Today, June 4th, 2021, is the 101st anniversary of the Treat of Trianon. The consequence of the “Dictated Peace” was the dismemberment of the Kingdom of Hungary, supposedly to create nation states founded on the principle of self-determination. The reality ended up being quite different from this envisioned Wilsonian utopia, instead, the following decades brought xenophobia, conflict, and ethnic cleansing to the Carpathian Basin. In this article, we will take a look at one of the modern, indirect consequences of this nationalism: the practice of using an official language as a tool to discriminate against national minorities.
Many of the successor states of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (and the Kingdom of Hungary within it) used 1920 as a launchpad for their nation-building projects. They wrote constitutions, came up with national myths and historical narratives, both to justify and exploit the territorial changes that followed the First World War.
One area, that is extremely relevant in the 21st century is language. It is a fundamental tool of human society, for obvious reasons, without language we would not be able to communicate. But language is much more than a tool, it is a vehicle for culture as well. Each language has a myriad of different expressions, translators know very well that it is often difficult to translate the exact meaning of a sentence due to cultural peculiarities. No matter how well someone translates “It ain’t over ‘till the fat lady sings” into other languages, it will not make any sense unless you know the culture behind the proverb. As a vehicle for culture, language is also an integral part of ethnic identity.
My motivation to write this article specifically about language came from an experience I had online. While reading the comments under a Facebook post by an ethnic Hungarian mayor of a municipality in Romania, I noticed that many Romanians took great offence to the mayor putting his message in Hungarian first and Romanian second. The municipality in question is roughly evenly split between Romanians and Hungarians, although the current demographic situation is the product of decades of assimilatory policies by successive Romanian governments. Ironically, these individuals were experiencing something that many national minorities experience every day: that it is very disturbing when you feel like your culture is in second place. It is also important to mention that municipal politicians belonging to national minorities are generally the most willing to communicate in multiple languages, while those belonging to the majority often completely ignore minority languages.
Many post-Soviet states in Eastern Europe like to use the concept of a national or official language as a tool in their nation-building projects. More specifically, countries with significant national minority populations often use an official language as a tool to oppress these minorities. In Slovakia, for example, a language law was passed in 1995 with the following preamble: “be it resolved the fact that the Slovak language is the most important feature of distinctiveness of the Slovak nation, the most esteemed value of its cultural heritage and an articulation of sovereignty of the Slovak Republic”. This law has been amended multiple times since then, even causing a major diplomatic spat between Hungary and Slovakia in 2009 when an amendment made it a punishable offence to speak a minority language instead of Slovak in public administration.
Why do countries do this?
By establishing a single language as “official”, the majority population asserts its domination over national minorities. It creates a sort of second-class citizenship for national minorities, because they speak a different language.
Associating one language with the nation as a whole, with public administration, etc. serves the purpose of establishing the language of the majority as the expected language of all citizens.
But there is no normative justification for this. Why should an individual belonging to a national minority, whose family has lived in the same region for hundreds of years, have their language reduced in importance? What right does the majority population have to force their language upon national minorities?
At the end of the day, it comes down to the tyranny of the majority being used to create a unified nation state where one does not exist.
And the excuse that there “has to be” an official language is not acceptable, there are many countries in Europe, such as Finland or Belgium, where the languages of national minorities are given equal treatment. If 78,000 Germans in Belgium, making up less then 1% of the population, can have German as an official language, then 500,000 Hungarians, making up nearly 10% of Slovakia’s population, definitely deserve to have their language treated equally. The same goes for the 1.2 million strong Hungarian population in Romania, and the 150,000 Hungarians in Ukraine.
Featured photo illustration by János Nemes/MTI