Monday, March 26, 2007


Via kelmet mailing list (grazzi, Olvin :o):

Department of Maltese, Faculty of Arts, University of Malta
il-Kunsill Nazzjonali ta' l-Ilsien Malti

have great pleasure in inviting you to

a series of talks by prof. Thomas Stolz (Universität Bremen)

Monday, March 26th,7.00 pm – L-Università, Ċentru Vassalli (Gateway), Sala E
1. PIDGIN AND CREOLE LANGUAGES: Is the Maltese case different?

Tuesday, March 27th, 7.00 pm – L-Università, Sala Erin Serracino Inglott
2. "L-GĦAQDA INTERNAZZJONALI TAL-LINGWISTIKA MALTIJA": Towards an international Maltese linguistics

Wendesday, March 29th, 7.00 pm – L-Università, Ċentru Vassalli (Gateway), Sala E
3. LINGUISTIC TYPOLOGY - Where does Maltese belong?

I know it's a bit short notice, but any of you language freaks currently in Malta, please go.
Great things are afoot for the Maltese language, the chief among them is the founding of the aforementioned "Għaqda Internazzjonali tal-Lingwistika Maltija" (International Society for Maltese Linguistics), which will (so the cover letter by prof. Manwel Mifsud) take place in a few months in Bremen and which will be brought about by valiant efforts of prof. Stolz.
So please go and take notes. Especially at the first talk, the subject of which sounds very much like the title of my dissertation proposal.


Two not-so recent and well-known examples I've recently encountered in works of fiction, found quite amusing and thought I could share:

1. Dutch - from Paul Verhoeven's Soldaat van Oranje:
Time: May 1940
Setting: Erik and Guus (dressed in tuxedos and arriving on motorcycles) have just reached an army checkpoint in front of a burning barracks hell bent on enlisting and fighting the Germans who had just invaded the Netherlands. The soldiers at the checkpoint are understandibly confused and thus suspicious as to their identity and motives:

SOLDIER 1: Zij zijn Moffen, verklede Moffen!
ERIK: Wij zijn toch Hollanders!
SOLDIER 1: Allemaal op!
SOLDIER 2: "sch" wat zeggen! Moffen kunnen geen "sch" zeggen! Zeggen, Scheveningen!
GUUS: Scheveningen, Scheveningen!
SOLDIER: Scheveningen!
ERIK: Scheveningen!
GUUS: Schele, schoonmoeder, scheveningen!
ERIK: Scheveningen, sch, sch, sch, nul (I think...)!
SOLDIER 3: Ha, ja, laat maar door.

SOLDIER 1: They're Jerries, Jerries in disguise!
ERIK: Come on, we're Dutch!
SOLDIER 1: Stick 'em up!
SOLDIER 2: Let them say something with [sx] in it! Jerries can't pronounce [sx]! [zexxə], [sxeːvənɪŋə]!
GUUS: [sxeːvənɪŋə], [sxeːvənɪŋə]!
SOLDIER: [sxeːvənɪŋə]!
ERIK: [sxeːvənɪŋə]!
GUUS: [sxeːlə], [sxoːnmudər], [sxeːvənɪŋə]!
ERIK: [sxeːvənɪŋə], [sx], [sx], [sx], zero!
SOLDIER 3: Yeah, OK, let 'em through.

It seems that "Scheveningen" was a popular choice for a shibboleth in WWII Netherlands. Tim McNamara in his fascinating article on shibboleths and language tests mentions that according to witnesses, "the Scheveningen shibboleth was 'common knowledge' " at that time and adds this testimony:

The story of the ‘shibboleth test’ to distinguish German speakers from Dutch ones is well known (at least among people of my age). [The expression involved was] Scheveningen, often combined with an even more difficult word for Germans, ‘beschuit’ (Dutch rusk). Germans pronounce ‘sch’ as ‘sj’ and the diphthong ‘ui’ (sounds a bit like in the French fauteuil) as ‘oi’.... Scheveningen is a village at the coast near The Hague. The place was well known during the war because it was the place where people from the resistance were held in prison. ... Moreover a lot of illegal transport by boat from and to England was via Scheveningen. (p. 356)

In the light of this, I'm wondering if the use of the name "Scheveningen" as portrayed in the movie and in fact the whole scene isn't a bit anachronistic. There wasn't that much reason to look for German spies that early in the war and the town hasn't quite achieved its war time prominence yet. Still, it's quite funny, especially thanks to Rutger Hauer's delivery.

The article also includes other examples of shibboleths, like the one from civil war torn Lebanon where (so McNamara's informant), "right wing militia" (Phalangists?) would require people to pronounce the Arabic word for 'tomato' to identify Palestinians. In Lebanese Arabic, it is pronounced [banaduːra], while in Palestinian Arabic, it's [bandoːra] (p. 353).

2. Polish - from Andrzej Sapkowski's Narrenturm:
Time: 1420
Setting: Reynevan, the main protagonist, is trying to hitch a boat ride with what is described as a bunch of Wasserpolaks (nevermind the anachronism, it's a deliberate one and the book is full of them). Note that Reynevan is a Silesian.

- Koń mi okulał. A trzeba mi do Wrocławia.
Polak żachnął się, charknął, splunął znowu.
- No - nie rezygnował Reynevan. - Jakże tedy będzie?
- Nie wożę Niemców.
- Nie jestem Niemcem. Jestem Ślązakiem.
- Aha?
- Aha.
- To powiedz: soczewica, koło, miele, młyn.
- Soczewica, koło, miele, młyn. A ty powiedz: stół z powyłamywanymi nogami.
- Stół z powy... myła... wały... Wsiadaj.

- My horse got lame. And I need to get to Wrocław.
The Polish guy waved his hand, cleared his throat and spit again.
- Well? - Reynevan insisted. - What do you say?
- I don't ferry Germans.
- I'm not German. I'm Silesian.
- Oh?
- Oh.
- Well then say [sot͡ʂeviʦa], [kowo], [miele], [mwɨn].
- [sot͡ʂeviʦa], [kowo], [miele], [mwɨn]. Now your turn: [stuw s povɨwamɨvanɨmi nogami].
- [stuw s povɨ]... [mɨwa]... [vawɨ]... Get on board.

"Soczewica, koło, miele, młyn" is also an old one: it was used in 1312 in Cracow by the armies of Władysław Łokietek to identify Germans most of whom had participated in a rebellion against Łokietek. As for stół s przewył... powyław... poławy... that other one, it is a noted Polish tongue twister. I might pass that test. But if someone ever whips out "Cześć Czesiek! Czeszesz się częściej często, czy częściej czasem" on me, forget it. Just shoot me. Please.

MCNAMARA, Tim: 21st Century Shibboleth: Language Tests, Identity and Intergroup Conflict.
Language Policy, 2005/4, p. 351-370

Friday, March 23, 2007


When some time ago I discussed Mór Jókai and wondered about the exact meaning of the term "boktsatütün", languagehat and an anonymous reader were kind enough to provide the answer: "small bale of fine tobacco, tobacco wrapped in small bundles".
As much as I trust their expertise, it is always nice to get independent confirmation. This time, I found it on p. 114 of Scenes from the East. Through the Eyes of a European Traveller in the 1860s by the Hungarian orientalist Ármin Vámbéry (a.k.a. Hermann Bamberger, 1832 - 1913) . Though usually ranked among his many travelogues, this book is more of a sociological study of the peoples of Orient. As such, it offers many fascinating insights into the everyday lives of people of the Ottoman Empire. Just consider the titles of some of the chapters - "Women", "Food", "The Bath", "Festivals", "Schools" and "Tobacco and Drugs". It is in the latter that we find the following passage:

There is an old Hungarian proverb which refers to "smoking a pipe like a Turk", whose antiquity I would question, for those Turks who invited themselves so regularly to South-eastern Europe had not at the time been introduced to nicotine. It was only during the reign of Sultan Ahmad III that an edict was issued to curb the consumption of tobacco. Ironically, it is today precisely in the Ottoman Empire that tobacco is almost a cult. The king of tobaccos grows in Rumelia, native soil of the great Macedonian, mainly at a small place north-east of Thessaloniki called Yenije Vardar. The small yellow-brown plant is dried for weeks, even months, on its stem, then packed into small bundles (bogcha), and only after maturing for years in the merchant's warehouse do the connoisseurs of Stambul give it the name of ala gabek. The leaves are sliced into strips as fine as strands of silk, and are much valued in the Imperial Palace, the Sultan's harem, and not the least at the Porte, where the Privy Council carries out its important state duties in dense clouds of aromatic smoke.

Interestingly enough, in Slovak we still say that someone who smokes a lot "fajčí ako Turek" (smokes as a Turk) and same goes, as far as I know, for Czech and Serbian. Also of interest is the fact that the original text only says "a proverb; a folk saying" ("a közmondás"), nothing about just "Hungarian"...
Be that as it may, rest assured I will return to Ármin Vámbéry in the future. A fascinating fella, this one - linguist, tinker, sociologist, tailor, diplomat, soldier, spy. He advised Sultan Abdul Hamid II, was (so my buddy Emík tells me) best pals with Theodore Herzl and apparently knew Mór Jókai and Bram Stoker, too. And he's from the hood - born in Svätý Jur, raised in Dunajská Streda, studied here in Bratislava.

Scenes from the East. Through the Eyes of a European Traveller in the 1860s. - Budapest: Corvina Kiadó, 1979 (an English translation of: Keleti életképek. - Budapest: Atheneum, 1876; available online here)
KHALIDI, Walid: The Jewish-Ottoman Lands Company: Herzl's Blueprint for the Colonization of Palestine.
Journal of Palestine Studies, XXII, no. 2 (Winter 1993), p. 30-47

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

SSSJ part 3

Previously on Lost SSSJ: Kate and Sawyer have we covered the following parts of a standard entry in SSSJ:

dilino [d-] -na pl. N -novia m. {róm.}

and now the conclusion we're proceeding to:

dilino [d-] -na pl. N -novia m. {róm.} expr.

The abbreviation following the note of origin (here in italics) is used to classify individual lexemes according to what the introduction to SSSJ calls "functional criteria". Essentially, this part of the entry is equivalent to OED's label. It provides information on stylistic and pragmatic properties of the lexeme in question and other information concerning its eventual obsoleteness, frequency, limited regional occurrence or correctness. Remember my question about which side of the prescriptive/descriptive fence will SSSJ fall on? Here's where you find the answer to that. But first, a brief rant.

There are three things most people never knew about standard Slovak and definitely should. Here we go:

1. From its conception, Standard Slovak has been first and foremost a political tool. (a.k.a. "We are NOT Hungarians. No, we're not Czech either!")
No one in their right mind will dispute the validity of this statement. It is, after all, so glaringly obvious. Even Bernolák's first attempt to codify a standard Slovak language based on Western dialects was a direct result of a political decision made by Emperor Joseph II. In 1784, the enlightened despot established a general seminary in Bratislava with the purpose of educating priests of all nationalities from all corners of the Empire. Although most of its Slovak students were drawn from Western and Southern Slovakia, the dialectal fragmentation so typical of the mountainous territory of Slovakia was a serious impediment in the educational efforts of the seminary. Bernolák's attempt at codification of a single standard Slovak language ultimately failed, just like Joseph II's policies - for political reasons. But it showed the way.
Štúr's project which eventually led to standard Slovak as we know it today was one of the major materials in the nation-building efforts of the fateful 1840s and arguably its most successful product. Ever since, standard Slovak has been a rallying point for patriots and nationalists alike and one of the most important (if not the most important) symbols of Slovak indentity. It is therefore not surprising that protectionism and purism have always been the main tenets of Slovak language policy and kept our language alive through Hungarian nationalism of late 19th century, the ideology of Czechoslovakism of the first Czechoslovak Republic and other trials our nation faced in the troubled 20th century.

2. Standard Slovak is an artificial language. ("Standard Slovak? That's those two guys over there.")
Now that may not be the best way of putting it. It would be more fitting to say that standard Slovak was an artificial language and is still treated as such by some. As for the first part of the statement, one just needs to look at the first fifty or so years in the history of standard Slovak. First, any act of codification is basically creating a new language. Secondly, until 1914, standard Slovak was pretty much confined to a few people and/or groups. The resulting infighting among linguists (Hattala, Viktorín, Mráz and later Czambel and Škultéty) and writers would put any conlang community to shame and yet, all that time most Slovaks still spoke their respective dialects. It was only the quasi-independence under the Czechoslovak flag and possibly the mass media revolution of the 20th century that made standard Slovak the actual mother tongue of most Slovak children.
The question of whether standard Slovak still is an artificial tongue and therefore whether there exists a state of diglossia in the whole of Slovakia (and not just certain parts of it like the East) is one that would require a substantial amount of research (wink-wink nudge-nudge all you Slovak majors). Various indicators point in that direction. Even the occasional article becrying the decline of "language culture" (like Genzor 1997) usually includes more than a few examples of hypocorrections and hypercorrections so typical of diglossia.

3. To some people, especially certain linguists, "standard Slovak" means "high style". ( a.k.a. "Ľudovo povedané...")

Let's back up a bit. First of all, what I call "standard Slovak" here is termed "spisovná slovenčina" in Slovak. The adjective "spisovný" is a curious one. First, it is only used referring to language. Secondly, it is rarely used when speaking of languages other than Czech, Slovak or German - a phrase like "spisovná angličtina" earns 8 points on a 1-10 weirdness scale. And finally, it appears to be derived from the root "pís-" i.e. "to write" and evokes associations with "spis" = "writing" (as in "zobrané spisy" = "collected writings"). As such, JÚĽŠ seems to prefer the English translation "literary Slovak", as do Russian scholars ( e.g. K. V. Lifanov in his Генезис словацкого литературного языка). But to find out what that term really means, we must go to those who use it. Having spent some time doing so (hence the hiatus), I can report that "spisovná slovenčina" appears to be used in the following meanings:

a) codified Slovak (in historical terms)
This is especially true of the works on the history of Slovak, such as those by Eugen Pauliny ( Dejiny spisovnej slovenčiny I 1966) or the more recent ones like Dejiny spisovnej slovenčiny by Pavol Žigo and Rudolf Krajčovič (2002). In accordance with what appears to be accepted terminology, Žigo and Krajčovič refer to "predspisovné obdobie" ("pre-codification period") and "spisovné obdobie" ("codification period" or rather "post-codification period") in the history of Slovak.

b) a language common to the entire territory of Slovakia (as opposed to regional varieties and local dialects)
So dialectologists (e.g. Štolc 1994 or Bosák 1996) and, it would appear, Pauliny ( e.g. 1966:87-89) together with other linguists who commonly refer to pre-codification regional varieties of Slovak used in writing as "cultural languages", e.g. "cultural Western Slovak" or "cultural Eastern Slovak". In his Krátka gramatika slovenská (Short Grammar of Slovak 1997), Pauliny also notes that the Slovak language is not uniform and explicitly defines "slovenský spisovný jazyk" i.e. "spisovná slovenčina" as a variety of Slovak which is the same for the whole of Slovakia (Pauliny 1997:7).
This is also the most common popular meaning of the term in areas with diglossia (most notably Eastern Slovakia), where one either speaks a dialect or "spisovne". And it's in this sense that the term "spisovná slovenčina" is used in most instances of criticism of media personalities or politicians whose speech shows regional varieties ( e.g. non-palatalized lateral [l] instead of palatalized lateral [ľ] or dialectal "neni" instead of standard "nie je").
And finally, I am assuming that this is what is meant by people who speak of "národný jazyk" ("national language"). Mind you, I am by no means certain: in the last few years, the adjective "národný" has undergone a slight but significant shift of meaning (from "ethnic" to "of state or country"). And it was a fishy term even before that.

c) High variety (as opposed to the vernacular varities or slang)
For this one, we have to look no further than that sorry excuse for a dictionary and the eternal shame of Slovak lexicography, Krátky slovník slovenského jazyka (available online here). It defines "spisovný jazyk" ("standard language") thusly (emphasis in the original, translation mine):

spisovný príd.

1. s. jazyk, s-á slovenčina kultivovaná a kodifikovaná celospoločenská forma národného jazyka

(the cultivated / refined / cultured and codified cross-societal variety of the national language)

I can hear some of you protest: "But dude, 'kultivovaný' doesn't just mean 'cultured', it also means 'cared for', 'nurtured' etc., like, ya know, plants and living things and stuff!"
OK, fair enough. Let's hear it from the KSSJ, shall we?

kultivovaný príd.

1. kultiváciou upravený: k. pozemok, les (improved by cultivation: c. land, forrest)

2. vycibrený, zošľachtený, uhladený: k. jazyk, verš; (refined, cultured: c. language, verse, c. audience = educated)
k-é obecenstvo vzdelané;

As seen above, 1. refers only to agricultural concepts. 2., on the other hand, has exactly the same meaning as, say, OED's " cultivated 2". QED.
One might object that this is only the opinion of the editors of KSSJ. But one would be wrong. There are many examples of this and I will only mention my favorite one. I have previously spoken of the waiver "ľudovo povedané", i.e. "as (simple) people would say", which speakers of Slovak often attach to words and phrases they feel are not exactly "spisovné". In nearly all such cases, however, not even the most fanatic purists would object to what they are saying. In fact, these perceived non-standard lexical items are not even slang expressions or dialectal words, but merely idioms, perfectly legit derivations and various colorful expressions of all sorts. Going through just a few examples, one would quickly notice that what we are witnessing every time someone uses the phrase "ľudovo povedané" is not a speaker of variety A trying to find the right expression in variety B (which would be the case if b) above applied), but rather a choice between two different registers or styles. A simple Google search reveals the full extent of this phenomenon: one speaker prefixes this phrase to such perfectly normal and standard Slovak verb as " zruinuje" ("will ruin"). A journalist includes this waiver when using the idiom "byť za vodou" (lit.: "to have crossed the waters", meaning to be set for life financially), another (from my favorite daily) will prefix it to a perfectly standard word "predať" ("to sell") when meaning "to advertise" and yet another one will even add it to a beautiful and purely native noun "zosúkromnenie" the standard equivalent of which he probably feels is "privatizácia" ("privatization"). Over 12.000 examples of this on the internets and countless others in the conventional media and elsewhere in the public sphere clearly show that something is going on here: all of these people apparently identify a dry stilted way of speaking in public with standard Slovak. And if what these speakers of Slovak say they consider "simple" or "uneducated", what would be the opposite? Refined. Educated. Applied to language, isn't that the very definition of "High variety"?
And finally, I feel tempted to include here a rather curious remark by Juraj Dolník (on whom more below and even more later). In one of his articles (Dolník 2000), he wrote that in order to pronounce qualified judgements on the standard language, one must come to know the "full-blooded" language (quotes in the original). Buggered if I know what he really meant. I guess it just goes to show that even the great linguistic minds of our time are not quite clear about what they mean when they speak of "standard Slovak".

Trivial as the observations above may seem, without knowing what you know now it is nigh impossible to properly understand the nature of Slovak linguistics and language policy. Especially when it comes to the Slovak lexicon and lexicography and the eternal fight between the prescriptivist and the descriptivist faction. You see, although the long war is finally over and we are finally independent (whatever that's worth), some linguists still fight for the purity of Slovak not so much for linguistic reasons, but for political ones: borrowings from Czech are therefore shunned altogether, because /insert_history_lesson_here/. Latin roots and words, on the other hand, are OK even if we have perfectly good native words to use in their stead, because Latin does not carry any negative political connotations and is generally considered cool (see Geoffrey Pullum's "Classicism"). Those same linguists fail to understand that, to use a metaphor, Slovak is no longer a proprietary project. It's been open-sourced for at least 60 years. It's a child that has grown up long ago and no longer needs protection. And yet, some still insist it wear a coat when going outside even in May and some others even try to forbid it to stay out after 10pm and date that cute tall kid that just moved in next door. People like that suffer from a dangerous delusion: they believe they can actually control a living thing like a language (and, for that matter, its speakers). To them, codification is not a completed process, but something they can repeat over and over again. Moreover, they detest any behavior they do not approve of and either try to pretend it does not exist, or, worse, claim that any action (words or phrases or usage) not conforming to their expectations is an aberration and should be swiftly and decidedly suppressed. And what's worse, some people actually buy all of that crap.

Just to illustrate my observations above, let me give you a small taste of the intellectual climate in Slovak linguistics: In 2000, Slovenská reč (one of the major journals for the study of Slovak) served as a forum for a fascinating debate between two major authorities on Slovak, the aforementioned professor Juraj Dolník (the head of the Department of Slovak Language and Literature at my alma mater) and professor Ábel Kráľ (a phonetician and phonologist, currently of the Constantine Philosopher University in Nitra). Did I say "a debate"? Well, it was more like a flamewar, complete with strawmen, Eternally Refined Analogies (TM Fred Clark), Sudden Changes of Subject (TM pending), Infinite Explanations of What I Really Meant (TM pending), Unbelievably Stupid Arguments (copyright expired 6000 BC), Silly Metaphors (licensed under Unfair Use Doctrine) and other staples of flamewars everywhere.
Inspired by an article by professor Dolník with the title Standard Slovak and Czech (and probably his book Spisovná slovenčina a jej používatelia (2000), too), the flamewar proper was initiated by professor Kráľ's response entitled Where did the Slovaks get their standard language from? (Slovenská reč 65 2000/2). Dolník's original thesis - borrowings from Czech (traditionally considered a big no-no, see above) are under certain conditions quite acceptable - sent Kráľ on a tangent and his article reveals the ugly face of Slovak prescriptivism in all its hideousness.
First of all, Kráľ speaks of people's reluctance to "osvojovať" i.e. acquire standard Slovak (p. 72). This would support points 2 and 3 above. Surely people haven't stopped speaking Slovak, so he must be referring to a particular variety of Slovak. And if they need to exert themselves ("brať na seba námahu") to acquire standard Slovak, aren't they in fact, just like say Arabic children, learning a foreign tongue?
Kráľ's reference to the role Czech has played in our history further supports my point 3 above. The so-called Biblical Czech was, so Kráľ, a language used to fulfill

"higher" social needs

i.e. the High variety. But when Biblical Czech was finally supplanted by the newly-created standard Slovak, doesn't that mean that what basically happened was that one High variety replaced another? Certainly so, especially considering how for the first 50 or so years the use of standard Slovak was limited to a few scholars and a relatively small number of journals.
Secondly, you don't need a statistical analysis to show what professor Kráľ considers the central pivot, the pinnacle, the summit and the Holy Grail of linguistics and language policy: the system and its purity. Kráľ views the system as something immutable, something that, once fixed, cannot and should not be changed. There can be no variation in a system. None. The only case of systemic differences ( e.g. non-standard forms in declension or pronunciation) Kráľ can imagine is a hypothetical "different standard Slovak", i.e. what would have happened had Štúr not succeeded or someone else had beaten him to the punch (p. 79). Once in place, Kráľ argues, the system is set in stone. He believes that any variation in speech is first and foremost a mistake or a persistent error. Being a phonetician, Kráľ even goes so far as to suggest that any failure to correctly (orthophonetically) pronounce a phoneme has psychological causes and refers to Piaget to prove his point (p. 80). God forbid there should be regional or dialectal variations. May the Lord keep us from the evil Easterners and their short vowels and penultimate accent or those devils of Záhorie or Myjava and their lack of palatalization. You people are SICK!
After a few pages of this grade-A prime-cut class-1 quality bullshit, Kráľ delivers the coup de grace in a response to Dolník's revision of the criteria for inclusion of a lexeme into the standard lexicon (standards-usage-system integrity being the holy trinity). Kráľ's reaction to propositions which sensibly favor the criterion of usage ("functional adequacy") leaves no illusion about his views on the nature of standard Slovak and the role of speakers of standard Slovak (p. 81):

Nie mi je známy logicky a lingvisticky prijateľný dôvod na odporúčanie, aby sa termínu funkčnosť (funkčná adekvátnosť) prisúdila vyššia rozhodovacia sila než termínu norma alebo systémovosť.

I am aware of no logically and linguistically acceptable reason to recommend assigning a higher importance to "functionality"/"functional adequacy" than to "standard" or "system integrity" [when determining the acceptability of a lexeme].

In other words, to hell with the speakers and their silly ideas of communication effectiveness and intelligibility! Who the hell do they think they are? Who died and made them the custodians of Slovak? Screw them, we have a system to maintain! They will eat what we cook and serve them and they will LIKE IT!
My friends, seldom have I heard a more fitting description of prescriptivism and no one has ever summed up the attitude of certain Slovak linguists to their language and her speakers better than this. Don't be mistaken, this is not a lonely voice speaking. This is the position of many linguists and language professionals. Only a few of them will voice their concerns in terms of preserving the system, but to each and every one of them (and a large number of your average Slovak Joes and Janes), standard Slovak is exactly how I described it a few months ago in my last rant on the subject: a half-dead monster everyone is scared of and does their best not to upset it. However silly one looks doing so.
It is no accident that although professor Kráľ is a phonetician and professor Dolník is known for his works on general linguistics and sociolinguistics, the main points of the flamewar revolved around Bohemisms and in particular around two controversial words - "prádlo" ("laundry") and "hranolka" ("a french fry"). It is a symptom of our prescriptivism-infested linguistics that caring for and about standard Slovak basically consists of a) bitching about spelling and b) bitching about (the choice of) words. You don't get to hear much about morphology or syntax, like the English-influenced 3rd person singular possessive pronoun ( e.g. "váš" instead of "svoj") or the prevalence of passive constructions over the native reflexive-passive phrase (e.g. "návrh bude pripravený" versus "návrh sa pripraví"). As for a), this is particularly evidenced by Pravidlá slovenského pravopisu (PSP). PSP is the authoritative publication on Slovak spelling and, to a very small extent, usage. It's THE book people will throw at you if they suspect you of violating the rules of standard Slovak. Moreover, it is the only such publication that is regularly updated and thus the only guide on "proper Slovak" that is available to the general public. Take this and the emphasis on spelling in elementary and secondary education and you shouldn't be surprised that for many, even those with college education, proper spelling = proper grammar (yes, tbc, I'm looking at you :o). That's pretty much how far caring about language goes in these parts. Except for b), naturally.
And thus although the flamewar mentioned above occasionally briefly delves into phonetics and morphology, its central points are the aforementioned borrowings from Czech and other issues of lexicology. As such, it offers further insights into the perpetual process of creating and enriching Slovak lexicon and the role of linguistics therein. Most notably, when it comes to letting the speakers decide what words to use for new concepts and things, Kráľ has the following to say (p. 81; note that my translation is not very literal - Kráľ's writing is a reader's and translator's nightmare):

Nepokladám za optimálny ani taký postup, v ktorom by kodifikátor iba čakal, kym používatelia jazyka rozhodnú o „osude" určitého javu.

I am not willing to condone an approach where the codifier only waits for the speakers to determine the "fate" of a particular phenomenon.

What a crock of shit. There are cca. 5 million native speakers of Slovak. There are maybe 200 linguists actively working in our universities and the Academy. Guess who is faster in inventing new words? And exactly how many times in the past 20 years were the linguists forced to wait for the public to come up with new words for new things and concepts? My entire tax bill (and this year, that's a lot of money) says never.
Folks, by now you probably know on which side of the P-D divide I pitched my tent and set up my sheesha. But let me just say this: if every time we needed a new Slovak word our mavens got together and came up with one, I'd be the first spreading it all across the land. I can't help but like what the Académie Francaise did in a similar case, the official French word for "email" - "courriel". Hell, I need such an intervention right now: my horse for a native word for "implementation"! Unfortunately, there are two problems here:

1. Like their French colleagues, our linguists are slooooow to move. 2003 is pretty late to pick a word for "email", isn't it? By that time, other terms have firmly established themselves. It goes to Académie's credit that they chose a word which was already sort-of in use (in Canada, that is). But that ain't how it works round here. To pick a very similar example and to entertain you with a personal anecdote: back in 2001, I worked on the localization of Windows XP and Office XP. I really enjoyed the work and the experience it provided me has proven invaluable, but it was also where I had my first run-in with Slovak prescriptivism. The companies involved in the project consulted a prominent Slovak linguist (who shall remain unnamed) on matters of style and usage. Style was fine with me. I really liked the guidelines on using leading words ( i.e. writing "spoločnosť Microsoft" instead of just "Microsoft") and I continue to follow most of what I learned there to this very day. But when it came to chosing a new word for a new concept, only the fact that I was a bit wet behind the ears kept me from voicing my disapproval in the strongest terms possible. Based on the decision of that linguist, Microsoft products and information sources translate "download" as "prevziať". "Prevziať", also meaning "to accept, to take over, to assume, to take on, to adopt." "Prevziať". We were supposed to translate "download" as "prevziať" when none of us, or indeed anyone, has ever used any other Slovak word than "stiahnuť". A beautiful purely native word originally meaning "to pull down" which had by that time gained wide acceptance not just among the geeks and the nerds, but also among wide population. And the effing lingoes throw it away and tell us we should use something else they just made up, something that no one has ever heard of, something artificial. Does it surprise anyone that Slovak linguists and their ideas of what is correct and proper are rarely taken seriously?
2. Unlike the illustrious members of Académie Francaise, our linguists have no legal means to implement their decisions and virtually no support from the government. Once AF picked courriel, the French Culture Ministry banned the use of any other term meaning "email" in official government documents and communication. Fat chance of that happening here. The government, bless their corrupt hearts, have other things on their mind. And even though the nationalists and the fascists (most of whom call themselves Christian Democrats these days) occasionally come up with some silly ideas on how to protect standard Slovak (usually by attempting to punish incorrect usage), the bill either dies in comittee or is thoroughly ignored by everybody. Again, does it surprise anyone that Slovak linguists and their ideas of what is correct and proper are rarely taken seriously?

All of that ran through my mind as I saw the first volume of SSSJ on that shelf in the bookstore a few weeks ago. I wondered whether strict purism would compel the editors to come down hard on many Bohemisms and the growing number of borrowings from English. I was also curious to see whether they would recognize the many changes our language and our society went through in the last 17 years and accept them for what they are: the proof that Slovak is alive and doing better than ever. And I was anxious to find out whether they would finally see that no language can only include a refined and cultured variety and reject everything else and whether they would finally see that what is spoken on the streets, in the classrooms and yes, even in reality shows, is the true Slovak. And that culture means more than Monday night adaptations and the occasional poem no one reads.

Having spent the last few weeks thinking about all of that, I also realize that although Kráľ and Dolník and many others claim to only speak about science when discussing these linguistic matters, the question of including certain words and rejecting others is anything but a theoretical issue. In the Slovak linguistic milieu (of which I hope I you have a much better idea now, though I certainly do not claim to be an unbiased observer), a dictionary is much more than a long-needed tool for language professionals and the general public. Since Slovak is a political tool, the question of the role of purism addresses not only issues of language, but also those of identity. As long as some fight to preserve the artificial nature of standard Slovak claiming to be the ones who own it while rejecting any changes or variations, standard Slovak will further divide rather than unite. And to accept the notion that only the High variety is acceptable for the use in the public arena and thus to renegade all other varieties to the periphery of society is an upfront not only to all language lovers, but also to all language users and indeed all people everywhere. Not to mention the fact that arbitrary decisions by prescriptivist assholes have cost me a lot of money in bills not honored because my translations have violated some silly rules. And arrogant stupid-ass prescriptivism just pisses me off.

In Part 4 of our series, we will finally return to the pages of SSSJ and observe how what we've discussed here plays out there. Please join us then.

References :
BOSÁK, Ján: Nárečia sa menia, postoje ostávajú? In: Sociolinguistica Slovaca 2 (1996), p. 25-36
DOLNÍK, Juraj: O prístupoch k spisovnej slovenčine. In: Slovenská reč 65 (2000/3), p. 149-155
GENZOR, Jozef: Zamyslenie nad normou a štandardizáciou. In: Sociolinguistica Slovaca 3 (1997), p. 134-147
KRÁĽ, Ábel: Odkiaľ vzali Slováci spisovnú slovenčinu? In: Slovenská reč 65 (2000/2), p. 71-85
PAULINY, Eugen: Krátka gramatika slovenská. - Bratislava: Národné literárne centrum, 1997 (a revised reprint of 4th edition, 1971)
PAULINY, Eugen: Dejiny spisovnej slovenčiny I. Od počiatkov až po Ľudovíta Štúra. - Bratislava: SPN, 1966.
PULLUM, Geoffrey K.: Ideology, power, and linguistic theory. Presented in a special session at the 2004 Convention of the Modern Language Association, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, December 2004. (online here)
ŠTOLC, Jozef: Slovenská dialektológia. - Bratislava: Veda, 1994.
ŽIGO Pavol; KRAJČOVIČ, Rudolf: Dejiny spisovnej slovenčiny . - Bratislava: Stimul, 2002.
Лифанов К.В.: Генезис словацкого литературного языка. - München: LINCOM, 2001.

Saturday, March 03, 2007


For those of you who didn't already know: SME is without a doubt the most influential daily in Slovakia. That being said, it sucks big time. The last editor-in-chief was well known for his visceral hate of the former Prime Minister and it really showed. The current editor-in-chief fiels the same way about the current PM and it really shows. I usually don't read anything beyond national and local news and the occasional interview, especially since they stopped publishing Calvin and Hobbes regularly. The international news page is simply apalling: it's written by a bunch of ignorant half-educated slobs who wouldn't know the meaning of the word "bias" if it bit them in the ass. Just today, SME published an article by its Israeli correspondent on the upcoming holiday of Purim. The central point of the article is the usual hatemongering concerning Iran, this time in form of popular music, a song entitled "Push the Button" reported to refer to Ahmadinejad. How was the article introduced? By explaining the origin of Purim and thereby referring to a Persian king who wanted to exterminate all the Jews and equating that king with the current president of Iran all the while insinuating that there are ancient feelings of hatred held by the Persians for the Jews.
Needless to say, wrong, wrong and wrong. Haman was the first minister, not the king (Esther 3:6). Achašveroš (probably Xerxes, though some insist it's Artaxerxes) protected the Jews and in the end punished Haman for what he attempted to do (Esther 8:7). And just in case anyone would choose to believe that bit about how Persians hate the Jews and vice-versa, just remember Cyrus the Great and the fact that Isaiah 45:1 refers to him as "God's annointed", מְשִׁיחַ.

So you understand the nervous twitch I get everytime I spot a language or linguistics-related article in SME. And oh boy, it's two-for-one day at SME Plaza! Just look at the title of this report on a petition put forward by Slovak Rusyns:
"Rusíni chcú návrat staroslovienčiny do liturgií"

"Rusyns Demand Return of Old Church Slavonic Liturgy"

I don't even need to read the article to spot two examples of grade-A BS:

1. Old Church Slavonic hasn't been in use as a language of liturgy in Slavic countries for several hundred years. Some time in the 12th century (possibly much later), it was replaced by Church Slavic.

2. Rusyns cannot even demand the return of Church Slavic since it was never abolished. To my knowledge, Slovak Greek-Catholic (Uniat) Church still gives the priests and the congregations the choice of using either Church Slavic or Slovak in liturgy. True, the use of Church Slavic is in decline (and it's my fault, too), but it is by no means uncommon, let alone something that the worshippers must demand.

It gets better after that. Contrary to the impression given by the title, the first paragraph claims that the focus of the petition is not the return of Church Slavic, but that the undersigned request the return of the use of the newly codified Rusyn language in liturgy. Confused? You ain't seen nothin' yet. To my knowledge, Rusyn has never been officially used as a liturgical language. And indeed if you read the actual text of the petition, you will find that the undersigned voice their dissatisfaction with the fact that most Greek-Catholic priest were trained in Slovak, not Rusyn, that there are no translations of Gospels, prayer books and textbooks into Rusyn and that neither priests nor bishops are willing to deliver sermons and read from the Gospels in (codified) Rusyn. In other words, the petition requests that the Rusyn faithful be given the same rights as every other ethnic group recognizing the authority of the Pope which is to worship in their own native language. But you wouldn't learn that from the article. And that's a pity, because neither the text of the petition nor the article and those interviewed for the article make it clear what the relationship between Church Slavic and Rusyn should be according to the Rusyn Academy. Now there is a question I'd love to see answered.

Did I mention how much I hate journalists?

Oh and if you can read this, it means that the technical problems plaguing me have been at least partly resolved and we will resume our regularly scheduled programming shortly.