Will We Let a Language Die?
Analyzing Efforts by the European Union to Protect Minority Languages
Joseph Heath josephaheath@
William Eggington, Department of Linguistics and English Language
My project examined efforts to maintain the Rusyn language (also known as Ruthenian ). Rusyn is
spoken by 50,000 people living primarily in Slovakia and Ukraine. Unless protected, this language
may go extinct within several generations. It is one of over 100 languages in Central and Eastern
Europe that have received “threatened” or “endangered” status. Globalization threatens the existence
of cultures lacking nationstates, and my professional aim is to assist in the preservation of some of
these cultures and their languages.
In May 2016, I went to Brussels, where I completed an internship with the European Social
Observatory (OSE). I took advantage of the wealth of materials at the OSE to conduct my research.
Following my internship in Brussels, I visited Slovakia to complete a week long research trip to the
Prešov region in northeast Slovakia, meeting with regional representatives and surveying schools to
gather empirical data. People in Slovakia told me what further steps could be taken to ensure that the
Rusyn language survives.
In my studies, I discovered the contemporary health of the Rusyn language. In personal
correspondence with professionals such as Dr. Paul Robert Magocsi I learned that the Rusyns do not
believe in advancing their political agenda through the use of violence. They see the way forward by
operating peacefully within legal framework. Because of the current political situation, of all the
countries where Rusyn is spoken, Slovakia is the most likely to accelerate the vitality of the language.
Political autonomy and language vitality have a symbiotic relationship: the healthiest minority
languages in Europe often exist in politically autonomous regions. The level 2 languages above have
been “formally recognized by the state authorities as the second language of their regions. Nations like
the Frisians, Catalonians, and Basques have often gained level 2 language status through protracted
political (and sometimes militant) movements. During communism, Rusyns could not have coordinated
movements because it of the political atmosphere and because they were spread across
several states. Nevertheless, in the postcommunist era they can now begin the push for autonomy anew.
The Prešov region is one of Slovakia’s eight self governing un its (Slovak: samosprávne kraje).
Each region elects its own chairperson and assembly, while the organs of the regions are appointed by
the government; there is space for Rusyns to represent themselves politically in a meaningful way. The
most realistic goal is for the language to reach level 2 status (provincial, see Table 1) within the Prešov
region. Provincial status would mean that, besides being taught in schools, Rusyn would appear on
street signs, in government offices, in hospitals, on television, etc. Rusyn could aspire to the legal
status of Frisian in the Netherlands, which has enjoyed “a slow process of legal codification to obtain a
limited set of linguistic rights for the use of Frisian in dealings with the government. Further, there are
a number of legal provisions concerning Frisian in the fields of education, the media and culture; these
provisions are also included in more general laws.”1 This boosted the Frisian language’s prestige in the
Netherlands. But because Rusyn was codified so recently, it lacks the political traction of minority
languages that have been codified for decades or centuries. There is still room to improve, but it is
unlikely to happen because of a lack of numbers. Virtually all Rusyns know Slovak and do not mind
using it for their social interactions.
Discussion “Rusyn Speakers Today and Tomorrow”
Parents have to choose between dedicating energy to Rusyn and Slovak, or Slovak and English.
As most Rusyns are bilingual, integrating into Slovak culture isn’t difficult. For example, in the United
States, many people proudly identify as Italianor IrishAmerican, but do not speak Italian or Irish.
They speak the economically important language and identify ethnically with their heritage country,
not linguistically. The Slovak government has stated that there is not great demand for the language,
but perhaps just as an excuse to not dedicate more funds to Rusyn. Any researcher should be careful to
not take at face value statements on respecting linguistic rights that Slovakia said to join the European
Union 12 years ago. They may actually not be dedicating a great amount of energy and resources to
Rusyn. There is symbolic value in preserving a language, but that does not help the country’s
economy. The government will make choices that make sound financial sense. At present, most
funding for the Institute of Rusyn Language and Culture comes from the European Union.
The power structure between Rusyn communities and the Slovak government should also be
investigated further. To this point, Rusyn communities have led a bottom to top movement
movement, pushing for their rights, and being met part way by Bratislava. I would like to know
if Bratislava will make more gestures towards further institutionalizing the language. If it
were introduced into more public spheres, it would acquire more than simply symbolic value in the
communities—it would have a practical element.
I hypothesize that the Rusyn language will not see any marked growth in coming decades. The
population of Slovakia is not growing—since 1998 is has stayed at roughly 5.4 million.2 It is unlikely
that Rusyn will disappear, but it will probably never become the most spoken language of a large city
like Prešov. Rusyn is different from many endangered languages because it is spread across
international borders. As noted earlier, Slovak Rusyns have paved the way for language growth in
Slovakia; their codified form of the language has entered Ukraine via official publications. Books
written by the authors named in section 4.4 are available for sale on both sides of the border—when I
visited Mukachevo, I bought one of these books in a Ukrainian bookstore. This shows limited
proliferation. Perhaps one reason there are not more textbooks is because Rusyns feel that they can
have dual identity; they see no problem in identifying as both Rusyn and as Ukrainian.
The most positive development can be Slovakia’s approach to Rusyn influencing the Ukrainian
government. When Ukraine gained independence in 1991, more than 78% of population of Zakarpattia
voted in favor of autonomy for their region. In May 1993, the Interim Government of the Autonomous
Republic of Carpathian Ruthenia was organized, but never recognized by Kiev. When there is strong
support from a language already established in another country—especially one on the opposite
border—the minority is more likely to be recognized (as in South Tyrol, Italy). Unfortunately, most
Rusyns are in Slovakia instead of viceversa, which makes it harder for a political movement to gain
1 Gorter, “Developing a Policy for Teaching a Minority Language.”
2 CIA World Factbook. Accessed February 20, 2016,