Official languages are important political tools. Slovak is no exception. In this sense it is admirable that the current Slovak government pays so much attention to the Slovak language. Even though it’s not the first time that the highest power in the land is addressing the Slovaks’ mother tongue. The examination made regarding the high order of the 4th day of this month about the former Professor at the Protestant Lyceum in Pressburg, Ľudevít Štúr, who submitted a request for permission to publish in the Empire a Slovak language magazine under the title Slovak National News has produced the following result. With the deepest respect and devotion I remain your humble servant Ferstl, by my own hand, Vienna, 27 December 1844.
And so it was that the written Slovak language emerged not from language experts (Bernolak’s Slovak), not from the language of church services (i.e. established translations of the Bible), as happened with many European peoples, but from a dialect. In the language of language policy itself – there wasn’t the political will. To achieve this, 46 landowners from Turiec (… the traditional name for one region of Slovakia) signed a request for recognition of the Turiec dialect and addressed it to the Viennese court. Štúr managed to secure the support of the influential clergy and laypeople at the court. He even got a positive reaction from the secret police, as is indicated by the quotation above. Even if some of his verse, published as proof of the need for a written form of this dialect could today seem slightly comical, we should show its author and above all the author of this political strategy our recognition and respect. Admiration. He achieved what he sought to achieve and did so much for the Slovaks. So very much. Above all on the political playing field. Through language, although language didn’t actually have much to do with it, almost nothing at all. For a Slovak political nation to be born, first a homogeneous society had to emerge. The Slovaks had to shed their status as part of the multi-ethnic nation of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy and become a nation unto themselves. Historically, culturally and politically. This is definitively behind us now. Marshall Pilsudski of Poland said: He who does not value his past does not deserve his present and has no right to a future. Whatever our past is, we have no other. And we must listen to all of its voices. If all we ever listened to was the legendary castrato Farinelli, just because we like him, our memory would also be castrated. And who’s ever heard of castrati who could multiply naturally?
Over the century and a half of its existence, the Turiec dialect has overcome the historical handicaps that languages of rural peoples usually experience. Almost every essential piece of world literature has been translated into Slovak, and translations of modern and contemporary literature are boldly accumulating. Original Slovak literature has developed in all possible forms and genres; and the various forms of socially-determined spoken Slovak have their own individual corresponding social strata. Slang emerges and dies off together with its generations (what was groovy in the 1970s is now cool), not even Slovak popular music texts are any sillier than the texts of English-language hits. And one can find jewels. Slovak has survived the time of cominterns, khozrashchoty and the rest of collective farm language that was introduced along with Bolshevik methods of governing society and language. Without compromising its foundations, Slovak can still flexibly react to technological, social and political developments, and now suddenly – boom! A language law!
Language is politics. That’s why it’s good when the politburo pays attention to it. What’s horrible, though, is that practically the only thing they can manage is a legal norm defining action against those who defile the Slovak language. This kind of thinking is an example of cultural barbarism of the basest kind. This is not an own goal, it’s a towel in the ring! Why comrades?! Actually, Slovak is nowhere near being pinned. Even if it were, no restrictive law would save it. That’s not the way to help a language. Remember our dependent clauses, dictations and required reading. Are these the things that make you happy to read the great masters of literature (such as Válek, Rúfus, Vilikovský and Tatarka)? A repressive language law is only the crowning blow. A propos – if any of our top politicians knows who the author of this verse is: a demon ugly/ tail dragging on the ground/ slithered over to me/ and whispered in my ear, I will bow deeply to him. If there is one like that among those ugly demons, I will gladly give back my Slovak language teaching diploma.
Language is politics. Politicians know this well. It’s high time we realized it too – we who use language. Especially those who work with language and in a language. Writers, essayists, teachers. Teachers above all. It’s not about people no longer saying play on the violin, but play the violin, piano, guitar… Nor is it about the thirsty citizen from the other side of the tracks ordering two beer. I could go on forever with examples from linguistically-mixed places. Of these, I am particularly fond of the poorly-educated, unsuspecting boy who raises his glass in a toast of up yours instead of bottoms up. There are many plays on words and double entendres in Slovak too! So much so, that it is often to the detriment of its user.
Language is politics. One has to adapt variations and appearances of the language to the variety of situations it is used in. Slovak has matured to the extent that is has a high (written) language and a spoken form. In practice. The codification process is ongoing. It is a process, not an act of will on anyone’s part, including institutions. It has dialects, slang, jargon, argots. We cannot allow politicians to use the language as a bag of tricks inherited from political manipulators and other agitators. Under their caring supervision, our already-rich Slovak language would be reduced to a bunch of barking blah-blah full of words good for spraying toxic spittle at anyone who dares to even hint that the king isn’t naked, but vile. For if we let this happen, if some formal authority is able to point their finger at any guilty party and punish him for a language crime, what will be next? Gymnaziums giving preference to students with Slovak names? Who will make the list? A separate department at the Ministry of Interior? And will ethnically pure marriages then be given preference? How far back will they examine the family tree? And where will it end? Shall we copy the Nuremberg laws?
Neither the Emperor, nor today’s coalition minions, acted or act out of pure altruism or love of country. Ľudovít Štúr, with his education, linguistic knowledge and popularity, as well as his moral behavior, but especially with devotion to public administration, is completely qualified and appropriate to publish a Slovak-language newspaper, and so, one can justifiably expect that he will appreciate this highest favor with which you bestow this permission upon him…, seemed to the imperial powers to be an appropriate tool. Vienna had to insure itself against Budapest and against the pan-Slavic tastes of the peoples living in the prison of nations. It’s sad that after a century and a half, representatives of our government are still unable to deal with the Slovak language and Slovakia, instead of Budapest. It’s annoying that, with our silence, we allow them to do it, dear colleagues.
From Nox et solitudo, 1906, by the famous Slovak poet, Ivan Krasko.
Translation: Janet Livingstone
This article was originally published in Slovak in the SME on 8 August 2009.
We are grateful to Silvester Lavrík for the permission to publish this text in English.