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The Slovene Language in Carinthia: Symbolic Bi-Lingualism
by Albert Reiterer

Questions for the ”colloquial language” are put at every census in Austria since World War II, and in fact since the census of 1880 in Cisleithania. The last one of the year 2001 resulted in about 12.600 Austrians (respectively 14.000 inhabitants) in Carinthia “confessing” – this is the term used most often – to speak Slovene.

However, as it is well known to all experts, the census term of “colloquial language” is understood in a way other then indicating linguistic skills or everyday use of the language, that is, signifying the readiness to identify ethnically (politically) with the Slovene minority. This is demonstrated best by comparing the numbers of the census with an investigation looking exclusively for linguistic skills: A representative survey in annex to a micro-census and lead by the author in September 1999 resulted in about 60.000 persons aged 15 years or more speaking or understanding Slovene.

The following presentation gives some of the results of this survey in more detail, and it gives some hints at the contexts in which Slovene in Carinthia is spoken, according to this investigation. It discusses the difference between the two numbers and ask for the meaning of ticking in “Slovene” in the census questionnaire, in contrast to the everyday use or the capability to understand the minority language. Following the concept of symbolic ethnicity, coined by H. J. Gans (1979) and tested empirically by R. D. Alba (1990) for the U.S.A., it is argued that bilingualism in Austria – not only with the Slovenes, but with the Burgenland- Croats and the Magyars, too – gets always more a symbolic and less a pragmatic value for the members of the respective linguistic minorities in this country. To the term of symbolic ethnicity the term of symbolic bilingualism has to be added. Supposedly, this loss of structural value while maintaining an identitarian value of the most used indicator for ethnic affiliation in West and Central Europe is the course of post-modern ethnicity in Western Europe and in politically highly developed countries, at least, if the concerned are minority groups.

In a recent master thesis (Köllö 2002), the relations between the two linguistic groups in two villages of the Burgenland (the easternmost province of Austria) have been investigated. In Unterwart and Siget in der Wart, Magyars, or Hungarian-speaking people and Germanreported. The mayor, f.i., told the researcher proudly of his village being a “community belonging to Europe” because of the peaceful co-existence of different ethnic units. However, bilingual topographical signs were established only lately, and in a manner which can only be called furtive: While the Viennese TV was invited, the term was set so that almost none of the villagers had the possibility to attend. For them, the event was planned to be a non-event. – Since two years only, there exists also a bilingual rubber stamp. It is told an important achievement. However, the newsletter of the local administration is German only. The chief executive of the local administration justified this in several approaches: First, he maintained that a bilingual newsletter were unnecessary, for the Hungarian people would understand German, and the German-speakers would not like it. Then, as the investigator insisted upon this issue, he said plainly, that the bulletin would not be read anyway – a breath-taking statement of the person responsible for this newsletter!

Of course, the big question is: What are these discrete officials afraid of? And second: Why do the Hungarian-speaking population accept to be neglected this way?

It is clear that linguistic conflict is what should be avoided. The members of the linguistic minority are not harmed, but they are expected to be invisible. The most interesting fact is that they comply. While they are boasting on their Hungarian identity, it is meant their identity not to be costly in political and in economic terms.

The concept of symbolic identity / ethnicity was constructed to describe and explain the ethnic relations in the U.S.A. (Gans 1979). “Ethnic identities continue to exist but decline in significance ... [Identification] may be perceived as simply a matter of where one’s ancestors came from, without relevance for ordinary social life” (Alba 1990, 23). If this proves true, then “commitment” is no longer a part of ethnic belonging. Ethnic identity becomes insignificant, at least in political regards. While this was part and parcel of ethnic relations in the U.S.A. since the very beginning, the European setting was different.

In Austria and in Western Europe language has been interlinked always with ethnicity and with national ambitions since 200 years. Thus, ethnicity in Europe has been, and has remained until the very presence, a political matter concerning the structure of the state. Especially minorities have been defined by their political ambitions and demands. They have been national minorities, in order to get clear conceptually. This is in stark contrast ethnic diversity is apprehended in the U.S.A. There, ethnic identity is seen as a private matter. Surely, some people are proud of their ancestry and try to get more information about them (“rooting”). Others are quite indifferent and do not bother. Anyway, ethnic diversity has nothing to do in the political arena. Obviously, the same is not true for “racial difference”.

Meanwhile, in most of the cases a new mind has come to the fore. National minorities have become ethnic minorities, that is, their claims for self-determination were, first, weakened, and then abandoned almost completely. I will argue in this presentation that the U.S.-way of ethnic choice and belonging will come up most probably as the way the younger generation is thinking and behaving also in Europe. Nevertheless, minorities in Europe stick further to one single most important claim: They demand and expect to get some institutional and financial help on behalf of the state and its majority.

Language remains in this regard the “quintessential symbol” (J. Fishman) for the possibility to maintain an identity diverse of that of the majority. With respect to minority languages the readiness of the majority to acknowledge the equal value of minority members is measured by the degree of tolerance it shows for the use of the minority language also in the public realm. However, while on the one side the stress is laid more than ever on language, on the other hand the competence and the daily performance in the minority languages gets weaker. Symbolic ethnicity in Europe becomes a sort of symbolic bilingualism.

Bilingualism is valued strongly today, at least rhetorically, by the majority, for since some time diversity is considered an advantage, or at least something which is not really important. However, bilingualism must not have political and structural consequences. Even minorities themselves accept this. They don’t want to be the ones who spoil the general welfare. Therefore, the eagerness with which Burgenland-Magyars, or Croats, and increasingly the Carinthian Slovenes, too, identify as „bilingual“, and not as Croats, or Slovenes, must be seen with some mistrust. Most of them consider it the most promising attitude to say: We do not want to be the bad guys. Alba (1990) has studied quite a similar attitude towards ancestry in the U.S.A. and has demonstrated in his excellent empirical study the loss of any structural meaning. Symbolic ethnicity, as well as symbolic bilingualism, becomes increasingly a sort of folkloreethnicity, or weekend-ethnicity, a ritual to stick to one’s own different identity in search of a personal identity (vgl. Hall 1999, Mathew 2000, u. a.). However, it loses progressively its pragmatic value, and it has no longer any salience in social and political terms.

The Problem
Since 1880, the end-time of the Habsburg state, censuses in the area of what is now Austria put a question for the language. First, in 1880, 1890, 1900, and 1910, it was framed as a question for the „colloquial language“. After World War I, the Austrian republic asked for „the language in which one uses to think“ (1923), and a decade later, in 1934, for „the language which marks the cultural group the respondent recognizes as his own“. In 1939, after the Nazi-occupation of Austria, there were two questions of relevance: The first asked for the „mother tongue“. The second one asked for the “ethno-national belonging” (Volkszugehörigkeit). While the numbers for the mother-tongue resulted considerably bigger than in the previous (Austrian) census, the number of the persons admitting a non-Geman belonging were negligible.

After World War II, the Austrian republic was restored. In its censuses it took up again the question for the „colloquial languages“ (1951, 1961, 1971, 1981, 1991, 2001). The numbers of all ethnic minorities declined drastically in the last half century.

In the following presentation, I will concentrate upon the Slovenes in Carinthia.

The 2001 census identifies about 12,600 Slovene speaking Austrian citizens – and additionally 560 Windische (“persons from Wendischland”) – in Carinthia, or 2,4 per cent of the region's total population (Windische: 0,1 per cent). However, we know all too well that this number does not reflect the real size of the linguistic group. It is not by chance that censuses containing a question for language have often been conducted in the manner of election campaigns (cf. Brix 1982). What, then, is the meaning of this data? We may confidently say that this may be seen as the approximate size of the ethnic group (Suppan 1983; Reiterer 1977, 1985, 1986, 1996). We must clearly distinguish between a linguistic group of Slovene origin, able to speak and understand Slovene in everyday settings, and a Slovene ethnic group, consisting of persons who identify politically as Slovenes. The last one is a subset of the former. The former group gives us an idea of the quantitative potential of the Slovene ethnic group in Carinthia. Therefore, it is most interesting to investigate how many people do in fact understand and / or speak Slovene; which is the level of linguistic competence in Slovene; in which context and speech events Slovene is used in fact.

Methodical Remarks about a Representative Survey
Such an investigation was conducted by the author in September 1999. I had the opportunity to make use of the Austrian Microcensus. The Microcensus is a survey of official statistics and consists of a huge sample, 0.9 percent of all households. That is: Between 50.000 and 60.000 persons in Austria are surveyed 4 times a year to get a variety of statistical of this survey, however, and the one which makes it an invaluable instrument for investigations in this field of research is, that it attributes weights to every persons and thus provides opportunities to have absolute numbers with a rather high degree of reliability. There is no other sample, commercial or not, which disposes about this trait. There is a reverse side, however. Due to the huge sample, the time and space is extremely limited. Thus, I had to be content with only quite a few questions regarding language competence and performance. Furthermore, in order to not endanger the main purpose, that is, getting information about strictly linguistic matters and behaviour, I had to skip an originally planned question for the way the persons identify ethnically. This is unfortunate, for data about the interlocking of linguistic skills and ethnic identity would be extremely interesting.

A more comprehensive survey which has had its stress on ethnic consciousness was done in 1978 for the district of Völkermarkt / Velikovec (Flaschberger/Reiterer 1980). However, the political circumstances at this time were quite different. We cannot, therefore, draw on this survey for the climate nowadays. This is highlighted by a replication of the 1978 survey in a master thesis in Klagenfurt / Celovec (Fleissner 1998). Some key findings gave a totally different picture of the way people think today.

Such surveys of demoscopic nature with a standardized questionnaire are very useful for estimating quantitative aspects and sizes of the structures explored. However, they do not succeed usually in grasping the more personal questions of the personal development and of the motives behind the changes of attitudes and the shift of identities. For such issues, other methods are needed. Linked to the survey of 1999, therefore, was a wave of 20 in-depth interviews which were led by experienced bilingual persons, who were free to proceed as it seemed practicable to them. They aimed to explore personal experiences and life-histories of persons coming from Slovene background and arriving at quite different conclusions and attitudes towards ethnic identity and linguistic behaviour (Reiterer 2002).1

Some Results
Anyway, the results of the survey were spectacular enough. About 60.000 persons aged 15 years and older told us they understood or spoke Slovene. They are divided quite evenly in a part which understands Slovene well, in another part which considers its linguistic skills moderate, and the rest which does not speak very good the Slovene language. We were relying upon self-evaluation concerning linguistic skills.

Average weight of persons with skills in Slovene: 116,42; that is: 1 questionnaire equals 116,42 persons aged 15 and above. The September 1999 was only 1 and _ year distant in time from the census 2001. As almost all of these persons have learned the Slovene as their mother tongue or primary language, we may compare the two numbers and look for the different meaning both numbers have. Less than a quarter of the persons understanding Slovene – in fact only a fifth, for in the census there are counted also the children up to the age of 14 – are ready to identify as Slovene if asked by the authority in the census. “Winning the Census” (Horowitz 1985, 194 ff.) is a main goal of most of the European minorities. The Carinthian Slovenes have obviously lost this battle.

We have to consider the different variables more in depth and compare them to the results of the census. Let us begin with the influence of age onto the language skills! There are different possibilities to analyse the data. However, in fact all of them result in roughly the same picture:

The competence in Slovene decreases considerably if we go from the older people to the younger ones. Of the population in the age class of 75 and above, 17,7 percent of all Carinthians have some skills in Slovene. If we come to the age class of 15 to 29 years, this share amounts only to the half, to speak more exactly, to 8,5 percent. This trend is especially strong with men. Of the old ones a percentage of 19,2 percent (women: 16,9 %) is able to speak or understand Slovene. Looking at the young ones, the share amounts only to 6,8 %, that is roughly a third (women: 10,3 %). If we are asking for good knowledge of Slovene, the share decrease from 6,0 percent with both sexes (males: 7,2 %; females: 5,4 %) to 2,6 % (male: 1,5 %; female: 3,6 %). We can, of course, read this trend as a tendency in the recent history of the Carinthians Slovenes.

It is really interesting to compare these data to those of the most recent census in 2001. Basically, the patterns in the age distribution of those identifying as Slovenes is the same as just mentioned for the language skills as seen in the 1999 survey. The decrease with the progress of time, however, is more acute than with language skills. There is a significant difference concerning the sexes. Ethnic identification decreases stronger with women than with men, if going from the old age to the youth. There is much sense in an interpretation which runs as follows: Women acquire Slovene competence as children and in their youth in a more natural way and use their skills in this language in everyday life-world more pragmatically and less concerned for extra-linguistic symbolisms than men. Male children and youth may be stronger influenced by such concerns even at such a tender age. They seem to reflect the significance of needs. In this context we have to ask, although our data do not answer the question: Who are those to decide the impact of such reflections? That may be a matter of the parents, but it may be as well a matter of the male children themselves.

Skills in Slovene
The figure is to be read as follows: the quotient < 1 means Slovene under-representation in the age group, > 1 overrepresentation. F.i.: the share of those speaking Slovene well who are in the age class of 15 to 29 years is less than half of the share of the German-speakers in the same age class (0,42). On the other hand, the share of the very aged (75+ years) in the group which speaks Slovene well, is more than twice as large than the share of the German-speakers of the same age (2,22). A steep curve means a high degree of relative aging.

However, if men have learned Slovene, it seems that they are ready to engage in ethnic or national activities more than women. Ethnic consciousness has less decreased with men than with women with the passing of time. If this interpretation would hold, then it would be one more piece of evidence for the well-known fact that ethnic consciousness as well as national militancy is a concern more for men than for women. This cannot be surprising, as political activity and public engagement is considered even in modern societies more a matter of men than of women.

It is time once again to stress the fact that we are relying on what people are telling of themselves. The problem to cope with is that there may well be a gendered readiness to judge differently one’s own language skills. However, our data do not allow to say anything about this methodical problem.

Where are the people living who speak Slovene? Due to the trait of a sample survey our ability to come to local contexts is heavily limited. But we can speak at least about the districts. If we may label a district a Slovene one, than this is Völkermarkt / Velikovec. Nearly half of the people living there are able to speak Slovene in one or the other way. Of this group, two fifths say they master the Slovene well, and another two fifths, they do it in a tolerable way. Of the other districts, the shares of people speaking Slovene are not really impressing, even taking into account only the officially bilingual parts. Surprising high are these shares in the cities of Klagenfurt / Celovec and Villach / Beljak, reaching nearly a seventh of the population. However, in these two cities, the part of the people speaking Slovene “well” is modest, and the part speaking it “not so well” amount to more than the half. In the district of Hermagor, the Slovene has nearly died out if one trusts the data. It may well be that there is a bias in the respondents’ behaviour which would be interesting – if extant. While in the cities, there is a tendency in some circles to be proud to be competent in Slovene, in the rural areas of the lower Gail valley / Zilja the old habits of fear and anxiety may have survived. People feel demeaned if they are suggested to have Slovene roots.

A Digression: Politics and Ethnic Identity
Ethnic identity is always a question of politics in Central Europe. The ethnic tensions between majority and minorities have been characteristic especially in Carinthia. For a long time it was assured that politicians trusted to have an advantage by instigating ethnic hatred. This time seems to have passed, at least for the overwhelming majority. In December 2001, the Austrian Constitutional Court ruled that the threshold of 25 per cent for displaying bilingual official signs does not correspond to the Austrian Constitution. The Carinthian governor reacted furiously – the Court in his annual report valued the governor’s stance as a “theory for a coup d’etat” – and tried to launch an anti-minority-movement. There may have been several motives. Not the least one, surely, was his hope to come in tune with the mood of the population and to gain in the coming local elections. Meanwhile the local elections have passed by on March 9th, 2003. The party of the governor was hit by severe losses, and, above all, the losses were even more heavy in the bilingual area, and there was a correlation between the losses and the share of Slovene population in the communities. The correlation in fact was a weak one (0,447), and explains only 20 per cent of the variance. It makes sense to interpret the data by saying, that there is no gain today in being anti-Slovene, and, on the reverse, that trying to play the ethnic card may have been nocuous to the party of the governor.

Symbolic Bilingualism
Tom Priestly (1997) has published a lot of evidence, coming from the material for a linguistic Atlas of the interwar period and meant for German nationalist purposes, that the language of the family and also the language used in village affairs was mostly Slovene in the area you can identify in figure 2. This applies also to regions which today at least in the census, and in the 1999 investigation, too, result nearly perfectly assimilated, f. i. the lower Gail valley / Zilja. But even at those times, that is, in 1934, the evidence brought by Priestley does not coincide with the results of the then-time census. Ethnic distancing to the Slovene origin, or ethnic assimilation, obviously occurred while the language of daily life was mostly the Slovene (in a dialect variant). While the Gail valley / Zilja must be considered compactly Slovene in linguistic regard, the people had assimilated ethnically to a very high degree even in this time, that is, they had changed ethnic belonging and solidarity and were shifting in their identity to the majority. Ethnic assimilation preceded linguistic assimilation. We might discuss the causes of this delayed processes. However, in this context I am more interested in the fact as such, for it tells us the story of the Slovene group in Carinthia as a whole. The loss of Slovene competence is caused to an important degree by their previous loss of ethnic consciousness. The language as a marker for one’s own identity is not linked mechanically to this identity. But it is linked to it with a time lag, and we may well conclude that there is also a nexus the other way round: If people cease to speak their language of origin, than it is a question of time when the group dissolves as a structurally meaningful ethnic unit.

The fully functional Slovene language is today a concern only for a minority within the linguistic minority. This is clear enough if one compares the number of persons in the investigation of 1999 with the census 2001, and especially the difference between those speaking Slovene well and those speaking it in a less perfect way.

This brings us back to the question of symbolic ethnicity and to symbolic bilingualism. The linguistic environment of Austrian ethnic minorities today is nearly exclusively monolingual. Therefore, even people feeling to belong to the Slovene ethnic group state a bit uncomfortably: They are more fluent in German than in Slovene. If they have to speak about arguments not so familiar to them, they tend to chose spontaneously the majority language, that is: German. Moreover, there are some factors furthering such a behaviour. The Slovene in Carinthia is not a compact linguistic unity. It consists of a number of heavily differentiated dialects. People coming from Zilja (Gailtal) have some difficulties to understand people coming from Podjuna (Jauntal), if they use both their dialects, respectively. Then, it seems to make sense to them to chose the common language they all have learned, and they were better trained in than in Slovene, the German. Thus, Slovene becomes a sort of a language of secrecy. To speak the Slovene in supra-local and supra-regional contexts is to make a statement of one’s own identity, and in some way also a statement of a political commitment.

There the difficulties even for those relating to the Slovene group begin. Nationally, the Carinthian Slovenes are Austrians beyond any doubt. We have a lot of data testing to the effect that Slovenes in Carinthia identify more as Austrians than German speaking people do. The latter one tend more to identify regionally, as Carinthians. The same applies, by the way, also for the Burgenland-Croats compared to the German-speaking inhabitants of the Burgenland. – While up to 30 years ago speaking Slovene implied also some sort of allegiance to the Republic of Slovenia, nowadays this has changed almost completely. In fact, there are some ambivalences. Slovenia is an argument with the Carinthian Slovenes which is approached with a lot of hesitation.

The national minority has become an ethnic minority, a group with a sub-national consciousness whose primary loyalty goes surely to the nation. National, in this sense, means the longing for a political (juridical) personality of its own. National identity means an ambition for at least a shadow of sovereignty. Ethnic identification, on the other hand, means accepting the nation, even if it is dominated by another language. Carinthian Slovenes are an ethnic minority who feels entitled to some additional rights in the context of the Austrian nation and state. But they are proud to be part of the Austrian nation.

This must be considered an unstable midway situation. Especially the younger ones ask ever more insistently if it is worthwhile to engage in ethnic aims and to accepted that this means also additional costs. The most common attitude among them is: To learn Slovene well simply does not pay! Language choice, thus, becomes a rational-choice-matter (cf. F. Grin). Only in most recent times younger people become aware that skills in Slovene, as any other linguistic skills, will be advantages for them also in an economic perspective. This may well contribute to – if not: preserve, at least – slow down the loss of Slovene as a fully fledged language in the originally Slovene, and then bilinguals areas of Carinthia.

To come to an end: For most Slovenes the value of their primary language today is more of a symbolical nature than a pragmatic one. They stick to it, for they stick to their ethnic identity. However, the share of those for whom this applies is decreasing.

1 The investigation was funded by the Austrian Federal Chancellery, unit for ethnic groups within the section for constitutional problems. The Federal Ministry for Science and Technology promised to add some funds, but did Questionnaires containing a box "skills in Slovene ", and the calculated absolute number of the persons in the different Carinthian districts, September 1999

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