Vuk Stefanovic Karadzic: Profile of a Great Scholar

UNESCO Courier, July 1987 | Go to article overview

Vuk Stefanovic Karadzic: Profile of a Great Scholar


Vuk Stefanovic Karadzic Profile of a great scholar

FATHER of Serbo-Croat literature, great reformer of the Serbian language and spelling system, founder of Serbian Romanticism, linguish, ethnographer and historian, Karadzic played a pioneering role in the cultural history of Yugoslavia.

Born into a farming family at Trsic (Serbia) in 1787, he attended local schools but was largely self-taught. In 1813 he took refuge in Vienna and lived there, except for a few short absences, until his death in 1864.

In Vienna he met a Slovene scholar, Jernej Kopitar, who encouraged him and introduced him to such leading European writers and thinkers as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Jacob Grimm, Leopold von Ranke and Friedrich Engels. Karadzic's first collection of epic poems, published in 1814, brought him to the attention of an educated readership. In addition to his many other activities, he devoted his life to the collection and publication of works from the Serbian oral literary tradition, notably in "Serbian Folk Tales' (1821), "Serbian Folk Sayings' (1836) and, above all, the multi-volume "Serbian Epic Poems' (1814-1866).

His efforts to record and preserve the treasures of oral literature formed part of his struggle to gain acceptance for the spoken language as the language of literary expression, and to create an alphabet which would be adapted to Serbian phonetics and would obey his dictum: "Write as you speak, read as it is written.' Karadzic simplified the spelling system so that each sound corresponded to a single letter, finally devising an alphabet of thirty letters that is one of the most scientific and logical in the world today.

His linguistic works include the first Serbian grammar--which was reviewed by Goethe--and a "Serbian Lexicon' (1818), a Serbo-Germanic-Latin dictionary which did full justice to the rich vocabulary of popular speech. The second edition (1852, reprinted in 1934) remains a classic reference work. …

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