LINGUIST List 7.1264

Wed Sep 11 1996

FYI: A "new" language in the former Yugoslavia

Editor for this issue: Ann Dizdar <>


  1. Beaurat, A "new" language

Message 1: A "new" language

Date: Wed, 21 Aug 1996 19:45:31 +0200
From: Beaurat <>
Subject: A "new" language

Hello to the linguists. I have just seen this report, and
I think it may be interesting to the linguistic comunity.

Dejan Djukic

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

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