GOVERNMENTS around the globe and down the ages have reached for some pretty unsophisticated tools in order – as they would have it – to educate the people. History is littered with uncivilised methods of spreading or enforcing so-called official cultures or tongues. Journalists are therefore alert whenever governments start talking about laws to regulate culture, use of language or how these are taught in schools.
Undeterred, the Slovak government is preparing to appoint itself protector of the full-blooded euphony of the Slovak language, if a new weapon designed by the Culture Ministry is approved by parliament. An amendment now being proposed would allow fines of €100 (Sk3,012.60) to €500 (Sk150,630) for the incorrect use of the Slovak language. Culture Minister Marek Maďarič suggested that the language law should remind Slovaks of something that their predecessors had always been fully aware of: the most precious thing a nation has is its language.
A noble intention indeed. However, we all know where the road paved with such noble but misguided intentions can lead. Put into practice through clumsy legislation this could cause severe damage.
Slovakia has already tried this once, during the government of a ruling coalition comprising the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) and the Slovak National Party (SNS). The idea of imposing fines on people for using foreign expressions when there is a Slovak alternative was stillborn 12 years ago. But now it is back.
Some irresistible images – parodies, let us hope - spring to mind: tongue watchmen running around with their little notebooks, listening to television radio stations, attending lectures and reading signs in their diligent search for language violations. Of course, this is not how it is likely to work in the end.
No government can create or enforce a popular instinct to protect the language through laws or penalties. Governments can of course try to enhance people’s pride in their mother tongue and their own culture by supporting and promoting Slovak literature, original Slovak film production, or by supporting language competitions at schools. But fining people is unlikely to generate much pride.
State officials, politicians and intellectuals would do better to lead by example. Examining the way Slovak politicians demonstrate their love and respect for the Slovak language in their own public pronouncements can serve more to annoy or amuse than inspire.
“Only an idiot from Nový Čas could say that I went to Vietnam to chase labour back to Slovakia and that I do not pay attention to the 10-percent unemployment in Slovakia,” said Prime Minister Robert Fico in October.
Fico might have employed perfect grammar to describe Slovak print journalists as “idiots”. Nevertheless, he drove the level of political discourse to the basement of the ivory tower of Slovak language usage.
In a similar vein, the chairman of the SNS, Ján Slota, has blessed his opponents with verbal expressions that if repeated here would only pollute the page. His language is inventive, and never lacks spice, but inspires few. To be fair to the Culture Ministry’s proclaimed intentions, there are times when one listens to speeches in parliament or to TV presenters’ ramblings or even to the way various self-appointed celebrities talk that one might feel there would be some benefit in having the means to penalise them for their crimes against the language. But penalties are not the right way to go.
The theologian and philosopher Franz Rosenzweig once said that “language is more than blood”. Anyone who aspires to influence people’s means of verbal expression should be aware of what a sensitive ‘essence’ they touch.
Over the past month the Slovak government has tried to touch this sensitive essence on several occasions. There is now an intense debate about how geographical names should be used in textbooks for Hungarian-minority children which has further aggravated the already sensitive state of Slovak-Hungarian relations.
The Education Ministry earlier this year dropped Hungarian place names in a new edition of geography textbooks for 9-year olds, replacing them with Slovak names only. Hungarian teachers have complained that the Slovak names break up the text and make it incomprehensible for their pupils. Fico’s Smer party eventually proposed that the names should be in Hungarian, followed by their Slovak equivalents, a suggestion which found some sympathetic responses among Hungarians. However, the HZDS and SNS are now insisting on Slovak names only.
So on the one hand, we have an effort to protect the purity of the Slovak language and eliminate the use of foreign words where Slovak equivalents exist, but on the other hand there is a marked lack of sympathy or willingness to seek compromise when a minority tries to do the same for its own mother tongue.
In fact, the present government seems to obtain a rare delight in creating councils to watch out for various public transgressions.
The price council has commissioned an army of price watchdogs who are at this very moment roaming the streets, sniffing out any sign of the ‘unjustified’ price hikes which unscrupulous tradesmen are supposedly trying to inflict on unsuspecting consumers under cover of euro conversion. Businessman caught ‘abusing’ the year-end switch now face prison.
It now looks like a fresh set of tongue-tied victims is being prepared to replace them once January is behind us.