I grew up in a country where the Czech and Slovak languages intermingled with each other. The government consisted of Czechs and Slovaks, movies were filmed in the Prague studio with Czech actors or the Bratislava studio with Slovak actors, news was read in either language. One of the most popular sports commentators was from Slovakia and the best band of my teenage years was Elán, also from Slovakia (still going strong by the way). We all watched the films, listened to the news and sang along to the songs, not giving a second thought to the language in which they were presented. No one cared and everyone understood.
On January 1, 1993, the Czechoslovak federation split into two independent countries, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The Czechs and Slovaks who had lived together in one country for almost three quarters of a century suddenly became two separate nations with their own capital cities, flags, presidents, and languages. Right after the split, the Slovak language virtually disappeared from the lives of the majority of Czechs.
To me, Slovak is so insanely similar to Czech and is so ingrained in my brain that I don’t even consider it a foreign language. Slovak is much more understandable to me than the Czech dialect spoken in Brno or Silesia. When asked by foreigners if Czechs and Slovaks understand each other, I have always said, “Well, of course!”. But now I’m not so sure…
Someone recently told me that Czech children supposedly don’t understand Slovak because they have no exposure to the language. I couldn’t believe it and argued passionately with the author of the preposterous statement. Then I read that a Slovak film had been dubbed into Czech before it was shown on Czech TV. I have also heard something to the effect that Czech children’s movies are not allowed to be shown on Slovak TV (in Czech I presume) because Slovak children wouldn’t understand them. What is going on?
Is it even possible for Czechs and Slovaks to not understand each other? I have thought about this long and hard. My initial reaction is a big and bold NO. The vocabularies of both languages contain a large percentage of words that are identical or differ only slightly (e.g. který – ktorý, velmi – veľmi, mléko – mlieko). On the other hand however, there are words that look and sound completely different. I wonder if there are just enough of them to hinder understanding between today’s kids and teenagers who aren’t growing up hearing those words and who are completely out of touch with the language that once came as a second nature to us.
It has been thirteen years since Czechoslovakia split up. Is it possible that we were able to “lose a language” in such a short time?