LINGUIST List 7.222

Sat Feb 10 1996

Disc: Slovak Language Law & LSA statement

Editor for this issue: Ljuba Veselinova <>


  1., Disc: Slovak Language Law & LSA statement

Message 1: Disc: Slovak Language Law & LSA statement

Date: Mon, 05 Feb 1996 00:24:48 EST
From: <>
Subject: Disc: Slovak Language Law & LSA statement
The recent posting on the Slovak language law in light of the LSA
statement on linguistic human rights brings up a lot of questions for
me that I don't have ready answers for. I'm not big on legislating
against the use of minority languages in private and limited official
contexts, but postings on the subject on this list always strike me as
having a distinctly anglophone worldview that can't quite be
transferred to the context of how so-called "small nations" view their
language situations.

English has not, in recent generations, been in danger of being
overwhelmed by a neighboring language, in fact it's usually vice
versa. Likewise, in modern history English hasn't been singled out
for total extermination by any official entity, as have many other
languages, including Slovak. The discussion would be quite different,
I imagine, if instead of by the legislature in an actual sovreign
country, such legislation were passed on, say, a Chippewa reservation.
I'm convinced that Slovak legislators must see their situation in
terms more similar to the latter. (After all, Slovaks, like Czechs,
are fully aware that their nations are only sovreign when the major
powers allow them to be.)

As for specific matters brought up in the posting, I'll play devil's
advocate here:

> [Background information on Slovakia: over 10% of Slovakia's
> population, about 600,000 people, are ethnic Hungarians, who are
> indigenous to southern Slovakia and constitute the majority of the
> population in hundreds of localities. 

Further in the background (and historians can correct me where
necessary) we find that Slovakia was ruled for quite some time as part
of Hungary, and the official policy for years (at least according to
what the Slovaks tell me) was official extermination of Slovak
language and ethnicity through Magyarization. Until the founding of
the Czechoslovak Republic after WWI, there was no secondary school
anywhere in Slovakia, and those wanting to study beyond the elementary
level had to do so in Hungary -- in Hungarian.
This is still fresh in the Slovak national consciousness.

Slovaks are also acutely aware that by the 19th century,
German-speaking rulers had nearly succeeded in eliminating the
neighboring Czech language to the point where it had to be
artificially reconstructed. They are also aware that the presence of
largely German-speaking sectors in West Bohemia served Hitler as a
pretext for annexing the entire country. (This is why the Czechs
expelled the German inhabitants of these areas in the late 1940s.)
The same rationale could serve an antagonistic Hungarian government,
if things ever went wrong someday. Most anglophones don't worry about
such things from day to day, but in small, weak countries, minority
languages that happen to be the *majority* languages of larger
neighbors can play a large part in people's worries about future
colonization. From this standpoint, the Slovak legislature could see
itself as instituting a measure that helps protect the Slovak state
from future occupation, while in no way posing a threat to Hungarian
language and culture in a broader international sense.

> - All signs, advertisements and announcements designed to inform
> the public, especially in shops, sports grounds, restaurants, in
> the street, on roads, at airports, bus and railway stations, in
> prisons and in public transport must be in the state language. They
> may be translated into other languages, but the text in other
> languages must follow after a text of equal length in the state
> language. (8, 6)

There are the same nationalistic concerns here too, but we're not only
talking minority rights in this instance. Few anglophones can imagine
life in a country where many day-to-day announcements and instructions
are never translated into the majority language. In countries like
the Czech Republic and Slovakia, such things are a constant reality.
Their severity can range from the merely insulting (One Proctor &
Gamble detergent no longer comes in a box printed completely in
German, now that it's manufactured in Prague.
 Rather, the top, back, and side panels are in Czech or Slovak, while the
front one is left in German, acknowledging the perception that German
products must necessarily be better than local ones.)... the inconvenient (long lines at photo and electronics shop
counters, because instructions for most products are not printed in
Slovak; often each customer must receive a detailed verbal explanation
of the product being bought, while others wait interminably)... the profoundly frustrating (Computer manuals are usually only
partially translated into the languages of "small nations". DOS and
Windows systems still operate almost completely in English, and only
the Mac has completely localized operating systems that non-English
speakers can understand all the time.)... the downright dangerous: (A lot of necessary medical and safety
equipment is imported under the apparent assumption that everybody in
the world speaks English or German, and there are neither localized
operating instructions nor sufficient local user support. There may
be no one in a locality with good enough English comprehension to
adequately translate these manuals -- provided the hospital has the
money to pay for translation. Once I was asked by a Czech hospital to
translate the rather hefty manual for a sophisticated little piece of
diagnostic equipment. When I responded that my technical and medical
Czech were not up to the task, nor would my schedule allow it, the
doctors told me it would be sufficient if I just showed them how to
turn it on and off. How would any of you like to be tested with a
piece of medical equipment if the examining doctor was not completely
sure how it worked, or how to know when it was giving an false
reading? This is a frequent occurrence where foreign suppliers don't
deem even a country's *majority* language important enough to bother
with, and the Slovak law may be a step toward remedying this.)

If my perceptions are correct, this legislation not only affects
minority languages within Slovakia, but non-indigenous languages as
well. I'm not particularly excited about the general human rights
direction of the current Slovak government, but before we start rising
to action over language legislation in countries we've never lived in,
we should look beyond the anglophone worldview, and the issue of
minority rights. As I mentioned, we anglophones have never in most of
our nations' memories been seriously threatened with colonization
because of the presence of minorities speaking the languages of larger
neighbors, and we seldom encounter language-related consumer safety or
protection problems on our own territory. As I've mentioned before on
this list, citizens of "small nations" live in a completely different
linguistic universe than English speakers do, and their legislation
may reflect this in ways that are objectionable upon superficial
anglophone examination.

James Kirchner
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue