Tuesday, April 5, 2022


by Riley Masterson

Riley Masterson is a senior in Global Studies and French at the University of Illinois. Riley's future plans include attending law school and working in the legal field. She wrote this blog post in 418 'Language and Minorities in Europe' in Fall 2021.

"Bratislava Castle from across Danube River."
Author: Hans Permana
Source: Flickr
License: CC BY-NC 2.0

The image above shows Bratislava Castle on the banks of the Danube River in Slovakia. Not far downstream, the Danube forms the natural border between Slovakia and Hungary. Despite their proximity, Slovakia and Hungary have significant cultural and linguistic differences. These differences became a point of contention in 2009, when Slovakia amended its State Language Law (SLL) (NBC News, 2009). Slovak is cited as the “state language” of the Republic of Slovakia in Article 6 of the Constitution (Fiala and Wardyn, 2009). While Slovak may be far from a global lingua franca, or even a working language within the EU, it does enjoy dominance within the borders of Slovakia. However, like every country, Slovakia is home to minority languages. The most notable minority language is Hungarian, with estimates finding that about 10% of Slovakia’s population speaks Hungarian. Speakers are concentrated along the southern border of Slovakia, as shown in the map below. Yet 2009’s SLL created a limit on the legal use of minority languages like Hungarian within Slovakia (Schöpflin 2009).

“Distribution of Hungarian Language in Europe.”

Author: Mutichou
License: GNU Free Documentation License

The SLL applied to the Slovak government and its employees, upholding a rule in which the government must use Slovak in official communications. The Law went a step further, requiring employees including firemen, policemen, mailmen, and transportation employees, as well as the people they interact with, to use Slovak. There was an exception if the communication took place in an area with minority language-speakers making up over 20% of that area’s population. Another exception was if the person interacting with a public servant did not speak Slovak. Similarly, a court interpreter could be used if the person involved did not understand Slovak (Fiala and Wardyn, 2009).

The requirement for many other mediums of communication was that if a minority language is used, Slovak must be used as well. Official paperwork often had to be kept in both the original language and Slovak. All foreign television and radio programs had to be dubbed into Slovak or include subtitles. Unless a patient did not understand Slovak, or the hospital was in a minority area, healthcare must be provided in Slovak. Another strange manifestation of the law is the requirement that inscriptions on symbolic displays, such as monuments, be in Slovak. If they were in a minority language, the inscriptions must be the same size or smaller than the writing in Slovak. The government allowed one year to change the inscriptions. (Fiala and Wardyn, 2009).

In addition to laws that are difficult to navigate, the SLL included fines for violators. The details of the fines were not specified in the text of the law, meaning people may not have known the risks if they spoke a minority language (Fiala and Wardyn, 2009).

The SLL was met with vehement opposition by the Hungarian population within Slovakia, but also by Hungarians across the Danube. Hungarians became advocates for the minority Hungarian population within Slovakia. The Slovak Most-Híd party, which mainly draws support from Hungarians within Slovakia, advocated strongly against the law as a limit on the rights of minorities. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) became embroiled in the conflict, with the High Commissioner on National Minorities, Knut Vollebæk, travelling to Slovakia and attempting to reform the law (The OSCE, 2010).

Another key player was the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (ECRML). Hungarians within Slovakia are protected by the ECRML, which came into force in Slovakia in 2002. The Committee of Experts, which works on behalf of the ECRML, spoke out against the 20% rule of the SLL, citing the ECRML and the fact that major minority populations within Slovakia are not protected, but endangered, by the law. Specifically, the Committee believed the 20% cutoff was arbitrary and ineffective at protecting the rights of minorities, including not just Hungarians but also Croats and Germans. The Committee criticized the law in its reports, urging Slovak authorities to make significant changes. In direct opposition to the findings of the Committee, Slovakia responded that the 20% rule was “adequate” and did not violate any rights (Fiala and Wardyn, 2009).

The SLL was ultimately heavily amended in 2010 under a new government. The law became much more palatable for Hungarians and other minorities in Slovakia, with interference in the “private sphere” being greatly reduced. Many workers, such as transportation employees and mailmen, no longer need to use Slovak. Some requirements for paperwork being kept in both a minority language and Slovak were also eliminated. To the dismay of Hungarian lawmakers and regular Hungarians in Slovakia, fines are still possible for breaking the law, but in much fewer circumstances and with more defined amounts (Terenzani, 2010).

Despite the law remaining in place, the SLL lost its bite. This law was clearly a barrier to the maintenance of minority languages within Slovakia’s borders. Under the guise of national unity and preservation of the Slovak language, Slovak lawmakers created an oppressive environment in which people weren’t free to speak their native language. Although within Hungary, Croatia, and Germany, there are plenty of speakers of each respective language, Slovakia still has a duty under the ECRML and EU law to preserve, not endanger, minority languages within its borders.


NBC News. “New language law in Slovakia sparks tensions.” (September 16, 2009). https://www.nbcnews.com/id/wbna32881272

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. “OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities issues statement on Slovakia’s language law.” (January 4, 2010). https://www.osce.org/hcnm/51811

Schöplfin, György. “The Slovak language law is discriminatory and restrictive.” (July 10, 2009). EU Observer. https://euobserver.com/opinion/28440

Terenzani, Michaela. “Language Act takes a ‘less bad’ form.” (December 20, 2010). The Slovak Spectator. https://spectator.sme.sk/c/20038422/language-act-takes-a-less-bad-form.html

Wardyn, Lukasz and Fiala, Jan, “The 2009 Amendment of the Slovakian State Language Law and Its Impact on Minority Rights” (June 1, 2010). Polish Yearbook of International Law, Vol. 29 (2009), pp. 153-173, https://ssrn.com/abstract=2173982


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