The French Connection Or: The Language Thing Pt V

Part V of a series on observations on those minor linguistic differences in the language formerly known as Serbocroatian. And how a language is being inventend for political purposes.

There is only one reliable scientific definition on when a dialect can be considered a proper language. A language is a dialect with an own army.

It looks as though Croatian politicians have taken that definition to heart ever since independence. Especially when they are from the conservative nationalist party HDZ that has been in power for most of the past 20 years and just recently won the elections for parliament.

On their behest, scores of linguists and philosophers have set out to purge their language of anything that could be considered foreign influence and too great a similarity with the Bosnian and the Serbian dialects of the language formerly known as Serbocroatian.

The Aim Is „Purity“

The aims of this policy reaches far beyond what the French do who also purify their language to an extent pretty much every one else considers ridiculous.

The aim is to re-invent the language and thus the Croatian nation which in the eyes of Croat nationalists should be as „pure“ (and as Catholic) as possible.

„It’s gotten to the point where younger Croatians can not communicate with us as easily as used to be the case“, my friend Amir tells me. He’s a Bosnjak.

Air Beaters And Quick Voices

Very often, new words are made up. The classic example is the Croatian word „zraklomat“ that’s used in official documents and taught in schools. It literally means „air beater“ and is supposed to replace the term „helikopter“ that is in use in Serbian, Bosnian and Croatian.

„Televizija“ is set to become „dalekovidnica“, the word telefon is meant to be replaced by „brzoglas“ which means „quick voice“. That one actually isn’t very popular. Most Croatian websites will still use „telefon“.

Wikipedia has a short list of some of the neologisms in official Croatian.

To many, this approach brings back bitter memories as the same policy had been adopted by the Ustaša Regime in the 1940’s.

Rediscovering Old Words

Another part is basically recycling older terms that had become unfashionable.

An example you can see every day is „ljekarne“ – pharmacies. In the Bosnian and the Serbian dialect they’re called „apoteke“, a term used in German as well. I do not know whether this is just a coincidence or whether they Greek word „apotheka“ has been adopted because it was the word used in the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Nationalist historians, linguists and philosophers, often turncoats from the Yugoslav era, try to give it the air of scientific legitimacy.

There even is a Croatian-Serbian dictionary. A Croatian friend has sent me a photo.


The author, Marko Samardžija, saw his career take off in 1992 when he became associate professor at the University of Zagreb. Croatia had declared secession from Yugoslavia in June 1991.

How Far Will It Go?

Now, there are dictionaries for each of the major dialects in German as well. They are thesauri rather than that they „translate“ like the one above and are not intended to create the impression that the dialects are distinct languages.

And even with the Austrian need to distinguish Austrian German from German standard German no one would consider them to be separate languages.

The differences between the three major dialects of the language formerly known as Serbocroatian are only insignificantly greater than between the two German dialects mentioned above. (Especially since Austrian German is a variety of the Bavarian dialect group within German.)

The case for a proper language could be made for Swiss German and sometimes this dialect is in fact considered a language by some scientists and politicians. In this case the differences are far greater than they are between the Croatian, Bosnian and Serbian standard dialects.

There is no telling how far the re-invention of Croatian as a distinct language will go.

Maybe there will be the day when it is no longer possible for Croatians to easily communicate with speakers of the other dialects of the language formerly known as Serbocroatian.

Then it will have become a language of its own. That may be Franjo Tudjman’s final victory.

See here for other parts of the series The Language Thing
Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV


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