State Language, official language  -- the legal situation of minority languages in East Central Europe

Laszlo Szarka


This study considers the 1999 report of the Commisioner for Minorities of the OSCE, which examined the respective legal situations (as laid down by law)  in ten of the twelve countries regarded as comprising the East Central European (ECE) region. It draws attention to the fact that there are no genuine legal definitions with respect to conceptions of  a “state language” or “official language”; this is why in most cases the contents of existing laws dealing with this issue treat these two languages as being the same.  The system of relations concerning majority and minority languages can be separated into four types of legal status: a) the notion of an official language (state language) is laid down in the constitution and is valid exclusively for the majority national language; b) the notion of an official language (state language) is laid down in the constitution, but this goes together with the minority languages in the particular country. These minority languages are expressed as being official on a regional basis; c) the notion of a state language or an official language is not laid down in the constitution but it is taken into account by other legal regulations; d) the notion of a state language or an official language is neither included in the constitution nor any other legal construction. Following the main principles of the types given above, the author  situates  ten individual ECE states and analyses the language laws which are valid in those countries; he also examines how these laws are regulated and how they work in practice.  On the basis of his work he is able to state that in the last decades of the 20th century, in the region under investigation, the majority of countries gave official status to the majority language, either in the constitution or in some other form of legal construction. Among those laws guaranteeing the official status of the language of the national majority (i.e. the state language) only the regulations of Slovakia attempt to build into its language laws the exclusive elements of a national state language. An analysis of  the effects of provisions dealing with international minority and language laws leads to the conclusion that, in the 1990s, all countries in the region tried to guarantee legal protection for the minority languages used in the region  In 2002 only Poland had no kind of separate law relevant to the use of minority languages. Due to the effects of the European Language Charter and the Framework Agreement on the Defence of Minorities more and more countries are giving minority languages an official status.