5dez 2022
06:30 UTC

Czechoslovak: The language that failed. A case of Language (Un-)Making

The title of this paper alludes to the title of Heimann’s (2009) influential book on the (unsuccessful) history of Czechoslovakia. In this paper, I will focus specifically on one aspect of this failed state, namely on its failed project of Czechoslovak language. I will apply the concept of Language Making (Krämer, Vogl & Kolehmainen LMLL) and present the Czechoslovak language as one of the manifestations of the state ideology of Czechoslovakism (Hudek, Kopeček & Mervart LMLO).
Founded in the aftermath of the First World War in 1918, the First Czechoslovak Republic was, like its predecessor Austria-Hungary, a multiethnic, multiconfessional, and multilingual state. Beside the two titular nations of Czechs and Slovaks, large minorities of Germans, Hungarians, Ruthenians, and Poles also lived in the new republic. Nevertheless, the Czechoslovak Constitution, adopted on 29 February 1920, established Czechoslovakia as the nation state of Czechoslovaks. Not of Czechs and Slovaks, but of Czechoslovaks. Following this Czechoslovakist principle, the Language Act (122/1920 Sb.), adopted on the same day as the constitution itself, stated that the state and the official language of the republic is the Czechoslovak language and Czech and Slovak were declared to be its two branches, just as Czechs and Slovaks were viewed to be the two branches of a single Czechoslovak nation.
I argue that this act constitutes an example of Language Making, defined as the “conscious […] human processes in which imagined linguistic units are constructed and perceived as a language, a dialect or a variety” (Krämer, Vogl & Kolehmainen LMLL: d). In this case, Czech and Slovak as two separate West-Slavic languages stopped being perceived, at least officially, as two distinct units, but were merged, following the one state-one nation-one language principle, into one discursive unit.
Just as the Czechoslovak language was made in February 1920, it was unmade in May 1948. The newly adopted post-war constitution (150/1948 Sb.) avoided any reference to the Czechoslovak nation or to the Czechoslovak language. Instead, Czechoslovakia was re-defined as the nation state of two separate, although “brotherly” nations: Czechs and Slovaks. The Czechoslovak language, discursively made by being given a name in 1920, was effectively unmade by not being mentioned anymore (Krämer, Vogl & Kolehmainen LMLL: Oh).
In sum, this paper uses the examples of Czechoslovakia, the Czechoslovak nation, and the Czechoslovak language to illustrate the interplay of political history and linguistic reality and to show that just like states, also languages can fail.