The New European


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.

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