The Serbo-Croatian Language(s) Today
A Linguistic Maze in the Balkans?
It has been stated that the difference between a language and a dialect can often be the matter of whether the language in question has an army or navy. While most linguists would cite numerous additional differences, all over the world are found ample examples of languages that intermingle with one and another and where the certainty of names and qualities are murky at best. For example, what is Norwegian? The language of Norway; all languages of Norway; Bokmål, Nynorsk, Riksmål, and/or Høgnorsk? While Norway has its unique linguistic situation and many other nations and peoples do also, the position of language in the former Yugoslav states is one of the most confusing and, for the translator, problematic.
The lengthy and bloody history of the states of Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina following the fall of communism in Yugoslavia demonstrates why the stakes are very high for understanding the social and applied situation of Serbo-Croatian language, however, and the future of these states in part rests on the fulcrum of such understanding. When a nation-state moves from one political system to anotherespecially in the case of a system that delimited native language and culture as communism didthere is often a desire to reclaim a language that was overshadowed or banished during the tenure of the former political rule. In Belarus we find that a reversion from Russian to Belorusian took place following the separation of the Belorusian S.S.R. from the Soviet Union while in Mongolia, following communism's end, the new government went as far as to revert to traditional Uyghur script from the Russian-imposed modified Cyrillic orthography used during communist times (Walker, 1999a). As noble as such measures may seem, in the Mongolian situation it must be considered that the majority of computers and printing presses in the 1990s were unable to render the Uyghur script as they were designed for Cyrillic. In a nation like Mongolia, given that resources were limited and technology lagging behind most of Asia, this action made much less pragmatic sense than it perhaps inspired national pride.
While Serbo-Croatian does not suffer from an obscure historic script, the dialect continuum over the areas of the Balkans where Serbo-Croatian is spoken in some formulation or another is a very complex issue. As the former Yugoslav states struggle for greater agency with the European Union and with trade partners beyond, one problem which arises is how to convey the unity and mutual intelligibility of Serbo-Croatian without marginalizing any one state or ethnic group involved. Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, and Montenegrin factor a high degree of mutual intelligibility and it is very hard to dispute this fact. The European Union has highly prized the independence of culture in member nations but in the model of political theorist Jean Monnet's concept of neofunctionalism has also valued the ability of states to come together in economic, communicative, and technological integration when possible. As the former Yugoslav states have the linguistic basis for such integration, this is a resource that should be brokered towards further advantage instead of as a point of division and contest. That said, the fear of marginalization via sociolingustic means is very understandable given the region's history both immediate and long-standing. To encourage the best relations with the EU and with specific member nations and other states, a level of both sympathy to the region's unique language situation and appreciation of its unity must be brought forth.
Moreover, Serbo-Croatian is not the only language of the region or ethnic groups involved. The complexity of the Balkan sprachbundor the geographical rather than genetic classification of Balkan languagesdemonstrates that while all major languages of the region are Slavic aside from Albanian, Greek, Romanian and Moldovan, and the Ugric languages, there is still a vast spectrum of variance just within the Slavic languages. Torlak and Nasinski Jezik are spoken by the Gorani and other peoples in Serbia and other parts of the Balkans including Bulgaria. Considered part of a separate genetic diasystem, the Torlakian eastern-central Slavic languages nonetheless play a crucial role in cultural and intellectual life (Barentson, 1996). These languages differ from the Serbo-Croatian, or Stokavian, dialects found in majority usage in the region and in some ways are more related to pre-Church Slavonic Bulgarian more so than to Serbo-Croatian. The pragmatic concerns of localization and associated translation for Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina must include these minority languages in premise, though most speakers will be able to fully understand at least one of the seven major Stokavian dialects. Even then, the question has to be one of which of these dialects is most appropriate?
Corinne McKay presented in an article on Serbo-Croatian (McKay, 2004) the fact that after the fall of communism in the post-Yugoslav states, Russian had been dethroned out of its status as a common second language and French, English, and German instead have found a higher degree of application. While this is true, there are numerous needs for translations into Serbo-Croatian and as McKay also noted, the language is most encountered in the guises of the dialects of Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian. In Montenegro, the Ijekavian-Shtokavian dialect is spoken and there have been calls for a resolution of a joint Montenegrin-Serbian language, or crnogorsko-srpski jezik. While these languages taken together may not on paper even encompass all variants of Serbo-Croatian, they do in reality cover the spectrum of spoken and written communication to the point that translations into any of them as target languages will, with little trouble, be understood by native speakers of other Serbo-Croatian forms. It is interesting, in addition, to note that Kosovo recognizes both Albanian and Serbian as official languages but also gives special status to other regional languages including Bosnian and Turkish. No doubt, some of this effort is to avoid offending anyone and to be inclusive of the non-Serbo-Croatian languages in minority use by ethnic Kosovars.
Consideration of what exactly composes a given language or dialect has changed over time: the poet and once-ruler of Montenegro, Petar II Petrović-Njegos in example wrote in the 1800s in a language identified as Serbian but which contains a vast amount of vocabulary that would today be found mainly in Ijekavian-Shtokavian Montenegrin. Croatian as known today stems from the čakavica form but has evolved away from the same although a chakavian dialect still remains spoken in parts of Croatia which resembles the historic čakavica moreso than mainstream contemporary kajkavian Croatian. While all these different dialects may seem very confusing, two key points must be understood: first, the languages concerned are mutually intelligible. Second, a broad and deep historical understanding of these languages and their associated cultures is essential for those doing translation and localization work in them. This is to say that while not all dialects will require attention as target languages on most projects, a fluent understanding of not only the current but historical cultural roles of these dialects is necessary.
The Translation and Localization Situation:
The need for translation, interpreting, and localization services in the former Yugoslav states is varied and growing and since that time, this need has only grown more in scope and variety. Localization is perhaps the most-nuanced aspect of the industry for the obvious reason that sympathy for all dialects and the populations which speak them is essential. While the ability for a Serb to read something translated from English into Croatian may be very straight-forwardsome native speakers claim the difference between dialects to be little more than that between British and American Englishthe desire of a Serb to read Croatian or of a Croat to read Bosnian is a totally seperate matter. The lack of harmony and the political strife in the region have brought ethnic groups against one another and language has been a pawn in this extended struggle. Two publications, both under the direction of Ronelle Alexander, Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian: a Textbook and Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, a Grammar: with Sociolinguistic Commentary provide a good introduction not only to the three most common variants of Serbo-Croatian but to the nuanced use of these dialects and the populations which speak them. Taken together, these two volumes furnish the student serious about learning these languages in cultural context the textural tools to do such. While no book can replace the benefits of learning via experience in-country itself, these two books provide a roadmap to key aspects of the sociolinguistic situation.
Quality dictionaries from English (or whatever major source language) to Bosnian, Serbian, and Croatian are also essential resources. One must note that in the case of such dictionaries, the division between languages will be most acute: you will encounter few English/Serbo-Croatian dictionaries but will find many English/Bosnian or English/Croat dictionaries instead. It is a very interesting experience to leaf through such dictionaries and note where they agree and where they differboth between the various languages/dialects and with each other. Another quality source for information on Serbo-Croatian is the Internet and especially native-language websites and journalistic media. The Balkans have a long oral and written history of storytelling and nonfictional narrative alike and this tradition is evident on the Internet today.
The Internet also presents sometimes disturbing challenges in the form of codification of orthography for Serbo-Croatian. Serbian and Macedonian both have their own forms of Cyrillic while Gaj's Latin alphabet is the standard form used for Croatian and Bosnian today. Historical forms also exist and the Slovenian alphabet also may play a role in some projects. As both Gaj's Latin and the Slovenian Latin alphabet make ample use of diacritics and diagraphs, these are not always easier devices for computing applications than Cyrillic. ISO 8859-2, or Latin Alphabet Standard-2, is most commonly used as the coding standard for both Gaj's and the Slovenian alphabets now, but a variety of less-common MS-DOS (CP-852), Apple, and other standards have been applied and still crop up now and then. Serbian Cyrillic differs from both standard Russian and Bulgarian Cyrillic forms and thus its encoding must differ or allow for the addition of required ligatures and other characters specific to Serbian. There is also an historic Bosnian Cyrillic (Bosanica) that was used from the 12th century to the 18th century and Arebica, or Bosnian Arabic script used by Bosnian Muslims for writing the Bosnian language and Arabic alike. As if this is not all complicated enough, the historical scripts of Bohoričica and Dajnčica were both devised for writing Slovene (Jesensek, 2006). Not that one will find these extant anymore except in some historical documents, but again, the variety and scope of language use in the region are only accented by this orthographic diversity.
Interestingly, a similar situation of orthography being pushed about by politics is found in the writing of the Tatar languages where Arabic script was replaced by the latinate Jaŋalif script and later, under the Soviets, by a modified Cyrillic form. Thus, the Islamic influence as in Bosnia and the Cyrillic influence via Soviet politics superseded the use of latinate orthography. It is difficult to say which, if any, script is best suited to a language as so many factors compete at once. For the purpose of translation and localization the main condition will be the population served, but the consideration of pragmatic computing and choice of orthography must also be considered. Four or five years ago, the market was opening up and as Corinne McKay reported at the time, translation professionals had entered the field through a variety of mechanisms with many having extensive education and/or experience with English plus their native languages. Now, the internet service structure and economy of the former Yugoslav states has grown and while more basic services are back in place, more advanced and nuanced services and markets have opened up, and the need for translation professionals with specialized knowledge is at an apex.
Differences between Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian (ijekvian dialect)
In the above example, note that the word is uniform across all three languages: however, this is not typical as the following examples display:
For some words, such as names of months (which are Slavic in Croatian and latinate in Serbian and Bosnian) and words with eastern Slavic and/or Altaic influences, Croatian displays strong differences from Bosnian and Serbian:
Differences between Serbian Dialects:
Serbian dialects in and of themselves have differences in spelling and, to some extent word use and manifestation, although rules of syntax and grammar are more or less uniform.
A Bright Future in the Balkans:
During the periods of armed conflict that ravaged the former Yugoslavia, many physicians, lawyers, engineers and other professionals left the area due to the poor working conditions there and uncertain future. Now, the industrial, medical, and technological basis of these nations is re-emerging and what is more, is formulating itself to compete within the scope of the European Union and international markets and not in the former model of communism. Therefore, the need for localization should only grow. The geographical location of these states has long been a bane to them, encouraging both internal strife and external efforts to control resources and trade; however, in the model of the EU there is a great opportunity for the southern Balkans serving as a gateway to the Middle East and to the former Soviet republics alike much in the sense that Turkey is already serving such a role. A highly-educated population, ample natural resources, and varied trade routes should open up light industry and novel means of trade in fields such as biotech, internet sales, and engineering in the Balkans. As personal finances grow alongside greater national wealth, these states also will become more important players in retail and associated fields.
A fair question now is whether Englishor perhaps Germanwill replace Russian in the role of a de facto second language everyone uses for business or technical purposes. The arguments for this would be that to communicate with professionals and customers outside of the Balkans, languages aside from Serbo-Croatian will be necessary while the lack of solidarity of the Serbo-Croatian languages should also promote external languages. On the other hand, the needs of native speakers of Serbo-Croatian variant dialects will always revolve around these first languages rather than external languages and cultural pride will also promote more literary and artistic works in the same. In an article I wrote in 1999 about the state of literature in the Slavic languages I predicted a surge of new Slavic-language literatures and it appears that the growth of such in the Balkans, despite war wounds, has grown to encompass a variety of genre (Walker 1999b).
A simple survey examining various Serbo-Croatian websites demonstrates an ample use of Bosnian and some Croatian and Macedonian while for its part, the multinational Mozilla Foundation offers current versions of its Firefox browser for Macedonian and Slovenian but not the Serbo-Croatian languages. Apparently, this is due to both a lack of interest of capable parties to develop other Firefox builds and the fact that native speakers of Serbo-Croatian can make do with versions in other languages. The general look of things is that business-related websites, unless they are targeted only in-country, normally offer presentations in English, German, Russian or some other language aside from the primary language. A Czech textbook I have from the early 1990s noted that Czech university students in the 1980s learned Russian, German and Englishmost often in that order. Now, English is of course at the head of the class but German and to some extent French also remain important. This situation is found in the former Yugoslav states, also.
The cold, painful, catalyst of war has moved the former Yugoslav states towards the desire for a brighter future and what is found now in the region are dynamic efforts to bring about a better way of life, prompted by the fact such is viable and motivated by sheer willpower and necessity. There is no doubt that local companies are very savvy and realize the need of varied mechanisms of international communication so they have fine-tuned their efforts to the markets they serve. External business interests will need to do exactly the same and the market for translation services should remain both broad and nuanced for years to come.
Alexander, Ronelle. (2006) Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, a Grammar: with Sociolinguistic Commentary. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Sabanović, Hazim. (1973) Knjizevnost Muslimana BiH na orijentalnim jezicima. Sarajevo: Von Vojtech Kopcan.
Wikipedia article on Differences between Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian:
Publications cited in this article:
Alexander, Ronelle & Ellen Elias-Bursać. (2006) Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian: a Textbook. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Alexander, Ronelle. (2006) Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, a Grammar: with Sociolinguistic Commentary. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Barentson, A.A. (1996) Studies in South Slavic and Balkan Linguistics. Amsterdam: Rodopi.
Jesensek, Marko. (2006) "Lexicography in Styria before the End of the 19th Century". Studia Slavica, 50; 1-2/July 2005.
McKay, Corrine. (2004) "Bosnian, Serbian, Croatian: Three Languages or One?" Multilingual Computing & Technology, 15; 5. July/August 2004.
Walker, Michael. (1999a) "The Restoration of a Language: Belorusian in Medical Discourse". The ATA Chronicle, 28:58 Nov./Dec, 1999.
Walker, Michael. (1999b) "Contemporary Slavic Literature in Translation". The ATA Chronicle, 28:18 June., 1999.
Mike Walker is a journalist, writer, and theorist who lives in Gainesville, Florida. His publications germane to translation studies include articles in Translation Journal, Multilingual Computing & Technology, and six feature articles in the ATA Chronicle. He is a staff writer for the North Florida News Daily and contributes to other regional, national, and international news media. His main foci on language issues are: Slavic linguistics and orthography, computing issues relating to non-Latin orthographies, the history of Nordic (upper Germanic) languages, and use of metaphor in translated literature.
Mike can be reached at: cloudrace [at] prontomail . com
Published - December 2008
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