Slovak tongue fading out in Hungary

BUDAPEST/MLINKY: The only ethnic Slovak member of the Hungarian parliament, Maria Jakabová, nearly grew up in a different country. She and her family were standing with their bags packed in the doorway of their home in Hungary when her father decided he could not leave the land his family had worked for generations. "Here we are going to live," he said. "And here we are going to die."
Because of her father's change of heart, Jakabová, then 12 years old, was not among the 73,000 Slovaks who voluntarily left Hungary in 1948 in the post-war population exchange between Hungary and Czechoslovakia. The migration, according to estimates by Slovak leaders in Hungary, cut Hungary's Slovak minority by about a third, and hastened the acceptance of Hungarian as the minority's dominant language. Those like Jakabová who stayed behind watched as the use of the Slovak language all but disappeared from the daily life of Hungary's Slovak minority.


Hungary's Slovak minority celebrate "Slovak Days" every year July 5.
photo: Courtesy Celoštátna slovenská samospravá in Hungary

BUDAPEST/MLINKY: The only ethnic Slovak member of the Hungarian parliament, Maria Jakabová, nearly grew up in a different country. She and her family were standing with their bags packed in the doorway of their home in Hungary when her father decided he could not leave the land his family had worked for generations. "Here we are going to live," he said. "And here we are going to die."

Because of her father's change of heart, Jakabová, then 12 years old, was not among the 73,000 Slovaks who voluntarily left Hungary in 1948 in the post-war population exchange between Hungary and Czechoslovakia. The migration, according to estimates by Slovak leaders in Hungary, cut Hungary's Slovak minority by about a third, and hastened the acceptance of Hungarian as the minority's dominant language. Those like Jakabová who stayed behind watched as the use of the Slovak language all but disappeared from the daily life of Hungary's Slovak minority.

"There are still a lot of us over 60 who speak it," says Jakabová, who served as director of the Democratic Federation of Slovaks from 1983 to 1992. "But the younger generation would rather learn English than Slovak."

According to Hungarian census data, 12,745 people declared Slovak nationality in 1991 compared to 75,877 in 1941. Slovak minority leaders estimate the real size of their communities at around 100,000 in 1991 and 200,000 in 1941, but say that today, Slovak is hardly spoken by the younger generations.

Before the population was decimated by the 1948 Slovak migration, the Slovak language was dominant in Horné Peťany, the small village in northern Hungary where Jakabová was born. Today, Hungarian is spoken more often, she says, or the languages are mixed. It is a common story in the 128 villages and small cities in Hungary where descendants of 17th and 18th century Slovak settlers still live.

In Mlinky, a village in the Piliš hills west of Budapest, widows swathed in black and old men hobbling with canes still chat in Slovak after Sunday afternoon Slovak mass. Their children understand them, but speak poorly; their grandchildren just shake their heads and giggle.

"My parents speak Slovak to me," stammers a 36 year-old waiter in Slovak in the village restaurant. "But I answer them in Hungarian."

"The younger kids are embarrassed, or too lazy to try and speak Slovak," says another resident.

Locals say 80% of Mlinky children attend the village's primary school, where they have lessons in Slovak. Slovak is taught in 59 grammar schools, five high schools and six universities throughout Hungary; but students rarely use the language outside the classroom.

"Children are like that," says Mária Matejdesová, Chairperson of the Organisation of Slovak youth in Hungary. "When they struggle in one language, but speak a second everyone understands, they use the second language."

"It will be a pity if the old dialects die out. They were very beautiful," said Jakabová, who speaks both textbook Slovak and an old central Slovak dialect found in her village. "What the children learn in schools is not the language of their ancestors."

Some Slovak settlers began speaking Hungarian soon after their arrival in the 17th and 18th centuries, according to the book The Slovaks of Hungary, by Anna Gyivicsán and András Krupa, although they were exceptions until the 20th century. Forced Hungarian schooling between the two World Wars, the migration of 73,000 Slovaks after WWII, rural to urban migration and the advent of mass media led to the demise of the Slovak language in favour of Hungarian.

"At one time, people didn't even marry outside their own village. But then technology, television, radio, industrialisation - these things removed the boundaries between villages in Hungary. As a whole, they were positive for the country, but negative for the survival of small minorities," said Jakabová.

In 1994, the Hungarian parliament passed a law creating popularly-elected minority 'self-governments' to represent Slovaks and the country's 12 other minorities. In 75 villages and town, small governing councils oversee Slovak cultural institutions, shape policy on Slovak education in schools, and handle complaints on minority issues from local Slovak populations.

Slovak Hungarians say the self-governments have fostered a sense of Slovak identity and culture, but that such measures cannot ensure that the young will be interested in learning the language, or that those who never became fluent will be willing and capable of teaching their children.

"We became lazy in passing the language on to our children," said Slovak teacher Monika Glucková Szaboová. "It would be a shame if Slovak became extinct in Hungary, but it's not a problem the government can solve."

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