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Farewell to Slovak: Czechs turn their backs on once-traditional bilingualism

Boris Blahak


The phenomenon of Czech-Slovak bilingualism is, apart from Serbian-Croatian, unique in Europe. Its origins can be traced to the idea of the Czechoslovakian state as it evolved within the national movements of both Czechs and Slovaks from the year 1800 onwards. At that time, Czech intelligentsia promoted ethnic unity with the Slovaks, whose dialects they considered part of the Czech language; while Slovak educated classes held different views concerning this question. In 1843, Ludovít Štúr began codifying a Slovak written language based on the Central Slovak dialects. Although the constitution of the young Czechoslovak Republic (CSR) mentioned a “Czechoslovakian language” in 1920, the Language Act n. 122 issued at the same time recognized both Czech and Slovak as official languages. Thus the foundations for linguistic duality were laid, and at the same time, the creation of a mixed language was effectively blocked. Even if the regional variations of both idioms in places like Cheb (in the Carlsbad Region) and Užhorod (now part of Subcarpathian Ukraine) were quite varied, the neighbours’ language could always be understood without problems. Among others, the founder of the state Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk was the product of a Czech-Slovak mixed marriage and served as a symbolic figure of Czechoslovakian bilingualism.

The reciprocal nature of bilingualism in the double state was supported in great part by the media whose broadcasting alternated programmes in Czech and Slovak, ensuring that children had equal exposure to both. Although more generous broadcasting times were granted to the Czech language, from 1959 to 1989 a whole afternoon and evening’s programming was reserved for the Slovak language on the so-called ‘Bratislava Mondays’.

When Czechoslovakia was divided in the Velvet Divorce of 1993, a gradual break with the Slovak language began in the Czech Republic. The Czech language continues to play a vital role in Slovak media, which today still has no video distribution of its own and therefore relies on Czech-dubbed or subtitled productions for both television and the cinema. At night Slovak television broadcasts the Czech evening news of the previous day. Only the repeated warnings of Slovak patriots “about the corrupting influence of the Czech language” brought about the dubbing into Slovak of programmes for children (up to age twelve), but had no influence on programming for adults.

Developments in the Czech media have taken a different course. In 1999, an initial study of the polling agency Sofres-Factum warned of a long-term inability of Czech children to understand Slovak. In spite of repeated reassurances from the media that programmes for adults in Slovak would be broadcast live and that both languages would be employed in bi-national productions, the Czech press prophetically bid farewell to the Slovak language only six years later when, for the first time, Czech state television dubbed a Slovak series for adults (Záchranári [Rescue Team]); an action that Czech Television described as an appropriate response to the younger generation’s difficulty in understanding Slovak. At the same time, Slovak programming on state channels continued to diminish: between the years 2001 and 2003 Slovak-language television series made up less than 4% of foreign productions shown in the Czech Republic, and the Slovak broadcasts that aired were dubbed into Czech.

A recent television survey showed that while 90% of the Czech viewers claimed to understand Slovak, a third of these admitted that their children demonstrated significantly less comprehension of the language. This finding was confirmed by the results of a survey of young Czechs (median age 20 years) conducted by RCA Research. In 2004/05, a public opinion poll asked Czechs and Slovaks between the ages of 18 and 29 to assess their active knowledge of their neighbours’ language. 80% of Slovaks surveyed declared their knowledge of Czech to be good, very good, or at a native-speaker level. On the Czech side however, 68% of those polled declared their Slovak to be mediocre, fragmentary, or even bad. The difference was less significant when pollees were asked to judge their passive knowledge of the languages: 97% of the Slovaks and 91% of the Czechs attributed themselves a good, very good, or native-speaker level. With regard to the quality of language knowledge, one out of two Slovaks rated himself on a native-speaker’s level in Czech, while only one out of seven Czechs saw himself in such terms in Slovak.

The one-sided nature of linguistic development in the two states also affects the print media market. Books, magazines and newspapers used to be published in both parts of Czechoslovakia in their respective languages. Today, while trucks loaded with thousands of Czech books still supply Slovak booksellers on a daily basis, a small van would be sufficient for deliveries in the opposite direction.

In the Czech Republic, with the exception of a few specialised journals, people have stopped reading in Slovak. Moreover, the mere awareness of the existence of Slovak literature has decreased significantly in recent times. In 2004, Lidové noviny (People’s Newspaper, a Czech Republic daily) complained that the average Slovak intellectual was able to name ten contemporary Czech authors (including book titles and a brief summary of contents) without any trouble, whereas Czech cultural editors had no idea about Slovak literature. The previously-mentioned public opinion poll of 2004/05 seems to confirm this trend: 75% of the Slovaks questioned said they frequently (1-2 times per week), or at least occasionally (1-2 times per month), read publications in their neighbours’ language. In contrast, 43% of surveyed Czechs admitted they never read texts in Slovak.

Despite the close relationship the two peoples have traditionally enjoyed, both historically and linguistically, today translation remains the only means for Czech publishers to offer Slovak literature in the Czech Republic. Initially, a project with books for children and young people was launched, and in 2004 the publication of the first Czech translation of Slovak fiction for adults (Kniha o cintoríne [The Book of the Cemetery] by Daniela Kapitánová) caused quite a sensation - an alarming signal for supporters of Czech-Slovak bilingualism.

Meanwhile, the warnings of Czech intellectuals have become more and more urgent. In 1999, the Czech president of the Senate, Petr Pithart, described Czech “ignorance about their own ignorance about Slovakia” as a relic from the past which makes the Slovak character appear somehow “more primitive but also more spontaneous, more generous, more heartfelt, something comparable to lost innocence.” In 1992, Václav Havel had already dared to call his Czech compatriots “so selfish, contemptuous and heartless that the Slovaks could no longer believe in Czechoslovakia as their country.”

The school system as well attests to the one-sidedness of the effort by which only Slovakia attempts to maintain the vestiges of bilingualism. In 1995, Czech was introduced as an optional subject in Slovak schools. In the Czech Republic, however, Slovak has only been taught at a single primary school (in Karviná) since 1992.

Today, the inhabitants of the border region between the Czech Republic and Slovakia represent the population which most closely resembles the ‘Czechoslovakian’ ideal, at least with regard to language skills. In Slovácko (Moravian Slovakia) on the Czech side and Záhorie (“Behind-the-Mountains”) on the Slovak side, Czechs and Slovaks have lived side by side for centuries. In this linguistically-mixed area, the local dialects draw liberally on both languages. Here one may be mockingly called “already Slovak” and respectively “already Czech” by the population of the majority. Thanks to children born into mixed marriages of the Czechoslovakian era, today a group of younger people who are completely bilingual can still be found. But apart from this small minority, in the general populations of both states it is mainly the generation of people over 30 years of age who speak the language of the other side, though admittedly as a foreign tongue.

After the peak of the internal and inter-state crises that lead to the division of the Czech and Slovak states (against the majority of the population, and by silent accord between the leaders of government Václav Klaus and Vladimír Meciar) and the dramatic, although brief, cooling of relations that followed, a rapid rapprochement took place in almost all areas of society in both countries. The decay of bilingualism on the Czech side, however, seems immune from any reconciliatory or resuscitative efforts.

That the Slovaks, who admittedly have an advantage in understanding other Slavic languages (Slovak is regarded as the Slavic ‘Esperanto’), continue to cultivate their knowledge of Czech may be interpreted as sign of their commitment to the ideal that once formed the ideological foundation of state-supported Czechoslovakian bilingualism. Now that the common state has ceased exist, it is expressed mainly in the Slovaks’ unchanged interest in their Czech neighbours. On the other hand, the widespread ignorance, and even indifference, of the Czech majority towards events in Slovakia inevitably results in the younger generation's disinterest in traditional bilingualism.

The fact that the Czechs’ enormous and irrational sympathy for the Slovaks remains constant does not contradict their sense of apathy towards the language, but rather may be seen as another facet of ‘Czechoslovakianism’: it is the reflection of the great love of Czechs for their Slovak ‘little brother’, whom unfortunately they refuse to take seriously.