The former Yugoslavia’s language conundrum

Whilst nationalism continues to rear its head in the former Yugoslavia, so language will continue to act as a divisive, as opposed to unifying, force.

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By Danijela Dobrota

Who says history isn’t repeating itself? The nineteenth century was celebrated as the era of nation-states and whilst some say the age of nationalism is now over, there are many signs that a re-emergence is well-underway. That is particularly the case in Europe, where a profound economic, political and social crisis has sparked a resurgence of national sentiment. Hungary is an important case in point.

According to scholars such as Benedict Anderson and Ernest Gellner, nationalism is not the awakening of national self-consciousness, but rather the invention of nations themselves. The nation-building process is comprised of four key elements – language, history, religion and territory. With respect to the Western Balkans, whilst the latter three have been widely-debated, the fourth – language – remains relatively under-explored.

Ever since the nineteenth century, the predominant language of the region was called ‘Serbo-Croatian’ or ‘Croato-Serbian’. The language entailed several dialects, and both Latin and Cyrillic alphabets. Other official languages in Tito’s Yugoslavia were Slovenian and Macedonian.

Following the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia, the need to assert language as a national identifier became ever more pronounced. Thus, today we can speak of Bosniak, Croatian, Montenegrin and Serbian languages; despite the fact that Bosniaks, Croats, Montenegrins and Serbs understand each other quite perfectly. What is more, linguists – and even some Balkan politicians – admit that Bosnian, Croatian, Montenegrin and Serbian are basically the very same language, it is just named differently. However, the collective memory and pride of a nation – or nations, in this case – can be very selective.

The debate concerns, amongst other dimensions, exactly which language is being taught in Montenegrin schools and the fact that official documents in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina have to be translated into three “languages”, with the associated costs in terms of time, money and other resources that this requires. With constant efforts to make clear ‘distinctions’ between the four, the language issue is just the tip of the iceberg.

Certainly it is important to preserve ethnic identities, but to what extent? Additionally, there are no doubts with respect to the existence of the Bosniak, Montenegrin, Croatian and Serbian ethnicities in the Balkans. All those communities have their own states and have been widely acknowledged.

So, why does one need to insist on the existence of four different languages, which all are, as a matter of fact, one language? One could refer to Germans, Austrians and German-speaking Swiss, who all speak German, even though the dialects differ significantly. Not to mention that German-speaking nations themselves have a history of violence of their own.

The problem here, however, is not the issue of language(s) but of nationalism, which continues to roam the Balkans, and whose flame seems to illuminate the caves of stubbornes and contempt brighter than ever. The question as to which community one belongs to, which religion one exercises, which language one speaks, and whether someone is “one of us” or “one of them” all became essential during the war. Such considerations remain, however, incomprehensibly important.

On the other hand, nationalism does not encourage the region to constructively face its recent history, so the general approach to the past differs; thereby further inhibiting the region’s ability to effectively move forward.

The real question remains – does nationalism matter? Are nationalism and nation-state building more important than peaceful coexistence? Do Balkan communities need to go through the process of nation-state building once again in order to be capable of tackling issues like regional cooperation and mutual understanding? Whatever the answer may be, the language issue will persist as an obstacle.

Whilst the end of nationalism itself is not possible, the question remains as to whether or not the process of nation-building can be successful over the long run. Unfortunately and as some, like Professor Wolfgang Müller Funk, point out – nationalism is not successful because it is so realistic, but because it is so unrealistic. Whilst nationalism continues to rear its head in the former Yugoslavia, so language will continue to act as a divisive, as opposed to unifying, force.

Danijela Dobrota is a lawyer from Belgrade.

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8 Responses

  1. Thomas

    Being from Flanders, the dutch speaking part of Belgium, I am familiar with language sensitivities. Officially we speak the same language, dutch, as in the Netherlands. Although everyone is aware of the differences between both languages or dialects. Almost nobody over here asks for a recognition of “Flemish” as a distinct language. But ofcourse we haven’t been in a violent conflict with the Netherlands less than 20 yrs ago.

    I believe the current language issues date before the war. Although the different languages are very familiar, “Serbo-Croatian” was created only in communist Yugoslavia. I believe this obstructed the natural evolution of local languages. Bosnians, Croatians, Montenegrins, … all claiming their own language now may seem to us in Europa like a stupid waste of time and effort. But holding it to a historical background I can understand it very well. Language is indeed central to nation-building. And nation-building in former Yugoslavia is a process that after decades of Socialist control got a new speed-up during and since the war.

  2. “A language is a dialect with an army” the saying goes. It is obvious that the birth of new languages as Bosnjak and Montenegrin is the byproduct of nation-building since the 1990s.
    I also agree that the “narcissm of small differences” (Freud) which feeds Balkan nationalism is at the core of the problem.
    Nevertheless I think the one language which is spoken (or understood) in all of the Ex-Yu-countries is as much the medium of consensus as it is the medium of conflict. The countries and peoples involved are doomed to talk to each other. They simply live in the same “language space”. It is of course an open question how they choose to talk to each other.

  3. It seems to me that there would be less opposition if “the language” were called “Balkan.” The term “Serbian” is offensive to people who only recently achieved independence. Using neutral terminology could help to diffuse nationalistic tensions.

  4. Danijela Dobrota

    Thank you for the comments!

    As a matter of fact, the official language of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was Serbo-Croatian-Slovenian (Article 3 of the 1921 Constitution), so one can conclude that the term Serbo-Croatian was used probably even prior.

    @ Will: I agree. This is why I refer to it as ‘Balkanese’. What is more, in the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia the language of the region is determined as BCS.

  5. Just as claiming Serbian, Bosnian, Croatian (and Montenegrin) are different languages is a political act. So is claiming they’re not.

    Language is always a political instrument linked to identity. Asking for one single language would be seen as a return to a Serb dominated Yugoslavia. Claiming different languages will always remind us of the nationalist war in the ’90s. I’m afraid it’s way too early for a non-emotional discussion about how useful it is to have 4 nearly identical official languages.

    I think the European solution is more pragmatic. Every language will be recognized as a different, official language. But the translators will be the same.

  6. Ermir

    @Daniela Dobrota :

    Calling it “Balkanese” would be unfair to those people in this corner of the world who speak distinct languages. What do you think Albanians and Greeks are, tourists?

  7. Danijela Dobrota

    @ Ermir: the point is not in the term ‘balkanese’ per se, but in finding a term which would suit majority. Moreover, during the times when the old Yugoslavia existed, I did not hear that Bulgarians complained about the name, although they, too, are South Slavs (Yugo-Slavs).

  8. Dr.C.S.Jamunanantha

    We need to understand the collective psychopathology of collective perception,collective thoughts ,collective communications,collective memory,collective emotions,collective experiences-collective consciousness,and collective personality.Any conflict resolution should be solved by improving the collective intelligence.

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