Czech and Slovak: languages or dialects?
“A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.” This is the maxim often cited to explain the sometimes arbitrary distinctions between languages and dialects. So what about the case of Czech and Slovak, which are generally considered to be mutually intelligible? Were they always considered to be separate languages, even when Czechoslovakia was one country? And has anything changed linguistically since the nations went their separate ways politically?
Tomáš is a computer programmer from Košice, Slovakia, who has been living in Prague for 13 years. He first moved here at the age of 18 to go to university and says the language was never a problem for him to understand, and he was able to pick up how to speak it after about a year. However, he says his spoken Czech is far from perfect.
“There was a prime minister in Czechia called Babiš, who is a guy of Slovak origin who moved in and learnt to speak Czech. But whenever he got angry he switched back to Slovak, and now he doesn’t speak either language properly. And I think I’m quite similar to him in this regard. I do understand Czech 100%, but when I speak I don’t get the declinations right – which doesn’t prevent me from getting the point across, but people recognise it after the first sentence, that I’m not from here.”
He says that overall, he is still more comfortable speaking and writing in English than in Czech. And for his degree, that wasn’t a problem –– despite studying in Prague, he didn’t have to actively use Czech much during his studies.
“Since I studied theoretical computer science, most of the textbooks were in English anyway, so it wasn’t that problematic. And even with my Bachelor’s thesis, I wrote it in Slovak – Slovak is considered an official dialect of Czech so that’s why they allow it.”
Hold on a minute –– an official dialect of Czech? According to Tomáš, that’s what his professor really said. But is that true? Is Slovak really considered an “official dialect” of Czech, and does that mean it still enjoys any special privileges? And what about vice versa?
According to the Slovak Culture Ministry, Czech does have a kind of special status in Slovakia that other foreign languages don’t get:
“The Czech language is one of the languages of the officially recognized national minorities living in Slovakia. In addition, it also became a so-called “language meeting the requirement of general intelligibility from the point of view of the state language”, after the State Language Act came into force in 1995. No other language has such a terminological arrangement, so it can be said that the position of Czech in Slovakia is special.”
According to the State Language Act, which protects the status of Slovak as the official national language and requires Slovak to be used in many aspects of life, including media, courts, civil service and education, there are provisions allowing Czech to be used instead of Slovak in several cases. People whose mother tongue is Czech are allowed to use Czech in official communication on the territory of the Slovak Republic, and official public documents issued in the Czech Republic, such as contracts, land registry documents or educational certificates, do not need to be translated into Slovak. And there is more, says the spokesperson for the Slovak Culture Ministry:
“Unlike other languages, the Czech language enjoys certain "reliefs" in the case of television and radio shows - the broadcaster does not have to provide Slovak subtitles or dubbing if the programme is in Czech. Original Czech audiovisual works and recordings of artistic performances do not have to have Slovak dubbing or Slovak subtitles, unless they are intended for children under 12 years of age. All foreign-language films with Czech dubbing produced after 1 January 2008 must have a Slovak language version.”
But the case in Czechia is a little different. There is no State Language Act or similar law enshrining Czech as the official state language in Czechia. On June 15, 2004, a proposal to amend the Constitution, which would have introduced an official national language, was rejected.
However, Section 16 of the Administrative Code specifies the Czech language as the language of proceedings for administrative proceedings, with the provision that a party to the proceedings may speak in Slovak and documents written in Slovak may also be submitted without needing to be translated into Czech.
Meanwhile, for reasons unknown, section 76 of the Tax Code contains the same regulation, with the difference that it does not contain a special advantage for the Slovak language.
What this means in practice is that Slovaks can discuss any official matter with the Czech authorities in Slovak – with the exception of tax matters.
As for the field of education, which is what brings many Slovaks to Czechia – according to the Education Ministry, there were over 20 000 Slovak students studying in Czechia in 2021 – Markéta Martínková, Vice-Rector for Student Affairs at Charles University in Prague, says that there is no legal requirement for universities to accept the use of Slovak in exams or written work, but there is a certain unofficial tolerance for it.
“There was an agreement between the Czech and Slovak governments, but it was only valid until 26 January 2012. Before that date, both languages were treated as equal in the eyes of the law for official processes, but after 2012 Slovak lost this status and is now legally the same as any other foreign language. So there is no legal requirement to accept Slovak in academic contexts – there is just the willingness to help or to tolerate or to understand, if we can. But there is no law about it anymore.”
It is possible that Tomáš’s professor was referring to this pre-2012 agreement when he said that Slovak was considered a dialect of Czech. But according to the law, Slovak doesn’t have the status of a dialect of Czech, although it is allowed to be used as an alternative to Czech in some situations.
But even if it’s not official, are there any other criteria by which Slovak and Czech might be considered dialects of the same language?
Czech and Slovak are often described as being mutually intelligible –– meaning a person speaking Czech and a person speaking Slovak should be able to understand each other. For speakers of English, it’s hard to imagine a language that is different from your own but can still be understood – the best we can do is think of the most hard-to-understand dialect we know, for example Scots or Newfoundland English.
But the fact remains that these are still considered dialects of English. So for us it might be tempting to view mutual intelligibility as a criterion to distinguish dialects of the same language from separate languages. But this can be a dangerous definition, and where you draw the line between a language and a dialect will always be up to politics rather than linguistics, says Czech linguist Karel Oliva:
“To say that if two languages are mutually intelligible, it’s still one language would be really dangerous nowadays, because I would say that Russian and Ukrainian are for sure mutually understandable. But there are many more such cases: Swedish and Norwegian, Bulgarian and Macedonian. So of course this is kind of a political decision. If Scotland one day decides to leave the United Kingdom, then they might claim that Scots is its own language. You should not ask a linguist for this. The world is not as clearly divided as it is in geometry. The transitions are fluid, and it’s more or less up to politics to decide.”
And how far is it even still true that Czech and Slovak are mutually intelligible?
Tomáš says that he was able to understand Czech pretty easily from the get-go when he moved to Prague –– but it didn’t necessarily work the other way around:
“I didn’t speak Czech right away, but I tacitly understood most of what was said. Funnily enough, it didn’t work the other way around, and many of my classmates didn’t understand a word of what I said – they just used to nod and smile at me no matter what I said.”
If Tomáš’s experiences are anything to go by, then it seems that Slovaks often understand Czech much better than Czechs understand Slovak.
Marian, a Slovak guy of the same generation as Tomáš, also living in Prague, says he has a theory about why this inequity between Czechs and Slovaks exists.
“When English movies come to Czechia and Slovakia, even now in Slovakia, if the movie is dubbed, it’s in Czech. They show it in Slovakia as a Czech-language movie. But you can never hear a Slovak-dubbed movie in the Czech Republic. And maybe it’s because the Czech Republic is bigger, so it makes sense to make it for 10 million people and those 5 million in Slovakia will adapt, but I think that’s maybe why Slovak people understand Czech more than Czech people understand Slovak.”
Markéta Martínková also supports this theory:
“I think that on Slovak TV there are more often Czech films or crime series, so Slovak students are much better at understanding Czech than the Czech students are at understanding their Slovak colleagues.”
She also suggests that there might be a generational component to the equation, as well as the disparity in the media between the two countries:
“I don’t know about Slovak television, but nowadays on Czech TV there is no Slovak news or fairy-tales, so it is very difficult for the younger generation to understand the language. I can only say that my kids, who are fourteen or fifteen years old, can’t understand when I am discussing science with Slovak colleagues from my team, and I am talking Czech but they are answering in Slovak. My kids ask, “What are you talking about?” – they can’t understand a word.”
And that generational divide may truly fall between people who are old enough to remember living in Czechoslovakia, and those who aren’t. While Markéta Martínková says she has no problem understanding her Slovak colleagues, Jiří, a Czech man in his early 30s and therefore just a hair too young to remember the Velvet Divorce, says that oftentimes he doesn’t understand Slovak:
“I am from the generation that has got no touch with the Slovak language, so the first time I really spoke to a Slovak person was when I came to Prague for college. And many times with my roommate, who was from Nitra [a city in western Slovakia], we had to switch to English to be able to understand each other.”
A dialect continuum?
Perhaps it is too simplistic to think of Czech and Slovak as two solid, separate, immutable entities, like wooden blocks. Although there are standardised forms of each language, the spoken reality is more fluid – Czech and Slovak are really both collections of dialects themselves.
In some sense you can think of Czech and Slovak as a dialect continuum stretching from west Bohemia to east Slovakia, and in the middle there may be a grey zone, as Marian, who grew up in Slovakia just a few kilometres from the Czech border, nicely illustrates:
“I was born really close to the Czech border, so our dialect has such a strong influence from the Czech language that if I were to go to Bratislava with my friend from my village, they would think that we are Czech. Usually some people say it’s a Moravian accent because that’s the part of the Czech Republic that borders Slovakia so that’s usually the guess.”
So, dialects of Czech and Slovak close to the border between the two countries are very similar, and while most dialects of Czech and Slovak are mutually intelligible for many, dialects at the far end of the continuum may be less intelligible to speakers at the other end of the continuum, especially where contact between speakers is limited. For example, eastern Slovak dialects are notoriously hard for Czech speakers to understand and are considered by many to be closer to Ukrainian, Polish, or Belarusian than to Czech.
A Czechoslovak language?
During the First Republic, there was a line in the Constitution that stipulated that "the Czechoslovak language is the state, official language of the republic". Does that mean that there really was such a thing as a ‘Czechoslovak’ language in 1919, which became two separate languages later on?
According to Czech linguist Karel Oliva, no – he says this idea of a Czechoslovak language was somewhat artificial and enforced top-down.
“This was the theory of the First Republic, in the inter-war period. The official language policy was that there is a Czechoslovakian language in two forms, Czech and Slovak. And it’s very similar to what happened by that time in Yugoslavia, when there was one Yugoslavian language in two forms, Serbian and Croatian. So politically at that time, between 1918 and 1938 or 1939, the political decision was to say that there was a Czechoslovak language in two forms – which seems to me a little bit crazy, but OK.”
He also says that nowadays the two are definitely two separate languages, and this was certainly already the case by 1918 when Czechoslovakia gained independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. By his estimation, the two were already separate languages by 1800-1850. But, he says, it was a long process to get there, which started in the 10th Century.
“This is the time when the eastern part of what later became Czechoslovakia, which is now Slovakia, was taken by the Hungarians. From this era on, the Czechs became one political unit, and they were separated politically from the eastern (Slovak) part, which became part of the Hungarian kingdom. The language was still the same, but there was a sharp political division. And so this is when the process started. And then it was finished I would say by about 1800 more or less, 1787 or so, when the first version of a literary Slovak language was established by Anton Bernolák.”
With the creation of a standardised and codified Slovak language, which was different to the standardised norm for Czech, one could clearly point to the fact that there were now two clearly defined and different standardised forms, at least for the written languages.
But the two had a long history of interaction and mutual influence well before the creation of Czechoslovakia in 1918, as Karel Oliva explains:
“Obviously all the time in between these two dialects or languages had a very strong influence on each other. Czech had a big influence on Slovak, mainly because of religion. Because very many Protestants, after the Battle on the White Mountain, emigrated to the Kingdom of Hungary, which basically meant to Slovakia. And actually up to the mid-20th Century, the Králická Bible was used for ceremonies in some denominations of the Slovak Protestants. So there was a lot of influence of the Czech part onto the Slovak part.”
Literary Slovak shares significant orthographic features with Czech, as well as technical and professional terminology dating from the Czechoslovak period, and a large part of the vocabulary is shared as a result. But of course phonetic, grammatical, and vocabulary differences do exist.
Although the First Republic idea of one Czechoslovak language in two forms had fallen apart by the Second World War, it was still common to see and hear people speaking both Slovak and Czech in the media throughout the existence of the unified state. And, as we found out, it’s still common to see and hear Czech-language media in Slovakia, hence most Slovaks’ good understanding of Czech.
So while the ‘mutual intelligibility’ of Czech and Slovak may be changing with the post-Velvet Divorce generation, and while Slovaks may understand Czechs better than the other way around, for now, at least, it seems that Slovak is still widely accepted in many areas of life in Czechia, and vice versa. For the most part, Czechs and Slovaks know they can get by with each other in their own language, as Tomáš quips:
“I never took the time to master Czech – I just picked it up along the way. I never focussed on it because I thought, ‘I do speak Slovak, I get around – why spend energy on a language which is, well, a dialect of Slovak?’”