Sunday, July 26, 2009

Speaking in Tongues

Commenting on my post about linguistic idiocy, reader "Kris" asked a perfectly reasonable question:

Do you consider Croatian, Bosnian and Serbian separate but mutually intelligible languages or dialects of one South Slavic language? An example would be the Scandinavian languages of Danish, Swedish and Norwegian on one hand (mutually intelligible) or the numerous dialects of Italian on the other? Being interested in different languages I wondered if learning say Serbian would mean I could pick up Croatian easily.

I knew someone who was Croat by nationality (he called himself a Yugoslav since one parent was a Serb and the other a Croat) who would roll his eyes whenever I mentioned Bosnian as a language and tell me there is no such language. Yet I see dictionaries, textbooks and a wiki about the Bosnian language (and now I see there is a Montenegrin language?) so I'm confused and yet curious about your thoughts.

Also, for those of you who lived the former Yugoslavia, did you also have to learn Slovene and Macedonian in school (and they learn Serbo-Croatian)? Sorry for the length but I'm really interested in this topic. Coming from Canada French is mandatory learning for us in elementary school.


I'll start from the end, since that's the easiest part. Most inhabitants of Yugoslavia did not learn Slovenian or Macedonian; those were official languages in those respective republics (as was Albanian in Kosovo, and Hungarian in parts of Vojvodina, by the way), but Serbo-Croatian was the official language of the country and everyone was expected to be proficient in it, or at least capable of understanding it. The Canadian comparison is interesting, because I don't know if the Quebecois are required to learn English.

As for the matter of languages being related... It is absolutely not politically correct to point out that they are in fact as closely related as Italian dialects. Everything in the Balkans is political, including the language. If one tries to point out that even today the official languages in Croatia and Bosnia have about 80% (if not more) in common with Serbian, that's an automatic accusation of "Greater Serbian nationalism and imperialist chauvinism" with charges of "aggression" and "genocide" soon to follow. Kind of like that idiotic Daily Kos post I was referring to.

The truth is, linguists who worked in the early 1800s to modernize and codify the alphabet and grammar rules of what are today Serbian, Croatian and Slovenian often worked together and accepted the basic premise that would eventually lead to Yugoslavia, of "one nation, three tribes." In retrospect, the premise was flawed - there was just not enough shared historical experience for Croats, Slavonians, Dalmatians, Istrians and Carinthians to live in a common state with the Serbs (not to mention the Muslims) - but in the XIX century the Yugoslav idea was all the rage.

There is no question that Vuk Karadžić and Đuro Daničić were strongly influenced in their reform of Serbian by the work of Ljudevit Gaj and Jernej Kopitar, not to mention the political and cultural influence of Vienna. This is why Vuk's Cyrillic is interchangeable with Gajevica (the modern Latin script used in Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia), for example, and why modern Serbian sounds nothing like Russian.

There are further differences in regional dialects; for example, an Istrian or a Slavonian has issues with understanding Dalmatians, and none of them can understand the peasants of Zagorje (or people from nearby Zagreb) quite right. Differences in Bosnia, Herzegovina and Serbia are far less pronounced.

Modern Croatian - as well as "Bosnian" and "Montenegrin" - are products of political engineering in a reverse direction from the XIX century Yugoslav linguistics. They've been deliberately modified starting in the 1990s to be as different from Serbian as possible, in order to underpin the political independence of Croatia, Bosnia and Montenegro.

Modern Croatian has a dual purpose: to unify the regions which have historically been under different rulers (Dalmatia and Istria were Venetian for centuries, then passed to Austria, while Zagorje and Slavonia were dominated by Hungary and Dubrovnik was independent), and as a result have developed distinct regional dialects; and to establish an identity different from and opposite to Serbian. No one actually speaks the official Croatian yet, it's a sort of "newspeak" being adopted slowly. This incongruity was best described by Miljenko Jergovic, a Sarajevo Croat (who writes beautifully, whatever one may call the language he uses) a few years ago, in a piece about how the Croatian movie distributors subtitled a Serbian film.

Identity politics was behind the establishment of "Bosnian" and "Montenegrin" as well; in both cases, the ruling regimes in Sarajevo and Podgorica embraced the Croatian newspeak as a foundation, then added Turkish/Persian/Arabic words and expressions (Bosnia) or added a couple letters and enshrined a regional dialect as a distinct language (Montenegro). In what I thought was especially hilarious, last year a group of Muslim linguists actually protested the "increasing Croatization of the Bosnian language," apparently unaware of the irony. Ivo Andrić, Meša Selimović and Njegoš are spinning in their graves.

Mind you, only the Bosnian Muslims (renamed "Bosniaks" in the 1990s, the better to stake their claim to the entire country) say they speak "Bosnian," and take offense when Bosnian Serbs or Croats call that language "Bosniak".

I usually have no problem getting across to people if I use my native Sarajevo dialect of Serbo-Croatian (and remember to enunciate the vowels properly); barring that, I can speak official Serbian with little difficulty. For the life of me, I can't get a hang of the Croatian newspeak, or "Bosnian" (let alone "Montenegrin"), which results in hostile stares when I travel to Croatia or Bosnia. So I speak English instead.

That's what I advise to all foreigners interested in the region as well; trying to learn any of the local languages is not only fiendishly difficult (the grammar is almost completely irrational, even if spelling is a non-issue), but you risk annoying people by speaking the "wrong" language, and making things worse when you insist they are "all the same, anyway." Especially since, down on the basic level, they really are.

11 comments:

hero of Crappy Town said...

Kris, you must understand there is a difference between a literary standard and the spoken language (Albeit the Serbian standard was built on the philosophy that this difference be minimised or eliminated.). Croatian and Serbian are two separate and distinct literary standards of one and the same natural, spoken language.

Imagine a world where Oxford publishes one set of grammar rules and dictionaries for the English language and Cambridge publishes a different set of grammar rules and dictionaries. Imagine that these two set of rules differ noticeably in many small things, but that overally they are still far closer to each other than for example Geordi and Scouse English dialects are to eachother or either of them is to the either of the standards.

The same with Serbian and Croatian. They obviously differ, but standard Croatian is much closer to standard Serbian than to some of the dialects spoken by Croatians, and standard Serbian is much closer to standard Croatian than to Torlakian dialect spoken in Southern Serbia.

(Furthermore even on the level of dialects the delinention is not along national lines. So imagine a situation where 80% of Scousers write in the Cambridge standard and vocabulary but 20% do not, and half of the Geordies follows the Oxford standard, but the other half swears by the Cambridge standard, or something similarly messy.)

Anyway this phenomenon - a "diasystem" is by no means unique to Serbo-Croatian. The Dutch-Flemish situation for example is similar.

As for learning Serbo-Croatian in former Yugoslavia... In Slovenian elementary schools Serbo-Croatian was a compulsory subject, but only for 1 or 2 years and something like 2-3 hours a week. So conscription to the Yugoslav military, holidays on the Adriatic and popular music probably did more for the Slovenes ability to communicate with Croats/Serbs than the school lessons did. (Not that Slovene is a great deal different to begin with.)

splinteredsunrise said...

I think this point about the differences between the standards and the actual spoken dialects is an important one. I speak Slavonian dialect, so the Zagreb or Belgrade literary standards are not that difficult for me, and a fair knowledge of Bulgarian means I can make adjustments and more or less understand the Torlakian dialects in the south even if I can't speak them. But yes, out on the Istrian or Dalmatian coast it's easier to get by in English.

An old Yiddish linguist once said that a language was just a dialect with an army and a navy. That's definitely the case with the South Slav diasystem. The big difference today is that Vuk and Dositej and the linguistic engineers of the 19th century were concerned with building a unified language, and the state-sponsored engineers of today want to exaggerate regional differences to shore up their identity.

The Croatian literary standard at least has some history and widespread usage behind it, even if it's hard to keep up with the newspeak coinages. But "Bosnian" and "Montenegrin" are linguistic projects of the last ten to fifteen years, and boy do they look half-finished.

Ana said...

I am struck by what the author and splinteredsunrise said about speaking english in the dalmatian coast. Author wrote: .... which results in hostile stares when I travel to Croatia or Bosnia. So I speak English instead.

I had a good family friend (in the US) from the Dalmatian coast. My mother and I would speak to her in "Belgrade Serbian" and she would speak to us in her version of Croatian. There was never a problem, as you quickly learn the different common words. We would never think of speaking english to each other.

Have things gotten that politicized that people would rather struggle with english than stomach a different dialect/language that they can all understand?

I spend half the year in Zurich, and I am always fascinated by the many different accents and variations of serbo-croation that I hear on the street here. Having grown up in NYC, hearing serbo-croation on the street is a real novelty for me. I am never quite sure where all those people are from. So now I am to believe that they could all be in fact speaking different languages and that I may offend some of them by speaking to them in the "wrong" one? Crazy :(

Gray Falcon said...

Things have been so politicized for a number of years, unfortunately. Last year, at an international sporting event in Zadar, the organizers removed the flags of all the participating countries so they wouldn't have to put up a flag of Serbia. Just the other day, a a Serbian tourist's car was smashed up in a village near Dubrovnik (if I recall right). And this despite a massive advertising campaign Croatia launched to attract Serbian tourists!

Red Star said...

Excellent post and thread.

Gray Falcon said...

I really do love quality comments. I understand the hoops are a little annoying to jump through, so I appreciate everyone who perseveres in order to post something constructive.

Kris said...

Thanks for the information. It's clarified a few things for me as to the whole language situation. I just wanted to add a couple things:

In the big bookstore chain in Canada (Chapters/Indigo, similar to Barnes & Noble in the US) there are language Books/CDs sold under the series "Teach Yourself". They have one for Serbian and one for Croatian. The Serbian one I believe uses the Cyrillic alphabet but I'd be curious to know if the Croatian book is the "newspeak" that Grayfalcon mentioned in the article.

What influence does/did Italian have in the difference in language on the Dalmatian coast (and Istria if my geography serves me?) from the rest of Croatia? I know there are Italian placenames for a lot of areas and that at certain times it was under Italian control (in fact one of my Italian friends claimed that it is and should always be Italian!)

Also I'd like to clarify that in Quebec they do have to learn English. Canada is officially bilingual, the province of New Brunswick is officially bilingual, Quebec is officially unilingual French, and all the other provinces are officially unilingual English. To explain the intricacies of this neverending debate in my country about language and culture would need my own blog but suffice it to say it would be almost suicide to not have working knowledge of English especially to do business in the US. Plus the cushy civil service jobs demand bilingualism (I used to live in the capital city of Ottawa which is not a good place to be if you're a libertarian Canadian looking for honest private sector work).

Again the posts were much appreciated.

Gray Falcon said...

I'll have to check out if my local B&N carries those books, and I'll post my findings.

As to Italian influences, I'll quote just one example: Dalmatians call money šoldi (Italian "soldi"); in Zagorje and Zagreb, the word used is "penezi" (which I traced back to Czech).

J P Maher said...

Mark Pinson, Editor. 1994: page 85: The Muslims of Bosnia-Hercegovina. Their historic development from the Middle Ages to the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Center for Medieval Studies, Harvard University. “...for general readers and specialists in Islamic studies, most of whom do not read Serbian, I am exploring the possibility of having translated from Serbian into English several articles and books by local Bosnian historians of the Muslim community in the Ottoman, Austrian and Yugoslav periods.”

P.S. The Yiddishist who said a language was a dialect with an army and a navy was either Max Weinreich or his son Uriel, who died too youg. Venice is an exception: she had and army, a navy and an empire. Venetians speak standard Italian as a second language, even the “upper classes”.

Peter said...

Kris, Teach Yourself Croatian does not enforce or teach the newspeak and nationalist prescriptions that arose in the 1990s. The course is a successor to the older course, "Teach Yourself Serbo-Croatian". In fact TY Croatian includes instances in its dialogues where speakers use "dirty Serbian" (in the mind of Croatian nationalists) constructions such as the "Da li...?" question element (instead of the prescribed Croatian "...-li...?") or words such as "avion" for "airplane" (instead of the prescribed Croatian "zrakoplov").

Teach Yourself Serbian for some reason is more substantial than TY Croatian as the Serbian textbook is of the same area as the one for TY Croatian but about 100 pages thicker. This is odd since Croatian and Serbian grammar are almost identical and it doesn't take an extra 100-odd pages to teach the Cyrillic alphabet. TY Serbian for the record teaches both Latin and Cyrillic alphabets - the chapters in the Serbian textbook alternate between the alphabets.

ajokic said...

To answer your own question in the post: Yes, the Quebecois are required to learn English. Of course, given the education in North America, there is no guarantee that they all will. just as in Yugoslavia, where education was much better, many Hungarians, for instance, never learned proper Serbo-croatian.