The Slovene Language in Carinthia:
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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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