Slovenian Place-Names in Carinthia and the „Ortstafelstreit“


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© Univ.Prof. i.R. Dr. Heinz Dieter Pohl 





Historical background

(adapted from:


The Slovenes in Carinthia and the very small Slovene minority in Styria form a historic and traditional ethnic group in Austria, mainly in the border regions to Slovenia, but in Gail Valley / Ziljska dolina too. The legal position of minorities seems clear in this country. However, the inefficient minority policy and the strong influence of so-called German feeling groups on the Austrian – and in this case especially on the Carinthian – policy had led several times to intense confrontations, including violent actions, first of all during the „Road Sign Storm“ (Ortstafelsturm) of 1972.

I want to give an overview of the history of Slovenes in Carinthia and of the struggles between German-speaking Austrians and Slovene-speaking Austrians. I will describe some attempts to implement the rights for minorities in Carinthia, and how the most of these attempts failed. Minority policy in Austria often seems – from the government’s point of view – to be of little significance. But, as we can see, the conflicts between minority and majority got out of hand several times and they continue to have an influence on the policy in many aspects. Hitherto, the Austrian Federal Government was not able to implement all constitutional federal laws and rights, in our case: there is no sufficient solution on bilingual road signs. There are only 70 – from more than 90 according to the Federal Law of 1976.

The Slovenes in Carinthia have a long history and tradition. One of the first known political entities in this region was the Alpine Slavonic principality of Carantania in the 7th and 8th Century AD. The closer relationship to the Bavarian principality was followed by the christianization of the Slovene population. This started a process of lingering germanization and assimilation which can be observed into our days.

Since the middle Ages, the territory which builds the modern state of Slovenia belonged to the German Kingdom respectively Roman Empire and then to the Habsburg monarchy; after the Austrian-Hungarian Compromise of 1867 it was part of Cisleithania, i.e. the „Austrian“ part of the dual monarchy.

Although there was a tendency to assimilate into the dominant ethnic group of Germans respectively Magyars in the whole monarchy until the First World War, the Slovenes developed a national identity from the 19th Century. This process sometimes took place in contrast, sometimes together with the nation-formation – „national revival“ or „renaissance“, as it is often called – of the Croats. Since then, the small Slovene nation was often ideologically „incorporated“ into the German-Austrian nation on the one hand, and into the Croat, or „Illyrian“, i.e. South Slav nation, on the other. In contrast to the Croat nation, which had a strong link to the „own“ medieval „Triune Kingdom“ (i.e. Croatia, Slavonia and Dalmatia), the Slovenian nation found itself split between German, Italian (in Istria and the Coastlines) and Hungarian territories.

When in late 1918 the „Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes“ – the later Yugoslavia – was formed, this new state claimed the South Carinthian region as did German-Austria. This short military conflict and the successful „defence“ of the German population (the so-called „Kärntner Abwehrkampf“) led to a plebiscite, which was instructed in the peace treaty of Saint Germain. About 60% of the population of Southern Carinthia – including approximately 12 000 Slovenes (or 40%) – decided in October 1920 to stay in the Austrian state.

The Slovene minority was assured to gain equal rights. But very soon this promise turned out to be nothing but words. Under Nazi-rule the Slovenes in Carinthia had been oppressed in many cases. Since 1942 some of the Slovenian population was expelled from Austria (more than 1000 persons). This lastly led to the formation of a resistance against the Nazi regime. The „Osvobodilna Fronta“ (liberation front) then worked together along with the Communist Party of Slovenia and was involved in some Partisan activities, which partly took place also on Carinthian territory.

After the Second World War these ideological and military confrontations led to a greater differentiation and estrangement between the German-speaking population and the – now smaller – Slovenian minority. Additionally to this, demands from Yugoslavia to incorporate the southern parts of Carinthia, led to a highly tense situation.

The Austrian „State Treaty“ of 1955, which re-established an independent Austria, granted important minority-rights for Croats and Slovenes in Burgenland, Styria and Carinthia. However, again – as after 1918/1920 – these rights were not implemented.

Already in 1958, Carinthian German speaking groups achieved to officially ignore the right for obligatory bilingual education. In 1972, the Austrian government under Federal Chancellor Bruno Kreisky tried to advance the situation of minorities. The attempt to draw up bilingual road signs (Ortstafel) was received with bitter resistance among so called patriotic groups of the Carinthian population („Kärntner Heimatdienst“, „Abwehrkämpferbund“). This led to the violent removal of the road signs without any intervention of police and politicians – the so called „Road Sign Storm“ (Ortstafelsturm). These actions could gain an important influence on the official politics. To refuse to place more bilingual topographic names stands in a clear contrast to the relating laws and agreements.


Juridical basis

(adapted from:

The events from 1972 led to an „appeasement-policy“ towards the Carinthian traditional patriotic German speaking groups. The result of this can be seen in the Ethnic Groups Law (Volksgruppengesetz) of 1976, according to which bilingual road signs should be drawn up in regions with more than 25% Slovenian population. It took 25 years for this section of the law concerning the topographic signs to be repealed by the Austrian Constitutional Court (Verfassungsgerichtshof) in December 2001.

Therefore it lasted until 2001 to achieve success in this issue. The Austrian Constitutional Court (Verfassungsgerichtshof) decided to repeal the part of the Ethnic Groups Law of 1976 which ruled that topographic names must be signposted bilingually only in regions where more than 25% of the population belong to an ethnic group. This regulation would be contrary to Article 7 of the State Treaty of 1955, where no numerical limitation can be found. The Constitutional Court recommended to build up bilingual road signs in regions where the Slovene population constitutes more than 10% of the entire population.

At the moment, there is no early compromise to be expected. Wolfgang Schüssel’s „offer“ of 148 bilingual road signs is not acceptable for the Slovenes, who demand at least 300 new signs in German and Slovenian, and this is not acceptable for the German speaking majority – a Gordian knot for Austrian politicy.

As the minority affairs are a matter of the Federal Government, it would be a simple process to overrule the narrow-minded Carinthian Provincial Government. The „Road-Sign-Conflict“ is still not resolved in any way. The Slovene minority in this year was looking forward to the 50th anniversary of the State Treaty in 2005. However, these hopes have not been fulfilled, as they were not after the admission of Slovenia into the European Union.


Linguistic and onomastic details


For onomastic questions there are several books: a new bilingual gazetteer [Kattnig Franz / Kulnik Michael / Zerzer Janko, Zweisprachiges Kärnten – Dvojezična Koroška (ISBN:3-7086-0106-8) Klagenfurt, Verlag Hermagoras/Mohorjeva 2004], a historical documentation [Pavel Zdovc, Slovenska krajevna imena na Koroškem. Die Slowenischen Ortsnamen in Kärnten. Klagenfurt/Celovec 1993; Pavel Zdovc, Slovenska krajevna imena na Avstrijskem Koroškem. Die Slowenischen Ortsnamen in Kärnten. Ljubljana, SAZU 2010] and my book, a linguistic description [Heinz-Dieter Pohl, Unsere slowenischen OrtsnamenNaša slovenska krajevna imena. Klagenfurt, Hermagoras/Mohorjeva 2010]. My book shows the bilingual character of Carinthian onomastics. This property is an inheritance that I rank higher than antique excavations, medieval castles or modern artistic monuments. My listing of Carinthian place names do not pretend to replace the standard reference works by Kattnig/Kulik/Zerzer or Zdovc, but provides something of greater interest to linguists an other interested readers, because I have tried to list the place names in four categories. There are names with clear Slavic or Slovenian origin (2), those with clear German origin (1), those that could have originated in either (3), and those whose origins are to be sought in the substrate or Celtic respectively Romance time (4). 

(1)       Feldkirchen, Bleiburg, Aich

(2)       Ferlach, Friesach, Dob, Globasnitz

(3)       Aich ~ Dob ‘oak’

(4)       Villach.

An other view is the context in each of both languages, there are two groups:

(I)        place-names used in German context: Feldkirchen, Bleiburg, Aich, Ferlach, Friesach, Villach, Globasnitz

(II)      place-names used in Slovenian context: Trg, Pliberk, Dob, Borovlje, Breže, Beljak, Globasnica.

We have on principal a bilingual system:

(German)      Feldkirchen          (Slovenian) Trg

                     Bleiburg                                  Pliberk

                     Aich                                        Dob

                     Ferlach                                   Borovlje

                     Friesach                                  Breže

           Villach                                    Beljak

                     Globasnitz                              Globasnica

Many names of Slovenian origin have a long documentation and tradition, e.g.:

Bela                     Vellach                975 Velach

           Ostrovica             Hochosterwitz      860 Astaruuiza

           Ribnica                Reifnitz                 977 Ribniza

           Trebinje               Treffen                 860 Trebina

           Zvirče                   Wirtschach           965 Vuirzsosah

Some today only in German used names have their first documentation in Slovenian, e.g.  Niederdorf (Hörzendorf), 993 Podinauuiz, this would be „Podnja (or Spodnja) ves or vas“. If we have a Slovenian Pliberk or Suha for German Bleiburg (1228 Pliburch) or Zauchen, one can see, that the names are relatively early borrowed from language to language.

There is a continuing controversy concerning the Slovene spelling of several place-names, for instance the choice between Dobrla ves and …vas for ‘Eberndof’ or between written Tulce or Tuce for ‘Tutzach’. Factually, it cannot be faulted: the traditional spellings reflect Carinthian phonological developments and the spelling prefered by minority leaders and scholars are either Standard Slovenian variants (Dobrla vas) or misunderstandings (Tuce), because Tulce (exactly Tułce) is reflecting a phonological /tuwce/ which arose from an old *Tъlčiče. It is very difficult to find the correct spelling for place-names – also in German, e.g. Bruck vs. Brücke, the same problem as Slovenian ves or vas. The Styrian town Bruck an der Mur has the dialectal form, but Möllbrücke in Carinthia the Standard German form, although it is spoken /melprúkn/ in the local dialect.

The Common Slavic word vьsь ‘village’ has two forms in the Slovenian dialects: ves or vas. In Carinthia there is only a small vas-area in the East of Völkermarkt / Velikovec, the greater part has ves. This was the generalized spelling in the Old Austrian gazetteers and today it is also officially prefered by the government. Nevertheless, only vas is used in the Slovenian literature. I think that is a marginal problem. Both forms are originally Slovenian like the composed names, e.g. Bilčovs ‘Ludmannsdorf’. A similar, but only orthographic problem is Slove­nji Plajberg~Plajberk: the inhabitants are named Plajberžani (in Slovenian morpho­phonemics exists only an alternation g~ž or k~č, e.g. in Pliberk: Pliberčani), therefore Plajberg with -g is phonological correct.

Place-names are a part of linguistic and cultural heritage, they are connecting people in bilingual zones, because every locality is named in two languages. This mountain is called Dreiländereck ‘the corner of three countries’, the old name is Slovenian Peč, also in German, written Petsch or translated Ofen. This word means ‘stove’, but ‘rock’ also, in German too. There are many Ofen / Peč in Carinthia and in the Styrian neighbourhood. This example indicates the similarity of semantic conception in both Carinthian languages. Since 1918 the border to Italy is in this place – the origin of the Dreiländereck. The Italians have created Monte Forno, a translation of Peč or Ofen.

However, the new name Dreiländereck shows a new way of thinking: there is no frontier in an old fashioned sense, it is a point connecting three countries, symbolized by the new name.