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How Do You Say 'Bosnian' In 'Moldovan'?

Moldova's Vlad Filat (left) greets Romania's Traian Basescu -- "Are we speaking Moldovan or Romanian?"
When RFE/RL Russian Service correspondents Irina Lagunina and Aija Kuge sat down with Milorad Dodik,- the head of Republika Srpska, the ethnic Serbian component of the Bosnian federal state, they didn't ask him what language he was speaking. But he told them anyway:

"Some people say -- 'Enough history! Let's work on the future.' But what future? How do we imagine this? Are Serbs supposed to throw off their national identity in order to build a new one? I speak Serbian, but in Sarajevo they say that they speak Bosnian. But there is no Bosnian language. If we call the language Bosnian then they have to ask me, as a resident of Bosnia, if I agree to have my language identified as Bosnian. But I don't agree!

"For every ethnic group, language is an important symbol of one's identity. And I speak Serbian. If any Bosniak politician agreed to appear at an international conference speaking in Serbian, there would be a huge scandal. But we Serbs are always described at international conferences as speaking in Bosnian. And it is clear that part of the international community, either through ignorance or willfully, is inciting the Bosniaks to fight for their national identity. That is why we are a failed society."

It's hard not to agree with Dodik's contention that "for every ethnic group, language is an important symbol of one's identity." Here at RFE/RL, where we deal on a daily basis with many societies and ethnic groups in various states of political and cultural transition, we follow such questions carefully and often with bewilderment.

Back in the "good, old days" of communism, the linguistic situation in the Balkans was a lot simpler. Most everyone in the Yugoslavia region spoke a language generally called Serbo-Croatian (Slovenes spoke Slovene and Macedonians spoke Macedonian, which is closely related to Bulgarian). Now if you look at the ISO-639 codes for languages, you will find Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian, all identified separately. Montenegrin is not considered an "official" ISO-639 language, although it became the official language of the country of Montenegro when its new constitution was ratified in 2007.

Just for fun, I looked up the academic program of the linguistics department of Indiana University, where I labored through Russian phonetics back in the Gorbachev era, and found that they offer a language called "Serbian and Croatian," although if you take it at the "intensive" level, it is called "Croatian/Serbian." On Facebook, you can find a page for "Croato-Serbian," but with only seven "likes," it doesn't seem to be gaining traction.

Dodik will be heartened to see that Indiana does not teach "Bosnian."

Nonetheless, Article 6 of the Constitution of Bosnia-Herzegovina says that "the official languages of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina shall be: Bosnian language, Croat language, and Serb language." Latin and Cyrillic scripts are both equal.

Ironically, although Dodik's Republika Srpska does not recognize Bosnian as a language, Serbia does and has offered it as an elective subject in schools since 2005.

Speaking Moldovan

There is a similar situation in Moldova. According to the constitution there, the official language is "Moldovan, which is identical to Romanian." The European Union, at the prompting of Bucharest, has rejected the term "Moldovan" and calls the language of Moldova simply Romanian.

But former Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin, a pro-Moscow communist, sought to distance Moldova from Romania as much as possible and insisted that Moldovan was a separate language. He changed the postindependence Our Romanian Language Day state holiday -- August 31! -- to simply Our Mother Language Day.

When Voronin met with Romanian President Traian Basescu in 2005, he brought a translator with him. After a few moments, however, it was clear the two leaders understood one another perfectly and the meeting proceeded without "translation." When Basescu met with current (and West-leaning) Moldovan Prime Minister Vlad Filat in 2009, Filat opened the session by joking in English, "I'd like to know if you want to speak in Moldovan or Romanian."

As a rule, ordinary Moldovans prefer to sidestep the controversy. If you ask people on the streets what language they speak, the most common answer you'll get is probably: "This one!"

-- Robert Coalson

About This Blog

Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

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