Language and Identity in the Balkans: Serbo-Croatian and Its Disintegration

Language and Identity in the Balkans: Serbo-Croatian and Its Disintegration

Language and Identity in the Balkans: Serbo-Croatian and Its Disintegration

Language and Identity in the Balkans: Serbo-Croatian and Its Disintegration


Language rifts in the Balkans are endemic and have long been both a symptom of ethnic animosity and a cause for inflaming it. But the break-up of the Serbo-Croatian language into four languages on the path towards mutual unintelligibility within a decade is, by any previous standard oflinguistic behaviour, extraordinary. Robert Greenberg describes how it happened. Basing his account on first-hand observations in the region before and since the communist demise, he evokes the drama and emotional discord as different factions sought to exploit, prevent, exacerbate, accelerate orjust make sense of the chaotic and unpredictable language situation. His fascinating account offers insights into the nature of language change and the relation between language and identity. It also provides a uniquely vivid perspective on nationalism and identity politics in the formerYugoslavia.


To this very day ethnicity strikes many Westerners as being peculiarly
related to [all those crazy little people and languages out there], to
the unwashed (and unwanted) of the world, to phenomena that are
really not fully civilized and that are more trouble than they are worth.

(Fishman 1989: 14–15)

1.0 Overview

It must have been only my third day in Yugoslavia, when my Croat friends took me to Zagreb's Mirogoj Cemetery. I had arrived in Yugoslavia to complete dissertation research. My topic was in theoretical Slavic linguistics on Serbo-Croatian appellative forms, which essentially included forms of address, commands, and prohibitions. I came armed with my charts of verb classes, imperative endings in dozens of dialects, and the rough draft of a questionnaire. I planned to travel to each republic, and was going to seek out dusty hand-written records of dialect forms. However, on that day in September 1989,I was still the tourist taking in the sights. I was amazed when my friends asked me if I wanted to see the grave of Ljudevit Gaj. I felt the kind of excitement the wide-eyed student might experience when going on a field trip to a place they had only read about. When we reached the grave, my friends knelt down, genuinely moved. With visible emotion, they explained that Gaj, who had sought the unity of all Southern Slavs in the nineteenth century, embodied for them a lost dream of ethnic harmony, and of pan-Slavic cooperation. In retrospect, their feeling of loss preceded the events that were to occur only a few years later: as if they knew that Yugoslavism no longer had a chance. In that conversation, they told me that Serb—Croat relations would never recover from the upsurge of nationalism in the late 1980s. I had studied about Gaj primarily for his role in bringing about the unity of the Serbo-Croatian language. Was I to understand my friends' mournful comments as an indication that Serbo-Croatian was also no longer possible?

Six months later I was back in Zagreb at the Institute for Language to disseminate my questionnaire on Croatian appellative forms. I had painstakingly . . .

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