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The Fragmentation Of Serbo-Croatian
Into Three New Languages

by Daria Sito Sucic
29 November 1996

Zealous Nationalists in Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia Are Trying to Create Three Separate Languages out of Serbo-Croatian. Given Enough Time, They Might Succeed in Making Neighbors Unable to Understand Each Other


This article originally appeared in the 29 November 1996 (Vol. 2, No. 24) issue of Transition.

Put in a room together, people from Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia have no problem communicating. Nevertheless, when asked what language they are speaking, each will hesitate and struggle for an adequate answer. Four years ago, the obvious answer would have been "Serbo-Croatian." But today, the people of former Yugoslavia must answer that they speak Serbian, Croatian, or Bosnian -- even though they can't necessarily explain how it is that those "different" languages are mutually intelligible.

The breakup of Yugoslavia brought about a unique situation. Usually, when countries split apart, the presence of separate languages is one of the reasons. But because the language spoken in Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina was a single one, the new nation-states had to enforce language fragmentation along ethnic lines by promoting new language identities.

In many theories of nationalism, language is seen as a defining characteristic of nationality and a precondition for the existence of the nation-state. The symbolic functions of language have been particularly emphasized by Slavic peoples. Indeed, in the case of Serbo-Croatian, the symbolic function seems to have emerged victorious over the communicative function. What matters is not that people can communicate and understand each other but that they call the language they speak by different names. In fact, with the new language policies determined to enforce national separation through language separation, it is not inconceivable that language planners will eventually teach new generations how not to understand each other. The most important step has already been taken: new language identities have become integral to the respective national identities. Moreover, the thesis of one nation, one language in the Yugoslav successor states has been expanded into one nation, one language, one territory. The consequences of such an attitude have been most apparent in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where a lack of congruence among the three components of nation, language, and territory was addressed through ethnic cleansing.

Creating Serbo-Croatian

Serbo-Croatian was established as the common language of the region's Serbs, Croats, Muslims, and Montenegrins in the late 19th century. Its two major variants, eastern and western, had their respective centers in Belgrade and Zagreb, and both employed the Cyrillic and Latin scripts. It has several dialects, but those are based on geography rather than ethnicity.

The elites of each nation had different histories and reasons for accepting one common, standard language, but at that time many of them shared a desire for unification under one political roof. Having been dominated for so long, first by the Ottomans and then by the Austro-Hungarian empire, many leading representatives of the South Slavic peoples wanted to unite and have one language. Language unification actually preceded political unification, which came only in 1918, when the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (the first incarnation of Yugoslavia) was set up. By that time, the common written language was firmly in place.

Appearing as a result of the agreement between Croatian and Serbian linguists, standard Serbo-Croatian was based on the dialect spoken extensively in eastern Bosnia-Herzegovina and western Serbia. Each of the parties involved gave up some of the specific language features preserved in its literature and accepted the common people's speech, regarded until then as "low." Croats, for example, replaced the elite kajkavian dialect spoken in Zagreb and its surroundings with the stokavian dialect, which was widely spoken in the rest of Croatia as well as in all of Bosnia-Herzegovina and in Serbia. Serbs, on the other side, had to give up their "high language," slavenoserbski, which was the product of an unsuccessful attempt to artificially create their own literary language but which did not reflect popular speech. In the interwar period, some young writers influenced by pan-Yugoslav ideas (including the only Yugoslav winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, Ivo Andric) favored a unified language with only one script and one variant. The idea at that time was to write only in Latin script using only the eastern variant of Serbo-Croatian, but that never found wide acceptance. Serbs did not want to abandon the Cyrillic script, nor did Croats want to accept the eastern version of the language.

In Tito's postwar Yugoslavia, all nations were originally promised the freedom to use their own language and name it accordingly. That promise was made at a very early stage, immediately after World War II, as part of the Communist Party policy to gather all the peoples into one state where their cultural rights would be guaranteed -- but in practice, Serbo-Croatian was the name of the language. When, in the late 1960s, some Croats revived the memory of that promise and lobbied to change the official name of the language in their republic's constitution to Croatian, they were labeled "nationalists," and many of them eventually landed in prison.

Although the Croats were usually the ones accused of language nationalism, they were not the only ones who wanted their national name attached to their language. In the constitutions of the Serbian and Montenegrin republics, the official name of the language was Serbian. And the republican constitution of 1971 granted Croats the right to call their language Croatian. In reality, Bosnia-Herzegovina was the only Yugoslav republic where the common language was called Serbo-Croatian or Croato-Serbian and where the Latin and Cyrillic scripts were in equal use. National determination of language was a very sensitive issue in the multiethnic republic, and language separatism was not welcome there. Of course, the three peoples in Bosnia-Herzegovina did speak essentially the same language, which differed from the literary forms of both Zagreb and Belgrade.

History Of Rivalry

Although Serbo-Croatian was the result of the agreement between Serbs and Croats, the two groups had never held the same views on the language issue. As the romanticism of the 19th century faded away, differences between the two sides became more apparent. Croats were already becoming unhappy in the first incarnation of the Yugoslav state, which was dominated by Serbs and where all official documents were written in the eastern variant of Serbo-Croatian. In Croatian history books, the period of that first Yugoslavia is referred to as the period of Serbian dominance and hegemony, when Yugoslavia was treated as a unitary state with a distinctly Serbian stamp. Serbian historians, on the other hand, accuse the Croats of that time of separatism. Each interpretation holds true from the perspective of its respective national interest.

The Croats channeled their resentment over the imposition of the language's eastern variant into the unfortunate creation of the Independent State of Croatia, a Nazi puppet state that lasted from 1941 to 1945. Croatian language policy went through radical changes during those four years. One major change was the replacement of the common Serbo-Croatian phonetic alphabet (set down by the 19th-century Serbian language reformer Vuk Karadzic under the principle: "Write as you speak; speak as you write") by an etymological one, in which the stem of a word is retained through all its forms. In addition, the Government Office for Propaganda issued a list of forbidden words. The policy was to cleanse the "Croatian language" of "Serbian words," creating new words to replace them.[1]During the whole history of standard Serbo-Croatian, that was the only episode of enforced language planning.

Unsurprisingly, history has repeated itself. In August 1995, four years after Croatia proclaimed its independence, Vice Vukojevic, a parliamentary deputy from the ruling Croatian Democratic Community, proposed two draft bills on language. In the first, Vukojevic proposed that the phonetic alphabet be replaced by an etymological one and that 30,000 of the existing 60,000 to 80,000 words be purged from the Croatian language as non-Croatian.[2 ]If passed, the bill would have turned the Croats into an illiterate people who would have to learn their new language virtually from scratch. The other draft bill was aimed at establishing a Government Office for Croatian Language, which would have a police function. Anyone found breaking the new language rules would be fined or even imprisoned, depending on how serious the violation was. Both draft bills were rejected by the parliament, while the independent media and some of the top Croatian linguists regarded the proposals as outrageous.

Even so, an Etymological Orthography textbook from 1942 is now back in print and dominates bookshop windows in Zagreb. Prominent linguists are given special columns in the state-run papers to teach the public which words are considered Croatian and should be used and which words should be avoided as non-Croatian.[3] That is not just an academic exercise -- in Zagreb today, anyone using words regarded as Serbian risks not getting a loaf of bread in a shop or a train ticket at the station. Croats who have moved to Croatia from Serbia or Bosnia have to pass a proficiency exam in Croatian language and culture to obtain Croatian citizenship. Many of them fail, as it is nearly impossible to learn the new Croatian words as quickly as they are invented. In addition, university diplomas from other centers of the former Yugoslavia, such as Belgrade or Sarajevo, are not recognized in Croatia. As yet another symbol of Croatian language identity, only the Latin script is in official use.

By the same token, Cyrillic is the only script officially used in Serbia and Montenegro, although the Latin alphabet can be found on stamps, signs, coins, and bank notes and in certain publications. While the Latin script had been widespread on the territory of what is now the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (especially in the multiethnic province of Vojvodina), with the rise of Serbian nationalism the Cyrillic script became one of the most important symbols of Serbian national identity. That the Croatian and Serbian strains of nationalism are identified with their respective scripts is ironic, since the two scripts have always had their roots only in different religions, not in separate nations.

Still, the Serbian language policy cannot be compared with the radical, protective Croatian language planning. The fact that no spectacular changes in language have taken place in Serbia and Montenegro speaks for itself. Obviously, the Serbs were never culturally endangered in the territory of so-called Serbia proper, and no protective mechanisms were needed. But they were very vocal about language in the rest of former Yugoslavia, particularly in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, the republics that had significant Serbian populations. As far back as 1986, Pavle Ivic, the most respected Serbian linguist, outlined a program stipulating that all Serbs, wherever they live, should be guided by the imperative of Serbian cultural unification.[4] In addition, he said that Serbs must establish Serbian as the language of Serbs in Croatia and introduce it into the education system, administration, and culture. The patronizing attitude of the Serbian intellectual elite reached its culmination during the recent Croatian and Bosnian wars, when the attempt to spread "Serbian culture" to all areas inhabited by Serbs resulted in the tragic extermination of people of all nationalities. After five years of bitter conflict, it is obvious that the idea of "Serbian unification" has collapsed, with tragic consequences for both the Croatian and the Bosnian Serbs. Croatian Serbs, gambling on getting it all, eventually ended up losing it all.

Divided Bosnia-Herzegovina

Linguistically, as in virtually every sphere of life, Bosnia-Herzegovina today is divided. Yet the fragmentation of the language is only symbolic. Serbo-Croatian was a single, standard language with two major variants (the western or Croatian and eastern or Serbian variants) and two varieties (that spoken in Bosnia-Herzegovina and that in Montenegro). The variants contain many words exclusive to themselves, while the varieties blend elements of both variants. Serbo-Croatian would probably have split into Croatian and Serbian much earlier if it weren't for the multiethnic situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The thesis of one nation, one language did not work in Bosnia, where members of all nations spoke the same Bosnian language variety. Nobody could distinguish a Bosnian Serb from a Bosnian Muslim from a Bosnian Croat by their speech alone. The language spoken by Bosnian Serbs was much closer to that of Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats than to that of the Serbs from Serbia or Croatia. In the same way, Bosnian Croats were linguistically closer to their Muslim and Serbian neighbors than to Croats in Croatia. Nevertheless, along with the forcible creation of artificial ethnic boundaries, nationalists on all sides began to create language boundaries, too.

The most radical turn in language policy was undertaken by the Bosnian Serbs. Spurred by a strong desire to show their distinctness from their Muslim and Croatian neighbors, they abandoned the way they had spoken for centuries and adopted instead the Serbian form of the language, based on the Belgrade dialect. The move has had tragicomic results. On government-run television, members of the political elite now sound semiliterate as they struggle with an unfamiliar tongue. The Bosnian Serb parliament recently adopted legislation stipulating that only the eastern variant and the Cyrillic script be used officially.[5] The problem is that hardly any Bosnian Serb teachers are qualified to teach Belgrade speech. Yet some highly nationalistic teachers in Banja Luka have reportedly even insisted that students write their English and German lessons in the Cyrillic alphabet.

Another result of the switch to the Belgrade dialect is the abandonment of a rich cultural heritage. The dialect spoken by most Bosnian Serbs had become the standard of Serbo-Croatian. All Bosnian Serb folk literature and epic poetry, in which the people take great national pride, is in that dialect. Yet they are now replacing it with the Belgrade dialect in an attempt to demonstrate that their national identity stems from their language identity. They feel their native dialect to be a part of their territorial (Bosnian) identity, and they would rather choose a dialect that belongs exclusively to Serbs.

Linguistic purity is also highly valued by Bosnian Serbs. They are trying to cleanse their language of all Turkish and "Croatian" words -- but without the words borrowed from Turkish, they would not be able to name such basics as socks, sugar, tobacco, cotton, soap, copper, kidneys, hammer, steel, boots, pocket, pattern, box, lemon, monkey, slippers, brandy, craft, or even their favorite weapon: the cannon.

For their part, the Croats of Bosnia-Herzegovina now claim to speak "Croatian." However, while urban Bosnian Croats speak the same dialect as urban Bosnian Muslims and Serbs, Herzegovinian Croats, who have been under the exclusive influence of the Croatian media for the last four years, reading only Croatian papers and using only Croatian textbooks in schools, have become linguistically "Croatized." Still, Mostar Croats and Mostar Muslims, who have lived on separate riverbanks for the past four years, will be recognized by their accent primarily as Mostarians and not as Croats or Muslims.

A language bill passed in 1993 gave a new official name to the language spoken in Bosnia-Herzegovina: "Bosnian, Serbian, Croatian."[6] The Latin and Cyrillic scripts were proclaimed equal. The authors of the language policy in the mostly Muslim government-held part of Bosnia tried in that way to grant each nation the right to call the language by its national name. But a riddle remains: do these three names refer to one language or to three different languages? If Bosnia-Herzegovina were to be a unified country, the three-names invention would probably be praised as an act of tolerance and an acknowledgment of the right of each nation to call its language by its national name. Bearing in mind, however, that Bosnian Serbs and Croats have already firmly established their respective national language policies, it is more likely that the Bosnian, Serbian, and Croatian languages will be regarded as the three different languages of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The Bosnian Muslims always seemed to be the most tolerant of the former Yugoslav nations with regard to the language issue. But during the 1991 census, most of them volunteered "Bosnian" as the name of their language. They were advised to do so by the Muslim Party of Democratic Action because it was clear that a national separation of former Yugoslavia was on its way. "Bosnian" seemed the optimal solution when taking into account the country's multiethnic composition. It was a name that did not refer to any nation but to the territory that has been shared by all of them.

Unfortunately, although Bosnian could have easily become the common name for the language shared by all Bosnian peoples, particularly as that name for the language had a long history of use in preceding centuries, Muslim linguists began at the beginning of the war to pursue the thesis that Bosnian was the language of Bosnian Muslims exclusively.[7] Consequently, after Muslim "linguist-missionaries" intervened in the language with the final goal to make it a "real, ancient Bosnian language," the hope that this name could be accepted by all was lost. Interventions included putting back the voiced h wherever it was suspected one might have existed in the distant past, insisting on the extensive use of borrowed Turkish words along with the Turkish greeting instead of the common Slavic greeting, and changing some orthographic rules. The new Muslim language nationalism reinforced the already existing Croatian nationalism, so today Muslim and Croatian teachers of the "native" language claim they speak two different languages. Yet they still teach one grammar.

Language identity became a highly emotional issue for the people in the successor states of former Yugoslavia. It has become highly politicized, too. Nobody asks linguists for their opinion anymore. Politicians and linguists who truly believe in their missionary zeal -- an enforcement of separate national languages -- are the loudest voices to be heard.

From the point of view of internal language history, which refers to language structure, the language spoken in Serbia-Montenegro, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina is a single language, because differences among its spoken varieties in those countries make up no more than 3 percent to 7 percent of total lexicon. Native speakers do not need interpreters to understand each other. However, from the point of view of external language history, which refers to the broader context that influences language development, such as sociopolitical and cultural determinants, Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian can be regarded as separate languages if the people who speak them so decide.

About the Author

Daria Sito Sucic is a Research Analyst at the Open Media Research Institute.


[1]Pavle Ivic, Srpski narod i njegov jezik [The Serbian People and Their Language] (Belgrade: Srpska knjizevna zadruga, 1986), p. 206.

[2]Novi list, vol. 49, no. 141, 26 May 1995.

[3]See D. Brozovic, "Vjesnikov jezicni savjetnik" [Vjesnik's Language Adviser], Vjesnik, nos. 339, 341, and 343, March 1994.

[4]Ivic, Srpski narod ..., p. 221.

[5]Svijet, no. 34, 19 September 1996, p. 21.

[6]Vercerniye novine, 2 November 1994.

[7]S. Halilovic, Bosanski jezik [The Bosnian Language] (Sarajevo: Biblioteka Kljucanin, 1991); A. Isakovic, Rjecnik karakteristicne leksike bosanskog jezika [A Dictionary of Characteristic Words of the Bosnian Language] (Sarajevo: Svjetlost, 1991).