A country, but not a nation

Czechoslovakia was a single country in 1945-1992 with ca. ⅓ Slovaks and ⅔ Czechs, but the Slovaks on the one hand and the Czechs on the other were formally and individually defined as its two separate, constituent národs, ("nations"). The country's politicians spoke of its people as "our two nations."

Národ and národnosť

While Slovak speakers do not realize it, their use of the word národnosť, based on the concept of národ, splits two ways.

On the one hand, any entry in the box národnosť has the same status as any other entry – "Slovak," "Rusyn," "Hungarian," "Romani (Gypsy)," "Czech," etc., are equal, each is the person's národnosť, "ethnicity."

On the other hand, outside of that context, the Slovaks are a národ inside Slovakia, while the Rusyns, Hungarians, Roma, Czechs, etc., are each a národnosť inside Slovakia – the word means "an ethnic minority" here.

2011 Census

Self-identification in Slovakia, národnosť (percent):

80.7 Slovak
8.5 Hungarian
7.0 no response
2.0 Romani/Gypsy
0.8 Rusyn/Ukrainian
0.6 Czech/Moravian

Surveys estimate that without prejudice against the Roma, about 7.5% of the population might identify as such, partly at the expense of the Slovak and Hungarian numbers.

Past application

As the concept spread in Central Europe, it led to the destruction of a number of lands and the creation of Italy and Germany on their ruins in the 19th century, and to the breakup of the Habsburg Empire (including the creation of Czecho-Slovakia) a few decades later. The decision by Britain and France in Munich in 1938 to place parts of Czecho-Slovakia under Hitler's rule was also based on that concept of a nation.

Emotional appeal

The words národ as well as the English nation have a distinct emotional appeal by comparison to phrases like an ethnic population, a people, a linguistic group.

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Activists, politicians reach for the former rather than for the latter, which is another reason why the words národ and nation keep being used as translations of each other, while an English rendition of národ as, e.g., an ethnic group, is seen as indecorous by Central Europeans.

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Národ in a former Slovak church, McKeesport, PA

From Slovak to English

Like the concepts and words themselves, the boxes for občianstvo and národnosť become puzzling when translated to English, e.g., in a work permit application to be filled in by an American. The citizens of Slovakia see no problem, an ethnic Slovak and an ethnic Hungarian will enter:

Citizenship: Slovakia
Nationality: Slovak

Citizenship: Slovakia
Nationality: Hungarian

To streamline matters, an American may opt to enter:

Citizenship: U.S.A.
Nationality: American

The box "Nationality" does not reflect any legal status, has no legal consequence.

Latin match

The English word nation was adopted from the Latin natio based on "be born," and the Slovak (Central European) národ, with the root rod-, "give birth," is based on a translation of the same Latin word. That, along with the older English and European use of nation in a sense closer to "a people, race, ethnic group," is a main reason why the two rather incompatible words in modern Slovak and English came to be used as translations of each other.

Nationality, ethnicity

Q: What is "nationality" in Slovakia, Central Europe?

The two Slovak, and broadly Central European, concepts, commonly translated to English as citizenship and nationality, are not interchangeable. While the former one is a correct translation of (štátne) občianstvo or štátna príslušnosť, the latter one is a routine (mis)translation of národnosť, a source of confusion.

Národ, ethnic group

The disorienting word národnosť is based on národ as conceived in the 18th century, by the philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder among others, adopted by German, Slovak, Hungarian, and other activists especially during the 19th century, and current in Central Europe through the present. It refers to a set of people seen as sharing traits that differentiate them from others, with language as a central one, regardless of their citizenship, of the political borders that may split the group up among several countries.

Better conveyed by the phrase ethnic group in contemporary English, the word and concept is commonly translated as nation. But národ does not readily match a nation as it is used especially in modern American English in the sense of "a country" and "the sum total of the citizens of a country."

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19th-century kingdom: Nations or ethnic groups? Slovak: národ; Croatian, Slovene, Serbian: narod; German: Nation; Hungarian: nemzet; Romanian: națiune; Rusyn: нація.

The U.S. and Central European concepts of a nation and národ developed along opposing trajectories. While Americans fought the natives and each other for a larger country and their activists and politicians began to convince its immigrant inhabitants they were a single nation after the Civil War, Central European activists and politicians started with their language-defined homegrown národs and eventually sought to establish a country for each of them to avoid Budapest's alienating policy toward the kingdom's non-Hungarian majority. The Pittsburgh Agreement was an important step in that direction by Slovak-Americans.

Boxes in Slovak permanent residency application:

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Box for národnosť

Many Slovak bureaucratic forms, including birth certificates and school reports, have a box for štátne občianstvo or štátna príslušnosť, "citizenship," determined by the law on citizenship, and another box for národnosť, "ethnicity, ethnic identity," but commonly translated as nationality in English. The latter one is freely chosen by (the parents of) the person it applies to, remains freely changeable throughout the person's life, and has no legal consequences.

The census also collects only one such identity. When the authorities wanted to give people the option to record more than one národnosť in the late 1990s, similar to the multiple "ancestry" entries in the U.S. Census, they backed down under pressure from especially the Hungarian minority politicians in Slovakia, who saw keeping the box on národnosť in documents and allowing only one entry as a way to showcase their ethnic group as undiluted.

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First and last name, date and place of birth, "nationality," citizenship, and SSN on a Slovak high-school graduation exam report card.