Last month, the proprietor of the excellent language blog bulbulovo began (part 1, part 2) a series of posts about the Slovník súčasného slovenského jazyka (SSSJ), “the first comprehensive (a.k.a. ‘large-sized’) dictionary of the Slovak language ever,” whose first volume has just been published. His latest post, though labeled as part of the SSSJ series, is actually a long and fascinating analysis of the history and current state of Standard Slovak, and what that phrase (and the Slovak sort-of-equivalent spisovná slovenčina) can be taken to mean. I’m going to resist the temptation to excerpt huge hunks of it, and just quote a bit dealing with the issue of prescriptivism:

You see, although the long war is finally over and we are finally independent (whatever that’s worth), some linguists still fight for the purity of Slovak not so much for linguistic reasons, but for political ones: borrowings from Czech are therefore shunned altogether, because /insert_history_lesson_here/. Latin roots and words, on the other hand, are OK even if we have perfectly good native words to use in their stead, because Latin does not carry any negative political connotations and is generally considered cool (see Geoffrey Pullum’s “Classicism”). Those same linguists fail to understand that, to use a metaphor, Slovak is no longer a proprietary project. It’s been open-sourced for at least 60 years. It’s a child that has grown up long ago and no longer needs protection. And yet, some still insist it wear a coat when going outside even in May and some others even try to forbid it to stay out after 10pm and date that cute tall kid that just moved in next door. People like that suffer from a dangerous delusion: they believe they can actually control a living thing like a language (and, for that matter, its speakers). To them, codification is not a completed process, but something they can repeat over and over again. Moreover, they detest any behavior they do not approve of and either try to pretend it does not exist, or, worse, claim that any action (words or phrases or usage) not conforming to their expectations is an aberration and should be swiftly and decidedly suppressed. And what’s worse, some people actually buy all of that crap…
[After quoting an absurd statement by professor Ábel Kráľ:] In other words, to hell with the speakers and their silly ideas of communication effectiveness and intelligibility! Who the hell do they think they are? Who died and made them the custodians of Slovak? Screw them, we have a system to maintain! They will eat what we cook and serve them and they will LIKE IT!
My friends, seldom have I heard a more fitting description of prescriptivism and no one has ever summed up the attitude of certain Slovak linguists to their language and her speakers better than this.

I hope this whets your appetite for the whole thing; it’s the best and most impassioned discussion of the concept of “correctness” in language and what’s wrong with it that I’ve read in a long time.


  1. Thanks for posting this! I’d come across the site before and Bulbul’s writing on prescriptivism (and everything else) is just great.

  2. I am curious as to the background of Slovak nationalism. My understanding is that the two languages (Czech and Slovak) are linguistically very similar — not much more than dialects in the larger scheme of things. What was the impetus that drove people to set up two separate standard languages?

  3. According to Wikipedia the Czech and Slovak languages originated independently, and Czech didn’t start to appear in Slovakia until the 14th century. In the 20th century, the establishment of Czechoslovakia influenced Slovak greatly. For instance, apparently most television broadcasts were in Czech rather than in Slovak.
    Consider my source and lack of expertise, but it does sound reasonable. When Wikipedia is good it can be pretty good, but when it’s bad it’s awful. The trick is to figure out when it’s good or bad if you don’t know something about the subject already.

  4. bathrobe and mwg,
    yeah, that’s pretty much it. First, Bohemia, Moravia and Czech Silesia (today’s Czech Republic) were more or less independent until 1517, while Slovakia was a part of the Kingdom of Hungary, hence the independent development which played a very important role in nation and language formation. Secondly, I suspect that the issue of religion has played a major role in the fateful nation(alism)-forming years: Slovakia has remained largely Catholic, while the reformation was more of a success in the Czech lands. Czech began to play a major role in Slovak intellectual life after 1620 when a large number of protestants were expelled from Bohemia and sought refuge in the more liberal kingdom of Hungary. But even then, Czech and Protestantism were actively fought by Catholics and especially Jesuits not just for religious reasons.
    It is true that Czech is linguistically similar to Slovak, but same is true of Polish and (some dialects of Eastern) Slovak or Ukrainian and (some other dialects of Eastern) Slovak. A veritable dialect continuum, that’s what this whole region is. So the question isn’t what drove people to set up two different standard languages, that is more or less a given considering the history and geography of both Czech lands and Slovakia. What is more interesting is how these two nations got together to form Czechoslovakia and what role the makeup of Slovak elites of that period played in that process (Protestants vs. Catholics, Central Slovakia vs. Eastern Slovakia).

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