Academic journal article East European Quarterly

Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian? Language and Nationality in the Lands of Former Yugoslavia

Academic journal article East European Quarterly

Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian? Language and Nationality in the Lands of Former Yugoslavia

Article excerpt

The Swedish Embassy in a narrow street in downtown Sarajevo bears a signboard with its designation in three forms. Alongside Svedska ambasada in both Latin and Cyrillic script is a third, Svedsko viseposlanstvo. The first two forms represent longstanding practice, and in the past would have denoted the Latin and Cyrillic versions of the common Serbo-Croat term for Swedish Embassy. What, then, is Svedsko viseposlanstvo? A visiting historian aware that Croatian style often prefers native forms, where Serbian adapts an international word, should have little trouble deducing that viseposlanstvo, meaning literally High Commission, is in these days of linguistic separatism the approved Croatian word for Embassy. But what then is the function of the Latinic form of Svedska ambasada, which would formerly have made a bow to the Croatian component of the old common language? Plainly it must be the translation of Swedish Embassy into Bosnian, a language less concerned to throw off the yoke of Serbian lexical tyranny.

The fact that the break-up of the old Yugoslavia has led to repudiation of notions of a common Serbo-Croat language is fairly well-known even to casual observers of the region and has attracted attention also from non-native linguists. (1) This study by an historian, while resuming some of the ground thereby covered, aims to make a contribution to the longer-term ideological aspect of the question. The emergence of linguistic pluralism in what used to be considered the Serbo-Croat speaking area points to shifting assumptions about the relationship of language and ethnicity which have been particularly influential in the rise and fall of Yugoslavism. The argument below is posited on the view that language and nationhood became bound up together in the Serbo-Croat speaking lands in the nineteenth century and have remained so. The nature of the relationship, however, has changed. In the nineteenth century educated people concluded that because Serbs, Croats, Muslims and Montenegrins spoke more or less the same language they must be one and the same people. By the end of the twentieth century this relationship had been inverted; because these groups saw themselves as different nations, it followed that they must speak different languages. The implications for the Yugoslav 'project' will be traced below, with concentration on three phases of the process. First, from 1835 to 1850 basic ideas about a united South Slav literary language were set out, with clear awareness of possible political implications. Second, from the 1860s to 1914 some of these implications were drawn directly into the political/ parliamentary arena, involving disputes on the very name of the language. Third, the communist period into the 1990s saw ideas of a united Yugoslavism finally unravel and with them aspirations to build a common language in the region.

From Gaj's Illyrianism to the Vienna Agreement of 1850

The key figure in establishing a nexus between language and what became known as Yugoslavism is the Croatian publicist-politician Ljudevit Gaj, (1809-1872). In considering his ideas it is first necessary to sketch out the complex linguistic and political situation into which he was born.

Gaj was a Habsburg subject, a native of the Kingdom of Croatia-Slavonia-Dalmatia, whose grandiose name disguised its pitifully reduced status. Since 1102 an autonomous part of the lands of the Hungarian Crown, it had lost Dalmatia to Venice in the middle ages, while the other two provinces were doubly divided: between a 'Civil' portion with a Diet in Zagreb and the Military Frontier directly administered from Vienna, and among themselves, with Slavonia more closely tied to Hungary than was Croatia proper. When Dalmatia came under Habsburg rule in 1797/1813, it too was directly administered from Vienna. The only part of the language area to enjoy real autonomy was the principality of Serbia under Ottoman suzerainty but Serbs also lived in the Hungarian half of the Habsburg Monarchy and, together with Catholics (hardly yet Croats) under Muslim rule in Ottoman Bosnia-Herzegovina. …

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