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Language selection on the Danube strand of the Global Citizenship Summer School 2013

As boundaries of language are never as clear-cut as established country borders, a slightly different selection of languages could have been equally valid (Czech, Croatian, Ukrainian, etc.), not to mention the broader dialectal variation within some of the languages (German in Austria v. Germany, the regional varieties of Romanian in Romania and in the Republic of Moldova, Hungarian in Slovakia, Serbia, and Romania, etc.). Furthermore, the Danube region – including various parts of Central and South-East Europe which are not directly adjacent to the great waterway – has historically been rich in languages and language varieties which defy any association with country borders. Often – as in the case of two minority languages, Yiddish and Romani, once widely spoken in the region, or Aromanian spoken on the Balkan peninsula – they cannot even be mapped on a particular territory, as speakers move, and with them move the languages they speak.

As it would have been impossible to cover all the languages of the region in detail, choices had to be made to enable students to develop insights into not only variation across, but also contact between languages. A desired secondary outcome of the course was to increase students’ awareness of the fact that the ultimate source of this variation and contact are speakers, who come into contact with each other regardless of country borders and even of differences in dialect and language.

Serbian and Bulgarian were to represent the South-Slavic continuum of languages on the Balkan peninsula. Thus, although it was impossible to do justice to the real variation across these languages and dialects (recent developments in Croatian, for example, were not discussed), students had exposure to languages which either entirely or partially use a different script (Bulgarian is written only in Cyrillic, Serbian both in Cyrillic and Latin script). This allowed students insights into what script has to do with culture (and, in the traditional sense, even with religion), which was then reinforced in the one-hour lecture on Yiddish, a Germanic language written in Hebrew script (which makes it ‘look like’ Hebrew or a Semitic language). Slovak, a Western-Slavonic language, represented a different branch of Slavonic languages, with a culture grounded in Western Catholicism rather than Orthodoxy.

Romanian and Hungarian were selected because they are the only representatives of their language families in the region: the Romance branch of the Indo-European languages and the Finno-Ugric branch of the Uralic languages, respectively. Besides that, Hungarian is the only non-Indo-European language of the region, and, typologically, the only agglutinating language (it uses suffixes, ‘endings’ rather than prefixes to convey grammatical information). Interestingly, Hungary is also the only country in Europe which has only a non-Indo-European language among its official languages (cf. Estonia, which has recognised regional languages other than Estonian). Both Romanian and Hungarian are good examples of the changes that occur in the structure and lexis of languages because of borrowing from genealogically non-related languages as a result of regional contact with them (both Romanian and Hungarian have borrowed a great deal from Slavonic and, especially Hungarian, from German). Again, ideas about the impact of borrowing on the lexical stock and grammatical apparatus (including also idioms and metaphors) were reinforced through Yiddish.

Finally, German, the Westernmost language of the Danube region, allowed students to gain insights into regional varieties: they learnt about the differences between varieties spoken in Austria and in Germany, as well as about Swabian German, which was brought to various parts of the Danube region by its speakers, the Danube Swabians, originally from South-West Germany. Yiddish, besides providing an example of a language which is not associated with any of the nation-states of the region but which was spoken in almost all of them, also allowed students to familiarise with Jewish life and culture along the Danube.