Part VI in a series of observations und reflections on language issues in the language formerly known as Serbocroatian. This time on why it’s sometimes better no to think about it too much.

I may have never been happier to pay an entrance fee than on this particular Tuesday.

Sarajevo’s National Museum had just re-opened the day before after having been closed down for more than three years over bickering between Bosnia’s federal government and Republika Srpska, the Serb majority entity in the east of the country.

There was joy and pride in the air and a lot of relief. The re-opening is a symbol that at least sometimes things can change for the better in Bosnia. And that sometimes pressure exerted by citizens can make a difference.

I can only recommend to visit the museum. There is a lot to learn about the history of this part of the Balkans that around 1.000 years ago or so started to be called Bosnia and this museum is a great place to start.

And of course, seeing the Sarajevo Haggadah is moving, even though I only saw it through the bulletproof glass walls of ist vault.

This book survived the Ustaše and the Nazis thanks to the courage and wit of Sarajevans.

Why „Zemaljski“ Rather Than „Narodni“?

What stands out a bit though is the name of the museum in the language formerly known as Serbocroatian.

Sarajevo’s Nationa Museum isn’t called Narodni Muzej, as one would expect, but Zemaljski Muzej.

There isn’t any exact English translation for it that would work without further explanation. Outside of those parts of Ex-YU that were under Austro-Hungarian rule the precise meaning is only clear to Austrians.

It is the Naški Translation of the Austrian German term „Landesmuseum“ which can be roughly translated as „Provincial Museum“ – province in this context being a sub-entity or administrative units respectively of the Austro-Hungarian empire and today’s Republic of Austria.

An Austro-Hungarian Legacy

Austria is made up of nine provinces that are called „Bundesländer“ in German. They do not have the same rights as States do in the US which is why they’re not called States in the English translation.

Most of Austria’s provinces have their own Landesmuseum. And back then a lot of provinces in now independent countries had theirs, too.

Like modern day Czech Republic, where it was called Česki Muzej and modern day Slovenia where the musem was called Deželni Muzej – which is pretty much the same thing as Zemaljski Muzej.

Both the National Museum in Prague and in Ljubljana have been renamed „Narodni Muzej“ and „Narodni Museum“ respectively after the countries gained independence at the end of WWI, Slovenia becoming part of Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, later to be renamed Yugoslavia, the Czech Republic being part of Czechoslovakia.

In Sarajevo, this didn’t happen. I started wondering why and asked around a little.

When you spend some time on the Balkans you come to suspect a story behind all things symbolic. A museum’s name would certainly qualify for that category.

No one knew, really.

My friend Amir told me that it was well known under the old name and not to read too much into it. My friend Snježana pretty much told me the same thing.

Other friends I asked didn’t have any idea, either.

An e-mail I sent to the museum hasn’t been answered yet. Rather understandably, they have a collection to worry about that needs attention after three years of shut down.

When Words Have More Than One Meaning

My suspicion was that the reason why Zemaljski Muzej wasn’t renamed was a political one.

And that would have to do with the ambiguous meaning of the word narod – the same ambiguity the term nation has in any language I’m aware of.

I can refer to a country as a political entity. Or it can refer to the people(s) that according to official historiography constituted said country – or have no country of their own at all, like today’s Kurds.

That certainly is an issue in Bosnia.

Re-Inventing History

Bosnia officially has three constituent nations: Bosnjaks, Serbs and Croats.

Nationalists of both Serbian and Croatian ethnicity flat out deny the existence of a Bosnjak Nation. Some of them even go so far as to claim that no such entity as Bosnia existed.

They claim that Bosnjaks are really Serbs and Croats respectively who converted to Islam unter Ottoman rule.

Historically it probably is almost the other way round. Until the end of the 19th century no ethnic distinction was made between Muslims, Catholics and Orthodox in Bosnia.

It was only then that people started to consider themselves Bosnjaks, Croats and Serbs.

Many if not most Croats and Serbs are probably descendants of Bosnjaks who at one point and time converted to their respective religions. most likely at times when the Church of Bosnia, considered heretic by both Catholics and Orthodox Christians, was still the prevalent religious institution in the country.

Misleading Myself

Knowing that and being aware of the constant bickering by nationalists in Bosnia, it isn’t a far stretch to assume that Zemaljski Muzej wasn’t renamed after WWII or at least after independence in order not to raise the issue at all.

And, after all, we are talking about a country where number plates are designed in a way so no one can tell whether they use Latin or Cyrillic alphabet and where warning notices on cigarettes are even printed in all three dialects of the language formerly known as Serbocroatian when they are identical down to the last letter.

My assumption wasn’t entirely unreasonable.

However I did overlook something rather obvious. There is in fact institutions that are called „narodni“ in Bosnia. Like the National Theater in Zenica.

(c) Christoph Baumgarten

And as Snježana pointed out, in communist countries the term national was often used with its third meaning: Belonging to the public/the people. The people in this context being used as a singular word but specifically not designating an ethnicity.

And I have not been able to find out whether there was ever any debate if Zemaljski Muzej should be renamed. So any conclusions drawn from it not being renamed are arbitrary.

So looks like my professional skepticism got the better of me this time. This cigar probably is really just a cigar.

See here for
Pt I
Pt II
Pt III
Pt IV
Pt V
of the series The Language Thing.

This entry concludes the series for the time being.