a new invention? It doesn’t appear in an older language book that I have (in which everyone is elvtars/elvtarsno)….

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

David: “Is “szia” a new invention? It doesn’t appear in an older language book that I have (in which everyone is elvtars/elvtarsno)….
Put it that way: before 1956 one couldn’t hear it. Szervusz or szevasz. I find it very difficult to use it because for me that means “bye,” but try to be “with it.” Difficult.

Gábor
Guest
Even artificial interventions can not be successful without some resonance and acceptance in the population, the everyday users of a language. The Hungarian language renewal movement tried to introduce almost as many failed expressions as successful ones. But the real – socio-lingusitical – issue is the language use in mixed communities or let’s say borderlands. And as far as historical experience can be a proof of presumptions, the main result of language laws is the creation of an arbitrary sphere, where the use of a language is usually remains the same as before the law was introduced, but where the respective officials can impose fines or decide not to apply the law deliberately. Now government office will be capable to entirely check every tablet on statues, houses etc., to control the use of language in small villages (or even in very large ones). It was the case in the dualist Hungary with a relatively liberal law and somewhat more restrictive practice, and in interwar Romania or Czechoslovakia, where the laws where more restrictive – especially in Romania – but the practice remained quite patchy, depending on local circumstances. Even during the Antonescu era. (And personal disposition of the administration were… Read more »
Sophist
Guest

Gábor,
“Even artificial interventions can not be successful without some resonance and acceptance in the population”
I agree, thank you for moving the discussion on.
“A Scottish acquaintance of mine told me recently that as he is abroad his English simply adapts to the language use of foreigners, imitating their mistakes and peculiarties”
Yes, and one official impact of this is in education and translation. As a native English teacher working in Hungary I often disagree with my colleagues about what is and what is not standard English, ( I except all forms of standard American English too). But some “mistakes” are so persistant that I have long ago given up correcting them. This is problematic when it comes to the erettsegi, because this is also prepared by Hungarian teachers/academics who make the same mistakes – no example at hand unfortunately. Arguing that there are mistakes in the examination papers is beyond my powers of endurance, and so a new standard Hungarian English, as distinct as American English, comes into being.
Where Hungarians translate or write in English this standard is also used. Laszlo Kontler’s excellent “A History of Hungary” occasionally shows a Hungarian enthusiasm for the definite article.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Sophist quoting Gabor “Even artificial interventions can not be successful without some resonance and acceptance in the population”
I agree, thank you for moving the discussion on.
I don’t think that Gabor had foreign speakers in mind who can’t quite speak a language learned later in life faultlessly. I wasn’t talking about foreign languages but people’s mother tongue that is changing over time without or in spite of “regulations.”

Member

Sophist, this problem is worst where a Hunglish usage is grammatically correct but entirely non-idiomatic, the main examples I can think of would be the excessive use of “in case of” which idiomatic English usually only uses when meaning “as a precaution against”.

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

David: “Sophist, this problem is worst where a Hunglish usage is grammatically correct but entirely non-idiomatic, the main examples I can think of would be the excessive use of “in case of” which idiomatic English usually only uses when meaning “as a precaution against”.”
I’m not really familiar with mistakes made by Hungarians’ living in Hungary and therefore I can’t really say much about turns of phrases like “in case of.” However, here is something I find very irritating. Almost everybody who is interviewed on radio or television inserts into every second sentence: “az adott esetben” (in the given situation) or “az adott körülmények között” (under the given circumstances). Whether it is necessary or not. It’s an ugly filler.

Sophist
Guest
Eva, “I wasn’t talking about foreign languages but people’s mother tongue that is changing over time without or in spite of “regulations.” ” Blimey! Yes, but linguists also recognise, that “regulations” influence how a language develops over time, to quote from my undergraduate textbook (capitalisation my own): “In [language] standardization, there are four main processes… Selection of an existing language variety… Codification of grammatical and vocabulary norms… Elaboration ensuring the standard language can be used for a wide range of functions… and Implementation…BY DISCOURAGING THE USE OF ALTERNATIVE LANGAUGE VARIETIES WITHIN OFFICIAL DOMAINS” The writers conclude “Standardisation is thus not simply a linguistic FACT but an ongoing process and an ideological struggle.” And because I suspect you are going to come back to me over the distinction between “language” and “language variety” let me head you off the pass, from the same text: “It is not possible to draw beat boundaries that delimit English [or any other language]…In practice what counts as an identifiable, distinct variety of English (eg Geordie, Indian English), or what distinguishes English [or any other language]from another language (Tok pisin or Scots) is likely to be decided on social and political grounds rather than to purely… Read more »
Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Sophist: “The Slovak government is not on some quixotic pursuit with its language policy, but travelling down a well-worn path. Which is perhaps why some Hungarians are so upset about it.”
It seems that Slovak linguists are also split on the issue. In Hungary the situation is the same. There are people who want to “regulate” language and those, mostly learned linguists, who think that this is hogwash.

Sophist
Guest

Eva,
“those, mostly learned linguists, who think that this is hogwash.”
I think you should cite those “learned” linguists, a professor of Journalism is hardly the same thing.
This is John McWhorter – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_McWhorter- an expert in creolisation, the process the Slovaks are trying to avoid – writing about standardization:
“This tutelage cannot eliminate language change entirely, but it does put a major brake on the process. Thus standardization and widespread literacy, for all of their obvious advanatages, retard language change…[and] have left the world with a small collection of languages that, in comparision with all the others, have been curiously inert in their rate and degree of change in the past few centuries”
The Power of Babel, pg 223-224

lemuel
Guest

I have nothing to add, the Slovak language law is total poppycock. That being said, I can’t refrain from correcting you: It’s University of Trnava, not Trvana. And Páls would become Pavols, not Pávels. (Pavel is Czech) 😉

Eva S. Balogh
Guest

Lemuel: It’s University of Trnava, not Trvana. And Páls would become Pavols, not Pávels. (Pavel is Czech”).”
The first was just a typo. The second is indeed my fault. A few days ago I had the suspicion that I used the wrong word but didn’t get around to correcting it. Now I will. Thanks.

Peter
Guest
In the article above it’s mentioned that Ceausescu of Romania changed the names of Hungarians but if that happened of course it was wrong but I doubt that was done. I will tell you that during the Hungarian rule of Transylvania Romanian names were changed by the Hungarians and even today I know famalies that are 100% Romanian and have a Hungarian name but they don’t want to change it again. Romanians are very tolerent of other minorities including Hungarians, the problem arises when the goverment in Hungary tries in any way they can to get involved in their neighbors business and they are relentless at this, that is why you see the backlash in Slovakia which is probably overdone. One thing is clear that Hungary is not happy with the status quo and probably will continue to push their agressive policy about the Hungarian minorities living outside Hungary and I think tensions for Hungary with its neighbors is here to stay but you could see backlashes against Hungarian minorities living in other countries just like in Slovakia. For Hungary the Slovakian law not been struck down by the EU is a huge problem because all Hungaries neighbors could impliment… Read more »
R K Iyer
Guest

What is happening in several parts of Europe on the linguistic front is nothing short of linguistic tablibanism. Self-styled protectors of indigenous languages, be they private or governmental, are imposing their notions of purity on others. What the Arabs are doing in the realm of religious beliefs is being done in Europe in the realm of language. Behind all of this is intolerance towards speakers of non-local languages. Xenophobia is a variety of fundamentalism, not less dangerous than religious fundamentalism. Europe has a lot to learn from the Indian example. In India, we have managed to create harmony between linguistic groups without resorting to legally sanctioned impositions of language on unwilling people. R K Iyer, Bangalore.

R K Iyer
Guest

In my earlier comment I drew a parallel between religious bigotry and linguistic bigotry. Talibanism is a virus that can permeate the lingusitic realm as surely as the religious realm. The French are among the most engregiously guilt here. The golden rule is this and it is simple: allow languages and cultures to slowly fade out, and defend your language or culture only in personal domains such as family. R K Iyer

Sophist
Guest

R.K.Iyer,
“Europe has a lot to learn from the Indian example.”
India is a standard example of post colonial language politics, but is not comparable with the European situation. Since the British left India, English is no longer immediately identified with the political supremacy of one ethnic group, and is a widely accepted lingua franca. This is also true of South Africa, Nigeria Kenya etc.
In Europe, the ethnic groups associated with languages of oppression (Hungarian in Slovakia, Castillian in Valencia, English in Wales) still live alongside the formerly oppressed. In Europe, language law can still undermine the sovereignty of the state – the most extreme example is Belgium which is now a loose federation of two monolingual provinces. (Perhaps this is the reason the EU is so reluctant to get involved with the situation in Slovakia). Because of these differences, Europe has little to learn from India on this count: perhaps if Joseph II had not replaced Latin with German in 1784 a parallel could be drawn. But I suspect if Latin had remained the official language of the Habsburg empire, it could have maintained the political unity that still blesses multi-lingual India.

Mark
Guest
Sophist: “Perhaps this is the reason the EU is so reluctant to get involved with the situation in Slovakia” The EU can’t get involved because this is an area which sits within the competence of national member governments – the EU has no powers that would enable it to become involved. The EU affirms its support for the languages of minorities, but the only legal basis for this is Article 22 of the European Convention on Human Rights which is rather vague: “The Union respects cultural, religious and linguistic diversity”. Both Hungary and Slovakia are signatories to the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages operated by the Council of Europe (and Slovakia undertook to protect the use of Hungarian when it signed up). Slovakia’s law does seem to infringe at least the spirit of the charter (though it is pretty wooly), but sanctions for infringement seem to me to consist of little more than criticism by the Council’s officials when they monitor compliance. International protection for the rights of minority languages is weaker than many believe (and is much weaker than it should be), and the practice of the state is far from even across Europe. In Austria recently… Read more »
Sophist
Guest

Mark,
“The EU can’t get involved because this is an area which sits within the competence of national member governments – the EU has no powers that would enable it to become involved.”
Even so, I am surprised the EU didn’t see this an opportunity to extend its competence. Previously, minority langauge rights in Europe were internal nation-state issues; Welsh in the United Kingdom, Catalan, etc. in Spain. (I not sure of the relationship of Dutch to Flemish). Since the accession of post Trianon countries minority language rights issues now cross international borders. The now hardly ever heard concept of subsidiarity applies here and the EU should step up to the plate.

Mark
Guest
Sophist: “Even so, I am surprised the EU didn’t see this an opportunity to extend its competence. Previously, minority langauge rights in Europe were internal nation-state issues; Welsh in the United Kingdom, Catalan, etc. in Spain. (I not sure of the relationship of Dutch to Flemish).” Well, firstly they need a new treaty to do it, which requires the agreement of all 27 members. New EU treaties have, shall we say, proved difficult to ratify in all states. Secondly, I don’t think the issues are so different for the successor states in Central and Eastern Europe as for some in western Europe. There are a number of transnational languages that a majority languages in one state and minority languages in others – German (spoken in Denmark, Belgium and Italy, for example, as well as Germany, Switzerland and Austria), or Swedish in Finland. The EU has had very little role in creating the compromises that have led to minority language recognition. This has even happened where as in former territories of the Kingdom of Hungary language issues are linked to perceived territorial disputes – the best example of which in western Europe is the Trentino Alto-Adige/Südtirol. The settlement was shaped by… Read more »
Per Spegulo
Guest

A tót karikatúra magyar szövege helyesen: Le akarja tartóztatni? – mármint a tót rendőr a magyar mondatot. (Azon is van a képen a bilincs.)

wpDiscuz