What Is Thy Name? Or: The Language Thing Part VII

Perhaps the most striking thing about the language formerly known as Serbo-Croatian is not the regional and national differences that inevitably exist in polycentric languages. It is the fact that bickering has gotten to the point where the language actually has no name.

„I don’t know why they insist on calling it Croatian. They speak Serbian and they should call it that.“

The conversation with the girl that was saying this late at night in a bar in Beograd wasn’t one of the most pleasant ones I’ve ever had.

Admittedly I hadn’t struck up a conversation because it was her assumed intellect I noticed first but there’s only so much ignorance I can handle, especially if it comes in a package with nationalism.

Needless to say I didn’t ask her for her phone number.

What has puzzled me ever since is whether this is actually taught in (some) schools in Serbia.

To be straight: I haven’t ever met any other Serbian that would say anything as remotely stupid in terms of lingustics as this one but she’s gotta have it from somewhere.

Croatian Particularism

Now, you’d hear a smiliar degree of nonsense from Croatian nationalists.

To my knowlegde, they don’t insist on Serbian and Bosnian (and let’s throw in Montenegrin for fashion’s sake) derive from Croatian.

They’d just say it’s a language of its own altogether that just happens to have some striking similarities with the aforemention dialects.

Whenever official Croatian politics go right wing, they do everything to make you believe it’s a different language, too.

I’m admittedly not to sure about the current Bosnjak nationalist narrative. There’s gotta be one to explain why it’s not the same as the others, though, I’m sure.

There Has Been Progress Since Karadžić

What is a fact, though, is that Vuk Karadžić reformed Serbian written language after the model of the dialect of Eastern Hercegovina.

His stance on what the language should be called closely mirrored that of my almost-acquaintance. But lingustics have progressed in the 150 or so years after Karadžić’s demise.

To be honest I don’t have the faintest idea why some Montenegrins would insist on calling their language Montenegrin.

I just haven’t studied Montenegrin nationalism yet. Among all the nationalisms on the Balkans this one is particularly pseudo-historian and pseudoscientific and should be seen in the context of a small and traditionally multiethnic country being in the grip of a clan with close ties to the Mafia and backed by NATO.

What Nick Has to Say

So, calling the language formerly known as Serbo-Croatian by the right name each time without aggravating whoever you’re talking to has become a bit of a nightmare, as Nick Semwogerere explains.

He’s a British musician and teacher and considers Sarajevo his second home.

Most people don’t give a damn anyways and tend to call it Naški or naš jezik. „Ours“ or „our language“.

And then there’s the official acronym BHS or BCS. But that isn’t a name.

To be precise, there are minor differences between the dialects – or idioms, rather – spoken in each of the societies mentioned.

Spelling differs slightly, so does vocabulary and Serbian grammar tends to avoid infinitives.

Those differences are no greater than between major German dialects or say British and American English.

An Army of Its Own

„Frankly, I find it ridiculous to have multiple names for what is *one* language. Other polycentric languages like Arabic, English, French and Spanish don’t fuss around like this, to my knowledge. I personally like to use the term Serbo-Croat or Serbo-Croatian. Ideally it would be nice to avoid all ethnic/national designations and call the language ‘Central South Slavic’, Shtokavian or something like that, but those are notions that only linguists understand in the West“, translator Will Firth has told Balkan Stories.

Linguist and journalist Nedad Memić would’t object to there being a new name for the language „as long as it’s not Serbo-Croatian again“ – a name which in itself was political rather than linguistic. „And as long as no one keeps me from calling the idiom that I speak Bosnian.“

And then again one should keep in mind that there is only one scientifically solid distinction between what’s a dialect and what’s a language proper.

A language is a dialect that has its own army.

See here for more episodes from the series „The Language Thing

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