Dialects, Migrations, and Ethnic Rivalries: The Case of Bosnia-Herzegovina

By Greenberg, Robert D. | Journal of Slavic Linguistics, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Dialects, Migrations, and Ethnic Rivalries: The Case of Bosnia-Herzegovina


Greenberg, Robert D., Journal of Slavic Linguistics


Abstract. This article investigates the interface between dialect, ethnic identity, and political developments in the rural communities of Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the cultural and linguistic differences among Croats, Serbs, and Muslims have been most pronounced. On the basis of a fresh reanalysis of linguistic data which have previously been cited in the literature to aggrandize the differences, it is argued that the claims of Bosnia's Serb, Croat, and Bosniak communities for separate identities based on the criteria of language are dubious, and that the language differences are relatively minor. It is further suggested that only certain key ethnolinguistic markers have been used to construct the notion of separate linguistic identities there.

1. Introduction

In the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia, what was often referred to in the West as "Serbo-Croatian" was the primary language used for communication among the various ethnic groups. It was the language of commerce, the military, diplomatic missions abroad, and federal institutions. (1) The language's speakers, i.e., Croats, Serbs, Muslim Slavs, and Montenegrins, spoke regional varieties of this common language. (2) In the early 1990s three successor states to the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia emerged in which variants of the former Serbo-Croatian language have been widely recognized as national languages. Thus, under Franjo Tudman, the Croatian language became the republic's official language in 1990, even before the Croats declared their independence; in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Bosnian language was formally recognized as an official language through the Dayton Accords in 1995; (3) and in The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, renamed Serbia and Montenegro in 2003, (4) the Serbian language was declared official in 1992. (5) In Bosnia-Herzegovina the emergence of the new standards has proven to complicate a true integration of the country's ethnic groups into a viable and cohesive nation that could function without the oversight of the international community. Through the 1995 Dayton Accords, Bosnia-Herzegovina was transformed into a loosely federated state with two entities, each of which has a high degree of autonomy. These entities are the mostly Serb-dominated Republika Srpska ("Serb Republic" or "RS"), and the Bosniak-Croat Federation ("Federacija Bosne i Hercegovine" or "FBiH"). The FBiH is further sub-divided into 10 cantons. In Bosnia's two entities, the three successor languages are now co-official. However, in Republika Srpska, Serbian predominates, while in the Bosniak-Croat Federation Bosnian dominates in cantons with majority Muslim populations, while Croatian dominates in the cantons with majority Croat populations.

Before hostilities broke out in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992, over 90% of Bosnia-Herzegovina's population consisted of members of the six Yugoslav "nations", especially Serbs, Croats, and Muslim Slavs. (6) According to the 1981 Yugoslav Census, the largest group were Muslira Slavs (39%), followed by Serbs (32%) and Croats (18%). (7) The three groups differ primarily in religion, dialect, and cultural heritage. The focus of this paper is the rural communities of Bosnia-Herzegovina, where many of the cultural and linguistic differences among Bosnia-Herzegovina's Croats, Serbs, and Muslims have been most pronounced. I examine the interface between dialect, ethnic identity, and political developments from a sociolinguistic perspective. Such a perspective will take into consideration historical migrations of populations, which are reflected in dialect differences among the country's Serb, Croat, and Bosniak populations. I rely primarily on linguistic data, which have been used to distinguish the Bosnian Serbs from their Croat and Bosniak neighbors. I suggest that the claims of Bosnia's Serb, Croat, and Bosniak communities for separate identities based on the criteria of language are dubious, and that the minor linguistic differences have been magnified by all of Bosnia's Slavic-speaking groups. …

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