Vojtěch Merunka – Developer of Interslavic language spoken in The Painted Bird

Vojtěch Merunka, photo: Ian Willoughby

One of the most striking aspects of director Václav Marhoul’s new film The Painted Bird is the language spoken in it. The characters communicate in Interslavic, or Medžuslovjansky, an artificial language combining elements from several Slavic languages that fits with the WWII story’s unspecified Eastern European setting. Interslavic has in large part been developed by academic Dr. Vojtěch Merunka, who was closely involved in the movie. When we spoke, I first asked him about earlier attempts to create a Slavic lingua franca.

Vojtěch Merunka,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“It is a very long story.

“The first zonal, constructed language for the Slavic family of languages was, we believe, invented in the ninth century, the early Middle Ages, by the brothers Cyril and Methodius, who also invented the Slavic alphabet.

“This is our history: the Great Moravian Empire and so on and so on.

“And they also created something artificial.

“Because Slavic peoples did not have any written language and any language able to express some abstract terms and some terms related to religion, the Christian religion, and so on.

“So we believe that was the first attempt, and a very successful one.

“Next, during the evolution of national languages, in the late Middle Ages, there were several attempts to create some common language.

“Because local Slavic languages still have high proximity.”

A lot of words have the same roots in all the languages?

“Yes, but only basic ones.

“But there was still a feeling that one little step more would be enough to build some common inter-language, a tool for communication.

“The first attempt, or idea, was written by Jan Amos Komenský, a Czech…”

“In the late Middle Ages, there were several attempts to create some common language.”

Known as Comenius in English.

“Yes. Comenius is famous.

“But a full book, a grammar, and also vocabulary was a bit later, by Juraj Križanić, a Croatian priest. That was also in the 17th century.

“There were also other attempts.

“If I remember right, there were about 60 or 70 independent projects.”

How does the Interslavic you have created take the whole concept forward?

“All these people were only independent inventors, without the feedback of a community.

“There was no community, only some invention by some crazy man who had an idea and published a book – and then nothing.

“We also started like this.

“Ten years ago, I started my own private project: Neo-Slavonic, a modernisation of Old Church Slavonic.

Journal of Interslavic,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“Later there were other communities, the most important of which was the one around the Dutch linguist Jan van Steenbergen.

“This community created a very similar language, but on a different principle: Slovianski.

“We recognised that we had 95 percent the same project.

“We connected and three years ago we merged our projects together – and this is the start of Interslavic.

“Our Interslavic language has strong feedback and is also approved by practice, by community – we have about 3,000 people.”

Probably like many people, I first heard about Interslavic in connection with the movie The Painted Bird. Why did the director, Václav Marhoul, approach you to ask about using Interslavic in his film?

“He knew he must not use any real local language.

“Because if you read the book, where it is set is a secret – if it’s Poland or Belarus or Ukraine.

“Also the borders of these countries moved, before the war and after the war.

“It also might be Slovakia or anywhere... the Balkans. Nobody knows.

“It was the intention of the author of this novel.

“Václav Marhoul knew he must use some unknown, artificial language – but also some real, natural language, nothing artificial like Esperanto or some very artificial language.”

“Because if somebody pointed at only one concrete nation, the others could say, We weren’t like that – it was just them, look at them, etcetera.

“So he knew he must use some unknown, artificial language – but also some real, natural language, nothing artificial like Esperanto or some very artificial language.

“The sound must be real.

“He opened Google and entered two key words: Slavic Esperanto.

“And my book, which I had published one year before, appeared.”

In the film it’s not just the dialogue that’s in Interslavic – it’s also posters, newspapers.

“Exactly. There is a misinterpretation, from my perspective, that this movie has only nine minutes of talk.

“This is not true. Nine minutes is the total time when you see translation in subtitles.

“But in other situations that are not exactly important but are required for creating atmosphere, for example, fishing in a river, or a street market…

“All these situations are very wordy, but you cannot see any translation, you only hear some sound: people are talking, one over the other, and all of this is in Interslavic.

“Because in the dubbing studio, in the sound studio, we worked for two months putting Interslavic into the mouths all of the people who only appeared in some little scene for a second somewhere.

Harvey Keitel,  Vojtěch Merunka,  photo: archive of Vojtěch Merunka
“Everything was Interslavic.

“And so were the backdrops and texts, of course. Because Český Krumlov was absolutely redesigned as a war-time town.”

How was it working with these Hollywood stars like Harvey Keitel and Julian Sands and coaching them in speaking Interslavic?

“First, I need to say that I was in physical, deep contact only with Harvey Keitel.

“Because the other international actors are, first, very well-educated and are able to read the phonetic alphabet, different alphabets, not only Latin but also Cyrillic, etcetera.

“It was not hard for them to read Interslavic.

“Also one member of our filming team, David Tomášek, helped them.

“He had radio contact during filming with these actors; they had invisible ear devices and he helped them to speak.

“But Harvey Keitel speaks a lot in this film – and also he did not know he would speak Interslavic.

“I don’t know why, maybe by some mistake, he was perfectly prepared, but in English.

“And when he went to Český Krumlov for filming he discovered, Oh, I need to speak in some language that I do not know and do not understand, etcetera.

“It was a big problem.

“There is a misinterpretation, from my perspective, that this movie has only nine minutes of talk. This is not true. Nine minutes is the total time when you see translation in subtitles.”

“I was called from Prague, directly – it was an emergency.

“I went to Český Krumlov and spent the whole day with Harvey Keitel.

“I explained the history of this language and the background – that it is artificial, but zonal, and has some real background. That all the endings and word roots are natural, nothing is artificial.

“So he studied it.

“And I really appreciated also his education, because he also knew the international phonetic alphabet, including the Hellwag triangle.

“It’s a theory of how to pronounce vowels. It is science – it’s not common.

“By the way, Czech actors have no knowledge of it.”

The language of course already existed. But I understand that you had to create special, new words for the movie?

“Yes, only a few but very essential.”

Why was that?

“Because we write, we have a journal in this language, this language is living.

“We have a big community.

'The Painted Bird',  photo: Czech Television
“But the film is full of emotion. And if there is some drunk man, for example, he cannot say just ‘you boy’.”

One problem you had was that swear words tend to be different in the different Slavic languages?

“Any nation has its own culture.

“And if some ugly word will be pronounced in some particular way, everybody will understand, Oh yeah, it’s Polish, it’s not Russian. Or Russian not Polish, etcetera, etcetera.

“Excuse me, but take the word ‘bitch’ for example. I cannot say ‘kurva’ and I cannot say ‘suka’.

“Because ‘kurva’ is Western – it is in Czech and Polish. And ‘suka’ is Eastern.

“So we need to say both – a mixture.

“Because if you use a mixture, everybody understands at least one half, but still they’re confused about where it is from.”

What swear word did you go with?

“We created the fully artificial ‘mrzavec’. It’s like ‘bad boy’, like ‘parchant’ [bastard] or something like that.

“It is also derived from real grammar endings from a real verb.

“‘Mrzeti’ is a real verb and we derived, artificially but using natural endings, grammatical endings, a new word.”

“Harvey Keitel did not know he would speak Interslavic. He was perfectly prepared, but in English.”

I presume for the Czech actors in The Painted Bird speaking Interslavic was very easy?

“For Slovak and Polish actors as well.

“But the problem is that the language is so similar that they started to mix a Czech accent and Czech words into this language.

“When you speak in this language for some time you lose the border between languages, because there is some intersection.

“And the actors were asked for dubbing, to change the sound, in the mix studio. Themselves – the same actors.”

Just to make it perfect?

“Exactly, just to say it perfectly in Interslavic.”

Vojtěch Merunka in front of posters in Interslavic,  photo: archive of Vojtěch Merunka
I guess for Interslavic enthusiasts The Painted Bird is the best thing that ever happened to you guys?

“Yes. But all people who invented very similar languages to ours tried to create some pan-Slavic culture.

“They tried to write novels in this artificial language and tried to describe history – mythical history, ancient history, Medieval history, etc.

“They tried to make something which did not exist.

“But we are not oriented toward the past. We do not want to translate The Bible.

“We do not want to translate big novels, because we know that some novel must be in Polish, if it was written in Polish, or must be in Russian if it was written in Russian, etcetera.

“This is not a language for art.

“It was a very good opportunity to spread information about Interslavic, using this film. But we are not creating some art.

“It was a very good opportunity to spread information about Interslavic, using this film. But we are not creating some art. We want to use it in the future for the everyday life of normal, ordinary people.”

“We want to use it in the future for business, for the everyday life of normal, ordinary people.

“Tourists for example. Because middle-aged people like me, older people, do not speak perfect English.

“And if somebody from Poland or Czechia or Slovakia is going for example to the sea in Croatia in the summer, why should they speak English?

“All informational materials, everything, can be written in Interslavic and it is much better.

“I have one motto: The best way to predict the future is to invent it [laughs].

“And we are doing that. We are oriented to the future – practical life.”

Listen to the Interslavic spoken in this clip from The Painted Bird:

Translation (from Interslavic website).

[Julian Sands’s character] Tiho! Dost! Dost! (Quiet! Enough! Enough!)

[JS] Otče. (Father.)

[Harvey Keitel’s character] Jest to gorše. (It’s getting worse.)

[JS] To je mně žalostno. (I’m sorry to hear that.)

[HK] Blagodarju Tobě za tvoje prědloženje. (I’m grateful for your kind offer.)

[HK] Naš Gospod bude Tvoju blagomilost nagraditi. (Our Lord will reward your kindness.)

[HK] Budeš to tu ljubiti. (You will like it here.)

For more information go to: www.interslavic-language.org