Monday, October 12, 2009


To be quite honest, I did not want to address the global snafu that is the new Slovak "Official Language Act" ("Zákon o štátnom jazyku" 357/2009). First, Slovak politics disgusts me. There is no left - the main ruling party may talk the talk, but their populist/nationalist agenda sure ain't fooling me; the nationalists are just what the name says and the occasional comic relief they provide isn't worth the trouble; the party of pater patriae is almost out of the races and not a moment too soon and don't you get me started about the right - the choice is either Christian Democrats who are neither with a post-fascist touch, or three teeny-tiny parties with way too much media presence who worship the Golden Calf of the Invisible Hand, hate Muslims, gays and the EU and bow to the White House - unless, of course, its current occupant is a Democrat. (To my readers in the US - imagine you have three Republican parties led by Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh and Pat Buchanan.) And so I, a devout western-civilization-hating muslim-appeasing gay-abortionist-leftie-peacenik-hippie, always end up voting for the wishy-washy center right party and don't want to have anything to do with the whole circus for the next four years. 

Second reason I didn't really want to weigh in on the language law because this involves playing Hungarians and Slovaks against each other. I never know on which side of the battlefield to park my bilingual bicultural doesn't-really-belong-anywhere fat ass, especially when I see that it's not just the Slovak nationalists stoking the fires of fear and hatred. Standing on the sidelines and cussing both teams out just doesn't strike me as constructive, nor is it good for my health. But as you might expect, I did watch the whole thing unfold and I kept record of the important developments as well as the many reactions to them, especially on LG Policy List. And so when this morning I read first John Cowan's email and then languagehat's latest post (Gmail opens a lot faster than my RSS reader), I thought what the hell, let's do this. 

So here are my comments on István Deák's blogpost and the Official Language Act 357/2009 with special regard to the six nightmare scenarios outlined by Mr. Deák's friends at HHRF. Please remember all I said above and know that in the following, I do not take anybody's side but my own. To employ my favorite metric (the George Carlin Scale of Stupid), Mr. Deák is either stupid or full of shit. 

If the fact that he doesn't even cite the law isn't enough to make your BS indicators glow red, then consider that, as his commentors have pointed out, he doesn't even understand the political landscape of Slovakia. It's the (at least nominally) left-wing and nationalist/populist parties that are behind this piece of legislation. Some right-wing parties - like the aforementioned Christian Democrats - may have nationalist/fascist skeletons in their own closets, but in general, the right as a whole cooperates with the Hungarian parties and has included them in their last two coalition governments (Dzurinda’s cabinets of 1998-2002 and 2002-2006). 

So back to facts and keep in mind, IANAL: we are talking about Act no. 357/2009, the "Official Language Act" (henceforth: OLA 357/2009). Contrary to popular opinion, this is not the first such act to be passed by the parliament, nor is it the first one to mandate fines. I even put together a historical overview, but alas, it's at home and I'm at work. All I can tell you now is that OLA 357/2009 is an updated and amended version of the original OLA 270/1995. That one also included a section on fines, but that particular section was abolished with the adoption of the "Use of Minority Languages Act" (UMLA) 184/1999 on September 1st, 1999. 

The current Act consists of 15 sections, but the last four are parliamentary legal mumbo-jumbo, so that leaves us with 11. Section one informs us that Slovak is the official language in Slovakia (1.1), mandates that it be given preference over other languages spoken in Slovakia (1.2), notes that this act does not have anything to say about liturgical languages (1.3), and most importantly, reminds everybody that there's still the "Use of Minority Languages Act" 184/1999 which governs the use of those languages and protects their speakers' rights to use them. Which is another reason I feel justified describing Mr. Deák as either stupid of full of shit. Nothing else can explain the monumental stupidity of his introductory statement:

On September 1, the Slovak parliament made it largely illegal for its citizens to use any language other than Slovak.

Moving along to Section 2, we find that it's full of your standard nonsense about how the official language needs to be protected and codified with some added blah-blah about language culture (the holy grail of all Slovak prescriptivists) and the need to improve it. 2.4 explicitly forbids any interference with the codified form of the Slovak language that is in violation of its rules. Buggered if I know what that means, more on that perhaps later. 

Section 3 covers the use of Slovak in official interactions (the original term is "úradný styk", the translation is that used by the EU). To sum up: all government business, including that of local and regional government, is to be conducted in Slovak, all laws, regulations, government records and local records are to be kept in Slovak. 3.1, however, once again points out that nothing in this section limits the use of minority languages which is governed by the aforementioned UMLA 184/1999.

This brings us to HHRF’s nightmare scenario no. 2: „a civil servant discussing job opportunities with an unemployed Roma in Romani”. Well, that situation is governed by OLA 357/2009, which in turn insists that UMLA 184/1999 applies. Section 7 of UMLA permits civil servants to use the minority language under conditions laid out by UMLA and other legislation. And as far as I can tell – IANAL times infinity – nothing in OLA 357/2009 expressly forbids a civil servant from using a minority language when speaking to a client – in fact, such a provision would violate a number of laws and EU accords. So I call bullshit. Same goes for nightmare scenario no. 4 – “a conductor addressing a passenger in Hungarian on a train from Slovakia to Hungary”. Since a train conductor is not a government representative in any sense of the word, nor is his job official government business, provisions of subsection 3.1 simply do not apply to him or her. 3.2 governs the use of Slovak by employees of state postal and telecommunication bodies, members of armed forces and firemen, all of whom must only use Slovak in official interactions. Note that 3.2 speaks of "official interactions" ("úradný styk"), while section 6, which specifically governs the use of Slovak in the armed forces and fire brigades and mandates the use of Slovak, speaks of communication during “execution of their duties” (“služobný styk“). While the former is generally taken to mean predominantly written communication, the latter is taken to mean what the English translation says. So yes, the law mandates that firemen only speak Slovak when executing their duties (nightmare scenario no. 1), which might involve rescuing a speaker of Hungarian from a burning building. But as for the fines for answering their calls for help in a language other than Slovak, we’ll get to that later. 

Somewhat OT, but it’s funny: section 3, subsection 5 introduces a hilarious term “jazyk spĺňajúci požiadavku základnej zrozumiteľnosti z hľadiska štátneho jazyka“ = „a language fulfilling the requirement of basic intelligibility with regard to the official language”. Guess what they mean.

Section 3a addresses the old question of geographical names by referring to specific legislation on the subject. Section 4 governs the use of Slovak in education. Once again it notes that there is a separate set of laws governing schools where languages other than Slovak are the main medium of instruction and the schoolbooks they use. Chief among them is the “Education Act” (EA) 245/2008, especially section 12 which governs not only schools where minority languages are the main medium of instruction, but also the so-called bilingual education, i.e. schools where the majority of subjects is taught in English, German, Spanish or French (I think that’s it). Here’s probably where HHRF’s nightmare scenario no. 3 – “a German book club discussing a book in German without first introducing it in Slovak” – comes in. A book club set up by private citizens is naturally off limits, so school is the only other scenario where provisions of OLA would apply I can think of. Pursuant to EA section 12.6, classes can be conducted in any minority language or a foreign language. So once again, bullshit. 

As for minority languages, not much of a change here except, if I and the other local commentators interpret it correctly, under the new Act, school administrations have to keep two sets of records – one in Slovak, the other one in the minority language. 

Section 5 governs miscellaneous aspects of the law. 1.1 covers the mandatory use of Slovak in the broadcast media and lists exceptions. 5.1 e), for example, specifically exempts all types of music pieces and performances with original lyrics, 5.1 f) exempts radio productions in minority languages broadcast by Slovak state radio, 5.6 exempts various cultural events (although fliers and such must still include a Slovak version of the text). As for HHRF's nightmare scenario no. 5 – "a radio station broadcasting in English without Slovak translation" – that only counts as one half of one piece of bullshit. Technically it is possible to fine that, but I cannot imagine a situation where this would be necessary. First of all, this provision only applies to radio stations licensed in Slovakia - or does anybody think that it is the intent of the Parliament to go around and fine every Austrian, Hungarian, Polish and Ukrainian radio stations that can be picked up here, not to mention all the short wave stations? And secondly, the Act provides exceptions for all reasonably thinkable instances of radio broadcasting in languages other than Slovak, including - but not limited to - broadcasting in minority languages, international broadcasting and language courses. As far as anything else is concerned, I don't really see why anyone would put on a broadcast in English in any other situation than those listed by the Act and not provide a translation. Subsection 5.7 governs inscriptions on memorials, monuments and memorial tablets ("... pamätníkoch, pomníkoch a pamätných tabuliach ...") – all of which refers to objects which are a part of the public sphere and which are in the care of the state or local authorities. Contrary to HHRF’s nightmare scenario no. 6, it doesn't say anything whatsoever about private tombstones or grave markers (“náhrobný kameň“ in Slovak). I hate to repeat myself, but – bullshit. 

We’ve covered section 6, so on to section 7 which covers the use of Slovak in legal proceedings. Not much to report, except that subsection 7.2 confirms that the rights of speakers of minority languages in this respect shall not be infringed. How that stacks up against Mr. Deák's introductory remark, you can judge that for yourself. 

Section 8 is another miscellanea section (which goes to show how much thought our MPs put into this). Subsection 8.1 mandates that all consumer information be in Slovak, subsection 8.2 allows for the parallel use of languages other than Slovak in written documentation relating to labor relations and alike, subsection 8.3 covers technical documentation and specifications as well as statutes and charters of political parties and other associations, subsection 8.4 deals with healthcare providers who are allowed to, but not obligated to, speak any language to their patients and clients and 8.5 mandates that only contracts in Slovak will be considered valid for the purposes of legal proceedings. Subsection 8.6 is the one that has attracted the most attention so far. It mandates that all public notices, signs, announcements, inscriptions and alike must be written in Slovak. Any text in a second language must be identical in meaning to the Slovak one and follow it. As you can imagine, these provisions have caused a lot of outrage among business owners, largely due to the fact that this is where they expect the fines to come in. Which brings us to to sections 9 and 9a - enforcement of the provisions of the Act and fines. As with the previous version of this Act, two types of authorities are charged with enforcing these rules: 

  • authorities regulating advertising and the Broadcasting Comission for all advertising and all broadcast media,
  • and the Ministry of Culture for everything else. 

Contrary to popular belief, there will be no language police going around fining people for speaking anything else than Slovak, just like there was none back before September 1st, 1999 when UMLA abolished the fines. Mind you, the authors of OLA 357/2009 make no pretend about the fact that this is precisely what they're trying to go back. But just like back then, this provision is not meant to penalize private and public use of languages other than Slovak. Section 9a, subsection 1 which governs the application of fines explicitly states that only government bodies, legal persons and self-employed natural persons (whom the unofficial translation calls "natural persons entrepreneurs", ugh) can be fined. 

In other words, I, bulbul teh private person, cannot be fined for writing this in English or any other language of my choosing, nor can I be fined for cussing in Finnish, wearing one of those Thinkgeek "I'm in ur X Y-ing ur Z" t-shirts with Chinese characters in the blank spaces or writing بلبل on my mailbox (true story, all of that). I, bulbul teh self-employed natural person, IČO 37643967/DIČ censored, could be fined for, say, writing بلبل on the sign of my office building, especially if I placed it above the Slovak equivalent of my nom de plume or even ignored to provided the translation. So there goes the nightmare scenario no. 1

I still think sections 9 and 9a are stupid, just like the whole Act. But that doesn't excuse Mr. Deák from bullshitting the good readers of the NYR blog nor HHRF from bullshitting everybody else. 

 UPDATE: As chance would have it, George Pataki visited Slovakia today and weighed in on the controversy. Check out the video.


John Cowan said...

So is it in fact true what 3.5 implies, that understanding Slovak provides an understanding of Czech, at least at the level of "basic intelligibility"?

This is distinct from the question of whether Slovaks commonly understand Czech, perhaps by reason of having been taught it or exposed to it or what not.

kalebeul said...

Some measures are more liberal, some more authoritarian, but generally speaking the legislation doesn't sound greatly different from that passed by nationalists of right and left in Catalonia in order to restrict the public use of Spanish and thence its private use. The difference is that in Spain national governments rely on coalitions with regional nationalists, and so have no incentive to insist on language rights for Spanish speakers. Maybe Slovakia should apply to become part of Hungary.

bulbul said...

despite the wording, I don't think the authors meant to imply what you inferred, I think they were referring to that common legacy.
But to answer your question: my immediate answer would be yes, it does.

Nah, didn't work in the past, won't work now. Looking at the border now, I'm pretty sure the two countries will merge quite naturally. Just give a decade.

Anonymous said...

You didn't happen to apply to Pembroke in '96, did you? With a broken leg?

bulbul said...

Twisted ankle, IIRC :)

Jens Knudsen (Sili) said...

No bulbulshit here.


David Marjanović said...

There I go, laughing all the time about that list of right-wing parties (some of whom of course sound familiar from Austrian or French backgrounds), about the delicious snark of calling Mečiar "pater patriae", and then suddenly comes...

and don't you get me started about the right


So is it in fact true what 3.5 implies, that understanding Slovak provides an understanding of Czech, at least at the level of "basic intelligibility"?

Even of Polish in my experience.

Looking at the border now, I'm pretty sure the two countries will merge quite naturally. Just give a decade.


A.J.P. Crown said...

Knut Vollebæk was a Christian Democrat Foreign Minister in Norway.

bulbul said...


yeah, Polish > Czech works just as well as Slovak > Czech. Except with Slovak, you don't have to get used to the craaaazy orthography first.

Just give it a decade is what I meant to say.
Well, ok, not all of the two countries. But large chunks of them, definitely, what with people buying properties and taking jobs across the border. Same thing happening with Austria. Sometimes it looks like we're on our way to Austria-Hungary 2.0 :)

David Marjanović said...

Yeah, I was talking about the spoken languages. Polish spelling is nicely regular once you've understood the rules, but the rules are... let's just say that for each consonant you need, on average, two letters...

Sometimes it looks like we're on our way to Austria-Hungary 2.0 :)

Ah. If any of the Mitteleuropa/Donauraum ideologists are still alive, they'll love it :-)

(My dad used to work for them, at various "scientific" "research" "institutes" with three pairs of scare quotes. He came back deeply disgusted and cynical.)

BTW, monarchist bumper stickers have been seen in Austria.

Anonymous said...

Read the law:

(2) The employees and state employees of organs and natural persons, based on paragraph 1, of
TRANSPORT, postal service, telecommunication, as well as the members of the Armed Forces of the
Slovak Republic (hereinafter referred to only as “armed forces”), Armed Services and Fire
Departments are obliged to command and use the state language in official contact.”

bulbul said...


first of all, that translation is inaccurate. Section 3.2 doesn't say "The employees and state employees of organs and natural persons", but "The employees and state employees of government bodies and legal persons ". Secondly, the note to section 3.1 gives two specific examples of such bodies and legal persons established by law - social security administration and public health insurance companies. Third, while section 3.2 does specifically mention transport, whether this refers to the Železničná spoločnosť Slovensko, a state-owned joint stock company, as the sole provider of railroad transport of persons and the employer of our hypothetical conductor, that's really one for the courts.

beyond said...

so I read Mr. Deak's post too. While it certainly seems to be biased, I don't think he's a liar.
This news report actually appears to underscore at least some of the Hungarian nightmare scenarios. Seriously: why shouldn't a private company be able to post a paid billboard advertisement of a Hungarian publication in Hungarian? What's so illegal about this in Slovakia?

bulbul said...


I don't think [István Deák]'s a liar.
Neither do I. I just think he's stupid (because he doesn't know what he's talking about) and/or full of shit (because he doesn't care). Apparently he hasn't even bothered to read the HHRF press release which correctly notes that only legal entities can be fined. Instead he goes on about how "the Slovak parliament made it largely illegal for its citizens to use any language other than Slovak". Yeah, right.
How the report underscore's at least some of his nightmare scenarios I just don't see. If it underscores anything it's the dumbfuckery behind the law and its application: the reporters asked the Ministry of Culture. The Ministry referred them to Slovak Trade Inspection which is charged with enforcing the provisions of the act, only the Ministry also said the STI should consider the relevant provisions of the Advertisement Act. And STI (which normally handles complaints about goods and services) said "We'll look into it". So basically nobody knows how to handle this.

why shouldn't a private company be able to...
Don't look at me, I don't understand it either. I'm pretty sure it has something to with "them" who are trying to take away our... Something.

What's so illegal about this in Slovakia?
In this particular case, it's illegal because 357/2009, section 8, subsection 6 says so ("All ... advertisements ... on the sides of roads and above them ... shall be in the official language").
Is it right? Fuck no. Is it stupid, narrowminded and petty? Fuck yes. Should the whole Act be repealed and its authors hung by the town hall? Right fucking now. Preferrably alongside those who used their stupidy to further their own divisive agendas.

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czech it's damn tough to study

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