Language Purity

Linguists and translators in Europe are perplexed at the news that Slovakia is implementing a controversial new Language Act which will change the attitude of the authorities to the freedom of language use in this small Central European country which has a population of just over 5 million. Such legislation may not mean a great deal in Slovakia’s comparatively ethnically homogeneous neighbours such as Austria, the Czech Republic or Poland but for a country with large Hungarian and Roma minorities this ‘Act of Language Purity’ could be the start of what many believe to be Slovakia’s turn towards language ‘fascism’.

The new Language Act will come into force on the 1st August 2009 and stipulates that all official names in foreign languages will have to be translated into Slovakian or the institutions and companies responsible for these foreign affectations will face fines of approximately €5,000. The fines can be meted out to public offices, companies, advertising agencies, police officers and court judges alike. All are equal in the eyes of the (language) law. The Slovakian Ministry of Culture has already laid out the official procedure for meting out fines which will use a ‘three-strikes-and-you’re-out’ policy. Two official warnings will precede the ‘language’ fine.

However, observers outside of Slovakia and the sizeable Hungarian minority within Slovakia (almost 10% of the population) has labelled this linguistic legislation an act of language imperialism and an attempt to assimilate the Hungarian population into the Slovakian one. The Roma population stands at almost 2% with other linguistic minorities amounting to approximately 3% which means that 15% of the population of Slovakia will be adversely affected by this new legislation, not including of course various other institutions and companies that use other languages in their work.

Questions are being asked about the real reasons behind this move to ‘purify’ the linguistic landscape of Slovakia. Is it indeed cultural and linguistic? A need to nurture the Slovakian language and free it from the all-encompassing grasp of English (“I’m loving it” ; “Connecting People” ; “Just Do It”) or is it a political move that panders to conservatism and language imperialism? Either way, the future of translation in Slovakia and Slovakian translation will most certainly be influenced by this move.


6 thoughts on “Language Purity

  1. This kind of law is already used in Lithuania. Maybe it’s not same, but similar in some ways.

    Poles living in Lithuania (mostly the ones that didn’t left their homes after shift of boarders after WWII) have to write their names in Lithuanian manner. Most famous example is Adam Mickiewicz whose name is written as Adomas Mickevičius in Lithuania. This rule concerns all foreigners living in Lithuania nowadays.

    Argument over this law one of the most difficult elements in diplomatic relations between Poland and Lithuania. It is strange as both arguing countries are members of EU, which claims to protect ethnic and cultural variety.

    I suppose similar law exist(ed) in Latvia (which I am not sure of), because recently elected president of Riga of Russian origin also claims he will Russianise his surname from its current Latvian version.

    As we can see this kind of law brings much problem both to internal and external relations of country. Even if we can make out reason for doing so in Baltic states (will to reverse lasting hundreds of time Polonisation, and Russification) there’s no visible reason to do so in Slovakia!

  2. Ideological. Nationalism in Eastern Europe is still quite popular.

    As I said, in Baltic states it can be explained with still fresh memory of Soviet occupation and big number of Russian-speaking citizens (fear of being taken over from inside). But neither Slovak Hungarians nor Roma are likely to call their countries for ‘friendly invasion’ (as in Georgia).

    The only explanation is that someone has noticed nationalistic moods among population and tries to use it in politics. This is harmful as it can lead to deepening of mutual dislike between ethnic groups in Slovakia.

    What I am most interested in is whether EU is going to do something in those cases. If we are to create stable organisation – member-states can’t argue over such trivial (from international point of view) issues.

    And one additional thing. You’ve written that Poland is homogeneous. Now it may seem such, but the truth is it wasn’t so, even after WWII. Only communist propaganda “One country, one nation” degraded Kashubians and Silesians to ‘silly talking people’ and their languages to dialects in common public opinion.

    If we consider national identity the case looks very different and we can see how easy it is to assimilate nations only forcing them using state language.

  3. Cezary, interesting points you make about the Kashubians and Silesians.
    As for the EU doing something, this seems very doubtful and one would find it extremely surprising if they do. France, for example, also has very stringent linguistic legislation.

  4. Indeed, I must agree with Cezary, the new law in Slovakia is a matter of forced assimilation (in part by the humiliation of minorities, especially in this case the Hungarians) as well as an attempt at populist appeal–something that has been, unfortunately, pretty effective of late in Slovakia and the region.

    Also, it appears that Hungarian appeals to the EU fell flat, i.e. Transubstantiation was right. Is this so? Grateful for any follow-up reports.

  5. Thank you for your comments, Vandorlas. One hopes that the EU will look into both this case and other similar cases involving stringent language policies which seek to marginalise certain minority linguistic groups.

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