[lg policy] the economist on the slovak language law

Dennis Baron debaron at ILLINOIS.EDU
Fri Jul 31 14:53:30 UTC 2009

FYI: from this week's Economist:

Language rows between Slovakia and Hungary

Hovorte po slovensky!*

Jul 30th 2009 | BRATISLAVA
 From The Economist print edition

Slovakia criminalises the use of Hungarian

Illustration by David Simonds
LANGUAGE laws may protect minority rights or infringe them. Slovakia’s  
new law, which comes into force on September 1st, is under fire for  
its harshness. It imposes fines of up to €5,000 ($7,000) on those who  
break rules promoting the use of Slovak in public. Hungarian-speakers,  
who number around a fifth of the population, mainly in the south of  
the country, see that as a direct attack on their right to speak their  
mother-tongue. So do politicians in neighbouring Hungary. A long- 
running dispute between two of Europe’s most prickly neighbours is  
turning nasty.

Slovakia’s left-leaning populist government has been needling Hungary  
since it took power in 2006. It sidelined plans for a joint Hungarian- 
Slovak history textbook last year and has publicly endorsed the Benes  
Decrees, which expelled most Germans and many Hungarians from the then  
Czechoslovakia after 1945, as a punishment for their supposedly Nazi  
sympathies. The new law tightens rules about speaking Slovak in  
dealings with public officials: not just police officers or teachers,  
but also, say, doctors. Exceptions apply to monoglots, or in districts  
where the minority makes up a fifth or more of the population.  
Hungarian-language schools must conduct their administration in  
Slovak. The new law also lays down detailed instructions for the way  
in which memorials and plaques may be inscribed

A party representing the Hungarian minority is mounting a challenge in  
the constitutional court: it calls the law “19th-century language  
imperialism”. The Slovak response similarly accuses the Hungarians of  
hankering for the 19th century: they dominated the region in the  
Habsburg era. The Slovak prime minister, Robert Fico, said the real  
problem was those wanting to bully Slovaks in the south of the country  
into learning Hungarian.

The Slovak foreign ministry has published (unilaterally) an expert  
opinion drawn up in confidence by Knut Vollebaek, high commissioner  
for national minorities at the Organisation for Security and Co- 
operation in Europe, a Vienna-based international organisation. Mr  
Vollebaek agrees that the bill does not in 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 big question is the meaning of the requirement that Slovak be used  
“in public”. Would, say, a Hungarian-speakers’ poetry club have to  
arrange for their meetings to be translated into Slovak? Perhaps not,  
but it is an odd thing to have to worry about these days in the  
European Union.

Grandstanding in the run-up to elections has fuelled the row. Mr Fico  
is gaining record popularity ratings. It helps divert opinion from  
issues such as corruption and economic decline. Mikulas Dzurinda, a  
former prime minister and opposition leader, says that the real danger  
to the Slovak language comes not from tongue-tied ethnic Hungarians,  
but from the debasing of Slovak by foul-mouthed chauvinists in the  
government, such as the leader of the Slovak National Party, Jan  
Slota. He recently provoked uproar by calling a policewoman (she says)  
a “cunt”. The charming gentleman’s complaint? She had refused to allow  
his driver unauthorised entry to a parliamentary garage.

*Speak Slovak


Dennis Baron
Professor of English and Linguistics
Department of English
University of Illinois
608 S. Wright St.
Urbana, IL 61801

office: 217-244-0568
fax: 217-333-4321


read the Web of Language:

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