U.S. English Foundation Research

Language Research

4. Minority groups: To what extent are minority groups in this country disadvantaged by their language?
Updated (December 2002)


Croatian language rights in Austria apply only to the Austrian citizens living in six (of seven) districts in the province of Burgenland, but not to those living in Vienna or any other region of Austria. Language rights are administered according to the territorial principles. By moving out of the officially bilingual area a minority speaker loses all his language rights.

Source: Mercator Education, Regional Dossiers, the Croatian Language in Education in Austria


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Updated (September 2004)


On September 15, 2004, during the official state visit in Slovenia, the President of Austria, Dr Heinz Fischer, discussed with his Slovene counterpart, Mr Janez Drnovsek, the issue of bilingual signs in Southern Carinthia (Kärnten/Koroska).

Carinthia, the southern region of Austria1, has traditionally been majority Slovene-speaking. After World War I, when this part of former Austria-Hungary was incorporated into Yugoslavia, Austria succeeded in obtaining a plebiscite for Southern Carinthia in which the population was to determine the country they want to live in. Although the majority in the region was Slovene, 59 percent voted in favor of Austria.

Carinthia was the center of the inter war German Nationalist Party of Austria (Deutschnationale Partei) and it is a place of work of the current right wing governor Jörg Haider and the Freedom Party (FPÖ). These factors have also pressurized the Slovenes into assimilation and their language1 out of everyday use.

Heretofore Austrian legislation guaranteed bilingual signage in any municipality where an autochthonous linguistic minority constitutes at least 25 percent of the total population. However, the latest decision of the High Court declared the 25 percent threshold unconstitutional. Since then Carinthian right wing politicians and the representatives of the Slovene minority have been engaged in a battle of words. Even a recent attempt of the Austrian chancellor to reach consensus between the Carinthian factions failed.

The Slovene minority is working towards greater territorial bilingualism in their traditional settlement areas3 (regardless of their percentage). Slovene representatives hope that Austrian federal politics as well as Austrian-Slovene diplomacy will solve the issue. On the other hand Austrian politicians believe that further improvements for the Slovene minority should be interlinked with the greater protection for the German-speaking minority and Austrian heritage in Slovenia.

Minority protection standards in the traditionally Hungarian and Italian-speaking areas of the country are generally considered to be exemplary compared to many other countries. However, Slovenia has so far failed to take any measures to strengthen bilingualism in the Slovene cities like Maribor/Marburg, Celje/Cilli and Kocevje/Gottschee, which have traditionally been German speaking.

The German minority was largely expelled during and after the Second World War. Those, who remained, were under enormous pressure to assimilate and only very few succeeded in maintaining their traditional language.

Both presidents spoke out in favor of a quick and extensive solution for the Slovene minority in Southern Carinthia. Mr Fischer appealed to Carinthian politicians to save this minority from extinction. Mr Drnovsek added that he hopes for a compromise as for the recent decision of the Austrian constitutional court.

Source: Eurolang News, Biel/Bienne, September 19, 2004, by Peter Josika, http://www.eurolang.net/news.asp?id=4755

1 A small part of Carinthia belongs to Slovenia.

2 Nowadays the Slovene language is the only minority language spoken in this area.

3 This area also includes the historically bilingual cities of Klagenfurt/Celovec and Villach/Belak.

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Updated (December 2004)


Members of the Slovene community in the town of St Kanzian/Skocjan1 demonstrated their dissatisfaction with governmental inaction concerning bilingual signage in this area.

On December 13, 2001 the Austrian High Court decided that the then regulation, which made bilingual signage dependent on the fact whether a particular minority constitutes 25 percent of the municipality’s population, was unconstitutional. The court requested to reduce this threshold; however, it failed to clarify the percentage.

Three years after the decision was announced, the government still has not acted on the ruling. The only attempt of the chancellor Schüssel to reach agreement on this matter (two years ago) failed when representatives of the Carinthian government and the Slovene minority did not agree on technicalities. A second consensus conference is due next month.

Source: Eurolang News, by Peter Josika, Vienna, December 15, 2004, http://www.eurolang.net/

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Updated (December 2005)


Based on the decision of the Carinthian Governor, Jörg Haider, the bilingual signs erected at the beginning of November in Vellach/Bela, southern Carinthia, were removed recently.

Vellach/Bela does not fulfill the criteria for bilingual signage defined in the Austrian minority law. However, since the High Court declared the current minority law unconstitutional in 2001, and it has not been replaced yet, the district administration of Völkermarkt/Velikovec finally agreed that the municipality of Vellach/Bela will have bilingual signs at all town entries.

The Governor declared that the new signs breach the law and ordered their removal. On November 14, state government workers wanted to remove the signs but their effort was hampered by Franz Josef Smrtnik, the local councilor representing the Slovenian minority, who chained himself to one of the signs.

Both the Slovene minority and the Austrian Greens do not agree with Haider’s decision and want to take legal action against him (for contravening the Constitution)1.

Article 7 of the Austrian State Treaty states that districts with Croat and Slovene speaking minorities in the provinces of Carinthia, Styria and Burgenland must have bilingual signage and topography. Austria later extended these rights to the Hungarians of Burgenland unilaterally.

The 1976 Act of Parliament makes bilingual signage dependent on the percentage of minority population living in the area (a minimum of 20 percent). The 2001 ruling of the High Court rejected the law as unconstitutional. Some interpret this decision as a complete rejection of the percentage based threshold, others would like to reduce it to 10-15 percent.

Despite promises made by the Chancellor Schüssel that a consensus will be reached this year, there has been little progress in this matter over recent months.

Source: Eurolang News, Biel/Bienne, November 18, 2005 by Peter Josika, http://www.eurolang.net/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=2520&Itemid=1&lang=en

The motion, however, has a little chance of success because Jörg Haider’s BZÖ Party is part of the current government coalition.
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Updated (January 2006)


On December 15, 2005 Jörg Haider, the Carinthian Governor, invited Lord Mayors, councilors and church representatives to a round table discussion on the ongoing issue of bilingual signs in southern Carinthia.

The outcome of the debate was announced by Haider at a press conference in Vienna where he said that he is prepared to put up additional bilingual signs if the Lord Mayors of the municipalities involved find consensus among themselves and the local population. Even though this is a new step in solving the problem, the conflict has been simply moved from the national and provincial to the local level. Therefore some of the local politicians are now calling for a plebiscite to decide the issue what can be particularly problematic. It also raises the question whether it can be considered democratic if a majority forces a minority to surrender some of their rights1.

Some analysts see this as a politically motivated step to divide the opposition. It is based on the fact that Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) on the national level has been demanding for the implementation of the 2001 High Court ruling for a long time while their party colleagues in Southern Carinthia often face strong local opposition to bilingual signage.

The Greens and some Slovene minority representatives have also criticized Haider for changing or re-interpreting conditions for the erection of bilingual signs. Since he suggested that signs should be put up if Slovenes constitute at least 10 percent of the population in a municipality or 15 percent in a locality (settlement, village or town) belonging to the municipality. Although these percentages are in line with the 2001 High Court recommendation, Mr. Haider wants to use updated census results rather than the census data of 1971, which the original law on bilingual topography refers to. According to media reports, this would reduce the number of localities with additional bilingual signs from 324 to 123.

Minority representatives now fear that future legislation will be based on a headcount, reassessed after each census, and it would enable the government to remove the signs afterwards. So it may in turn diminish the bilingualism in southern Carinthia.

Source: Eurolang News, Biel/Bienne, Switzerland, December 17, 2005 by Peter Josika



The ongoing controversy on additional bilingual signage in southern Carinthia has escalated over the Christmas period.

On December 12, 2005, the Austrian High Court reiterated its 2001 decision and ruled that bilingual place signs should be erected in the towns of Ebersdorf (Drvesa vas) and Bleiburg (Pliberk). The Slovenian place names have to be added to the German by 30th June 2006.

Upon releasing the ruling, the President of the Court, Mr. Karl Korinek, called on competent authorities to implement the Court decisions on bilingual signs as their non-implementation would represent a breach of the law. However, his statements upset some politicians in Carinthia, including the Governor Joerg Haider, who threatened to take legal action against Korinek. Haider stated that Korinek’s rulings were not constitutional but purely political. On the other hand, Austrian legal experts condemned Haider’s threats, while Korinek’s legal arguments were supported by the President, Heinz Fischer. He demanded a quick solution to the issue of bilingual signs, which was also highly criticized by the Carinthian Government.

Haider held a news conference on 30th December to reiterate that the ruling cannot be implemented and to call for all minority issues to be agreed upon in a single package. If a consensus-based decision is not reached by June 2006, Haider said that blank signposts and a speed limit sign would replace the existing place signs in German. He added that the issue would be discussed with the Mayors of southern Carinthia, where the Slovenian minority mainly resides, on 13th of January 2006.

In a newspaper interview with the Slovene daily “Vecer” of Marburg/Maribor, the former Secretary for the Affairs of Slovenes living outside of Slovenia, Franc Puksic2, attacked the Austrian and Carinthian governments claiming that Austria was following an extremist policy towards Slovenes and was not a law abiding country. In response to his allegations, the Carinthian parliamentary spokesman of the Conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), Raimund Grilz, called Mr. Puksic a stirrer and the Deputy Governor of Carinthia, Uwe Scheuch, said that his comments were outrageous and he was trying to make an issue out of something that is not one. Furthermore, Stefan Petzner, the spokesman of the Carinthian Government, posed the question to the issue: “Is Slovenia a law abiding country? There the German speaking minority remains completely without any rights.”

Analysts fear that this ongoing controversy about bilingual signs may have a detrimental effect on Austrian-Slovene relations. And the opposition Austrian Social Democrats and Greens are afraid that the issue may have an negative impact on Austria’s EU presidency in the first half of 2006.

Source: Eurolang News, Biel – Benne, December 31, 2005 by Peter Josika http://www.eurolang.net/ and http://www.sloveniatimes.com/

The rights of the Slovene minority group in Austria are stipulated in the Constitution as well as in two international treaties – the 1955 Austrian State Treaty and the 1919 Peace Treaty of St Germain.
He officially resigned from his position in July 2005 due to insufficient support for his department by the Slovene government.
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Updated (April 2006)


The Slovenes from Carinthia accompanied by representative organizations of Slovene minorities in Italy, Hungary and Croatia visited the European Parliament. Except opening the exhibition on Slovenian minorities abroad in the hall of the European Parliament, they also met the vice-chair of the Intergroup for Minorities Kinga Gal and left a document with the EP President’s office.

The trip to Brussels aimed to show the main difficulties the minority is dealing with in central Europe and to make European institutions aware that their problems are far away from being solved.

For example, Jelko Kacin, MEP and a liberal from Slovenia, opened the exhibition with the following words: “We have brought these bilingual signposts here, to Brussels, to make MEPs aware that something is going wrong in Austria.” Moreover, Marjan Pipp explained that the reason why they took the place names to the Parliament is that they could not be put in place in Carinthia.

Carinthian Slovenes included also some figures in the exhibition. They pointed out that in 1900, there were 75,136 Slovenes in Carinthia, while in the 2001 census only 12,586 citizens stated that they belong to this minority. In addition, the representatives informed that the Austrian constitutional court has ruled that more than hundred bilingual place names should be erected in the region. In spite of this fact, the president of the regional government, Mr. Joerg Haider, has several times refused to implement the decision.

Regarding the Slovenes in Italy, Mr. Rudi Pavsic, the president of SLOMAK1, criticized the Italian Parliament for not implementing the legislation for the protection of Slovenes even though it was adopted five years ago. The reason is that the government has not yet approved the list of communes where the law should be applied.

The Slovenes in Hungary, a very small community in a deeply economically depressed area, are concerned, because the bilateral treaty Slovenia and Hungary signed in 1992 still has not been fully implemented.

Finally, Slovenes in Croatia still have not been fully recognized. In 1991, approximately 24,000 Croatian citizens declared themselves as Slovenes, while in 2001 there were only 14,000. Representatives of this community are convinced that bad relations between Slovenia and Croatia are the main reason for the decrease, as well as it is being unpopular to declare oneself as a Slovene in Croatia.

In conclusion, Slovenian minorities have found themselves twice marginalized – both by the kin state and by the states they live in.

Source: Eurolang News, April 1, 2006 by Bojan Brezigar http://www.eurolang.net/

The Co-ordination of Slovenian minorities (Slovenska manjšinska koordinacija – SLOMAK), the representative body of Slovenes living in Austria, Croatia, Hungary and Italy.
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Updated (November 2006)


The issue of removing the bilingual town entry signs in Carinthia has arisen once again – the bilingual town entry signs for Schwabeg/Žvabek have been replaced by Joerg Haider yet again, this time by large monolingual German signs with much smaller Slovene supplementary labels underneath.

The move follows a highly controversial government ordinance by the Carinthian Department of Infrastructure that replaces the traditional practice of putting place names in German and Slovene on the same sign in the same size font. The ordinance is based on a statement released by the Carinthian division of the Austrian High Court in 2001 that proposes supplementary labels as a legally acceptable alternative to full-scale bilingual signs.

The first Slovene supplementary signs were erected in Bad Bleiburg/Pliberk earlier this year after the Austrian High Court declared the missing Slovene designation of “Pliberk” at all town entry points to be unconstitutional.

While the supplementary boards at Pliberk were considered a small step forward as there was no Slovenian signage there before, the removal of the existing full-scale bilingual signs at Žvabek have been strongly condemned by various Austrian and Slovene politicians, as well as by the media and members of the Slovene minority.

They all argue that the High Court proposal on the use of supplementary boards has to be understood as a cost saving measure and not as it has been taken – as an invitation to remove existing bilingual signs.

Matthäus Grilc of the Council of Carinthian Slovenes called the removal of the bilingual sign at the town of Schwabegg/Žvabek an unbelievable scandal. Similarly, Ms Zalka Kuchling, the minority speaker of the Carinthian Greens, said that the removal of the sign was “an irresponsible act of provocation” adding that, “it is unbearable to see Haider continuously instigating conflict between people”.

Experts also pointed to the fact that the Austrian High Court has never suggested for Slovene place names to be printed in a smaller font than the German equivalents because both the Slovene and German names have exactly the same legal status.

At the same time, there is strong criticism in Austria that neighboring Slovenia continues to reject the official recognition of the German minority – historically the largest of the country. According to some, Joerg Haider and his BZÖ party actually benefits from the lack of bilingual signs in historic German settlements in Slovenia as many Carinthians feel that linguistic heritage is not treated equally on both sides of the border.

Source: Eurolang News, November 24, 2006 by Peter Josika http://www.eurolang.net/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=2770&Itemid=1&lang=en