Supporters of official English in the United States can take a hint from Slovakia, where a new official language law promises to be two, two, two things in one: it’s a nation builder and an agent of oppression.
For centuries, the land that is now Slovakia bounced from ruler to ruler, each favoring a different official language: first came Latin, then German, then Hungarian, then Czech. During the Cold War, Russian, never official, served as a fast track to success. Under foreign rule the Slovak language was tolerated, ignored, discouraged, even suppressed. But now Slovakia is its own country, and Slovak is finally official, so like any good official language, its first goal is to wipe out the competition.
Slovak became the official language in 1995, two years after the Slovak Republic split from the Czech Republic in the Velvet Revolution. The preamble to the 1995 language law states that
the Slovak language is the most important feature of the individuality of the Slovak nation, the most precious value of its cultural heritage, and the expression of sovereignty of the Slovak Republic and the universal communication means of its citizens, that ensures their freedom and equality in dignity and rights on the territory of the Slovak Republic (270/1995 Coll. Laws).
Although English is an immigrant language, not a native one like Slovak, supporters of official English see it too as the glue that holds a diverse America together: English contains the essence of our cultural heritage, serves as the key to economic advancement, and as the language of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, it embodies untranslatable American political ideals. It’s clear that language can be a powerful patriotic symbol. But official language laws are put in place not simply to celebrate unity but also to enforce it, and that’s when legislating language can become not just a symbol but a weapon as well.
In keeping with its “universalizing” spirit, Slovakia’s 1995 language law required that all official communications be in Slovak. But the legislation also sought to reduce diversity, enforce assimilation, and exact revenge for years of linguistic and ethnic oppression by means of further linguistic and ethnic oppression. Minority-language schooling was effectively banned; signs had to be in Slovak; place names had to conform to the rules of Slovak; and all residents with non-Slovak names were required to change them to officially-approved Slovak ones. Violators of the law could be fined. If history is written by the winners, then so, it seems, are grammar books.
A token reform in 1999 dropped the fines and restored some language rights, at least on paper, as part of Slovakia’s effort to present itself as modern and democratic to the European Union, which it eventually joined in 2004. But last week’s revision reverses those reforms and goes even further than the original law to render minority languages invisible. Effective September 1, not just government employees, but all of Slovakia’s residents, must speak and write Slovak in public. If they don’t, the Ministry of Culture can fine them up to €5,000 ($7,000) for each offense. Fines may be repeated until the violation is corrected.
More than 90% of Slovakia’s residents speak the state language, so the position of Slovak is already strong, just as English is strong in the United States. Nonetheless, the new Slovak-only law targets speakers of the nation’s minority languages. Hungarians currently form about 10% of the population, and though many speak Slovak too, they are the group that is most resented by the Slovaks, since when the country was part of the Kingdom of Hungary, many Slovak speakers were forced to use Hungarian. But according to Ethnologue, Slovakia also has significant numbers of speakers of German, Polish, Rusyn, Ukrainian, and Romani. Yiddish isn’t a “problem” language because Slovakia’s Yiddish speakers, once a recognizable minority as well, were wiped out by Slovak collaborators during World War II.
Czech speakers are exempt from the Slovak law because Czech and Slovak are essentially two varieties of the same language. Other limited exceptions include doctor-patient communication: non-Slovak-speaking patients may use their native language, but doctors are not required to respond in that language. And media in areas where at least 20% of the people speak a language other than Slovak may use a minority language, so long as publications or broadcasts are accompanied by a Slovak translation. But the government is doing what it can to gerrymander Slovakia so as few regions as possible meet the minority-language threshold.
Owner Joey Vento, a fan of official English, tells customers at Geno’s Steaks, home of the Philly cheese steak, “This is America. When ordering, ‘Speak English.’”
Slovakia is way ahead of the U.S. when it comes to official language laws. Signs in restaurants like this McDonalds in downtown Brataslava will soon read, “This is Slovakia. When ordering, ‘Speak Slovak.’”
But it’s not just Slovak that the official language law enforces, it’s correct Slovak. The state language must be used according to officially approved spelling, pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary standards. A strict construction of the law means that now even native Slovak speakers may be fined for misusing the state language. Borrowed words, especially if they’re English, are out as well, so come September, Slovakia's super-patriots will have to order hranolky instead of their customary freedom fries at the Bratislava McDonalds.
Supporters of the new Slovak language law argue that it bridges the country’s past and future, appealing to those nostalgic for communist rule because it allows the government to further control how the people think, and to Slovakia’s new capitalists as well, because it more than pays for itself through the fines collected by the Ministry of Culture’s language police.
Americans can learn one important lesson from Slovakia: language laws, even when they garner a lot of support, don’t work very well. Fining someone for using the wrong language, or the wrong form of the right language, is no recipe for assimilation, and it’s not likely to produce a happy, unified citizenry. Criminalizing language is always a mistake, and people everywhere resent and ridicule the language police for trying to regulate speech, a human trait that no government, no matter how well intentioned, has ever been able to control for very long.
Some Slovaks think that supporters of official Slovak are a few hranolky short of a Happy Meal