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How we spoke in Bratislava

Germanist Jozef Tancer wrote a book, Untangled Tongues, about the phenomenon of multilingualism in historical Bratislava.

Jozef Tancer (Source: Sme)

After their first son was born, Germanist Jozef Tancer and his wife decided to raise him as a bilingual, Slovak-German, child. In this way, his long-term fascination with multilingualism, which used to be a typical feature of Bratislava, interconnected with his personal interest. At that time, in 2006, he decided to find people who were raised in historic Bratislava and discover how this multilingualism worked in the city, and what are the best methods for bringing up a multilingual child.

Tancer found about 70 people, now in their 80s and 90s, who experienced trilingual Bratislava, when its citizens usually spoke German, Hungarian and Slovak. He carried out about one hundred interviews during which he asked participants what languages they spoke with their families, on the street, or in what languages they learned. But he quickly realised that the topic touches not only on linguistics, but also the history of the city and the life stories of the citizens of then-Bratislava.

“Language touches upon all aspects of life,” Tancer told The Slovak Spectator. “So in the end we [in the interviews] often got into matters about which the respondents originally did not want to speak about – the war, deportations or whether surviving in a concentration camp depended on whether the person spoke German or not.”

Not all Bratislavans were multilingual

Citizens of inter-war Bratislava used to commonly speak Slovak, German and Hungarian languages. So the trilingualism of Bratislavans is not a myth, yet it is also not the reality, as this phenomenon has many more layers.

“Bratislava’s trilingualism was more spread out among the lower social classes, i.e. poorer families,” said Tancer, adding that this was because children learned to communicate in other languages on the streets when playing with other children. Contrary to this, in wealthier, middle-class families where children had a nanny, such trilingualism was not always fostered. In such families often German was the dominant language, supplemented by private hours of French or English.

As Tancer also discovered during the interviews, many multilingual Bratislavans can only speak in other languages, as opposed to reading and writing skills they have in their mother language. This means that they cannot read or write the other languages, or they do so with mistakes or dislike.

Additionally, the languages spoken had different statuses among Bratislava society. It was obvious, for example, in choosing a school, when German was often preferred. Also, traditional German-Hungarian citizens of Bratislava looked down on the Slovak language, said Tancer.

But the situation in Bratislava changed after the second world war when Slovak started to be pushed forward as the dominant language. At that time, Germans and Hungarians were not viewed in a more positive light than as traitors and enemies. Yet the answer to the question of why people stopped speaking German and Hungarian is more complicated and one should look at individual cases.

“One person stopped using a language because he was afraid of persecution or even had already experienced an unpleasant situation,” said Tancer. “Another stopped speaking German or Hungarian because already before WII he spoke Slovak well and he did not have any problems to switch to Slovak, especially in cases when the identity of this person was not bound to the German or Hungarian language.”

For the book, Untangled Tongues, subtitled, How We Spoke in Historic Bratislava, Tancer selected 20 interviews in an effort to provide an entire spectrum of citizens of historic Bratislava. Thus, the book features respondents from Slovak, Hungarian, German, Jewish and mixed families. Another criterion was also from what social class they come from. The result is an extensive sample of the then-citizenry of Bratislava. Therefore, the book also contains interviews with Bratislavans who were members of the youth organisation Deutsche Jugend, which was here when Slovakia was a Nazi puppet state, and an interview with the son of a rabbi. The latter, however, is present in the book only under the initials N.N.

“It is important for me that such an interview is in the book,” said Tancer. “It shows a dilemma of this person whether to get off as a witness of some events or not. People who survived the Holocaust are afraid, and rightfully, that something like this may repeat.”

We are all multilingual

Tancer considers himself multilingual, even though in a different way than is commonly understood in Slovakia.

“Usually people imagine about a multilingual person somebody who speaks several languages from their youth and who masters them equally; that it is as if they have several mother tongues,” said Tancer. “In this sense I’m not multilingual because my main, dominant language, is Slovak.”

Tancer grew up in a family in which his parents and grandparents also spoke Hungarian, but he did not learn this language as a child. At school he learned German.

“For me also those people who learned a foreign language at school are multilingual,” said Tancer, who in this respect shares the opinion of Austrian linguist Brigitta Busch who says that actually each person is multilingual and that in reality, monolingual people do not exist.

In this respect, Tancer considers Slovaks, who commonly read books and watch films in Czech, multilingual.

“But many Slovaks do not consider Czech to be a foreign language and thus they do not consider themselves to be multilingual,” said Tancer.

But Tancer disagrees with understanding multilingualism only as mastering several languages in both written and spoken forms. For him, the ability to understand and communicate, even with mistakes, is more important.

Prologue and epilogue

For Tancer, his book is an epilogue to the vanishing world of Bratislava’s multilingualism which developed here thanks to the position of Bratislava at the crossroads of ways and cultures. But it is also an epilogue to the story of present-day Bratislava, which again, after many years, has become multilingual. Even though, as Tancer says, history does not repeat, it can be inspirational. Bratislava has become home to many foreigners and on the Austrian and Hungarian border lands, a generation is being raised for whom German and Hungarian will not be foreign languages.

Topic: Bratislava


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