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Review of  Language and Identity in the Balkans

Reviewer: Matthew H. Ciscel
Book Title: Language and Identity in the Balkans
Book Author: Robert D. Greenberg
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Subject Language(s): Serbian
Issue Number: 15.3522

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Date: Fri, 17 Dec 2004 14:50:16 -0500
From: Matthew Ciscel
Subject: Language and Identity in the Balkans

AUTHOR: Greenberg, Robert D.
TITLE: Language and Identity in the Balkans
SUBTITLE: Serbo-Croatian and its Disintegration
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2004

Matthew H. Ciscel, Department of English, Central Connecticut State

Language often plays a central, symbolic role in ethno-national
movements and conflicts. The movements and conflicts that have
arisen from the collapse of state communism in Eastern Europe are no
exception. Indeed, language has played a central role in many recent
conflicts in the region, from Estonia to Moldova and Chechnya to
Yugoslavia. Among these, the catastrophic disintegration of
Yugoslavia stands out for the conflict's brutality and the region's
proximity to Western Europe, for which World War II remains a strong
warning against the dangers of ethno-nationalist extremism. The role
of language in this and other such conflicts, however, remains
understudied. Robert Greenberg's monograph begins to correct this
deficiency by providing a detailed and insightful exploration of the
struggles over language that have been intertwined with the military,
political, and diplomatic conflicts in the successor states of the former


The brief introductory chapter begins with an anecdote of the author's
visit to the grave of Ljudevit Gaj, a nineteenth century Croat language
reformer recognized as one of the founders of the unified Serbo-
Croatian language. A series of other short and engaging illustrations
from the author's fieldwork are then followed by an outline of goals
and a cursory discussion of relevant literature regarding the ex-
Yugoslav sociolinguistic context. As the author points out, the
study "fills an important gap in Balkan studies" in that it "addresses
specific controversies surrounding the four successor languages to
Serbo-Croatian: Serbian, Montenegrin, Croatian, and Bosnian" (3).
Methodologically, the book draws on vast primary sources, primarily
published grammars, newspaper articles, and conference
proceedings, and approaches the processes of language
standardization and national identity formation from a macro-social
perspective, i.e. from the point of view of language specialists,
politicians, and other elites. The introduction ends with a discussion
of whether Serbo-Croatian is or ever was a language. With reference
to Kloss's (1978) classic distinction between Abstand and Ausbau
processes of establishing language status, Greenberg draws a
connection between the uncertain status of standardized forms of
Serbo-Croatian and the central political role of language differences in
the region. Indeed, the language status issue is primarily political
(Fasold 2004).

The second chapter explores the history and status of the unified
Serbo-Croatian language in greater detail. After a discussion of
models for unified languages, the chapter delves into an overview of
the major stages of language unification in Yugoslavia from the
Literary Agreement of 1850, which established a version of the
Dubrovnik dialect as a common standard, to the Novi Sad Agreement
of 1954 that established a pluricentric unity, foreshadowing the
splintering of languages that has paralleled the socio-political
splintering of Yugoslavia. Also covered in this chapter are the
empirical dialect differences that exist across the region (but, notably,
do not coincide with political boundaries), the struggle over alphabets
and spelling norms, and the difficult issue of lexical borrowing and
purification. As throughout the subsequent chapters, a table of key
dates at the end of the chapter (p. 55) summarizes the main events in
the development and demise of the unified language.

Each of the next four chapters, making up the bulk of the book, focus
in on each of the four successor languages of Serbo-Croatian. The
first, in chapter 3, is Serbian. As the political center of the former
Yugoslavia, Serbia inherited many of the language planning problems
from Serbo-Croatian. For instance, as Greenberg explains, the
Serbian language is still split between the two main dialects of Serbo-
Croation: the western, ijekavian dialect and the eastern, ekavian
dialect. Serbian also must still come to terms with two alphabets,
since many minorities in Serbia and Montenegro know only the Latin
script. The struggle between varieties of Serbian nationalism and
pluralism has been played out, in part, through the medium of
language debates. The result has been a "unified Serbian language
in its current fractured form [that] will be subjected to still more
emotional debates and controversies, but little linguistic change in
practice" (87). As such, Serbian remains, structurally and status-wise,
the most direct descendant of Serbo-Croatian.

The fourth chapter, "Montenegrin: A mountain out of a mole hill?",
explores the establishment of the most controversial of the successor
languages. Greenberg lays out the political motivations for the split
from Serbian, explaining in detail the structural and historical
justifications for a separate language. Montenegrin is based on
dialectal differences from the dominant ekavian dialect of central
Serbia and the distinct literary tradition in Montenegro. Specific
features of the ijekavian dialect base and divergent spelling norms are
discussed and outlined with clear examples. Greenberg concludes
that the status of Montenegrin as a distinct language will depend
greatly on the scheduled 2006 referendum on political independence
in Montenegro.

Chapter five, which focuses on Croatian, explains the deep historical
roots and relative unity of the Croatian standard. Greenberg also
illustrates the purist and nativist tendencies in defining the new
standard, as Croatian distances itself from Serbo-Croatian. These
tendencies have led to disputes regarding the use of foreign borrowed
words and the establishment of new orthographic norms. The chapter
concludes by pointing to the potential for more tolerant approaches to
language purism as tensions between Croatia and Serbia deflate.

Chapter six covers the last of the successor languages, "Bosnian: A
three-humped camel?" Based on the urban dialects of the Bosniac
(read Muslim) population, the emerging standard distinguishes itself
structurally by its greater number of borrowed words from Turkish and
Arabic and a few small phonological features like greater use of
initial /h/. In addition, Greenberg provides details of the political effort
to create Ausbau, i.e. to legitimize the existence of a distinct Bosnian
standard that is more than a compromise between the Serbian and
Croatian that are also widely spoken in Bosnia-Herzegovina. As the
author points out, the recognition of standard Bosnian not only
legitimizes the existence of the Bosnian state, it also ironically
weakens that state by driving its three ethno-political factions
(Bosniacs, Croats, and Serbs) further apart.

Finally, the short concluding chapter summarizes the major events in
the splintering of Serbo-Croatian and the key issues that have arisen
from the establishment of the four successor languages. Greenberg
also looks to the future of ethno-linguistic conflict in the region,
concluding that, within a generation or two, the descendants of Serbo-
Croatian speakers perhaps "will not be able to understand one
another any longer" (167). In essence, the experiment of south Slavic
linguistic unification will likely have failed, along with the political
unification. This final chapter is followed by two appendices
(containing the texts of the 1850 Literary Agreement and the 1954
Novi Sad Agreement), a list of works cited, and a useful index.


Although the book is very well written and fills an important gap in
Balkan studies, there are two weaknesses that warrant comment. The
first concerns the presentation of phonological and orthographic data
for the four successor languages. Despite the many examples and
clear use of tables, the presentation of this data is often obscured by
lack of clarity in orthographic differences across the languages and in
phonological representations. Many readers would have greatly
benefited from a key or appendix that provided a comprehensive
guide to the spelling norms across the four varieties. In addition, the
phonological information, although written in the slanting brackets
commonly used to represent phonemes, did not clearly follow a
particular standard, such as the International Phonetic Alphabet.
These shortcomings could make the examples and some of the
related ideas less accessible to readers who are not specialists in
Slavic linguistics or who are not native speakers of English. Even so,
this concern is relatively minor and likely would not impact the general
understanding of the book's main points.

A somewhat greater shortcoming is the relatively narrow scope of the
discussion in the book. For instance, although the title suggests
otherwise, the book never discusses the relevance of language and
identity issues in the former Yugoslavia to other conflict zones in the
Balkans (Turkish in Greece, Hungarian in Transylvania, Russian in
Moldova) or in other parts of the world (Western Europe, South
America, West Africa, etc.). In addition, language and identity are
construed from a strictly macro-social point of view, focusing on
Fishman's (1999:161) notions of ethnic identity as reflected in
language policies and elite constructs of ethnicity. There is no
discussion of micro-social notions of identity, for instance among
individual language users in specific interactional contexts, which has
been the focus of much recent research on language and identity
(Laitin 1998, Jaffe 1999, Kroskrity 1999, Joseph 2004, among
others). Relatedly, greater inclusion of the author's ethnographic
observations, like those in the introduction, would have fleshed out the
practical implications of many of the elite movements and conflicts that
were described in such thorough detail. Finally, a more detailed look
at how language issues were or were not integrated into the analyses
of traditional histories of Yugoslavia's demise (such as Bennett
1995:25-26) might have also provided the reader a broader
understanding of the relevance of the book's contents. In sum, this
reader would have liked to see greater exploration of relevant
secondary literature from a broader range of theoretical and regional

These minor criticisms aside, the book is a coherent, detailed, and
original contribution to scholarship in South Slavic studies, Balkan
studies, sociolinguistics in general, and the intersection of language
and identity, in particular. It is highly recommended reading for
anyone interested in the Balkans or in issues of language and
identity. The many examples from primary sources and the clear
writing style make the book accessible and relevant to a wide range of
readers. Finally, the book meets its primary goal of explaining and
illustrating the often misunderstood motivations and mechanics of
Serbo-Croatian's disintegration.


Bennett, Christopher. 1995. Yugoslavia's Bloody Collapse: Causes,
Course and Consequences. New York: New York University Press.

Fasold, Ralph W. 2004. subtle linguistic science: The social
construction of `a language.' Ms.

Fishman, Joshua A., editor. 1999. Handbook of Language and Ethnic
Identity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jaffe, Alexandra. 1999. Ideologies in Action: Language politics in
Corsica. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Joseph, John. 2004. Language and Identity. Houndmills: Palgrave

Kloss, Heinz. 1967. Abstand languages and Ausbau languages.
Anthropological Linguistics 9, 29-41.

Kroskrity, Paul V., editor. 1999. Regimes of Language: Ideologies,
polities, and identities. Sante Fe: School of American Research Press.

Laitin, David D. 1998. Identity in Formation: The Russian-speaking
populations in the near abroad. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.


Matt Ciscel has an M.A. in German from the University of Iowa and a
Ph.D. in Linguistics from the University of South Carolina, Columbia.
His research focuses on language and identity in the ex-Soviet
Republic of Moldova. As an assistant professor at Central
Connecticut State University, he teaches courses in sociolinguistics,
the history of the English language, ESL methodologies, and world

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