“Why can’t both things be true simultaneously?” Interview with Marc L. Greenberg on Prekmurje Slovene Grammar

Author/interviewer: Dušan Mukič (Szombathely)
Originally published in Porabje magazine, no. 51 (2020).
Find a copy of the magazine here (pdf).

On 15 October the Dutch academic publisher Brill published the translation of Prekmurje Slovene Grammar (in the original Hungarian: Vend nyelvtan), by Avgust Pavel, into English. This extensive linguistic study was translated and provided with scholarly annotations by the American linguist and professor of Slavic linguistics, Marc L. Greenberg, who also holds the titles of Corresponding Member of the Slovene Academy of Sciences and Arts and Ambassador of Science and Scholarship of the Republic of Slovenia.

The linguist, literary scholar, and ethnographer Avgust Pavel completed his grammar of the Prekmurje dialect in 1942. The purpose of the commission of the grammar by the Hungarian authorities at that time was to produce a handbook for studying the language of Prekmurje in the public school system. Pavel’s study quickly exceeded the planned framework and so it remained in an unpublished typescript all the way until 2013, when it was translated into Slovene and published in the Mednarodna knjižna zbirka ZORA series at the University of Maribor. Pavel had used Hungarian as the metalanguage of the work.

On the occasion of the publication of the English translation we conducted a transatlantic video conference to discuss the edition. Our conversation was held in standard Slovene.

Professor Greenberg, you have been working in Slavic studies for several decades, having written your PhD dissertation on the Prekmurje dialect. When and how did you first encounter this language?

That was quite some time ago, when I was a graduate student at UCLA. At that time I had the good fortune to study with the now late professor and academic Pavle Ivić, who was then a visiting scholar on the Fulbright Exchange Program. He sparked my interest in South Slavic dialectology. When I told him that I was interested in Slovene and that I was engaged to a woman from Slovenia, he suggested I look into a dialect on the periphery of the Slovene linguistic territory, Prekmurje. In particular he pointed out the Phonology of the Cankova Dialect by Avgust Pavel (A vashidegkúti szlovén nyelvjárás hangtana, 1909), a rare book which I had to order through interlibrary loan from the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. That book, because of its remarkably rich detail, got me quite excited about the prospect of studying this dialect. To make a long story short, not long after that I applied for and received a Fulbright Dissertation Fellowship to conduct my own field work in Slovenia. With the sponsorship of the late Prof. Jože Toporišič I was able to spend the last couple years of the 1980s in Slovenia, where I made several field studies in Prekmurje and Porabje.

Once you studied the Phonology you became acquainted with another, broader work by Pavel. Who introduced you to his Grammar?

In those years I had the good fortune to meet many people in Prekmurje who helped me with my work. One of them was the then director of the Regional and Academic Library in Murska Sobota, Mr. Jože Vugrinec, who showed me a copy of the Vend nyelvtan in the Library’s collection. I had until then been unaware of its existence, but I immediately recognized that it was an important work and that it provided a comprehensive overview of the structure of the dialect.

What is the importance of this grammar? How should we gauge its value today?

The Hungarian authorities at the time had in mind a standard language for the Slovenska krajina (i.e., Porabje and Prekmurje) that would be used for the regional school system and would help to create a separate ethnic identity for the population of this region. Later (i.e., after the second world war) this purpose was no longer valid. However, this did not mean that there was not valuable material in the work. The work went beyond shaping a standard version of the Prekmurje dialect, but, as we view it today, it provides insight into the state of the language in Pavel’s time. He had conducted extensive studies of the dialect in various localities in Porabje and Prekmurje, which means that he built not just on his internal knowledge of his home dialect of Cankova. He represented the striking linguistic variegation of the region and in this sense the book represents a both a holistic view of the dialect and its internal reticulation.

You have now translated that work into English. In your view is the Prekmurje dialect of interest to the international linguistic profession?

Some time ago I wrote a study about a peculiarity of the dialect that I found in Pavel’s grammar which concerned the distinction between two subordinating conjunctions, ka vs. da, a contrast that is unknown in the remainder of the Slovene dialect territory. This study was noticed by a group of researchers in Switzerland who were studying the variety of structures in subordinate clauses in South Slavic languages. My study added another piece to the puzzle of understanding the spectacularly vibrant picture of this fragment of South Slavic language systems. Because it represents a unique development (on the usually neglected northern end of South Slavic), it drew particular interest at our workshop at the University of Zurich in 2016.

You translated the Grammar from the Hungarian original. Was the Slovene translation also of help in this undertaking?

I translated it from Hungarian with the help of a former student at the University Kansas whose native language is Hungarian. In fact, the translation into English was finished about fifteen years ago, some time before the Slovene translation. In the meantime, my colleague Marija Bajzek Lukács published the Slovene version first, which made eminent sense. The Slovene translation is an excellent edition aimed at the domestic (Slovene) audience. I thought it would be useful for the broader linguistic community to have the opportunity to read the Grammar. I have added annotations that make the Brill publication a “critical edition”; not in the sense that it “criticizes” Pavel, but I have added commentary that contextualizes the work and enriches it with notes that derive from my fieldwork as well as other relevant work by others that has been done since Pavel’s time.

Did you run into any difficulties with the translation?

There weren’t any particular difficulties except that there were some missing pieces from the photocopy I was working from. And here my colleague Marija Bajzek Lukács’s publication came in very handy: I could both fill in these gaps as well as check passages where I wasn’t sure about the nuance of the Hungarian original. Looking back, I am extremely grateful for her excellent Slovene translation, which helped me to improve the English translation.

You have researched the connections between West and South Slavic languages. Are there features in the Prekmurje dialect that reflect this “Pannonian” connection?

In the past there was a continuum between the West and South Slavic languages before Hungarian and German eventually prevailed through language shift in the Pannonian Basin. One example among many can be seen in the accentuation pattern of verbs of the type nesén, neséš, nesémo ‘carry’ 1SG, 2SG, 1PL, which have a long -e- vowel, а feature that continues into the Central Slovak dialect. On the other hand, the Central Slovak dialect also has the 1PL marker in the verb in -mo, like Slovene and BCMS, rather than the more typical West Slavic ending -me. These and many other features point to the erstwhile continuum between West and South Slavic.

During your work on the Grammar you stayed in communication with native speakers of the dialect. If I am correctly informed, you even ran a survey in a social media space.

That’s right! In Pavel’s Grammar I noticed an intriguing observation. He had observed that in his time the feminine nominative plural forms of place names like Skakovce, Sakalovce or Prosenjakovce were still in use, while today those occur in masculine forms: Skakovci, Sakalovci, Prosenjakovci. Through online dialogue with several speakers we were able to determine that the feminine forms have, in all likelihood, gone out of use. It is a nice example of how the internet can be a useful conduit for our communication and, albeit on a minor point, our understanding of the world.

As a linguist from a faraway land what do you think about this sensitive dilemma: is the Prekmurje dialect a language of its own or a dialect of Slovene?

Why can’t both things be true simultaneously? It has its own written tradition going back to the 18th century, so, from this perspective, it is a “literary language.” In this sense it can be seen as a phenomenon of its own. On the other hand, it is intimately tied to Slovene and there is no reason to differentiate it in such a way as to classify it as something non-Slovene. Of course, it is also a Slovene language.

In the dedication of your book we read the following: Dobrin lidan Slovenske krajine ‘To the good people of Slovenska krajina’. To whom, in fact, have you dedicated your work?

I dedicated it to the people who helped me in my fieldwork. When I started on my fieldwork journey, I was quite young and naive, thinking I could just walk through villages and people would simply offer up the linguistic data I needed. I hadn’t yet grasped that it was important to build relationships with people and gain their trust. In the end I was pleasantly surprised how open and helpful people were in Prekmurje and Porabje. They did, in fact, open their homes to me, they were hospitable to me beyond my wildest expectations, and they gladly helped to teach me their language. I’m not sure they always understood what I was after, but they were always helpful and friendly to me. I have very warm memories of those times, the people I met, and their patience in recounting to me how life was inda svejta ‘in olden times’. All of this helped me to build a marvelous corpus of dialect material. In sum, the dedication is meant to express my eternal gratitude for the hospitality of the people of the Slovenska krajina.

Prekmurje Slovene Grammar. Avgust Pavel’s Vend nyelvtan (1942) was published in Brill's Studies in Slavic and General Linguistics in October 2020.

This interview is a full transcript of a (shorter) TV interview which was broadcasted by Slovenski Utrinki in November 2020 and can be found here.