A NY Times story by Nicholas Wood describes efforts to “restore” the “Bosnian language” to the Serbian region of Novi Pazar (1911 Britannica article), known in Serbo-Croatian (to use the accurate name of the language everyone in the region speaks) as the Sandžak and traditionally in English as the Sanjak (which is how you pronounce the Serbo-Croatian word). Wood does a suprisingly good job of separating nationalistic claims from reality and puncturing the idea of a separate language:

Since their country fractured, their culture and language has, too. Croatia, Bosnia, and even Montenegro have all sought to reassert traditional differences and distance themselves from Serbo-Croatian, a language some felt was too heavily dominated by Serbian.
What were considered dialects until recently are now regarded as their own language. In fact, three “new” languages – possibly four, if one counts Montenegrin – have appeared, distinguished as much by national pride (and perhaps pronunciation) than any deep distinction in grammar.
Vocabulary differs here and there. The Serbs and Montenegrins also use the Cyrillic alphabet, while Bosnians and Croatians use the Latin alphabet. But many people read both.
Still, before the war, Yugoslavs most everywhere in the country could understand each other. The same holds true through the region today. There is in fact probably less difference in spoken language and accent between and a Sarajevan and a Belgrader than between a Londoner and Glaswegian.

I have highlighted the crucial phrase (though of course “as much” should be “more”). Wood goes on to explain the political background:

Introduction of the classes is seen as a victory for the mountainous region’s Muslim minority, which argues that the local language was eroded by the education system and bureaucracy in Belgrade, which were dominated by Orthodox Serbs who speak a different dialect with its own accent.
“Language defines the identity of a people,” said Zekerija Dugopoljac, the director of education for the Bosnian National Council, the official body that represents Muslim Slavs in Serbia and Montenegro. “Having the Bosnian language brings recognition to a people who have lived in Serbia and Montenegro for centuries.”
The lessons, which have the approval of the Serbian Education Ministry, are intended to comply with European law allowing minorities to be taught their own language. But Serbian nationalists oppose the classes, which they see as a first step toward a separatist movement. The ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party has called for the education minister to step down.
Such moves are closely watched in this region, one of Serbia’s most ethnically diverse. The Sandzak managed to escape the ethnic conflicts of the 1990’s that took place just across its boundaries in Bosnia and Kosovo. Muslims here say they are keen not to alarm their Serb neighbors. Others appear confused about the need for the classes.
“I speak Serbian,” said Nedzat Zenunovic, a 23-year-old Muslim who works in an Internet cafe. “Bosnians speak Bosnian. We don’t live in Sarajevo, we live here.”
A straw poll in the cafe revealed that several people had difficulty in giving any name to the language they spoke.
“It’s Serbo-Montenegrin!” quipped a young student, smiling. Serbo-Montenegrin is not a recognized language.

Sounds like the locals who are neither politicians nor bureaucrats have a pretty sensible attitude towards the whole thing. To me, it’s as if the mayor of New York mandated classes to teach people “Dutch English” in an attempt to restore the traditional dialect of the city before it was corrupted.
I can’t post about Novi Pazar without quoting one of my favorite bits from Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow:

This lymphatic monster had once blocked the distinguished pharynx of Lord Blatherard Osmo, who at the time occupied the Novi Pazar desk at the Foreign Office, an obscure penance for the previous century of British policy on the Eastern Question, for on this obscure sanjak had once hinged the entire fate of Europe:
Nobody knows-where, it is-on-the-map,
Who’d ever think-it, could start-such-a-flap?
Each Montenegran, and Serbian too,
Waitin’ for some-thing, right outa the blue—oh honey
Pack up my Glad-stone, ‘n’ brush off my suit,
And then light me up my bigfat, cigar—
If ya want my address, it’s
That O-ri-ent Express,
To the san-jak of No-vi Pa-zar!…
It is taking up so much of his time he’s begun to neglect Novi Pazar, and F.O. is worried. In the thirties balance-of-power thinking was still quite strong, the diplomats were all down with Balkanosis, spies with foreign hybrid names lurked in all the stations of the Ottoman rump, code messages in a dozen Slavic tongues were being tattooed on bare upper lips over which the operatives then grew mustaches, to be shaved off only by authorized crypto officers and skin then grafted over the messages by the Firm’s plastic surgeons … their lips were palimpsests of secret flesh, scarred and unnaturally white, by which they all knew each other.
Novi Pazar, anyhow, was still a croix mystique on the palm of Europe, and F.O. finally decided to go to the Firm for help. The Firm knew just the man…
But Lord Blatherard Osmo was able at last to devote all of his time to Novi Pazar. Early in 1939, he was discovered mysteriously suffocated in a bathtub full of tapioca pudding, at the home of a Certain Viscountess. Some have seen in this the hand of the Firm. Months passed, World War II started, years passed, nothing was heard from Novi Pazar. Pirate Prentice had saved Europe from the Balkan Armageddon the old men dreamed of, giddy in their beds with its grandeur—though not from World War II, of course. But by then, the Firm was allowing Pirate only tiny homeopathic doses of peace, just enough to keep his defenses up, but not enough for it to poison him.

If only Lord Osmo could have lived to see the quiet reappearance of his obscure area of responsibility into the limelight of the News from Europe!
(Thanks to Bonnie for the link.)


  1. First of all let me declare my background: Croatian living in Australia since before the (1990-1995) wars.
    I am also bemused by some of the language policies that have been implemented in the ex-Yugoslav countries in recent times. Esp. the reputed need to resort to translators between Serb & Croat leaders at some of the peace talks in mid 1990s.
    It is true that people from all over the former Yugoslavia can understand each other without too much difficulty. Quite apart from the literary standards, there is a chain of dialects which are similar to each other, though very different from the ones at the opposite end of the chain.
    To give an example, my native dialect is the Shtokavian Ikavian, which is spoken in Dalmatia, and some areas of Bosnia and in Hercegovina. Having said that, I have an accent specific to my town, and anyone from the neighbouring towns would be able to tell where I come from.
    I have no great trouble understanding either the Croatian literary standard (based on Shtokavian Ijekavian) or the Serbian literary standard (based on Shtokavian Ekavian). But that is not to say that I would be able to readily understand natives of Zagreb or of Belgrade speaking their local dialects. Similarly, it would take me more time to get used to some chakavian dialects, kajkavian (which merge with Slovenian at some point), and south Serbian dialects (which merge with Macedonian and Bulgarian).
    See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Croatian_language for more information on what I’m talking about.
    However, I think it is important to respect the wishes of the people involved when we describe their language. Historically, Croatian and Serbian have had very different literary standards – enough to mark them as separate languages (plays written by talented Dubrovnik playwrights had to be translated when performed for Serbs in Vojvodina). Differences were not only in pronunciation, but also vocabulary, and grammar. Not to mention the different script (latin for Croat and cyrillic for Serb).
    Since cyrillic is not taught in Croatia anymore (Serbian cyrillic is as much a foreign script in Croatia as is Bulgarian or Ukrainian cyrillic), a Croatian child would not be able to carry on written correspondence with a Serbian.
    When I went to school in communist Yugoslavia, the subject I learnt was called Croatian. In Serbia they would have learnt Serbian.
    So, to lump the languages spoken in ex-Yugoslavia as something called Serbocroatian is incorrect and disrespectful to the native speakers. How is this different to the Serbo-Croato-Slovene that was allegedly spoken in the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats & Slovenes? It is a bit like saying that “Soviet” was spoken in the ex-USSR.
    Following the same logic, you would need a single name for the language spoken in India and Pakistan (Hindurdu?), in Czech and Slovak Republics (Czechoslovakian?) and in Denmark and Norway.
    There are many regions of the world where dialect continua exist, but boundaries must be chosen, and one way of doing so is following the practices and respecting the wishes of the people involved. Otherwise, there would be no separate Romance languages, you could just lump all the dialects spoken from Sicily to Lisbon and from Normandy to the Alps under the heading “Romance”, or better still – “Latin”.
    So, if Croats, Bosnians, Serbs, Montenegrins, Dalmatians, Istrians, Vojvodjani, Hercegovci, Bunjevci, Sokci, Sandzaklije… develop different standards, all distinct from one another, who is to deny them the identity of languages, and to express themselves as a people.

  2. Thank you for a well-expressed and on the whole reasonable comment. I must take issue with this, however:
    It is a bit like saying that “Soviet” was spoken in the ex-USSR.
    It’s not at all like that. The USSR had languages of many different families, clearly distinct, and it would have been madness to lump them together. It is much more like lumping Hindi and Urdu together as Hindustani, as was in fact done before the separation of the countries; even after decades of determined separation, the normal everyday spoken forms are mutually intelligible and can be considered a single language. There was of course no “Serbo-Croato-Slovene,” because Slovene is a quite distinct language, but the insistence on “Serbian,” “Croatian,” and “Bosnian” (and doubtless “Montenegrin” once Montenegro separates from Serbia) is a purely political one with minimal linguistic justification. Mind you, I’m not denying the right of the Serbs, Croats, and so on to call their language whatever they like, and even to make strenuous efforts to differentiate them so that eventually they may genuinely be different languages (though that seems perverse to me — why decrease mutual comprehension?); I am merely pointing out that from a linguistic point of view it has no scientific basis.

  3. Mr Hat
    Thank very much for your comment. Let me first say keep up the good work. I’m a regular reader of your web site and look forward to reading it every time I hop on to the internet.
    The point of my post was not to deny the fact that the “the normal everyday spoken forms are mutually intelligible and can be considered a single language”. To do so would be ridiculous and would go against the plain truth.
    What I was trying to get at is that the English speaking linguistic community should be recognising the new realities on the ground. By calling the language Serbo-Croat, one is already 15 years out of date.
    To give an example: No there is no Serbo-Croat-Slovene language. But that is exactly what the language was called during the Kingdom of SCS days. I will spare you the details of when and how the Serbo-Croat name was first used – these can be found on many websites dealing with the issue. Suffice it to say that the language has been around longer than the name. Some of the names used for my language in the past (before the term Serbo-Croat) were:
    Slovinski (Slav)
    Dalmatinski (Dalmatian)
    Iliriski (Illyrian)
    and of course – Hrvatski (Croatian)
    These were all correct names for the same language at a particular time. My point is that even though it might be hard to call something by a name other than that you learnt as a child, it is important to use the name that is most proper to the time. Serbo-Croat” will offend not only Croats, but also to Serbs and to Bosnians. I still own a Serbocroatian-English dictionary. But that was published before the (1990-1995) war, and you will be hard pressed to find anything by the same title published in the last ten years.
    It is not an issue of having an English name for something which is called differently in the native tongue. The best example of this is German – Deutsch.
    It is more like calling it by a name that is correct by reference to the pressent. So, the language that was called Siamese in the 18th century is now properly called Thai. Similarly, it would be improper to call it Eskimo (or even better ‘Esquimaux’) when in fact we now call it Inuit.
    So that brings us to the question: what do we call that language which we used to call Serbocroatian? I don’t have a ready answer, except to conform to the realities on the ground, and accept that no (or not many) native speakers would call it Serbocroatian. Instead they would call it Croatian, Bosnian, or Serbian. Or to use the handy abbreviation used in the Hague Tribunal – BCS.

  4. Michael Farris says

    If Serbia and Montenegro go their separate ways (as seems inevitable along with the rise of a fourth literary standard) I’d say Yugoslav (I prefer the spelling Jugoslav but I realize that’s a minority opinion).
    Croatian Jugoslav
    Serbian Jugoslav
    Bosnian Jugoslav
    Montenegrin Jugoslav
    It works for me, but the reaons it works for me mean that speakers of the languages involved will probably reject it.
    Failing that go back to Shtovakian, Kajvakian, Chakavian (or just Shtovak, Kajvak and Chakav?)assume that the Shtovak, Kajkav and Chakav differences are greater than the Ijekav, Ekav etc. differences.
    So that the official language of Croatia is
    Croatian Shtovak
    and the official language of Serbia is
    Serbian Shtovak
    (I have no idea if Bosnian or Montenegrin standards are/wouold be also Shtovak or something else)
    Again the speakers involved would probably reject any proposal that suggests the underlying unity of the languages involved.
    “who is to deny them the identity of languages, and to express themselves as a people”
    Who indeed? But they should remember that choices have consequences and recognize the dangers of microsizing their languages out of meaningful existence, especially in an area with proven colonial appeal (as opposed to remote and chilly Scandinavia which few non-natives have every paid much attention to).
    FWIW, I recently toyed with the idea of seeing if I could acquire a working reading knowledge of Serbo-Croatian (the name used by the textbook I have, the the emphasis is on Serbian Shtovak (Ekavian) though other varieties are touched on. Then I decided not to, since my interest level isn’t high enough to justify the effort to learn such a small language (I have nothing against small languages as long as there’s some new aspect for me, but I already know a Slavic language and Serbian (or Croatian or Bosnian) just don’t have enough bang for the buck on their own.

  5. Michael Farris says

    A quick search seems to turn up the information (which could of course well be wrong) that the the Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Montenegrin standards are all Shtovakian, so I renew my proposal to use Shtovak as a cover term for all four with the appropriate national designation preceding it.

  6. So that brings us to the question: what do we call that language which we used to call Serbocroatian? I don’t have a ready answer
    Well, that is the question, isn’t it? I don’t call it Serbo-Croatian out of some perverse attachment to the past or desire to offend former Yugoslavs, but because that’s the only name I know for it. If I’m talking about Croatia, I’m happy to refer to “Croatian,” and likewise for the other countries involved, but I’m much more likely to be talking about the language as a language, a particular South Slavic language distinct from Slovenian and Bulgarian, and I can’t call it “Croatian” without offending Serbs and Bosnians (and likewise for the other possibilities). So I call it Serbo-Croatian and offend everybody. BCS is a possible solution, and if it ever becomes generally accepted I’ll be glad to use it, but at the moment nobody outside the Hague Tribunal knows what it means. Again, thank you for making your point so fairly and politely; frankly, I was expecting someone to come in and flame me with nationalist fervor (which may of course still happen).
    Michael: Um, that’s Shtokavian (and likewise for the other forms). You’re getting them mixed up with Slovakian.

  7. I suggest “the language formerly known as Serbo-Croatian,” represented by an unpronounceable symbol.

  8. Michael Farris says

    “Um, that’s Shtokavian”
    ARRRGGHHHH!!! I knew I would screw it up. I still think it’s as good a designation as any (esp. since it’s the basis of all the literary languages).
    Serbian Shtokavian
    Croatian Shtokavian etc.
    Or perhaps combine that with ikavian, ekavian (etc) as follows:
    Ekavo-Shtokavian etc.
    But again, I think it’s not the name that’s offensive, it’s the idea that is, namely that the languages in question are essentially the same language (and could easily enough be united in a common literary standard that still allowed for and respected regionalisms). I suspect that that any name that contains that idea will be rejected out of hand. Not the wisest choice in my opinion, but not mine to make.

  9. Sercrobosnian.

  10. Boscroserbian.

  11. Serboscroat.
    (Hmm, sounds familiar…)

  12. I think we just shouldn’t call them anything at all until they all learn to get along with each other.</prig> 😉

  13. I came along late, but it was a very interesting discussion.
    Zixt mentioned Scandinavia. Just for the record, weird linguistic nationalism does not necessarily lead to bad things. Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian could easily have a common standard language, but they don’t. They have four, and Norway alone has two (Bokmal and Nynorsk.) But nothing very bad came of it.

  14. True enough. But they’re too busy keeping warm to get into trouble.

  15. During my last tour in Bosnia-Hercegovina (03-04), we took to calling the language “BCS” for “Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian.”
    Thus we quietly and diplomatically did an end-run around the polite fiction that the three groups had distinct languages.

  16. There is an interesting article explaining this issue at http://www.matica.hr/Vijenac/Vij192.nsf/AllWebDocs/+DaliborBrozovicPRVOLICEJEDNINE (if you can read Croatian).
    The article explains current Croatian linguistic terminology. Croatian linguists use the term srednjojuznoslavenski (Central South Slav) for the diasystem (as opposed to the standard literary languages). The standard literary languages are validly called by their national appellation – Croatian, Serbian, and Bosniac respectively. The relevant passage is:
    The term Serbocroatian (and other similar terms: Croatoserbian, Serbo-Croatian, Croato-Serbian, ‘Serbian or Croatian’, ‘Croatian or Serbian’) is unacceptable.
    Firstly, the term refers to Croatians and Serbs only – and not to the other peoples that speak it.
    Secondly, the term is polyvalent – ‘Serbocroatian’ connotes a Serb Croatian (Croatian as spoken by Serbs?) and not a Croat Croatian, ‘Serbo-Croatian’ connotes a part-Serbian and part-Croatian hybrid, while ‘Serbian or Croatian’ is an either-or term.
    Thirdly, the term pays homage to the forced unitarist (ie. Great Serb) language policy practised in both Yugoslavias (ie. the pre-WW2 kingdom, and the post-WW2 communist republic).

  17. Thanks for translating that. I think “Central South Slav” would be a fine term, although I doubt it will catch on in English.

  18. When I read this article I throw away the papers (I find New York Times a paper with 98% of lies in it!!!)
    I must say this artical is rediculus! (It also omits a lot of ‘details’ which makes it idiotic but which were in the newspaper in the first place.) Are we soon going to say that people in Belgrade speak Belgradian, and people from Sarajevo Sarajevian!? Or those from Zagreb Zagrebian!? I think, if certein people continue to think this way, not only is all this going to happen but soon they will say that every village in ex Yugoslavia speak their own language!!!!!!!!
    Get to your sences people!!!!

  19. I just started Gravity’s Rainbow and, given how overloaded each page is with foreign and/or fantastical references, it’s hard to decide which is worth looking up and which can just be nodded. But, not a lazy reader, googling “Balkanisis” brought me to this page, which definitely illuminated what I otherwise would have missed. Thanks for this.

  20. A simplistic and misleading article. The story of Shtokavian and politics can’t be told properly without at least briefly touching on its relatively complex history and the issue of tradition. But I’ve already ranted about that enough on this blog.

    Vocabulary differs here and there. The Serbs and Montenegrins also use the Cyrillic alphabet, while Bosnians and Croatians use the Latin alphabet. But many people read both. But many people read both.

    I’m not sure what also refers to here and what the sentence was meant to convey (also, in addition to the vocabulary differences, they use one alphabet and they the other or Serbs and Montenegrins also use the Cyrillic alphabet in addition to the Latinic one), so I’m not sure whether it’s incorrect or just not very well written. Whichever the author intended, I think most readers would understand it in the former, incorrect meaning, reinforcing the common misconception that Serbs and Montenegrins don’t use the Latinic alphabet.

    Another very common misconception is this one from the comments:

    I have no great trouble understanding either the Croatian literary standard (based on Shtokavian Ijekavian) or the Serbian literary standard (based on Shtokavian Ekavian).

    The Serbian standard actually allows two types of yat realization. The Croatian standard sadly allows only one, one that was present only in a minority of the population at standardization. I always envy Serbians over that.

    As for what name to use, I’ve come to prefer Shtokavian to Serbocroatian, or the newer BCSor BCMS, and wish it was an option. It already exists, and it’s short and simple while definitely not leaving anyone out.

    As an update on Bosnian, there still doesn’t seem to exist a well-defined and consistent Bosnian standard well known to and widely accepted by the population. I don’t know what’s taught to kids, though, so this might change in the future.

  21. prefer Shtokavian to Serbocroatian

    They mean different things, at least as I understand it: Shtokavian is a dialect continuum wider than any of the standard languages, whereas Serbo-Croatian (or the inverse) refers to a fusion of standards, as if (as I have said before), the UK adopted American spellings as equally legitimate to its own. It was that fusion of standards that came apart post-Tito, so even if linguistically nothing happened, sociolinguistically something emphatically did.

  22. Serbocroatian is used for both meanings, and I think it’s a good enough name for the latter, which is now mostly a historical phenomenon. There’s a Serbocroatian Wikipedia, of course, and probably other online content. Looking at Bosnian media, much of it could be said to use Serbocroatian (though that name has mostly been replaced by Bosnian). The vocabulary and forms used seem to alternate more or less freely depending on TV station/newspaper or reporter. Anything from either standard seems to be allowed, except using ekavian. This mostly applies to Bosniak media or media without a specific ethnic orientation. Bosnian Croat and Bosnian Serb media use mostly only the Croatian and Serbian standard respectively.

    I’ve never lived there, but my impression was always that the language used, by all the ethnicities, in Bosnia in official contexts during Yugoslavia was the (ijekavian) Serbian standard. Some mostly Croat and Muslim (to use the terminology of the time) regions used vocabulary and forms in their local varieties also found in Standard Croatian, but you wouldn’t encounter it in formal language in Bosnia. The appearance and increasing frequency of Standard Croatian features in the Bosnian media is a recent phenomenon. It’s slightly controversial, with some Bosnians strongly disliking this change. I’ve seen some complaints that, trying to get away from Serbian, the Bosnian media has ended up forcing Croatian on the population. But I suspect a lot of it isn’t really a conscious choice and can simply be chalked up to things like widespread viewership of Croatian TV channels, use of Croatian translations and subtitles, etc.

  23. Lars (the original one) says

    Zixt mentioned Scandinavia. Just for the record, weird linguistic nationalism does not necessarily lead to bad things.

    The Scandinavian situation is not strictly speaking the product of nationalism understood as a 20th century disease, the Danish and Swedish standards were products of the central administrations of two absolute monarchies and differences have been formalized for at least 500 years (and some of the isoglosses they enshrine are traceable back 1000 years).

    Nynorsk I’ll give you, but in the latter half of the 19th there were actually changes made (mainly in orthography) to bring all the standards closer together.

    And of course nobody seriously entertained the idea of introducing a common Dachsprache, which would probably have been easier a hundred years ago before Danish disappeared further down its rabbit hole of lenition. (But reportedly SAS staff have invented a near equivalent for workplace communication).

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