The Language Thing

In those successor countries of Ex-YU whose language was formerly known as Serbocroatian, language has often become a means of setting people apart, marking the lines between ethnicites. While most of that primarily concerns bureaucracy and government affair, in Bosnia it is visible in everyday life. Part I of a series of observations.

In most European countries and the US as well, cars’ number plates tell you where a person is from. In the States you can at least see what State a person is from. In Switzerland it designates the canton. In Germany and Austria it’s the government district. The same goes for Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia.

In Bosnia, government takes the utmost precautions that that’s not the case. Number plates look the same, no matter where you’re from. They start with a letter, followed by two numbers, another letter and finally three more numbers.

The two letters aren’t just any out of the 26 the standard Latin alphabet contains (our out of the 23 to 24 the Latin alphabet of most Slavic languages consist of, plus diacritical signs). It’s two out of those seven letters that look the same in both Latin and Cyrillic script: A, E, O, J,K, M, T.

The official reason for this somewhat counter-intuitive system is that before it was introduced, there were random searches on the inter-entity borders if your car was from the “wrong” entity. According to Wikipedia also cases of vandalism are said to have occurred if, say, someone from Sarajevo parked his car in Banja Luka.

With the new system you can say that number plates are both in Cyrillic and in Latin script. For politicians in both entities (Republika Srpska and Federation) that’s a rather important issue, not just for the nationalists but in this case also for those who would like to see Bosnia as a unified country.

In Republika Srpska Cyrillic always takes precedence over Latin. This way nationalists can say they preserve the cultural identity of Bosnian Serbs.

Never mind the fact that all Serbs in Bosnia (and in Serbia, too of course) can read Latin script at least as well as Cyrillic. (There is a Cyrillic and a Latin script issue of the biggest Serbian language newspaper VESTI, for instance.) And never mind the fact that Serbia has stopped issuing number plates in Cyrillic script years ago. It’s a matter of principle.

Vice versa, Croatian and Bosnjak nationalists in the Federation can claim that they have prevented the Serb nationalists from taking over the entire country by forcing everybody else to read Cyrillic. Even if it’s just about number plates.

Reasonable Bosnians of all ethnicities, presumably the overwhelming majority, are glad this compromise keeps them from discussing the issue all over again on a daily basis. And the number plates don’t remind them how divided their country is thanks to the constitution the then warring parties agreed on in Dayton.

Even the handful of letters is excluded that both alphabets contain but whose meaning differs. The Cyrillic letters C, P, X and B (capitalized) for example would be the equivalents of S, R, H and V in Latin respectively.

“That’s so that police in both entities cannot confuse the letters”, my friend Amir says. “If police in Republika Srpska want to check out a license plate with a P they wouldn’t know whether it’s a P or an R.”

To be fair, this somewhat complicated system wasn’t cooked up by Bosnian politicians. It was the idea of the UN High Representative. His quasi-dictatorial powers make him the highest government official in the country without being a member of any Bosnian government and without having been elected by any Bosnians (or anyone else, for that matter).

Ultimately, Bosnia still is a UN-protectorate. Which may be one of the reasons why so many Bosnian politicians behave so irresponsibly towards their own people. The High Representative is literally a higher power that not just takes away their own power but also, ultimately, their responsibilty for their own decisions. Any one political act in Bosnia can be reviewed and even vetoed by the High Representative.

So, Bosnian number plates tell a lot about the country. Most of all how language has become a tool to pit one ethnicity against another, even though they basically speak the same language.

At least, this example doesn’t have any noticeable adverse effects on people’s lives. The current number plate system provides for 4.9 million different combinations. That should be enough for the roughly four million inhabitants of Bosnia.

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