Linguistic Balkanization as a Means of Polarization

Transposing emblem by Aleksandar Protić

If they hadn’t heard of it before, everybody learned about the Balkans in the 1990s due to a series of bloody conflicts in the area formerly known as the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. I was about to write “international conflicts,” but back then, Yugoslavia was a single nation. It first appeared as a state after WWI – initially known as the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes and later as the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. The kingdom, as well as its successor, socialist Yugoslavia, sought to integrate all South Slavic nations (except Bulgarians) into a single Yugoslav nation (hence the name, jug/yug standing for “south” in most Slavic languages), but at some point (maybe even at the very beginning), the process went in the totally opposite direction.

Fast forward 73 years and Yugoslavia was no more. At the point of dissolution, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia broke up into the following states: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia, while Serbia and Montenegro stuck together for some more time and ultimately broke up in 2004. So, enter 3, exit 6, but that is not the end of it. Bosnia and Herzegovina, as such, is home to 3 constituent nations – Bosniaks, Serbs and Croatians. These three nations were also central to the (attempted) creation of the Yugoslavian nation – forming a tight ethno-linguistic cluster which was supposed to act as the fulcrum of the new state. The language known as Serbo-Croatian or Croatian-Serbian during the existence of Yugoslavia was also formed on the basis of the central segment of the South Slavic dialectal continuum. The language was meant to integrate the nation and promote bratstvo i jedinstvo (in English: brotherhood and unity, a popular slogan and a guiding principle of communist Yugoslavia’s ethnic policies). Macedonians and Slovenians were (and still are) located on the peripheries of this dialectal continuum, so we will leave them alone as I will be focusing on language here.

In the Balkans, it is not quite right to say that many extremes have aided the creation of rifts between the nations of the former Yugoslavia. However, polarization has been a driving and defining force throughout the history of this region. The public has been polarized by all sorts of important and not so important issues used to achieve various kinds of political goals. What’s more, polarization was needed precisely because we are all too similar. In order to promote themselves and create seemingly opposing national identities, our post-Yugoslavian political “elites” needed to emphasize the distinctive characters of our nations – or to create them where they had not existed already. The most notable difference between the nations currently making up the post-Yugoslavian region is manifested in people’s affiliation with three dominant faiths – Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christianity, and Islam. The first is practiced by the Serbs (and Montenegrins), the second by Croats, while Bosniaks practice Islam, a heritage of several centuries of Ottoman rule. Yet, in all three cases, religious affiliation is seen more as a defining national trait than a matter of faith. This is, again, due to a lack of other fundamental, inherent distinctions between us.

A prime example of polarization in the so-called “Western Balkans” region can be seen in language. Or languages, as some would prefer. From a purely linguistic point of view, the languages spoken in the former Yugoslavia include Serbo-Croatian and closely related, but not entirely similar, Macedonian and Slovene. That is what linguistics as an academic field says. For those not familiar with these languages – the differences between the dialects of Serbo-Croatian can be compared to those between the dialects of English, e.g. British, American or Australian English. Some minor differences in grammar and spelling, some variations in vocabulary, but nothing drastic. For instance, the difference between certain local dialects within the Serbian language is far greater than the difference between Serbian and any other variety of Serbo-Croatian. On the political level, however, the situation looks a bit different. After the dissolution of Yugoslavia, “brotherhood and unity” fell out of favor, and so did the name of the language as a vital part of the concept. Croatians decided to revert to calling their “half” of the language Croatian, Serbs logically stuck with Serbian, which left Bosniaks in an uncomfortable position, so they quickly came up with Bosnian. Linguistically speaking, all these are standardized varieties of a single dialect, and as such, they are entirely mutually intelligible. So what’s the big deal, you might ask? Well, this is where it gets interesting.

In the vicious political arena of post-Yugoslavia, language has been used as a handy tool for solidifying the national identities based upon the opposing concepts of “Us” vs. “Them.” Language as a means of polarization is particularly convenient because you cannot change a nation’s culture or mentality overnight, and neither can you teach a nation to speak a whole new language by issuing a decree. However, what you can do is change the name of a language and declare it to be “totally different” than the one you want to distance yourself from. And that can yield truly absurd results. For instance, although Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs understand each other perfectly well, regardless of how they prefer to call their languages, that did not stop a certain Bosniak politician in Serbia from demanding a Serbian-Bosnian interpreter in a TV debate with a fellow Serb politician. The “trend” got an interesting twist when a bunch of quick-thinking folks in Sanjak or Raška – a region in Serbia inhabited by a Bosniak minority – realized they could use language to delay unwelcome legal proceedings by demanding that all paperwork be “translated” from Serbian into Bosnian. Or this – some Serbs, for instance, are likely to avoid using certain words or phrases just because they feel “too Croatian”; while the Croatian language, on the other hand, has borrowed considerably from other Slavic languages (in this case, the more unrelated, the better) in order to appear more distinct from Serbian. However, when Croatian lawmakers decided to force Croatian TV stations to translate all Serbian movies, the decision (and especially its outcome) was ridiculed by all except the most hard-core nationalists. The reason is simple – the end result was awkward and superfluous, only distracting the viewer and ruining the films’ artistic value and original flavor. Of course, the linguistic Balkanization does not end there. Today, half of Montenegrins consider themselves Montenegrin by ethnicity, the other half consider themselves part of the Serbian nation, regarding the name Montenegrin as merely a geographical determinant. To add to the confusion, part of those that see themselves as ethic Montenegrins claim Serbian as their native tongue, while only a minority has declared Montenegrin to be their native language. Which is not surprising, given that the language was “discovered” less than 10 years ago. Before that, everyone just spoke Serbian. But now, thanks to this cultural advance, it is not uncommon to have a Serbian speaking Serb, a Serbian speaking Montenegrin and a Montenegrin speaking Montenegrin within a single family, depending on each’s political preference! I hope I haven’t confused you beyond all hope because there is more to come.

Serbian is one of the few languages in the world that uses two types of script – Latin and Cyrillic. This feature is a remnant of the aforementioned Serbo-Croatian and attempted to achieve inter-ethnic equality, because the Orthodox part of Yugoslavia historically used Cyrillic, while the Catholic and Muslim part used Latin. Having been deprived of its only function, this concept has turned into another source of polarization, this time within the Serbian nation. One portion of the population prefers Cyrillic, considering Latin script “Croatian” (and thus unwelcome), while the rest prefer Latin, considering it more “cosmopolitan, modern, closer to the world,” contrary to Cyrillic, which is held to be “obsolete, nationalistic” and so on. Do we need both? Probably not, but we do need to have a bone to pick.

Polarization does not only occur on the national level – most of the people in the ex-Yugoslavian region will either tell you that “Yugoslavia was the best country in the whole world, we never lived better” or “Good riddance, it was a bloody dungeon” – irrespective of what country they currently live in. One will rarely hear a less emotional, middle ground point of view. You won’t meet many people who say “Yugoslavia or no Yugoslavia, why can’t we just act like normal people and realize that’s in our best interest?” It’s just not us, I guess. Being so hopelessly similar, we have no other option than to constantly accentuate the tiniest of differences and fabricate new ones in order to solidify our self-perception of “Us” vs. “Them.” Or at least, that is what our leaders keep telling us. But hey, divide et impera is not something I came up with while writing this, it’s been around a lot longer than that and as it turns out – it still works! Interestingly, though, once people remove themselves from the sources of polarization – which often happens when you move to another country in search of a better life (which a lot of us do) – you quickly realize we are not that different after all. Yugos that go abroad for work often stick to their (former) neighbors. Simply, they speak the same language, they largely share the same culture and mentality, and being alone in a foreign country makes you see what being different really means. And to the unbelievers, I will only say this – if we really spoke different languages, I am sure we would quarrel a lot less.