This Language of Ours
by Milan Vogel
Translated by Manja Maksimovic
July the 15th, the day of the last full session of the Slovene
Parliament before the elections, will be written in history
as the day when Parliament at long last passed the Bill on Public
Use of the Slovene Language. It took seven proverbial years
to railroad it through the legislature. There was a considerate
polarity among the experts as to whether such a law is necessary
at all. The experts did not disagree merely on professional
issues; they also stood on opposite (political) sides.
Janez Dular, who introduced the bill into Parliament in 1997
as the then-Minister of Culture, says: "I believe that
existing relations among linguistic experts are more a reflection
of partly inherited personal conflicts and antipathies than
of deeper professional and political contradictions. It is alarming
if experts cannot rise to the occasion in this important historical
moment on account of their personal liaisons. Interestingly,
in the election year, no political party wishes to be seen as
an ‘enemy’ of the Slovene language, so the bill
has been signed by representatives of all parliamentary parties."
The variant of the bill, which Parliament eventually passed
almost unanimously (only the Italian minority representative
voted against it), is shorter than the one which was first suggested
by Dular. It was shortened after economists disapproved that
companies should carry exclusively Slovene names, and after
experts in higher education disagreed with the proposal to abolish
the use of foreign languages in university education. Yet the
law is here to stay, and all doubts aside, it is better than
no law at all.
Protection Requires Money
Rather than worrying over legal protection of the Slovene language
and its use, linguistic experts have been striving to get more
state support for the all-round development of the language
and making appeals to the consciences of language users. The
former is a long-lasting process, however, and as for linguistic
consciousness – its present state can be observed daily
on the streets and in the media. It seems that it is human nature
to try to evade written as well as unwritten laws.
Even though working conditions in major Slovene linguistic institutions
(The Department for Slovene Language and Literature at the Faculty
of Arts, The Fran Ramovš Institute of Slovene Language
at the Slovene Academy of Sciences and Arts etc.) are indeed
almost unbearable as they are chronically short of money, this
must not be the only reason why Slovenes still lack some of
the fundamental linguistic works, indispensable for the all-round
use of the Slovene language. Hence the importance of some of
the bill's provisions such as: that it is the Ministry of Culture
which is responsible for the implementation of the law, the
formation of linguistic policy and its enforcement; that a coordinating
advisory governmental body should be formed which is to see
that bills and regulations conform with the new law, and that
Parliament is to adopt a government-proposed national programme
on linguistic policy for the next five years along with securing
the necessary funds and means of its implementation.
One finds it hard to agree fully with the notion that the Slovene
language is not threatened and even harder to accept the belief
that there is no need to protect it by law. When Slovenia was
declared independent Slovene was institutionalised as the national
language, and when Slovenia entered the European Union Slovene
became one of the EU's official languages, which should guarantee
not only its survival but also its prosperity. Due to unfavourable
past experience, however, the fear that these circumstances
will not be used to their full potential and that we will eventually
succumb to English is also legitimate. It is true that in Brussels
all documents need to be translated into the official languages
of all Member States, but even here a paradox is looming: there
is a lack of properly trained translators for the Slovene language.
It is easy to imagine what the translations would look like
if done by foreigners after a quick course of Slovene (in Brussels
there are many who are very interested in the study of Slovene).
The Battle for Language Is Not Over Yet
The language of the bureaucracy in Slovenia is a story of its
own. The law on public use of the Slovene language should include
a stipulation that all official documents such as Acts, court
records etc. should be written in an understandable language.
In Italy several institutions work hard on the complexity of
the bureaucratic language and strive for its simplification,
although, unlike Slovene in Slovenia, Italian is not constitutionally
declared the national language of Italy. In the Swedish Ministry
of Jurisdiction there is a Group for Simple Swedish with the
task of promoting the use of pure and simple language in official
documents. It encourages similar governmental bodies across
Sweden to embark on the project of pure and simple official
communication in the Swedish language. This is not to say that
state officials are not expected to use the grand style which
can sometimes be found in literary translations, but we do have
a right to demand precision of expression.
It is ridiculous to maintain that in a hundred years' time or
later Slovene will no longer be spoken in Slovenia. It is bound
to be. The question is, however, what this Slovene will sound
like and on which levels it will be spoken. Foreign names of
bars and companies are indeed disturbing but they do not pose
the most serious threat to the Slovene language. The notorious
slang of the young, abounding with English words such as "full"
and "cool", is not music to most ears, yet every generation
has its own way of speaking which is outgrown and abandoned
in time. How many are there who still use the term "hausbal"
from our youth for an evening party? A number of words do get
sucked into the language daily, thus enriching this living organism.
A mother tongue is indeed an ethical and not an ethnic issue,
as the Austrian Ludwig Hartinger recently said. He has learned
Slovene perfectly because of the poet Srecko Kosovel and now
Slovene is enriching his mother tongue – German.
In my belief one of the major dangers of a curtailed development
of Slovene lies in the lack of foreign literary translations,
fiction, and especially non-fiction. There are sciences of all
kinds evolving with great speed and new ones are born all the
time. Each has its own scientific language containing a number
of brand new terms. If such literature is not translated and
new terms do not get Slovene equivalents, the Slovene language
will be worse off without them; it will automatically stay abandoned
on a lower level. And if the scientific language does not evolve
on all levels, neither does the highest form of thought. Should
the use of Slovene in public (in science, politics and all levels
of the school system) get frivolous treatment, the perception
of its value and importance will sink quickly. When people are
not thinking in literary Slovene any more but rather in a foreign
language, slang or dialect, which is gaining popularity in public
use, Slovene will indeed drop to the level of folklore. These
are the issues, however, which are not to be found in the new
law on the public use of the Slovene language.
(Content abstracted from "Slovenija.svet October 2004"