the Slovenian
glasilo magazine
radio glas
info centre
who we are

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" published by
Slovenska izseljenska matica.)