Date: Wed, 25 Sep 1996 09:25:49 -0700


Subject: "New" languages in former Yugoslavia (fwd)

this was forwarded from linguist to seelangs, and i thought it might be of

interest to our list as well.

sylvia swift


---------- Forwarded message ----------

Date: Wed, 14 Aug 1996 15:32:02 PDT

CSM / BY: Colin Woodard

ZAGREB, CROATIA -- When she returns to her native Zagreb, Olinka

Gjigas doesn't have to tell people she's been living abroad for the

past three years. They can tell as soon as she starts to speak.

``Each time I visit, more words have been changed or added to our

language,'' says Ms. Gjigas, who works in neighboring Hungary and

returns only a few times a year to visit her family. ``I try to catch

on to the new way of speaking, but people know immediately that I

haven't been living here. At first it seemed funny, even ridiculous.

But when a vegetable seller snubbed my mother in the market because

she used an 'old' word, I just couldn't believe it.''

The fighting may be over, but the successor states of Yugoslavia

are waging new wars over words. Like Yugoslavia itself, the

Serbo-Croatian language is breaking apart, ending a tumultuous

century-old marriage of a half-dozen south Slavic dialects.

Croats and Bosnians are rewriting dictionaries and grammar books to

emphasize the distinctiveness of their languages and, therefore, their


But many people find themselves caught in the crossfire.

Bosnians are reviving Arabic, Turkish, and Persian words from the

19th century. Croatians are replacing words deemed foreign with both

new and old terms - all in an effort to reverse decades of alleged

``Serbianization'' of their language. Croatia has been most

aggressive, encouraging teachers to accept only new words as correct

on student exams. Extremist parliamentarians even launched a failed

attempt to criminalize the use of ``words of foreign origin.''

Requesting bread with the ``Serbian'' hleb rather than the Croatian

kruh elicits scowls in Zagreb grocery stores, while waiters become

surly if an ``unpatriotic'' construction is used. And as the country's

state-run schools, television, and publishing houses push new words

and phrases it's becoming easier than ever to tell who is Croatian and

who is not.

``The whole point is to create new differences between Croatia and

(Serb-dominated rump) Yugoslavia so that communication between the two

is more complicated and the idea of separate identities

strengthened,'' says historian Ivo Banac. ``There's no basis for this

campaign in Croatia. Our identity is very strong, and the idea of the

Serbian language somehow threatening it is preposterous.''

Preposterous or not, Croatian authorities are aggressively

``purifying'' their country's language by substituting words deemed to

be foreign with Croatian words. New words are either newly invented or

borrowed from medieval and baroque Croatian literature. ``It's as if

they were trying to purify English by removing all the words of French

origin and reintroducing words from Beowulf (the 8th-century epic

poem),'' says Victor Friedman of the University of Chicago's Slavic

Languages Department. ``They're not just trying to turn back the clock

but inventing a clock that never existed.''

The creation of new national languages is causing great confusion,

because Serbo-Croatian dialects are based on geography, not ethnicity.

``In any given village the people are all going to speak the same

dialect, whether they are Serbs, Croats, or Muslims,'' says Dr.

Friedman. Serbs from western Herzegovina or the Krajina region of

Croatia, for example, spoke the same dialect as their Croat and Muslim

neighbors. Now that this dialect has been dubbed ``Croatian,'' the

Serbs are under considerable pressure to prove their identities by

adopting the Belgrade-standard, a dialect unfamiliar to them.

Before being pushed out by an August 1995 Croatian offensive,

Krajina Serb radio announcers in the town of Knin could be heard

stumbling over the new ``Serbian'' words and pronunciation in their


Even Croatian President Franjo Tudjman gets confused. During US

President Clinton's visit here earlier this year, President Tudjman

accidentally used the ``Serbian'' word for ``happy,'' srecan, instead

of the ``Croatian'' sretan, during a live speech. His error was edited

out of later broadcasts on state television, but opposition press had

a field day.

Another problem with the Croatian reforms is that only a handful of

professional linguists actually knows which words are truly Croatian

and which are foreign borrowings. Amateur reformers in the state

bureaucracy reject one Serbo-Croatian word for ``one thousand'' -

hiljada - in favor of another, tisuca. Hiljada was favored by the

Communist authorities who ran the former Yugoslavia, and thus is

regarded as ``Serbian'' by amateur reformers. ``It's ironic because

hiljada is actually a very old Croatian word, perhaps more authentic

than tisuca,'' says Ivan Supek, president of the Croatian Academy of


The reforms will continue to have difficulties. ``We don't even

have a Croatian dictionary yet,'' says University of Zagreb linguist

Bulcsu Laszlo. ``How can the poor primary school teachers teach their

pupils the 'correct' way to speak? They don't even know it