The New European
TIME TO MAKE FOUR INTO ONE
After the break-up of Yugoslavia, Serbo-croat split into ethnic variants. PETER TRUDGILL calls for its reunification
In a bookshop some years ago I came across a Croatian phrase-book, published by a reputable British publisher. Then, on a higher shelf, I also noticed a Bosnian phrasebook from the same company. A few minutes’ perusal of the two volumes, holding them side by side, showed that the books were exactly the same in every respect – except for the covers and title pages.
The major language of Yugoslavia used to be known as Serbo-croatian. It was spoken in the Yugoslav republics of Bosnia, Croatia, Montenegro, and Serbia. Serbs most often wrote it using the Cyrillic alphabet, while Croats employed the Latin alphabet.
The language was also used everywhere else in the country, for example in Slovenia, as the lingua franca of wider communication.
Then, as Yugoslavia gradually split up into separate republics, the Croats declared that they no longer spoke SerboCroat but Croatian, whereupon the Serbs began referring to the language they used as Serbian.
The Bosniaks then had little choice but to declare that the language they spoke was Bosnian. And when in 2007 Montenegro became an independent country, after departing from a shortlived Serbia-montenegro federation, it promptly declared that its language was called Montenegrin. One language had become four.
This was all rather silly. The four varieties – Bosnian, Croatian, Montenegrin, and Serbian – are all totally mutually comprehensible, and the written forms of the languages are almost exactly the same.
It is true that, as one would expect, there are considerable regional dialect differences within the former SerboCroatian-speaking territories, but the boundaries between the dialects do not coincide at all with the boundaries between the states.
People who favour linguistic common sense will therefore be pleased to learn that, on March 30 this year, a rather remarkable thing happened in the four countries.
A declaration was published in Zagreb (Croatia), Belgrade (Serbia), Podgorica (Montenegro), and Sarajevo (Bosnia & Hercegovina) which was signed by hundreds of intellectuals and other influential people; initially around 200 linguists, writers, scientists and other public figures added their signatures. The declaration was intended to counter “the negative social, cultural, and economic consequences of political manipulations of language in the current language policies” of the four countries.
It asserts that the use of four different language names – Bosnian, Croatian, Montenegrin, Serbian – does not imply that there are four different languages.
What there is, is a common, polycentric standard language – just like, say, French, which has Belgian, Swiss, French, and Canadian variants but is definitely not four different languages.
Pretending that BCSM, as some linguists now call it, is four separate languages has particularly serious consequences in Bosnia, where Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats, and Muslim Bosniaks are deemed by politicians to use different languages, even though the way they speak in any given town or village is exactly the same. Children are taught in separate streams at school, with separate curricula, on the grounds that they speak different languages. All public documents have to be ‘translated’ and published in three versions. And there is even a story that a Bosniak being prosecuted in Serbia for some offence had to be released because no ‘interpreter’ could be found for him.
Some nationalists are doing their best to make the four varieties more distinct from one another by artificially introducing differences where none existed.
Writers in Croatia have had their work censored through the removal of supposedly ‘Serbian’ words, which are replaced with ‘Croatian’ words, some of them recent inventions.
This is all seriously at odds with common sense, and it’s no surprise that the Declaration now has almost 9,000 signatures. Linguistic scientists are agreed that BCSM is essentially a single language with four different standard variants bearing different names; it is unsurprising that linguists are well represented on the list of signatories. I have signed it myself. And I wish the defenders of linguistic common sense every success in their struggle against the linguistic unreason of the nationalists.