The Language of Slovakia's Rusyns

By Cummins, George | Canadian Slavonic Papers, December 2001 | Go to article overview

The Language of Slovakia's Rusyns


Cummins, George, Canadian Slavonic Papers


Juraj Vadko. The Language of Slovakia's Rusyns. Bilingual English and Slovak edition. East European Monographs, No. DN)OaX. Classics of CarpathoRusyn Scholarship. With a series introduction and author's vita. New York: East European Monographs, distributed by Columbia University Press, 2000. xix and 114 pp. (English), 121 pp. (Slovak). $35.00, cloth.

What is a language? Not linguists, but in this day and age, brokers of political power, rather, may freely answer this question by declaring: if we have created it, it exists. So the few tens of thousands of Rusyn speakers in remote Eastern Slovakia have forged a literary language, complete with Pravyla rusyn'skoho pravopysu, published in Presov in 1994. Written in Cyrillic, this language (with the unfortunate name rusky in Slovak, rus'kyj in Ruthenian, or rather, Rusyn, and with three varieties of Russian-style unrounded i-vowel, as is evident from the spelling) is spoken on the slopes of the Carpathians in Eastern Slovakia. Follow the mountain range as it curves southward into Ukraine and you arrive in Subcarpathia, or Karpatska Rus, but this is no longer rus'kyj but its cousin, a remarkable Western mountain dialect of Ukrainian, so fabulous that Dobrovsky himself, in 1812, wrote plaintively, "Who will give us samples of their speech?" The borders of Subcarpathia open to five language groups: the mother tongue, Ukrainian, to the East, Slovak and Polish to the West and North, Hungarian and Romanian to the South. The region was a quasi-autonomous territory of the republic of Czechoslovakia; after Munich 1938 it fell to the Axis Hungarians, but by 1943 it was in Red Army hands and after the war was reunited with the Ukraine, while the Soviet frontier with Czechoslovakia was set right at the town of Uzhgorod, an ethnolinguistic boundary town between Ukrainian and Slovak. The dialects were described in summary in 1934 by Georgij Gerovskij in "Jazyk Podkarpatsk6 Rusi," Ceskoslovenska vlastivida, III, Jazyk, 460-517; a detailed study by Ivan Pan'kevy/ followed in 1938, Ukrajins'ki hovory Pidkarpats'koj Rusy i sumetnych oblastej. Despite their phonological and morphological variety, the Slavic of these mountain villages was recognized early on as Ukrainian in provenance; this has never been in dispute. The westernmost villages, those within the boundaries of First Republic Czechoslovakia round and about Pregov north of Kogice, exhibit very strong Slovak linguistic influence in the lexicon and in syntax, as the monograph under review attests.

The Series Preface (v.-vi.) warns the reader that these monographs- "Classics of Carpatho-Rusyn Scholarship"-will have frank national and political agendas. In his introduction (xv-xvii) and in his opening chapter, "The Rusyn Language and the National Awakening," Juraj Va*ko tells us who he is: a native speaker of the RusynLemko dialect of Mlynarovce near Precov, he supports the 1995 literary codification of the Slovak dialects of Subcarpathian Ukrainian. The aim of his monograph (p. 12) is "to review the previous historical-comparative studies of the Rusyn dialects of eastern Slovakia from the perspective of modern typological studies," with "special attention to a comparative study of the semantic and syntactic sentence structure of the Rusyn language." Despite gratuitous disclaimers throughout his text, Vafiko's true purpose is to demonstrate that his dialect is more Slovak than Ukrainian and that it is endowed with certain "specific features" (cf. the title of Chapter 4). This agenda in today's world needs no apology and indeed is not without interest. The reader looks optimistically to Chapter Two for what should follow next: a survey of the traditionally cited phonological and morphological features of Rusyn dialects in the contexts of the Subcarpathian dialects, their Ukrainian provenance, and Slovak. What we get, however, is not what we expect and a very bad sign of things to come. "The Rusyn Dialects: A Historical-Comparative Perspective" (pp. …

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