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Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, Or Montenegrin? Or Just 'Our Language'?

February 21 marks International Mother Language Day. The UN-sponsored event, observed every year since 2000, aims to promote linguistic diversity and protect the heritage of the world's 6,000 remaining languages.

Croatians have objected to their language being paired with Serbian in the past
Croatians have objected to their language being paired with Serbian in the past
By Ljudmila Cvetkovic and Goran Vezic
SPLIT/BELGRADE (RFE/RL) -- To an outsider, a phrase like Shakespeare's famous line, "A rose by any other name would still smell as sweet" sounds much the same regardless of who in the western Balkans is saying it.

In the Balkans, language and politics are closely intertwined, and a region that was once seen as speaking a single common language now argues that it has as many as four native tongues -- Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, and Montenegrin.

Never mind that a Serb from Banja Luka and a Croat from Dubrovnik can carry on a conversation and understand each other perfectly.

If asked in each other's company what language they are speaking, they'd be likely to answer: "our language" -- the nation-neutral answer that has become a form of courtesy in the ethnically divided region. Privately, however, everyone acknowledges the differences.

As the former Yugoslavia has broken down into individual, ethnically based countries, federations, and districts, the single composite language once known as Serbo-Croatian has broken down into what its speakers say are individual, ethnically based languages.

The distinctions sometimes reach extremes even locals find absurd. Streets signs often give multiple versions of the same designation, to accommodate all likely users. Bookworms look for translated works by writers from neighboring states. Films produced in Serbia are released elsewhere in the Balkans with subtitles.

Similar, But Different


Croatians long objected to the artificial pairing of their language with Serbian during the Yugoslav era, often referring to the official tongue as Croatio-Serbian.

Zhivko Bjelanovic, a linguist based in Split, on Croatia's Dalmatian coast, says to the trained eye, the languages are fundamentally distinct.

"Serbs and Croats can understand each other on the level of basic communication. But when experts start to actually analyze the languages, there are in fact a lot of differences -- in grammar, syntax, and every other way," Bjelanovic says.
In our region, political concerns outweigh everything else, and because of that, everyone has to have their own nation, religion, language, and alphabet. And that's not good


The post-Yugoslav period of heightened national awareness has seen an evolution in the local languages.

Croatians have coined entirely new words, Bosniaks have peppered their speech with Turkic terms and phrases, and Serbs throughout the region remain committed to using the Cyrillic alphabet instead of Latin script.

The changes have proved a bureaucratic challenge both inside and outside the region. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague, which has examined hundreds of cases involving Croatian, Bosnian, and Serbian suspects, uses a default language called BCS, or Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian.

Many people in the Balkans consider the formulation tasteless; others see it as merely practical.

August Kovacec, a member of the Croatian Academy of Sciences and Art, says it is unlikely the people of the region will ever agree to return to a unified language.

"The people of Bosnia -- meaning Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs -- could each say they're speaking their own, individual language. They say that it's their national language, and that it's not for Europe, Belgrade, or Zagreb to decide differently," Kovacec says.

"The same is true for Montenegrins. If they think Montenegrin is a distinct language, then basically it is. If on the other hand they decide to share a language with Serbs or Croats, that would work just as well. But the tendency here is to see each of these languages as special and distinct."

The issue becomes even more complicated as the western Balkans looks toward European integration. Entry into the European Union entitles member states to have their languages recognized as official tongues, obligating the EU to provide translations in all formal settings.

Politics Of Language

The eventual accession of Bosnia, Montenegro, Croatia, and Serbia would therefore put Brussels in the position of institutionalizing the differences, which could contribute to the further fragmentation of the Balkans along national lines.

Egon Fekete, a linguist in Belgrade, says most academics still say a single language is spoken in the Balkans -- albeit one with numerous dialects. But he says the issue is more about politics than it is about language.

The UN has observed International Mother Language Day since 2000
"In our region, political concerns outweigh everything else, and because of that, everyone has to have their own nation, religion, language, and alphabet. And that's not good," Fekete says.

"Many nations, in Europe and elsewhere, don't accept that fact. And the fact that we say 'our language' doesn't support it. We're talking about variations on a language, that that alone proves we're not talking about two or more individual languages. If you take a scientific approach, you can't accept that there are distinct Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, and Montenegrin languages."

Others say the differences in "our language" are there to be celebrated and enjoyed -- by everyone in the region.

Zoran Hamovic, the director of Clio, a Belgrade-based publishing house, says he refuses to provide translations of outside Balkan authors just to suit local book-buyers who say they prefer to read in Serbian.

"Now the languages have different names, but they're still all the same language. It's a language we all understand perfectly well," Hamovic says.

"We shouldn't have such strong political barriers, because it would be a disaster for our publishing house. When we publish books by Croatian and Bosnian authors, we publish them in the language in which they were written."
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by: Eduard from: Toponto
February 23, 2009 16:31
Similarities in Slavic languages are common, however the differences exist in more then dialect form. Would that be language? Besides even Tito’s regime recognized the differences. Translations were always done in Croatian and Serbian language and sold to so generic Yugoslavs. <br />You forgot SLOVENIAN and MACEDONIAN language. <br />

by: Andrew from: London
February 23, 2009 21:53
As somebody who is fluent in all South Slavic languages, my view is that there are basically three languages; Slovenian can stand on its own; Macedonian -- though very close to Bulgarian -- is its own language. Croatian, Serbian, Bosnian and Montenegrin are one single language with multiple dialects. Just as Australian English is quite different from English spoken in Texas, and Argentinian Spanish from that spoken in Mexico or Spain -- the Serbian, Croatian, Montenegrin languages are variations of one single and common south Slavic language. To illustrate my argument - I ask any Croatian if they would consider Croatian spoken in Istra as opposed to the one spoke in Lika or Dalmatian islands a separate language. <br />Croatian spoken on the island of Lastovo would not be understood by a Zagreb native and yet -- it's considered Croatian. However, Serbian - which would be immediately recognized and understood in Zagreb is somehow considered a separate language. This issue has more to do with feisty and overly politicized Balkan people. It reminds me of my own twins who have a love/hate relationship with one another. Though they are the spitting image of each other (only immediate family can tell them apart) they use every opportunity to over-dramatize and over-produce differences so to create their own &quot;identities&quot;. It's funny to observe this phenomenon on a bigger &quot;national&quot; stage.

by: Ryan from: Croatia
February 24, 2009 02:30
Your globalist, commie-crap agenda is pretty much obvious. The languages ARE NOT the same. Whoever says different is ignorant or a liar. Even if they were the same, I would be still right.<br />

by: Connor Vlakancic from: USA
February 24, 2009 04:01
This article is so dramatically off-the-mark it is defamatory to humanity's quest for Balkan social justice. People at RFE/RL do not denigrate Balkan-ia with simply publishing this perfunctory diatribe but certainly must recognize the slip/slidy-away vector of it.<br /><br />Referentially, whatever is the &quot;English Language&quot; is NOT much understood between GB, Australia or USA (between Boston to New Orleans is beyond guessing). Language is not definitive as is a chemical formula which is mathematically an exact expression of an absolute certainty. &quot;Language&quot; is one mind sending interpretative smoke signals to other minds with little more nuance than sledgehammers pummeling a boulder. <br /><br />Suggesting that Brussels: &quot;institutionalizing the (language) differences&quot; is as ludicrous lunacy to Balkan-ia as looking to US Capitol-Hill leaders(sic) to reveal Congressional Mumbo Jumbo to the American electorate (read tax payers).<br /><br />Hello…the Balkan's are 2,000 years of individual, ethnically based countries, federations, and districts. Yugoslavia was just the insulting two kilo size bag that the &quot;Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse&quot; at the Yalta-Crimea Conference decided would be packed with three kilos of historically different people.<br /><br />Until the NOW-REAL-TIME war for social justice in the Balkan's (for the crimes of man's inhumanity to mankind that have been perpetrated by Balkan warlords and multiple Horsemen of the Apocalypse at the Dayton Accords) is exalted by good people into an invincible crusade, the only integrity that all the Balkan peoples retain to balm their battered sanity is to hold onto their language and cultures that have individualized and defined them since Persians came exploring.<br /><br />In the Balkans, the phrase is more like: &quot;A rose by any other name has thorns that continue to drain the blood and lives of all the victims of EU and UN &quot;safe zones&quot;. &quot;Brussles&quot; is more similar to the problem than the solution.<br /><br /><br />

by: Smily
February 24, 2009 07:14
Actually Slovenian and Macedonian are different then Serbo-Croatian. Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia all have one language that has been beat to death the last 20 years to actually create differences. The way I see it, Croatians create their own stuff as do the Serbs, we Bosnians just take the better of the two languages and make it into one. :)

by: Pia from: Stockholm
February 24, 2009 08:32
I think Slovenian and Macedonian should not be included in this discussion. As a foreign language learner, I can tell that having learned Serbocroatian at University level abroad, I can perfectly understand Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian but not Slovenian and Macedonian that are very different and I believe most linguists would really define them as distinct languages. <br /><br />At the same time, it is impossible for a foreigner to &quot;survive&quot; only with a postwar print of Croatian dictionary in Croatia, Bosnian in Bosnia or Serbian in Serbia respectively. <br /><br />In all these countries all dialects are constantly used parallel in literature, TV, films, newspapers etc. <br /><br />Unfortunately the only useful dictionary is still the Morton Benson English-Serbocroatian (new editions I think are called 'Serbian' but printed in latin alphabet)where all dialects are used parallel.<br /><br />Before I managed to find one prewar print of Morton Benson in a used-books' shop in Sarajevo, I had to have at least three different dictionaries available in order to read a newspaper. <br /><br />It is frustrating to try to learn a language when you cannot find used words in a dictionary immediately and especially if you don't know exactly what dialect the specific word belongs to. <br /><br />Therefore Morton Benson's book turned out to be irreplacable. I can also recommend for Swedish speakers Adolf Dahl's Uporedni recnik sa srpskog, hrvatskog i bosanskog na svedski jezik (2002).<br /><br />As a related story I can tell you that if you ever want to learn Norwegian, you will need to learn two dialects of the same language as they are both official languages (bokm&#229;l &amp; nynorsk). Another regional political solution that scares away even most enthusiastic language learners.. I haven't given up with Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian yet but it would be nice to get a little newer edition of Morton Benson..:-)

by: Russky from: MOCKBA
February 24, 2009 20:51
To Connor Vlakancic: Yugoslavia was not thought up in Yalta. It was a purely Westren creation in 1918. Don't anybody ever blame the Russians or the Soviets for 'lumping all these distinct peoples together in one country'! We had nothing to do with it whatsoever.

by: Martin Bright
February 25, 2009 00:33
Someone said &quot;a Language is a dialect with an army and a navy&quot;. As far as I know, people have the right to name their talk whatever name they want, be it serbian, croatian,and so on. And certainly, states can create differences in the languages people talk in order to justify their existence. So, you name flemish the language people in Amsterdam call dutch, or think about valencien and catalan, as a matter of fact, they are undistingisable. So, for outsiders and linguists they are until now one language with many dialects (bosnio-serbocroatian), and the people who talk it have the right to name it croat in Zagreb or serb in Banja Luka; and by the way, moldovans have the right to name their language moldovan and not romanian, albeit they are linguistically one.

by: Ivo
February 25, 2009 15:46
Ahem, the transparent ignorance in some comments: I cannot wish to preoccupy myself solely anymore with this question, it is to me, a pressing one... Macedonian was, from what little we know, a language very close to Greek. I can't possibly see what it has to do with the South Slavic languages?!<br /><br />And whether or not a language is a language or a dialect is not something up to a linguist to decide.

by: Martin Russky
February 25, 2009 16:51
&quot;transparent ignorance,&quot; indeed. Ivo, are you just trying to say Macedonian doesn't exist as a modern language? hmmm, Bulgarian, are you?<br /><br />and Yugoslavia was not a &quot;purely Western creation.&quot; Croatian pan-Slavic idealists had come up with the idea in the 19th century already, as likely as not a way for them to attach themselves to the independent Serbs and extricate themselves from the Hapsburgs.
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