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Why the Slovak Language Has Three Dialects: A Case Study in Historical Perceptual Dialectology

  • Alexander Maxwell (a1)


Linguists have long been aware that the ubiquitous distinction between “languages” and “dialects” has more to do with political and social forces, typically nationalism, than with objective linguistic distance.1 This article, an exercise in the history of (linguistic) science, examines political and social factors operating on other levels of linguistic classification than the “language-dialect” dichotomy. Nationalism and linguistic thought are mutually interactive throughout a linguistic classification system: political and social history not only affects a list of “languages,” but also a list of “dialects.”



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1 Heinz, Kloss, “Abstandsprache und Ausbausprache,” in Sociolinguistics/Soziolinguistik, ed. Ulrich, Ammon, Norbert, Dittmar, and Klaus, Mattheier, 2 vols. (Berlin, 1987), 1:302–7; Hudson, R. A., Sociolinguistics (Cambridge, 1980), 3136; Peter, Trudgill, Sociolinguistics: An Introduction to Language and Society (London, 1995), 45; Ulrich, Ammon, “Language–Variety/Standard Variety–lDialect,” in Sociolinguistics/Soziolinguistik, ed. Ammon, Dittmar, and Mattheier, , 1:316–34.

2 Joshua, Fishman, The Rise and Fall of the Ethnic Revival (Amsterdam, 1985), 77.

3 P., Selver, Anthology of Modern Slavonic Literature in Prose and Verse(London, 1919), x.

4 Endre, Arató, “The Slavic Thought: Its Varieties with the Slavonic Peoples in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century,” in Acta Historica Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 22 (1976): 74.

5 Dubrovsky's languages were Bohemian, Slovak, Croatian, Slovene, “Serbian (Illyrian),” Russian, Polish, Upper Sorbian, Lower Sorbian, Slovene, and Old Church Slavonic. Perhaps Selver decided that Old Church Slavonic did not count since it is no longer spoken? See Joseph, Dobrovský, Lehrgebaeude der boehmischen Sprache (Prague, 1819), 45.

6 Noam, Chomsky, Knowledge of Language: Its Nature, Origin, and Use (New York, 1986), 15, says that the quote is “attributed to Max Weinreich,” but scholars have had difficulty finding a citation from Weinreich himself. Joshua, Fishman cites “Der yivo un di problemen fun undzer tsayt,” in Yivo-bleter, 25.1.13, 1945 (Mendele list, 28 10 1996). Yiddish-speaker Victor Friedman, suspecting that the quote is apocryphal, reports that some Scandinavian scholars attribute the quotation to Otto, Jespersen; see his “Language in Macedonia as an Identity Construction Site,” in When Languages Collide: Perspectives on Language Conflict, Language Competition, and Language Coexistence, ed.Joseph, B.D. et al. (Columbus, 2002), 260. I am unable to find a proper citation either way. See “Sum: Weinreich quote,” and “Disc: Army and Navy Quote” in LINGUIST List (2 and 9 March 1997), available at–306.html and http://www.linguistlist.Org/issues/8/8–340.html, respectively (accessed on 2 March 2005).

7 Benedict, Anderson, Imagined Communities (London, 1987), 4548, 78.

8 Miroslav, Hroch, “The Social Interpretation of Linguistic Demands in European National Movements,” European University Institute Working Paper, EUF no. 94/1 (Florence, 1994), 1217.

9 Einar, Haugen, Language Conflict and Language Planning: The Case of Modern Norwegian (Cambridge, MA, 1966).

10 Einar, Haugen, “Language Planning,” in Sociolinguistics/Soziolinguistik, ed. Ammon, Dittmar, and Mattheier, , 1:624.Hudson, , Sociolinguistics, 33.

11 Dennis, Preston, “Folk Dialectology,” in American Dialect Research, ed. Dennis, Preston (Amsterdam, 1993),333–77; Dennis, Preston and Nancy, Niedzielski, Folk Linguistics (Berlin, 2000), 333–77.

12 Preston, , “Folk Dialectology,” 333–34.

13 Ammon, , “Language–Variety/Standard Variety–Dialect,” 320.

14 See Jozef, Štole, Atlas slovenského jazyka [Atlas of the Slovak language] (Bratislava, 1986); Jaromír, Bělič, Nástin české dialektologie [Outline of Czech dialectology] (Prague, 1972); Anton, Habovštiak, Atlas slovenského jayzka [Atlas of the Slovak language] (Bratislava, 1984). Another forty-one maps comparing west Slovak isoglosses to rivers, political borders, and mountain watersheds can be found in Václav, Vážný, “Nářečí slovenská” [Slovak dialects], in Československá vlastiveda [Czechoslovak homeland studies], ed. Václav, Dedina (Prague, 1934), 3:234, 252, 266, 272, 282.

15 Chambers, J. K. and Peter, Trudgill, Dialectology, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, 1998), 93.

16 Bělič, Nástin české diakktologie.

17 Miroslav, Štěpánek, ed., Malá československá encyclopedie [Small Czechoslovak encyclopedia] (Prague, 1987), 695; de Bray, R. G. A., Guide to the West Slavonic Languages, 3rd ed. (Chelsea, 1951), 146–48; David, Short, “Slovak,” in The Slavonic Languages, ed. Bernard, Comrie and Greville, Corbett (London, 1993), 588–89; Voegelin, C. F. and Voegelin, F. M., Classification and Index of the World's Languages (New York, 1977), 311–14; Vážný, “Nařečí slovenská,” 223.

18 Ľubomir, Ďurovič, “Slovak,” in The Slavic Literary Languages: Formation and Development, ed. Alexander, Schanker and Edward, Stankiewicz (New Haven, 1980), 211–28; Lauersdorf, Mark, The Question of ‘Cultural Language’ and Interdialectical Norm in 16th Century Slovakia: A Phonological Analysis of the 16th Century Slovak Administrative-Legal Texts (Munich, 1996).

19 Rudolf, Krajčovič, Svedectvo dejín o slovenčine [History's evidence about Slovak] (Martin, 1997), 252; Rudolf, Krajčovič and Pavol, Žigo, Príručka k dejinám spisovnej slovenčiny [Handbook for the history of written Slovak] (Bratislava: 1999), 93101.

20 Štolc, , Atlas slovenského jazyka, frontispiece.

21 Ivor, Ripka, ed., Slovník slovenských nárečí [Dictionary of Slovak dialects] (Bratislava, 1994), 505.

22 Anonymous, , Neue und Kurze Beschreibung des Koenigreichs Ungarn (Nüremburg, 1664), 21, 15.

23 Grellman, , Statistische Aufklärungen über Wichtige Theile und Gegenstände der österreichischen Monarchie (Göttingen, 1795), 1:380.

24 Grellman may very well have seen Czech and Moravian as separate languages, but it is difficult to see how this would affect the classification of Slavs living in Hungary. Alternatively, Grellmen might have seen Slovaks as “Moravians” and referred to a community of immigrants when speaking of “Czechs.” Either way, this divides Slovaks into two categories.

25 Therese, Pulszky, Aus dem Tagebuche einer Ungarischen Dame, 2 vols. (Leipzig, 1850), 1:8486, 91.

26 A few nineteenth-century Slovaks counted the Ruthenians of Transcarpathia as Slovaks. Today the main dispute is whether the Rusyns in the Slovak Republic should be classified as Ukrainians or as an independent nation. See Johann, Thomášek (writing under the pen name Thomas Világosváry), Der Sprachkampf in Ungarn (Zagreb,1841), 32; Ján, Moravčik, Pešťbudínské Vedemosti [Budapest news] 1, no. 2 (20 March 1861). On modern Rusyn as a distinct language, see Paul Robert, Magocsi, A New Slavic Language is Born: The Rusyn Literary Language of Slovakia (New York, 1996).

27 See especially Robert, Pynsent, Questions of Identity: Czech and Slovak Ideas of Nationality and Personality (Budapest, 1994), 46; Theodore, Locher, Die Nationale Differenzierung und Integrierung der Slovaken und Tschechen in ihrem Geschichtlichen Verlauf bis 1848 (Haarlem, 1931).

28 Many readers may prefer the more familiar term Pan-Slav to All-Slav, but I believe that the former has come to imply Russian political domination on the model of Hitlerian Pan-Germanism. I suggest that “All-Slavism” better captures the idea that all Slavs belong to a single nationality for contemporary readers. Kollár himself, however, felt perfectly comfortable with the term Panslav, a word he used in the sense intended by Ján Herkel, the Protestant pastor who originally coined the word.Herkel, defined it as “the unity in literature among all Slavs.” Emphasis in original. Ján Herkel (Joanne Herkel), Elementa Universalis Linguae Slavicae (Buda, 1826), 4.

29 Ján, Kollár, Hlasowé o potřebě jednoty spisowného jazyka pro Čechy, Morawany a Slowčky [Voices about the need for a unified literary language for Czechs, Moravians and Slovaks] (Prague, 1844), 102–4.

30 David, Short, “The Use and Abuse of the Language Argument in Mid-nineteenth Century ‘Czechoslovakism,’ An Appraisal of a Propaganda Milestone,” in The Literature of Nationalism: Essays on East European Identity, ed. Robert, Pynsent (London, 1996), 54.

31 Pawel Josef, Šafařík (Pavel Jozef Šafárik), Pjsně swětské Lidu slawenského u Uhrách [Secular songs of the Slavic people in Hungary] (Pest, 1827), 164. The word Slovák was used to mean both “Slovak” and “Slav” in the early nineteenth century. Ibid..

32 In the nineteenth century, this city had several names: Pozsony, Pressburg, Prešpork, and Prešporok. Some Anglophone historians prefer Pressburg when referring to the pre-Czechoslovak period. My use of the name Bratislava in this article is anachronistic: routine Slovak usage of this name dates back only to 1919, though variants of the name Bratislav date back to Šafárik's Slovansé starožitnosti. The various national claims to the city are, however, beyond the scope of this article, so I have decided to use the name that readers would be able to find in a current atlas. See Peter, Bugge, “The Making of a Slovak City: The Czechoslovak Renaming of Pressburg/Pozsony/PreSporok, 1918–1919,” Austrian History Yearbook 35 (2004): 205–27.

33 “New Slovak” was new because Ľudovít Štúr had recently codified a literary language based on it. Hodžca, M. M., Dobruo slovo Slovákom [A good word with a Slovak] (Levoia, 1847), 91. See also Vážný, “Nařečí slovenská,” 223.

34 Quoted from Imrich, Kotvan, Bernolákovské polemiky [Bernolák's polemics] (Bratislava, 1966), 33.

35 Kollár, , Hlasowé, 89.

36 Ibid., 199.

37 Joshua, Fishman, “Languages Late to Literacy: Finding a Place in the Sun on a Crowded Beach,” in When Languages Collide, ed. Joseph, et al. , 101.

38 I believe that the terms Czech and Biblical Czech are misleading and analytically harmful, since they imply that authors who wrote texts in this standard had some sort of Czech consciousness, whether national or linguistic. The many contributors to Hlasowé, the most influential Slovak defense of Bibličtina, variously described the script as “the Biblical language,” “our beautiful pure Biblical Slovak,” “Czech,” “Slavo-Bohemian,” “the Czechoslovak dialect,” “the Biblical or Czechoslovak language,” and “the Czechoslovak Biblical language … the true language of our forefathers.” This diversity of terminology suggests that Slovaks of many national affiliations-Slovak, Czechoslovak, and Czech-used this script. Bibličtina makes a neutral analytical term. See Kollár, Hlasowé, 184, 190, 7,90,112, 222, 197; respectively, A. W. Šembera's 26 February 1846 letter to Kollár, Jan Stehlo, Matej Bel's 1746 introduction to Doležal's grammar, Jonáš Záborsk's 1845 letter to K. Fejerpataky, Kollár's českoslowenské jednotě w řeči a w literatuře, Jiři Sekčik, Michal Linder.

39 Daniel, Lichard, Rozhowor o Memorandum naroda slowenského [Discussion of the Slovak Memorandum] (Buda,1861), 2021.

40 Gilbert, Oddo, Slovakia (New York, 1960), 102–3; Michal, Šebik, Stručné dejiny Slovákov [A brief history of the Slovaks] (Pittsburgh, 1940), 61; Josef M., Kirschbaum, Anton Bernolák: The First Codifier of the Slovak Language (1762–1812) (Cleveland, 1962).

41 Peter, Petro, A History of Slovak Literature (Montreal, 1995), 67; Dušan, Kováč, “Die Geschichte des Tschechoslowakismus,” Ethnos-Nation 1, no. 1 (1993): 2332. Available online at

42 Note that the Hungarus concept was class inclusive, while the natio Hungarica was restricted to Hungary's nobility. On Bernolak's Hungarism, see Daniel, Rapant, Maďarónstvo Bernoldkovo [Bernoláks Magyaronism] (Bratislava, 1930), 13; Ludwig, Gogolák, Beiträge zur Geschichte des slowakischen Volkes, vol. 1, Die Nationswerdern der Slowaken und die Anjange der tschechoslowakischen Frage (1526–1790) (Munich, 1963), 215. On the Hungarus concept generally, see Moritz, Csáky, “Die Hungarus-Konzeption: eine ‘realpolitische’ Alternative zur magyarischen Nationalstaatsidee?” in Ungarn und Österreich unter Maria Theresia und Joseph II, ed.Adam, Wandruszka (Vienna, 1982). On Slovak versions of the Hungarus concept, see Alexander, Maxwell, “Hungaro-Slavism: Territorial and National Identity in Nineteenth-Century Slovakia,” East Central Europe/ľEurope du Centre-Est 29, no. 1 (2002): 4558.

43 Anton, Bernolák, Dissertatio Philologico-Critica de Literis Slavorum, translated into Slovak by Juraj Pavelek (Bratislava, 1964 [1787]); 22.

44 Ľubomir Ďurovič dated the term Slovák to 1485; Theodore Locher suggests it may have originally been a term of abuse. Bernoláks 1825 dictionary gives the word Slowák two main meanings: “ein Slave, Slavack, tóth” and “ein Slavonier (schlavonier), Tóth, Horvath.” In other words, Bernolák includes ethnonyms whose modern meanings include “Slovak,” “Slav,” “Slavonian,” and “Croat,” but no unambiguously “Slovak” meaning. The terms Slovak and Slav, as well as Slovene, and Slavonian, share the same root; their common origin is clear in the modern Slovak terms slovenský, slovanský, slovinský, and slavonský. The distinction between them remained ambiguous until the 1840s. In 1845, for example, Michael Godra quoted a text claiming that “Slavjaňi or slovaňja and Slavjanki or Slovanki [live] from the wide sea to Kamchatka, Slavonci and Slavonki in Slavonia, Slovenci and Slovenki in the area around Triglav [i.e., in Slovenia], Slováci and Slováčki from the Tatras to the Danube,” and then disagreed, proclaiming that “near Triglav live the slovenci and slovenki, but they normally call themselves slovinci and slovinki, and in the Tatras … live Slováci and slovenki” Jozef Ambruš, after, discussing difficulties of this sort, correctly concluded that scholars “have not paid enough attention to the coherent, expressions slávsky, slovenský, Slovensko, Slovenčina See Durovid, , “Slovak,” 211; Locher, , Nationale Differenzierung und Integrierung, 86; Anton, Bernolák, Slowár Slowenská= Česko= Laťinsko= Německo= Uherski seu Lexicon Slavicum [Slovak-Czech-Latin-German-Hungarian dictionary], vol. 4 (Buda, 1825), 3010; Michal, Godra, “Voňavje Ďordínki” [Fragrant Georgina], Orol tatranský [Eagle of the Tatras] 1, no. 12 (1845): 95; Jozef, Ambruš, “Die Slawische Idee bei Ján Hollý,” in Ľudovít Štúr und die Slawische Wechselseitigkeit, ed. Ľudovit, Holotik (Bratislava, 1969).

45 Bernolák, . Dissertatio, 2223. On the Slovak Learned Society, see Jozef, Butvin, Slovenské národno-zjednocovacie hnutie (1780–1848) [The movement for Slovak national unity] (Bratislava, 1965).

46 James Ramon, Felak, “At the Price of the Republic”: Hlinka's Slovak People's Party, 1929–1938 (Pittsburgh, 1994), 5; the final quotation is from Peter, Brock, The Slovak National Awakening: An Essay in the Intellectual History of East Central Europe (Toronto, 1976), 13.

47 Note that Mikus erased Hattala from his narrative. Joseph, Mikus, Slovakia and the Slovaks (Washington, DC, 1977), 76.

48 Krajčovič, , Svedectvo dejín o slovenčine, 205.

49 Kotvan, , Bibliografia Bernolákovcov. These figures were gathered by the author and should be treated as approximations.

50 Peter, Brock, The Slovak National Awakening: An Essay in the Intellectual History of East Central Europe (Toronto, 1976), 45.

51 Locher, , Nationale Differenzierung und Integrierung, 163–64.

52 John, DeFrancis, The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy (Honolulu, 1984), 255.

53 The Tatras have become the main geographical symbol of Slovakia. Ladislas Sziklay even speaks of Slovakš “Tatrologia” and dates “the mystic cult of the Tatras” at least back to Hollý. Gogolák, however, claims that the Tatra myth originated with the Zips Germans and was only introduced to Slovak poetry through Palkovičs writings. Gogolák credits Štúr with “recoining the Tatra idea to a concept of Slovak independence opposed to both Magyars and Czechs.” See Ladislas, Sziklay, Hviezdoslav (Budapest, 1941), 24; Gogolák, , Beiträge zur Geschichte des Slowakischen Volkes, 2:46.

54 Hodža reproduced an example of Calvinist “Hungaro-Polish-Slavic” in his Epigenes Slovenicus. Its conventions were used mostly in Calvinist liturgical works printed in Debrecen; its orthography shows a marked Hungarian influence, notably {cs} in place of /tJ/ {č}, {s} for /J/ {ˇ} and {sz} for /s/ {s}.Hodža, M. M., Epigenes Slovenicus [Slavic descendants] (Levoča, 1847), 63.A sample text in a similar orthography, described as “Eastern Slovak,” is available in Krajčovič and Žigo, Príručka k dejinám spisovnej slovenčiny, 102–3.

55 Vladimir, Matula, “The Conception and the Development of Slovak National Culture in the Period of National RevivalStudia historica slovaca [Studies in Slovak history] 17 (1990): 153.

56 Ľudovít, Štúr, Beschwerden und Klagen der Slaven in Ungarn über die gesetzwidrigen Uebergriffe der Magyaren (Leipzig, 1843), 35.

57 Štúřs Slavic and Slovak loyalties are difficult to distinguish. Sometimes, Štúřs Slovak feeling predominates: “We are Slovaks and as Slovaks we stand before the world and before Slavdom.” Elsewhere, Štúř suggested that Slovak feeling merely serves Slavdom: “If the Slovak language did not exist, then my capacity for Slavdom would also not stand, and that would be to despair. One supports the other.”Ľudovit, Štúř, Náreˇja slovenskuo alebo potreba písaňje v tomto nárečje [The Slovak dialect, or the necessity of writing in this dialect] (Bratislava, 1846) 13, 79; Samuel, Cambel, ed. Dejiny Slovenska [History of Slovakia], vol. 2 (Bratislava, 1987), 719.

58 Štúr, , Nárečja slovenskuo, 51.

59 Emil, Horák, “Štúrov spis Nárečja slovenskuo alebo potreba písaňja v tomto nárečí v aktuálnom slovanskom kontexte” [Štúr's essay Nárečja slovenskuo alebo potreba písaňja v tomto náreči in the Slovak context of its day], Slavica Slovaca [Slavic Slovak] 38, no. 2 (2003): 97.

60 Štúřs original text reads, “Mi slováci sme kmen a jako kmen máme vlastnuo nárečja, ktoruo je od českjeho odchodnuo a rozdjelno.” Cambel gave this as “Slováci sú osobitný národ a ako národ majú svoj vlastný jazyk (v dobovej terminólogii „Kmen” a „nárečie”).” Compare Štúr, , “Nárečja slovenskuo,” 51; and Cambel, , ed., Dejiny Slovenska, 721.

61 Emphasis added. Brock, The Slovak National Awakening, 48, 80.

62 Ján, Kollár (Johann Kollár), Ueber die Wechselseitigkeit zwischen den verschiedenen Stdmmen und Mundarten der slawischen Nation (Leipzig, 1844 [1837]).

63 Štúr, , Nárečja slovenskuo, 13.

64 Jozef Miroslav, Hurban, Českje hlasi proti Slovenčiňe [Czech voices against Slovak] (Skalice, 1846), 26.

65 See Sugar, Peter F., “The More It Changes, the More Hungarian Nationalism Remains the Same,” Austrian History Yearbook 31 (2000): 127–56.

66 Quoted from Pražák, “Slovenská otázka v dobé J. M. Hurbana” [The Slovak Question in the age of J. M. Hurban],530/202. Hurban's motives are the subject of debate among Slovak historians. Pražák interpreted it as Czechoslovakism, Francisci as a demonstration against Kálmán Tisza, Skultéty as the result of “anger,” and Zechenter as a gambit for Czech support in the struggle against Magyarization. Most of these explanations are compatible with each other. On Slovak attitudes toward Hurban's transformation, see Samuel, Osudský, Filosofia Štúrovov [The philosophy of the Sturites], vol. 2, Hurbanova Filosofia [Hurban's philosophy] (Myjava, 1928), 320.

67 Štúr was unable to find a Slovak publisher and felt his work would reach a wideaudience in a more established script. Note that even when Štúr discussed Slovak folk songs, he did not use his version of Slovak spelling; his quotations followed Hattala's standardization. While Hattala based his work on Štúřs codification, it would be a mistake to equate Hattala's Slovak with Śtúřs Slovak.Zlatko, Klátík, Štúrovci a Juhoslovania [The Štúrítes and South Slavia] (Bratislava, 1965),34; Ľudevit, Štúr, O národních pisních a pověstech piemen slovanských [On the national songs and legends of the Slavic tribes] (Prague, 1852), 24.

68 In English, see Paul, Vyšný, Neo-Slavism and the Czechs, 1898–1914 (Cambridge, 1977); Suzanna, Mikula, “Milan Hodža and the Slovak National Movement, 1898–1918” (PhD diss., Syracuse University, 1974).

69 The biggest problem was Štúrs use of {j} for diphthongs. Bibličtina, Bernolákovcina, modern Czech, and modern Slovak all have a rule allowing the palatalized consonants {ď} {ň} {ť} to be written as unpalatalized {d} {n} {t} when followed by the letter {i}; {i] self-evidently palatalizes the preceding consonant. Štúřs preference for {j} thus led to great confusion over the palatalization of consonants. Štúr himself spelled the modern Slovak nie (no, not) as both nje and ňje, though Štúr was consistent about the {ď} in ďjela.

70 No original titles appeared in Bernolákovčina after 1851, but Bernolákovčina catechisms were reprinted as late as 1867. Parishioner demand, apparently, did not always follow the guidance of Catholic leaders. See Kotvan, Bibliografia Bernolákovcov.

71 Ammon parenthetically defines such authorities as “teachers, administrative superiors.” However, the term applies just as well to journalists, literati, and similar cultural figures. Ammon, “Language-Variety/Standard Variety-Dialect,” 328–29.

72 Samo, Czambel, Príspevky k dejinám jazyka slovenského [Contributions to the history of the Slovak language] (Budapest, 1887), 69.

73 Tibor, Pichler, “1848 und das slowakische politische Denken,” in 1848 Revolution in Europa, ed. Heiner, Timmermann (Berlin, 1999), 167; Pichler, , “The Idea of Slovak Language-Based Nationalism,” in Language, Values and the Slovak Nation, ed. Tibor, Pichler and Jana, Gašparíková (Washington, DC, 1994), 37.

74 Hugh, Seton-Watson, Nations and States: An Enquiry into the Origins of Nations and the Politics of Nationalism (London, 1977), 169.

75 Bělič, Nástin české dialektologie, 16; Ďurovič, “Slovak,” 211; emphasis added.

76 Habovštiak, Atlas slovenského jayzka.

77 Josef, Kirschbaum, Slovakia: Nation at the Crossroads of Central Europe (New York, 1960), 49.

Why the Slovak Language Has Three Dialects: A Case Study in Historical Perceptual Dialectology

  • Alexander Maxwell (a1)


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