Languages in Austro-Hungary: The multi-lingual empire by Erik Ramsay - Profesor/a de inglés

Languages in Austro-Hungary: The multi-lingual empire

The Austro-Hungarian empire was one of the most linguistically diverse European empires to ever exist, the empire which came into being in 1867 after the ‘Ausgleich’, was comprised of two main parts: the Empire of Austria and the kingdom of Hungary; both ruled over by the leading member of the House of Habsburg

 

The Empire had over 15 recognised languages with there being no clear majority language as was shown by a 1910 census; within the empire, only 23% of the population spoke German as their mother tongue, followed by 20% Hungarian, 13% Czech and 10% Polish. This extreme linguistic diversity was protected by the constitutions of both Austria and Hungary, ensuring that, not only could individuals speak their mother tongue without fear of persecution but they could also set up local schools and hospitals based on their local language. This relatively liberal linguistic policy was more suited for a group of federated states, than a monarchic state, and led to high levels of unrest and separatism in the more ethnically unified areas of the empire such as Czechia 

 The language diversity of the empire had further disadvantages to it, with no official language, - The Austrian half of the empire had no official language –, parliamentary delegates had no common tongue or translators, Italian delegates spoke Italian, Austrians spoke German and Slavs spoke any number of the Slavic languages, making discourse in parliament was virtually impossible. This had the effect of alienating the different ethnic groups from one another and considerably slowing down the already ineffective parliamentary process. 

In the army too there were problems, at the outbreak of WW1 mobilisation orders had to be sent out in 11 different languages, with the officers in a regiment required to learn their troops’ language within three years, a daunting task during peacetime let alone a world war. After the first months of the war, many experienced officers had been killed or grievously wounded, their replacements would often have to rely on the archaic and ineffectual ‘Army German’ -a list of about 80 German command words, that conscripts were expected to learn - to communicate with their men. This communication breakdown crippled the tactical efficiency of the army and further inflamed separatist sentiments.

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