Vojtěch Merunka, an associate professor who teaches at the Czech University of Life Sciences and also the Czech Technical University in Prague is one of a team of creators behind Interslavic – a language designed to make communication possible for anyone with Slav roots. Speak Czech but not any Russian? Bulgarian but no Polish? Interslavic, he says, is the alternative; at a conference in June, he and fellow team members put the language to the test.
“English is an alternative but there are problems: in order to communicate within Europe many people learn the language but many don’t speak it well enough. The way I see it, there is an alternative: receptive multilingualism. This is popular in Scandinavia: the Swedes, the Danes, the Norwegians, they can speak to each other in their own languages and understand each other. It was similar in the former Czechoslovakia between the Czechs and Slovaks, who also understand each other, and in the former Yugoslavia.
“I was inspired by research at the University of Groningen, a group working on an EU project focusing on mutual comprehensibility of languages in Europe. And I tried to extend the idea to the Slavic family of languages because of course I understand that currently Slavic languages are similar but not similar enough.
“In the 9th century, the precedent was Old Slavonic and that was a very good attempt by Cyril and Methodius of Salonica to create a universal language. It was also the language to spread Christianity and the Great Moravian Empire.
“I was inspired by Old Slavonic and approached it as if the language had continued to evolve to the modern day.”
“Another example, was Sanskrit, which was an artificially-made language made up of natural languages in India. So these two examples inspired me to try and move Old Slavonic forward and to try and determine what the language would have look like today, had it continued to evolve.”
I want to ask you about the details first, though, let’s focus on the commonalities…
“I have been using facebook and using email and other internet tools to contact a small group which is doing similar work and I recognized that in history there were more than 50 attempts in the last three centuries.”
Why did they fail? Was it simply too monumental a task?
“Most of the projects were similar in the vocabulary. In fact, to create a common Slavic vocabulary is not that hard. Many basic words are very similar in many Slavic languages and others can be derived. So making a dictionary is almost easy. But they failed in two respects: the first mistake was in the area of use. Because, they tried to create a kind of high-level language for the Arts, for novels, for poetry for the theatre and so on and that was absolutely wrong. These areas are always and always will be the domain of national languages because each national language has its own spirit, its own nature and its own culture.
“The second mistake is that they omitted grammar. Grammar is the main problem in building any common language. The context of the sentence, morphology, grammar, this is the problem.
“The big surprise for me and for the group behind our Interslavic language is that it is understandable and at a higher level than just saying ‘Hi, what is your name.’ In June we held a conference which was attended by 64 people from 12 countries and we discussed history, education, science, on a professional level with the help of only one translator – into Interslavic.”
“To create a common Slavic vocabulary is not that hard. The tricky part is creating a new grammar.”
Are you saying that your language is already at such a stage that there is already a fixed grammatical structure?
“I think that we are very close to one form of Interslavic as creators, we are a group of seven who can actively speak. But our group on facebook counts more than one thousand.”
The point is that Interslavic could be very useful if people began to pick it up…
“Yes, I certainly think so.”
I want to go back to something you said earlier about earlier attempts: a lot of these were linked to the times, the 19th century and the idea and pursuit of Pan-Slavism, which I’m sure would no longer appeal to many today for historic or cultural reasons, or would no longer get traction with those who never felt ‘Slavic brotherly love’ if I can put it that way. There is a lot of shared history, past wrongs, historic fault lines and connections. Is Pan-Slavism in any way part of this project?
“It is absolutely separate. We are not Pan-Slavists, this is about Interslavic as a language, we are inter-linguists who have ties to similar projects for example in Latin languages. We are also members of the world community of language creators. This is something very different. We are constructors of language.
“As far as Pan-Slavism goes, that really was a product of the 19th century, part of the National Revival, a very different situation from today. At the time, Russia was only independent Slavic state, the same could not be said for any other, we were of course a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. All the rest were under the dominancy of someone else. That said, we were better off, certainly when compared to Tsarist Russia.
“Our project has nothing to do with Pan-Slavism which is a product of the 19th century; we are constructors of language.”
“The Czech nation did not have its own state but within the Austro-Hungarian Empire we had something that could be classified as almost a democracy and that carried forward later.
“What’s more, in the 1860s Czech Pan-Slavists like Palácký or others like Karel Havlíček Borovský recognised problems with Russia. From the Russian perspective Pan-Slavism was always only about extending the Russian Empire and influence and Slavic unity was accepted only as long as it was under Russian dominancy and political governance. We, as Slavs in Central Europe, strived for something very different, our own democratic country and that was a very different goal.”
Final question: I read that you strongly dislike comparisons between Interslavic and Esperanto…
“You know, it is kind of a journalistic shorthand to write Merunka and colleagues developed a language like Esperanto but there is a very big difference. If you want to speak and understand Esperanto, you have to learn Esperanto and it has been designed to be easy to learn. But if I speak in the Interslavic language to anyone with Slavic roots, Czech, Russian, Bulgarian, Serbian – they understand.”