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MERUNKA, Vojtěch. Neoslavonic Zonal Constructed Language. 1st ed. Nová Forma, 2012, 164 pages, monograph, ISBN 978-80-7453-291-7

Emil Hersak,
Department of Anthropology, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Zagreb

Dr. Merunka's book is essentially a monographic presentation and study of the constructed language named "Neoslavonic", which was developed as a modern form of Old Church Slavonic. In the creation of this language, the lexical and grammatical basic of Old Church Slavonic was projected to the present; however its vocabulary and grammar were directed towards a high level of conformity with present-day natural Slavic language. Due to this method, the result was a type of mixed language, artificial of course, yet close in its structure to living languages, and thus more similar to the original Mediterranean lingua franca model, than to highly constructed languages such as Esperanto.

In this regard I think it is important to focus on some overall themes, in order to determine the importance of Dr. Merunka’s book.

First, some specification should be made in regard to the term lingua franca. In one not exactly precise sense, this term has often been applied also to "national" languages (English, French, Russian, Classical Arabic, formerly Latin, etc.), which, due to the political, economic, scientific or cultural force attained by their native linguistic communities, began to be used also in contacts between persons who had various other native languages. State policies (official or implicit), as well as colonial efforts, generally imposed such trends. However the original historical lingua franca was essentially different. It was a mixed half-language, with a Romanic basis (mostly Italian), yet with a simplified and flexible structure that was easy to learn and which developed due to practical needs, rather than dominance. It was in use from the 11th to the 19th century. Esperanto was also made with the intent to be simple and to limit the dominance of certain powerful "national" languages, in order to ensure the equality of all natural languages. Yet it did not develop in a way similar to the original lingua franca. Its lexical structure, based on so-called "international" terms, actually codified the state of linguistic dominance in the 19th century (with a mostly Romanic and Germanic vocabulary), whereas its grammar had an extremely oversimplified Indo-European form. Although Esperanto was so-far the most successful artificial language constructed, its number of speakers has remained low (at the most two million in the world), and it has never been able to oppose, to any real degree, natural languages, or to acquire a role similar to that of the original lingua franca. The reason was that it had no economic, political or historically cultural support. Today English is in many areas and countries the dominant language in the context of so-called globalization, to the point that some people even imagine it, inaccurately, as non-“national”.

Globalization is a relatively recent concept that is used to describe the intensity of integration processes between various peoples and cultures in the world today. And in this context, the English language is overwhelmingly imagined as developing into a new and neutral international medium of communication. However, there can be no doubt that English remains a specific natural or “national” language, and that its world-wide affirmation resulted from British colonial and American expansion. Moreover, such natural or "national" languages cannot be reduced to mere communication needs, just as human sexual relations cannot be levelled to biological reproduction. Such languages, as long as they have specific native speaking population, implicitly or explicitly convey all the forms of power that have been mentioned, and if they are imposed on other linguistic groups, they produce a burden that marginalizes the latter, producing at times feelings of inferiority (or other reactions, including denial of one’s origin). This will be more extreme if the language in question is complex and difficult to learn.

And is English difficult to learn? It has only a residual of case endings in nouns, as opposed to Slavic languages, and certain grammatical structures that were simplified during its evolution (e.g. the loss of noun genders), but as the American linguist Edward Sapir once noted, it contains nevertheless a "hornet's nest" of difficulties. English has the largest vocabulary in the world (about 500,000 word roots, contrary to 200,000 in German and 100,000 in French), compounded by a specific phraseology and semantic structure, in which words shift their meanings and many synonyms serve to denote value levels (which also change with time). Its grammatical structure is not necessary symmetric. Its phonology is intricate, with numerous dialect differences among native speakers and diverse accents among people who learn it as a second language. Also, the "Great Vowel Shift" produced an effect that many general European terms and later neologisms stemming mostly from Latin and Greek came to be pronounced differentially in English than in other European languages. This vowel shift also made English orthography very irregular, to the point that many native English speakers suffer today from dyslexia and spelling is continuously taught in elementary schools. Furthermore, this problem cannot be resolved by adapting a new phonetic orthography (regardless of the alphabetic conventions used), since this would lead practically to the division of English into several languages (American English would no longer look the same as British English, or Australian English, etc.).

Why have I made this comment on the complexity of English, in a review intended to focus on Vojtěch Merunka's constructed Slavic language? I hope this becomes apparent soon. English is certainly a very important language, and it should certainly be taught in various countries where it is not native, but what are the costs of making it exclusive in international communication, and what could be the advantages of Merunka's construction?

If we take the example of my own country, Croatia, during the past two-three decades there has been an ever increasing emphasis on English, to the point that it has become obligatory in the education system, more or less in business and scientific work (depending on whether we are dealing with natural sciences or the humanities), and it is virtually accepted as the official international language by the Croatian government. Yet even though certain statistics show that today as much as 49% of Croatia’s population knows English, this percentage does not reveal the level of knowledge. Most people in this rather large segment are able to understanding English, but to various degrees, quite often enough to decipher internet messages or use computer programs, yet the number of them who are totally fluent and who can write texts in correct English (apart from using formalised idioms) seems to be quite low. Much money is still spent on translations into or from English, despite the fact that pupils must study the language in all grades of elementary and secondary school, and it is usually a requirement for university enrolment. In short, despite the efforts, the results have remained limited, costs have most likely increased, and it is very questionable whether or not there has been (or will be) any truly significant effect on Croatia's overall development in regard to other countries. Furthermore, the burden of learning Sapir's "hornet's nest" has led to other serious problems. First, although there may have been some (formal) increase in understanding English, the knowledge of other important foreign language has declined dreadfully, which will surely have a negative effect on Croatia's growth possibilities in various domains. Second, our own language is sometimes viewed as less important or totally unimportant, which in the long-run could lead not only to a reduction in cultural and other forms of originality (crucial for maintaining diversity levels within globalization processes), but also to a decrease in overall self-esteem, or to overt or perhaps submersed feelings of inferiority, which could greatly effect Croatia's future position in the EU. Along with parallel tendencies in other similar countries, such an effect could undermine the value of European integration.

And now, after describing this context, I finally come to Merunka's reconstructed language, with some comments on how it is described in his book. In this regard, there are two things which Merunka stressed, which I find most important.

First, Neoslavonic has been constructed so that it could be understood passively by speakers of natural Slavic languages, without the need to spend time in learning it. I have tested this possibility several times with my students at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences in Zagreb, and I must emphasize that it totally holds true. After hearing the language (for now in its computer-read form on the Internet), or reading examples of it, most of my students told me that they understood practically everything (95 to 100%). If the same results can be obtained in other Slavic-speaking countries, the implications in spheres of education, science and culture could be wonderful. Of course, English, French, German, Italian, etc. would still have to be taught in schools, yet a constructed language similar to one’s own, which could be understood immediately or learned quickly (without the immense effort of learning a vast foreign vocabulary and grammatical rules that function differently than the ones in one's own mind), would in the  Croatian and in other Slavic cases open the possibility of communication with some 400 million people in the world, producing (hopefully) stronger economic, intellectual and culture ties. If this were to be achieved, one might ask would it perhaps produce an isolation of the Slavic-speaking countries from other linguistic areas. This would not be good. However, having an operative easily acquired auxiliary language that could assure almost instant communication with millions of people, would reduce the current prevalence of only English, and thus (once again) make room for learning other important world languages. If such diversity were to increase, most probably positive results would also appear in EU structures.

And this leads me to the second stressed point in Merunka's book. As a simplified version of the Slavic language structure, Neoslavonic could help non-Slavic speaking groups, for example from West Europe, to relatively quickly learn to communicate indigenously with the Slavic-speaking area of Europe. In the EU this is today very important. Furthermore, Neoslavonic could probably serve as a pathway to gaining some understanding likewise of natural Slavic languages.

Yet here I must stress one necessity. Neoslavonic must be positioned and developed only as an auxiliary language that can help in maintaining the importance or vitality of natural Slavic languages, and in no way be imagined as a replacement language for the latter. In the book the author at one point mentions Pan-Slavism, in a positive tone. Even though co-operation between peoples who speak similar languages is highly desirable, historical experience has shown that the Pan-Slavist movement failed when it attempted to impose linguistic unity and bring all the Slavs together into one political construct. The unfortunate experience of ex-Yugoslavia shows this very clearly, but we can also see such problems in Russian-Polish, Ukrainian-Polish, Bulgarian-Macedonian-Serbian relations, etc. This does not mean that only Slavic-speaking peoples were (for some reason) prone to such antagonism. We know from history that similar conflicts occurred between other linguistically very closely-related peoples (e.g. Germanic Scandinavians, Germans-Dutch and Danes, some Romanic peoples, in Iberia for instance, etc.). This seems to be somewhat of a rule. Language has an important role in national or ethnic identities, but there are other elements involved as well.

It is all right to mention people who worked, with good intentions, on Slavic unity (in order to increase their equality to other peoples), as the author did in the introduction to his book, but I believe that it is crucial to stress that Neoslavonic will serve only to help increase and not reduce the importance of all natural Slavic languages. Esperanto apparently had such a function; however Neoslavonic is understandable without learning, as opposed to Esperanto, and this gives it a great advantage.

Additionally, I might add that in reviewing the history of attempts to build Slavic linguistic unity, it would be good to note also two important Croats: Juraj Križanić (1618–1683) who tried to produce a Slavic interlanguage in the 17th century (based mostly on a combination of Russian and his own Kajkavian dialect of Croatian) and Ljudevit Gaj (1809–1872), who tried to unify the Illyrian (Croatian) linguistic scene.

Ljudevit Gaj also made an interesting suggestion, which may be useful in Neoslavonic. As is known, the development of the "jat" phoneme went in different directions in the Slavic-speaking world. The same was (and still is) true on the level of various Croatian dialects. Gaj therefore adopted the sign /ě/ (present today in Czech), which he called "horned e", and said that everyone was free to pronounce it as he liked, as "e" (typical in Kajkavian dialect areas), as "i" (typical in Dalmatia), "je" (in Bosnia, Slavonia), or "je/ije" (originally in the south Dinaric area and in Dubrovnik). The last form was adapted as the Croatian standard, whereas in Serbian, where there were also differences among dialects, "e" (pronounced differently than in Croatian dialects) became the standard. In the period of former Yugoslavia, this standardisation in regard to the development of "jat" (as either "e" or "ije") became a political-linguistic issue between Serbs and Croats. For this reason I think Gaj's suggestion would be a good solution to avoiding such problems in Neoslavonic. Let anyone pronounce the "horned e" as he or she prefers.

In areas of conflict in the Slavic world, due of course to non-linguistic reasons, certain words became symbols of conflict, or marks of identity. To ensure the success of Neoslavonic, such words should be either avoided, or neutral alternatives should be preferred. I have noticed some words of this polarised type (at least in the South Slavic context) in the vocabulary given in Vojtěch Merunka's book. At this point they can be left as they are. Yet later a study should be made to determine whether or not to exclude them, or modify them.

There is one very important topic that I think should be emphasized in the book. It involves computer translation. During the last decades automatic computer translation has improved very much, as is already quite evident when using Google's Internet translator. However, if one tests this translator it becomes obvious that it often uses English as an intermediate language, i.e. "parcer", in translating between languages. Thus, when translating, for example, Croatian into Russian, or even Slovenian into Croatian, the programme goes through English and produces often absurd results. If Neoslavonic were to replace English as a "parcer" in translations between Slavic languages, the result might be very nearly exact – and on the other hand, developing such a role would probably improve the structure of Neoslavonic itself. Moreover, a "parcer" can be put into action immediately, without waiting for it to become accepted as a type of auxiliary lingua franca, and the effect – if successful – would be truly extraordinary. Scientific papers or books, web pages, newspapers, etc., could be read by everyone in the Slavic-speaking world, in their own languages, just by clicking on the translator, regardless of the language in which they were written. As one of my colleagues said when I mentioned this possibility: "This would really increase the amount of citations our papers receive when we write in Croatian". And when studying various topics we would also read papers in Czech, Polish, Russian and other languages. If we are trying to understand our neighbours in Central and Eastern Europe, their cultures, history and economies, such a move would be extremely useful.

Translation via Neoslavonic into all other Slavic languages would likewise help Slavic minorities, whose languages are today threatened. Lusatian Serbs (= Sorbs), as well as Burgenland Croats, if their particular languages or dialects were included in such a translation programme, would be much more motived to preserve their native tongues, instead of replacing them with German, since the linguistic community with which they could have contact would be much greater. The same would apply to the last remaining Croats in the Italian region of Molise, and to other Slavic-speaking minorities.

Moving from these minorities situations to the largest Slavic-speaking people, the Russians and their language, Merunka in his book mentions why using Neoslavonic has certain advantages over learning Russian. The author is very correct in noting that Russian is a specific language, different in many details from the Slavic average. This was probably caused not only by its position at the eastern end of the Slavic world, but by the linguistic assimilation of non-Slavic populations during the expansion phase of the Russian Empire. Like the Finno-Ugric languages that once were spoken in a large part of the Russian territory, Russian usually does not use the present tense of the verb "to be". Most difficult in regard to other Slavic languages is its specific phonology, and especially the reduction of non-accented vowels. Of course, for a native speaker of another Slavic language, it is much easier to learn Russian than English, French, etc., although for us in Croatia (for example) it still takes a few years to master it, whereas Neoslavonic could be learned quickly. This time factor is important. Yet I think it would be good to emphasize not so much the advantages of learning Neoslavonic instead of Russian (since it is useful to learn a natural language with as many speakers as Russian), but rather that learning Neoslavonic might be a way to establish quick professional and business ties with Russia, in which the knowledge of English and other world languages is truly minimal (especially outside of major centres). On the other hand, Neoslavonic could become useful also to Russians, helping them to establish quick ties with a large part of Europe, as well as to overcome the remnants of ideological conflicts that evolved during the period of the Iron Curtain, or in some previous epochs. At any rate, if Neoslavonic is to be promoted, it is essential for it to be supported likewise by Russians, as an auxiliary tool that is advantageous to them.

I might add to the latter paragraph that Russian does not have so much a specific Cyrillic script, as the author says on page 22. Its Cyrillic script was simplified in the early Soviet period, although it is still based on OCS Cyrillic. In fact, the most diverse Slavic Cyrillic script is not Russian, it is Serbian Cyrillic, which has eliminated several letters the other scripts have, and has added specific letters invented by Vuk Karadžić. This new Serbian script, together with Karadžić's language reforms, was a move away from the previous "Serbo-Slavic" language that had been used previously in Serbia. It was an attempt to elevate Serbian dialects to a new literary level (however, Karadžić also imagined many Croats and Bosniaks as Catholic and Muslim Serbs, which ultimately led to conflicts).

In describing Neoslavonic, Merunka also mentions "modernized universal Arabic, based on the language of the Qur'an". Perhaps it would be good in this case to refer to the term "Classical Arabic", which continued to develop from the language of the Qur'an, in a way that was socio-linguistically more similar to Mediaeval and Early-Modern Latin, than to an artificial language.

There are a few other phrases and terms I think that should be reformulated. For instance, I would suggest reformulating the term Slavo-Macedonian, not because it is not essentially exact, but because this is not the way its speakers officially refer to their language. It may be best to mention it first as Macedonian (Slavo-Macedonian), and later just as Macedonian. Another slight correction should be made when mentioning the use of OCS "… by the Orthodox Church and sometimes also by Roman-Catholics". It is true that OCS was used by some Croatian Roman Catholics since the Middle Ages, yet it is still used regularly today by Greek Catholics in Croatia, in the Ukraine and in neighbouring areas. The easiest way to resolve this would be to just refer to Catholics and not "Roman Catholics". Furthermore, the reference to the "Invasion of the Hungarians" should perhaps be "softened". True, it was a powerful invasion that reached as far as Spain and South Italy, but the Hungarians refer to it as “finding a homeland” (honfoglalás). Invasions in the first part of the Middle Ages, it seems, were quite common. The ethnic cores of the South Slav peoples likewise arrived south of the Danube more or less in invasions.

Finally, the example sentence in the book that says that Esperanto is “not a good language” should be replaced or erased. I think that this should be done not because I do not agree with the deduction that Esperanto was not very successful, but rather because this phrase is not necessary, and may sound provocative.

My comments have been mostly directed to the potential usefulness of Neoslavonic, as well as to certain of the author's explanations. The main part of the book, however, provides an outline of the structure and vocabulary of this "zonally constructed" language, which was the author's main goal. This was done correctly, and (apart from the example used mentioning Esperanto) I have not noticed any problems in the material presented, or in the way it was presented. Yet perhaps, in order to avoid some possible criticisms, I would suggest leaving out some of the unnecessary additions in the closing pages, especially the reference to the theory suggested by Matej Bor (et. al.) that the Veneti were Proto-Slavs. This theory was rejected by practically all relevant scientists. Much more important would be adding a page or two on the translation possibilities of Neoslavonic (the "parcer" role), and on the practical advantages of being able to understand it passively (especially for the purposes of international courses for students from Slavic-speaking areas, for business, tourism, etc.).