Roving thoughts and provocations

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Slovakia: The Forbidden Languages

Viktor Hulik’s sculpture of a sewer worker, Bratislava (Rudy Sulgan/Corbis)

On September 1, the Slovak parliament made it largely illegal for its citizens to use any language other than Slovak. The use of minority languages in “official” situations is now punishable by fines of up to €5,000 (US $7,270)—and possible offenses include:

a fireman responding in Hungarian to a call for help from a person in a burning building; a civil servant discussing job opportunities with an unemployed Roma in Romany; a German book club discussing a book in German without first introducing it in Slovak; a [train] conductor addressing a passenger in Hungarian on a train from Slovakia to Hungary; a radio station broadcasting in English without Slovak translation; failure to re-carve a 50-year-old grave marker [into Slovak]

(I know from experience that not even manhole covers in Slovakia are allowed to display the old Hungarian-language inscriptions.)

How these rules will be enforced in daily life is another matter; the law appears to rely, at least in part, on denunciations. It’s enough to scare public employees in Slovakia—including even doctors, teachers, postal workers, and railroad clerks—into self-censorship.

What accounts for this law, from a recently minted EU country no less? According to the Slovak government’s twisted reasoning, the law is designed to ensure that “no Slovak citizen…feels disadvantaged or discriminated against” because of the language she speaks. But its real impetus seems to be fears on the right about the country’s minority populations.

Yet these populations—including Hungarians, Rusyns, Roma, Czechs, and Germans—make up only 15 percent of Slovakia’s population and their numbers are steadily declining. Moreover, to meet the requirements for EU membership, which it was awarded in 2004, Slovakia was supposed to adopt more—not less—liberal policies toward its minorities. But Slovakia has swung to the right since it joined the EU; the Slovak National Party, known for its suspicion of the Hungarians and other minority groups, has been a member of the government since 2006.

What is certain is that the country’s ethnic minorities -Hungarians in particular—are frightened. The Hungarian community has already shrunk in recent decades from 30 to 11 percent of the total population, as a result of forced assimilation, urbanization, emigration, and, especially after World War II, deportation. The Beneš Decrees of 1945 turned Germans and Hungarians in Czechoslovakia into noncitizens and general pariahs. Ironically, these cruel decrees were revoked by the Communists after they came to power in 1948, but now a democratic government, made up of a coalition of ex-Communists, socialists, and super-nationalists, seems prepared to revive the ethnic hostilities that surfaced at the end of World War II.

Some observers speculate that the new language restrictions are designed to help right-wing parties in next year’s elections by reinforcing the notion that the ethnic situation at home—as well as deteriorating relations with Hungary—are threatening the country’s ethnic Slovak majority. If the right-wing coalition is victorious in next June’s parliamentary elections, the European Union will be further weakened by what its leaders like to describe as a “quarrel between two of its member states.” Strong international condemnation might persuade the Slovak government that linguistic diversity will enrich, not impoverish, the country.

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