Esej, objavljen u Beogradu 1997., i Sarajevu 1998. na srpskohrvatskom jeziku, a ovde na engleskom.

Dr. Božidar Jakšić, Institut za filozofiju i društvenu teoriju, Beograd:



In the ex-Yugoslav lands in the nineties, the Biblical "In the beginning was the word" (John, 1.1) has turned into: "Some of us coin words as if they were knives, and some coin knives as if they were words".

Nationalism and Language:
A Balkan Experience

Božidar Jakšić

The Croatian and Yugoslav writer Miroslav Krleža said in 1969: "Croatian and Serbian are one and the same language, which Croats call Croatian, and Serbs Serbian". It was an attempt to appease the passions aroused by the Declaration on the Name and Status of the Croatian Literary Language, which he signed himself, and the Serbian response in the form of A Proposal for Consideration issued in 1967. The times were long past when, in 1924, Krleza could claim, with his sophisticated irony, that the Serbian and Croatian languages are distinguished only in accent, which "an ear that is not Serbo-Croatian finds extremely difficult to differentiate". The Declaration and A Proposal were only a prelude for subsequent long-standing debates in political and cultural area which, along with a set of other factors, tragically ended in the "third Balkan war". Similarly to many other writers, Predrag Matvejevic - a disciple of Krleza's - stresses that linguistic issues are extremely sensitive political matter; in multiethnic communities, as the Yugoslav one used to be, "linguistic tolerance depended on the nature of our mutual relations, e.g. before and after the unification: whenever they were comparatively good, differences were underplayed". And conversely: whenever they were bad, differences were emphasized to the absurd.

Contrary to many European countries where language was the basis for constituting modern nations as political communities, in the part of the Balkans inhabited by intermingled Serbs, Croats and Muslim Bosniaks, membership in different religions and confessions was the basis for national division. Moreover, these nations were constituted as ethnic rather than political communities. In order to understand the recent Balkan experience of national, state, linguistic and other divisions, it is extremely important to answer the question why neither in the first (kingdom of) Yugoslavia nor in the second (socialist) Yugoslavia did the nations come to be constituted as political communities, but instead remained ethnic in character.

Today the two Yugoslavias, formed after the First and the Second World Wars, belong to history. The first was an attempt to constitute a bourgeois society, and the state, in the underdeveloped and poorly integrated geopolitical space of the Balkans, extremely diversified in economical, political and cultural terms, and even more so in national, religious and linguistic ones. This first Yugoslavia disappeared from the historical scene under the military pressure of occupying forces precisely at the moment when a modus vivendi of the juxtaposed bourgeois forces dominating the society was emerging in the public horizon. The second Yugoslavia was created during foreign occupation and civil and religious war. It was a "revolutionary" attempt to make a radical rupture in the already tender thread of civil integration of society, and to "build" a society of "social justice", at first in the orthodox Stalinist manner, and later in the form of "self-management socialism". The collapsing political regime of the second Yugoslavia pulled along into the historical abyss the society and the state as well. And what is more, the scale of tragedy and crimes accompanying the process of its disintegration bewildered the whole civilized world. While the disappearance of the first Yugoslavia from the historical scene did not mean a definitive annihilation of the idea of a community of Yugoslav peoples, this is by no means true for the disintegration of the second one.

The final breakdown of the second Yugoslavia was caused not only by internal contradictions, political and national conflicts, but also by the collapse of the so-called "real socialism" system in the world, began in the Soviet Union, and by the historical consequence of German unification, symbolically denoted by the fall of the Berlin Wall. This is the international framework of the disintegration. In the Yugoslav case, however, this framework has not yet been quite clarified. This particularly refers to the question of why Yugoslavia was less prepared than other countries to meet the historical collapse of communist systems of the 20th century, even though in its previous development elements were present which suggested it was closer to a possible democratic solution than other socialist countries. Namely, if the first Yugoslavia was a state of authoritarian government characteristic of a whole set of countries between the two world wars, the second was also an authoritarian state with totalitarian tendencies. The question, then, is: was a democratic way out possible from the system of Titoist authoritarianism, tending to totalitarianism? Such a solution was wished for by democratically oriented parts of the opposition, political and intellectual dissidents, humanistically oriented critical intellectuals, a part of civil society promoters, and by certain segments of the population at large which had developed a consciousness of their "political coming of age". How come that this democratic thrust dissipated in a wave of shallow chauvinism and state-building trance of "late-coming", "small" nations, which did not even shrink from causing bloodshed and destruction on an unprecedented scale? Why was the Yugoslav state community torn apart along the republican/national dividing lines, and what was the role played in this process by political, national and former communist leaderships? What was the role of language policies implemented in former Yugoslav republics? What was the role of the nationalist intelligentsia, particularly the powerful mass media, such as television and major newspaper houses, in all the - now former - Yugoslav republics in creating fear and blinding hatred which cancels all possibility of rational dialogue? Where in this process is the place of the "silent majority" which gathers around the powerful figures and becomes both an actor and a victim of the new Balkan bloodshed? What are the historical consequences of the "fatal attraction" of national statehood, and what is the historical significance of the "Slovene experiment" of applying violence in order to achieve national independence in the Yugoslav territory? What national and other interests have been promoted by the recent war storm in the territory of Yugoslavia? And finally, what are the chances for the citizens of former Yugoslavia to survive at all the transition to a post-communist society?

A radically new social situation of the 1990s, characterized by ethnic and religious conflicts - tens of thousands of killed and maimed people, hundreds of thousands of homeless, millions brought to ruin, war crimes, robbery and war profiteering as a novel form of the "primitive accumulation of capital" - calls for new hermeneutic keys and a new theoretical understanding. Citizens born in ex-Yugoslavia, all of them older than their newly-formed states, have been simultaneously witnesses, participants and victims - and sometimes executioners - of a boiling societal condition. Social thought, in these turbulent times, has found itself in a sort of historical vacuum. The crucial question in this respect is how to organize theoretically the overly rich empirical material, how to reflect it theoretically, how to articulate theoretical presuppositions of the current historical development at a meta-level? Is it possible for social theory, which in the ex-Yugoslav space had reached a relatively high level in criticizing the so-called real socialism, to overcome its insufficiency in terms of new theoretical assumptions and offer an adequate set of heuristic and hermeneutical tools for understanding the tragedy of the times?

A Slovene writer speaks of the six Yugoslav peoples of which four share the same language and two have their own separate languages. In any case, what we have here is a high degree of linguistic affinity. The language shared by four Yugoslav peoples, with slight variations in linguistic expression - Croats, Serbs, Muslim Bosniaks and Montenegrins - was, fortunately or not, named Serbo-Croatian or Croato-Serbian. But a common language did not facilitate a better mutual understanding of ethnically akin peoples. From a means of communication among people the language was increasingly turning into a symbol of the struggle for nation-states. It was transformed into an instrument of war propaganda and a seed of destructive hatred. In the "third Balkan war" in this century, along with ruining all the common institutions of the Yugoslav state, a language was also killed: the Serbo-Croatian or Croato-Serbian. The murder was committed deliberately and designedly, and served exclusively political goals. Each of the conflicting sides made its particular contribution to this murder. In performing this act the sides in war easily found a common language.

Thus Serbo-Croatian in all its varieties, as the shared language of some Yugoslav peoples, has joined "dead" languages, such as ancient Greek, Latin, or ancient Slavic. The citizens of the newly-created ex-Yugoslav states have been wonder-struck: they speak a "dead" language, and have become polyglots. They can communicate simply and easily in four languages: Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Montenegrin.

Obviously the matter was not in the name alone. In the process of transforming Yugoslav Titoist totalitarianism into chauvinist totalitarianisms of the newly-formed states, the struggle for a distinct national language occupied a special place and was extremely fierce. Linguists, and not only linguists, particularly excelled in it. There have been very few people who, like Dubravko Skiljan in Zagreb or Ranko Bugarski and Ljubisa Rajic in Belgrade, have managed to resist the call of the national "trumpets of Jericho". As Ljubisa Rajic rightly remarks, from a means of communication the language has turned into a means of national identification and subsequently, having become a symbol of the nation, into a means of separation.

In the ex-Yugoslav lands in the nineties, the Biblical In the bigining was the word" (John, 1.1) has turned into: "Some of us coin words as if they were knives, and some coin knives as if they were words". Or in other words, Serbs and Croats settled the difference in pronouncing the name "John" - Jovan/Ivan - with the help of a bullet. The national name of the language was built into the foundations of the nation-state, and the language itself was harnessed to war propaganda and production of hate. Some foreign writers also noticed this: "The bulk of the Yugoslav intelligentsia has proven that manufacturing hatred and preparing civil war are today still among the foremost tasks of culture creators".

If language, transformed into a language of hate, served war preparations and propaganda, the unified linguistic tissue of the Serbo-Croatian or Croato-Serbian language was systematically destroyed before and during the war. In the overall effort to ensure each people to get its own state and to speak its own language, different from the language of the Other, the enemy, at any price, the chief victims were exactly the peoples in whose name all this had been done. Thus the Croatian language in official usage has been flooded with archaisms, avoidance of "Serbisms" and internationalisms, and particularly with coining words which nobody had ever used, nor will use. Most citizens of Croatia looked at these efforts with mild irony or overt contempt. Many of the words of the Croatian Orwellian "newspeak" have become a point for making jokes, and used only as an object of derision. In this way people have actually been preserving the genius of their own language. The test of guessing which word is genuinely "Croatian", and which is "Serbian" (according to the recently published Differential Dictionary of Croatian and Serbian Languages), would hardly be passed even by the most enthusiastic nationalists. To give just one example: Serbian nationalists consider the word obitelj ("family") to be a disgusting Croatism, even though the word is part of daily prayers of Orthodox monks in the Hilandar monastery, and is neither Serbian nor Croatian in origin.

The damage done by the Serbian side in the effort to separate strictly Serbian from Croatian has been no lesser. The largest damage has been inflicted in terms of impoverishing Serbian culture, and in two basic directions. The effort to lay constitutional and legal grounds for proclaiming the Cyrillic alphabet the only official alphabet in Serbia opens the door to abolishing bi-alphabetism (Cyrillic and Latin). Some international classifications automatically classify books printed in Cyrillic as belonging to Serbian culture, and those printed in the Latin alphabet as Croatian. Many Serbian nationalists feel this to be a result of a "world conspiracy" against the Serbian people, failing to realize how much they themselves contribute to this practice by suppressing Latin alphabet in Serbian culture. Serbian and Croatian nationalists equally insist that joint Serbo-Croatian departments and studies at universities all over the world be separated, but they never ask who is going to pay for increased expenses, why the interest for the studies thus divided has been dropping, and why some of these departments are about to be closed. The situation is still worse in the part of Bosnia-Herzegovina which consists of the Republika Srpska. There the "ekavian" dialect has been introduced into official usage, although nobody born and permanently living in Bosnia-Herzegovina has ever spoken this dialect. What is particularly important, this practice has been introduced on radio and television. Today Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina listen to one dialect, and speak another. Ranko Bugarski rightfully points to the "linguistic schizophrenia of this otherwise heavily afflicted people". Such practice was not imposed on Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina by Croats or Bosniaks, but by their own political and cultural elite, in order to separate Serbs as much as possible from their neighbors with whom they had lived side by side for centuries. The intention is quite simple: to prove at any price, employing not only "ethnic", but also "linguistic cleansing", the thesis that living together is impossible.

It was long ago that in this "decay of ours in the form of fragmentation" Miroslav Krleza saw a "sinister confusion of parochial megalomania". It would be unjust not to add that with slight modifications the thesis of Serbian elite that living together is impossible has been propagated by Croatian and Bosniak political and cultural elites as well. The elites have found a common language, not only at the expense of the rival peoples, but also of their own one.

Muslim Bosniaks have found themselves in a peculiar situation. They sought to confirm their national identity by coining a particular name for their language. They called it, simply, the Bosnian language. At first sight, there was something reasonable in it. If Serbs and Croats renounced the complex name of Serbo-Croatian or Croato-Serbian, writes the Muslim linguist Senahid Halilovic, "then it would be too much to expect from Muslims to be more vigorous in advocating a name which did not even contain their own name... In such a situation, it is self-understandable that Muslims will bring the Bosnian language back to usage". The writer Alija Isakovic claims that Bosnian differs from Serbian and Croatian as much as the latter two languages differ from each other. The problem is, of course, that Serbian and Croatian are one and the same language in linguistic terms. The problem has been solved by excessive usage of Turcisms, the letter "h", and archaisms. The differences must be put to the fore. Thus the citizens of one and the same state - Bosnia-Herzegovina - are divided into two political entities, Bosniak-Croat federation and the Republika Srpska (though what this is supposed to mean remains highly unclear), and forced to speak three languages, although they actually speak only one - the one traditionally spoken in Bosnia. And even these three newly-formed languages, in official propaganda, converge into one - the language of hatred.

In Montenegro, which has a tradition of statehood, efforts are also noticeable to emphasize the existence of a Montenegrin language. In recent history, one of the originators of the idea of a distinct Montenegrin language was the Croatian communist leader Vladimir Bakaric. The idea was further strengthened by the effort to expand the ekavian dialect in Montenegro - which had never been used there. Thus Serbian nationalists, seeking to separate Serbian from Croatian, also contributed to a gradual separation of Montenegrin from Serbian. And some Montenegrin writers have suggested that three new letters should be added to the "Montenegrin" Cyrillic and Latin alphabet! Who can write and use these letters, apart from themselves, is difficult to say. What matters is to confirm national statehood by a distinct national language.

In the end, I shall go back to Krleza, who ironically asserted that Serbs and Croats are two peoples divided by one language and one God. Godly matters are not the subject of this paper. And linguistically speaking, the single language once spoken by Serbs, Croats, Muslim Bosniaks and Montenegrins has now been divided into four languages. Some intellectuals have been promoting and supporting this policy, some opposing it. But the fact is indisputable that the policy of the so-called ethnic cleansing is part and parcel of the policy of establishing nation-states in the territory of former Yugoslavia. This policy has been formulated and implemented by national political, and partly cultural elites in all the newly-created states. Therefore it is necessary to put it clearly: the pursuit of the purity of the national language is a relapse of the criminal policy of the so-called ethnic cleansing. Like all historically belated phenomena, forming nations (and nation-states) on linguistic foundations in the Balkans at the end of the 20th century has acquired monstrous shapes. The tremendous war tragedy, killed men, women and children, the expelled and refugees, wrecked villages and cities, destroyed nature and human environment, testify to the true character of the policy pursued by national elites. Perhaps one day Serbs, Croats, Muslim Bosniaks and Montenegrins will really speak different languages, but even then - provided they do not exterminate each other in the meantime - they will have to live together. Isn't it better that they do it in peace? Can it be than none of them has been able to learn a lesson from the words of Nikola Tesla: "I take pride in my Serbian name, and in my Croatian homeland!" If we look at all that has been done in the "third Balkan war" in the name of national interests and purity of the national language, many people do not have much to take pride in, but do have a lot to be ashamed of.

(The paper, published in Belgrade 1997 and Sarajevo 1998 in Serbo-Croatian language)

Dr. Božidar Jakšić
Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory


Thanks to Lipa for bringing the article to Roberto's attention, as well as to the fellow who brought it to her attention. HTMLised and posted on the Web by Roberto on 4 May 1999.