01/27/2016 05:52 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Endless Balkan Language Politics Circus

Smoking warning written in Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian - photo used with permission of Michal Huniewicz.

Last year, on June 23, the President of the Bosnian Serb Republic Milorad Dodik stated that the Bosnian language does not exist. He claimed that only the Bosniak, Croat, and Serbian languages exist. In response, Bosniak parents moved their children from school into temporary classes to learn Bosnian instead of Bosniak.

All of these actions add further confusion to the language politics in the former Yugoslavia, where there are now at least five different names for what had earlier simply been called Serbo-Croatian. These names are: Bosniak, Bosnian, Croatian, Montenegrin, and Serbian. Ultimately, does it make sense to call these 'languages' by different names?

I argue that it does not make sense to call them different names since it defies common sense. If you ask most speakers of these 'languages' to communicate with one another, they will do so without a problem. According to Slavic linguist Bernhard Gröschel, there are fewer differences between these dialects than between certain varieties of American English. Nevertheless, ethnic nationalists in the region maintain that since these dialects have partially different vocabularies and someone in one region (e.g. Western Croatia) would have difficulty communicating with someone in another region (e.g. Eastern Serbia), the dialects are, in fact, different languages.

In this situation, ethnic nationalists have been manipulating minor differences to dismiss overwhelming similarities among the dialects. Ultimately, few would say that since the British use the words crisps and pants to describe what Americans call chips and underwear, they are different languages. It would be equally strange to say that if someone from Louisiana and someone from Scotland could not communicate easily, then this is conclusive proof that American and British are separate languages. Granted, mutual intelligibility is not the only criteria for determining what a language is. Yet, given so many similarities between these modes of speech, it seems absurd to argue that Bosnian, Croatian, Montenegrin, and Serbian, are different languages because of slight differences in vocabulary and accent.

Furthermore, many argue that, since Croatian and Bosnian are written in only the Latin script and, Serbian is only written in Cyrillic, they are different languages. This is a misconception. While Serbians write in Cyrillic, they equally (if not more frequently) use the Latin script. The Cyrillic alphabet is used in official documents in Serbia, but text used elsewhere in Serbia (e.g. shop signs, magazines) regularly appears in either script. However, even if all Serbs stopped using the Latin script and only used Cyrillic, it still would not make sense to call Bosnian, Croatian, Montenegrin, and Serbian different languages on this account. Imagine that a group of British classics students wrote letters to each other in English, but wrote out those messages using the Greek alphabet. These students have not suddenly created a new language by writing their letters using a different script. Although the English words now have a different graphical representation, the language still follows English grammar, uses English vocabulary, and, thus, remains English.

Nevertheless, setting all these points aside, it could be argued that the citizens of Bosnia, Croatia, Montenegro, and Serbia, simply want to form their own national standards and call their 'languages' whatever they want to in forming their identities as independent countries. If these countries have chosen to unconventionally establish new languages, why should anyone interfere?

In the end, language diffusion of Serbo-Croatian has led to or could lead to several harmful effects. First, previous language politics has led to poor use of public funds. In Croatia, ethnic Serbs demanded that street signs be written in Cyrillic even though they can read the versions written in the Latin script. In the Sandžak region in Serbia, a whole new set of textbooks for students have been "translated" from Serbian to Bosnian. Finally, printed documents in Bosnia are regularly rendered into three versions, even when the Bosnian and Croatian versions of the texts are indistinguishable (see photo above). Although I respect all ethnic minorities, in the current bleak financial situation in the Balkans, it seems downright irresponsible to use money on such pointless nationalistic games. Instead, it would be much more worthwhile to use this time and money to support underfunded mental institutions, improve the lives of Roma, or assist the refugees currently in the region.

Second, there could also be negative future effects of such language policies. If the Serbo-Croatian dialects did became four separate languages that lacked mutual intelligibility, the lack of a common language would, as Chang Hoon Oh et al. show, discourage trade between the ex-Yugoslav republics. Moreover, given the current rate of language extinction, it is not difficult to imagine a future where globalization pressures even threaten the existence of these weakened mini-South slavic languages.

It would be logical to prevent such harm by creating a regional commission for Serbo-Croatian in some neutral location like Sarajevo. The commission would maintain some standardization in the language while letting each dialect have some freedom. Moreover, while Serbo-Croatian is a useful name for the language since, as Dalibor Brozović points out, it denotes the geographical location of the speakers as being between Serbia and Croatia, the commission might decide that another name is more acceptable to all parties.

As change is unlikely to come from the governments in ex-Yugoslavia, I urge speakers of the language to create a unified Serbo-Croatian standard through individual actions. For instance, people in Serbia and Montenegro could try writing in exclusively the Latin script while people in Croatia and Bosnia could spend the four hours it would likely take them to master the Cyrillic alphabet. Moreover, people in Bosnia, Montenegro, and Serbia could start regularly using typically Croatian words like: sveučilište, vlak and Nizozemska. Similarly, people in Croatia could, instead of the former words, start using: univerzitet, voz, and Holandija. Although this vocabulary mixing would initially sound foolish, these words could, with time, become synonyms in Serbo-Croatian rather than arguments for separate languages.

It would be admirable if President Dodik and other Bosnian politicians could settle on a name for the language (like the acronym, BCMS) that stresses the unity of Bosnia's language community, but does not alienate any nationality. Moreover, teachers could teach their students both the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets and stress the equal validity of all accents of speech. The teachers would speak in the dialect they are most comfortable in and, after school, the parents would be left to further mold their children's speech patterns. Hopefully, all sides, including Dodik, will agree on some variation of these points in time - before even more time and money is wasted on the language-politics circus of the former Yugoslavia.