In-depth | Politics

Nationalists who speak different languages understand each other the best

By - 21.04.2017

Declaration on a common language has caused a fiery reaction.

“The answer to the question of whether the same language is spoken in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Croatia, and Serbia — is affirmative.” This very sentence, more than anything in a very short Declaration on a common language, published at the end of March, triggered an avalanche of reactions across many of the countries of former-Yugoslavia.

The Declaration was made public during a series of conferences held as part of the project “Languages and Nationalisms” run and sponsored by Belgrade-based cultural and literary events organizer Association Krokodil, and the Balkan branch of German NGO Forum ZDF, which sponsors peace and reconciliation projects across the region.

Those who defend the Declaration and its very idea, believe that it represents the first serious attempt towards understanding and cooperating between the countries that emerged from the breakdown of Yugoslavia.

Soon after it was published, the Declaration received support from more than 8,000 people from all of the four countries in question; mostly academics, scholars, journalists and cultural workers. Those who defend the Declaration and its very idea, believe that it represents the first serious attempt towards understanding and cooperating between the countries that emerged from the breakdown of Yugoslavia.

But it has not received the backing of either mainstream media or politicians in the region and has triggered nationalist reactions from those who claim that the Declaration brings into question the right of the people of those states to have their own languages.

From 1954 onwards, the language used throughout Yugoslavia was known as ‘Serbo-Croatian’ or ‘Croato-Serbian.’ After the dissolution of the socialist Federation, the notion of language became a political tool and has remained so for years.

Nationalists insist that people in newly established countries are speaking different languages, and that they even need interpreters, at least in official communication; some attempts have even been made in the past to translate books and movies. In some instances, interpreters, whose main task is to translate from one language to another, have even been introduced in public institutions. This is especially exploited in Bosnia and Herzegovina — the most multi-ethnic states in former-Yugoslavia — where official institutions are forced to have everything translated into Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian.

The Declaration on a common language was made at a series of “Languages and Nationalisms” conferences in the region. Photo courtesy of

Speaking at the “Languages and Nationalisms” conference in Podgorica, University of Sarajevo professor, Hanka Vajzovic, painted an ironic picture of the differences between the languages, which she says are often absurdly translated and unnecessary synonyms used, when everyone already understands: “For example, thanks to the recognition of these three variants, varieties, or languages, the Serbian version of a text in the ‘Official Gazette’ uses the word ‘execution,’ the Croatian word that is used is ‘enactment,’ and in order to have a third, Bosniak version that must differ from the two others, a nice and autochthonous Bosnian word is used — ‘implementation.’”

After the Declaration was made public, an interpreter in Bosnia and Herzegovina wrote on his Facebook profile: “I am very happy when my job is to translate to Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian, making triple amount of money for almost the same job.”   

The politics of language

Where regional politicians have reacted, they have been vocal in condemning the Declaration, especially in Croatia, which is trying hard to prove that it does not belong to the region at all. The president of this country, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, rejected the debate on languages, claiming that this is “a completely marginal thing that shouldn’t even be discussed.” “Some kind of a common language was a political project that died off together with former Yugoslavia, and it will never repeat,” said President Grabar-Kitarovic.

In Serbia, politicians did not react but there have been a number of comments in the mainstream media that is largely controlled by the parties in power.

One group that did react is the committee for the Serbian language, part of the Serbian Literary Cooperative (SLC) — an association whose task is the promotion and preservation of Serbian culture. They decided not to support the Declaration, due to, as they claim, “its goal being to scientifically deny the historical foundations and current status of the Serbian language.”

"The Declaration underlines that differences are being constructed between the existing standards in rigid ideological terms, and it seeks liberalization of orthographic norms."

Professor Enver Kazaz

Reactions to the common language Declaration from linguists in the region have been diverse, ranging from total dismissal to overwhelming support. Dr. Milos Kovacevic, professor at the Faculty of Philology in Belgrade and member of the SLC’s Serbian language committee, dismissed those who participated in the creation of the Declaration as incompetent, and as such their recommendation, he said, should be ignored by linguists.

In a statement for the media, Kovacevic scornfully accused the authors of the Declaration of “discovering hot water” in matters on which he says everybody agrees. The Committee agrees that all people in the region are speaking the same language, suggesting that “historically and scientifically” the language of the Serbs is called Serbian, whereas the literary language of Croats, Bosniaks, and Montenegrins should be called Croato-Serbian, Bosniak-Serbian, or Montenegro-Serbian. “Since only the Serbian language has linguistically justified foundations, its variants are political languages,” Kovacevic explained.

Professor Enver Kazaz, from the Sarajevo-based Faculty of Philosophy is one of the authors and signatories of the Declaration. He points out that contrary to the concerns expressed by Kovacevic and the Serbian Literary Cooperative’s committee on the Serbian language, the Declaration’s authors had no intention of undermining the symbolic value of standard language, but the very opposite: “The Declaration underlines that differences are being constructed between the existing standards in rigid ideological terms, and it seeks liberalization of orthographic norms,” he told K2.0.

“This means that every possibility of hegemonic illusions of the Serbo-Croatian language is abolished, or those illusions that want to achieve the domination of one standard over another. Standard variants in a common, polycentric, standard language, with the right of naming them in accordance with the values of their speakers, should not serve as rigid ideological borders between collective identities.”

However Dzevad Jahic, a professor of Bosnian language at the Faculty of Philosophy in Sarajevo, dismisses the idea of a common language altogether, arguing that a distinct Bosnian language has existed throughout history. After the last war, when the Bosnian language was officially introduced in Bosnia and Herzegovina, he authored the language’s first dictionary, a book deemed highly controversial by some linguists and sectors of the public, who claim that he included a number of archaic words simply to prove his beliefs.

Jahic calls the common language Declaration an experiment that could, as he put it, only happen in Bosnia and Herzegovina. “This [acceptance of there being a single language] would, once again, be at the expense of the Bosnian space — statehood; at the expense of everything that is authentic in this space,” Jahic says, referring to the recent past, during Yugoslavia, when the official language was called ‘Serbo-Croatian.’ “If a people exist, they certainly have their own language, they didn’t borrow it from anyone. At the common basis, our languages enable normal understanding, but a right cannot be taken away from one people.”

In contrast, world-renowned linguist, Ranko Bugarski — who was born-in-Sarajevo but lives in Belgrade — has argued that the the Declaration is not threatening any national group or language. In an interview for the Belgrade-based Vreme magazine, he suggested that the only people potentially threatened by the Declaration are “those political circles and individuals who have built their power, influence, and sometimes academic careers on those differences,” and have therefore been the first to speak out.K

Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.