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Bosnian language myth

Written 02.12.2009. 15:22
Bosnian language is «essentially» the language of all the inhabitants of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was called Serbo-Croatian before the collapse of Yugoslavia and only extremists's nationalist passions created artificial rift which has no linguistic foundation whatsoever (but is a socio-political reality one must accept). Moreover, Bosnian language is not only a «successor language» (along with Croatian and Serbian) to the old Serbo-Croatian, but also the true heir of the entire corpus of literary and linguistic works written on the Bosnia & Herzegovina soil which (although tangentially in most cases) mention the name «Bosnian language».


There was not, ever, "Serbo-Croatian" standard language. International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has specified different Universal Decimal Classification (UDC) numbers for Croatian (UDC 862, acronym hr) and Serbian (UDC 861, acronym sr), while hybrid «Serbo-Croatian» language, a political construct not yet dumped into history's dustbin, is referenced in equally hybrid manner-UDC 861/862, acronym sh. The situation is comparable to other closely related languages in the terms of genetic linguistics: further examples include, for instance, Hindi and Urdu, Czech and Slovak or Bulgarian and Macedonian. These are similar, mutually intelligible standard languages which crystallized out of basically the same dialectal "prime matter"- as is the case with Norwegian and Danish or Malay and Bahasa Indonesian. But to describe them as "variants of a language" (British and American English analogy is frequently (mis)used) is sheer nonsense.

Croatian and Serbian differ in:

1.script (Latin and Cyrillic)
2.grammar and syntax (ca. 100 rules)
3.phonetics (ca. 100 accentuation rules)
4.orthography (although both languages use phonemic orthography, its structures differ for Serbian and Croatian. Croatian has retained numerous morphonological orthographical prescriptions, while Serbian tends to extend the area of applicability of phonetic principle )
5.morphology (more than 300 different morphology laws. Also: Croatian is a purist language- unlike Serbian. Moreover, even "internationalisms" like organize are different: organizirati in Croatian, organizovati in Serbian. )
6.semantics (here, the structural differences are too complex to be described in a rough outline)
7.vocabulary (ca. 30% of everyday vocabulary is different. In 100,000 words dictionary, 40,000 are either Croatian or Serbian. According to a pre-eminent Croatian linguist, Serbian and Croatian languages differ in 150,000 words in a corpus of 500,000 entries).
Entire books have been translated from one language to another. Probably the most bizarre case is Swiss psychologist Jung’s masterwork “Psychology and Alchemy”, translated into Croatian in 1986, and retranslated, in late 1990s, into Serbian not from the original German, but from Croatian. A translation and “translation’s translation” differ on virtually every page.
Bosnian language is a relative newcomer. Colloquial language spoken in Bosnia and Herzegovina was a Croatian and Serbian hybrid which can be ironically termed Serbo-Croatian, since, as a standard language, it was a heavily Serbianized Croatian language (particularly in vocabulary and syntax). Since the break-up of communism and administratively imposed mixed “Serbo-Croatian” bastard norm, Bosnian Muslims appropriated the orphaned “Serbo-Croatian” and, slightly modifying it by infusion of Islamic oriental idioms, renamed it Bosnian language. Croats and Serbs in Bosnia and Herzegovina, liberated from shackles of communist bureaucratic artificial linguistic uniformity, returned to their national standard languages. Bosnian Muslims’ contemporary efforts to give a historical “legitimacy” to the name of their national language are exercise in futility since the term “Bosnian language” was almost exclusively used by Croatian writers and lexicographers in 17th and 18th centuries (both in Croatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina) to designate a dialectal variant of Croatian language.

The following myth is frequently encountered: a unified Serbo-Croatian language appeared at the turn of the 19th/20th century, when efforts of Serbian language reformer Vuk Karadžić and Croatian Illyrian national movement (headed by Ljudevit Gaj) converged to give birth to the standard Serbo-Croatian language. But the reality is quite different: processes of languages standardization for Croats and Serbs (Bosnian Muslims did not take part in this matter) were almost independent-with the exception of a few decades in the second half of the 19th century which were not as crucial as some old-school philologists had supposed. The most celebrated single event, the Vienna agreement (signed by 7 Croatian litterateurs/philologists and 2 Serbian philologists) from 1850 was actually not "implemented" ( to use the politicos' buzzword), and even the value of its content is dubious.

Croatian language

Modern Croatian standard language is a continuous outgrowth of more than 9 hundred years old literature written in the mixture of Croatian Church Slavonic and vernacular language. If we narrow out the subject, the Croatian Church Slavonic had been abandoned by mid 1400s, and Croatian “purely” vernacular literature has been in existence for more than 5 centuries- a story of remarkable linguistic continuity with only a few shock points.

The standardization of Croatian language can be traced back to the first Croatian dictionary (Faust Vrančić: Dictionarium quinque nobilissimarum Europae linguarum –Latinae, Italicae, Germanicae, Dalmatiae et Ungaricae, Venice 1595.) and first Croatian grammar (Bartul Kašić: Institutionum linguae illyricae libri duo, Rome 1604.). Interestingly enough, the language of Jesuit Kašić’s unpublished translation of the Bible (Old and New Testament, 1622-1636) in the Croatian štokavian-ijekavian dialect (the ornate style of the Dubrovnik Renaissance literature) is as close to the contemporary standard Croatian language (problems of orthography apart) as are French of Montaigne’s “Essays” or King James Bible English to their respective successors- modern standard languages. But, due to the unique Croat linguistic situation, formal shaping of Croatian standard language was a process that took almost four centuries to complete: Croatian is a «three dialects» tongue (a somewhat simplistic way to distinguish between dialects is to refer to the pronoun «what», which is ča, kaj, što in, respectively, čakavian, kajkavian and štokavian dialects) and «three scripts» language (Glagolitic, Croatian/Western/Bosnian Cyrillic and Latin script, with Latin script as the ultimate winner). The final obstacle to the unified Croatian literary language (based on celebrated vernacular Croatian Troubadour, Renaissance and Baroque (acronym TRB) literature (ca. 1490 to ca. 1670) from Dalmatia , Dubrovnik and Boka Kotorska was surmounted by Croatian national «awakener» Ljudevit Gaj's standardization of Latin scriptory norm in 1830-50s. But, Gaj and his Illyrian movement (centred in kajkavian speaking Croatia’s capital Zagreb) were important more politically than linguistically. They "chose" štokavian dialect because they didn't have any other realistic option- štokavian, or, more precisely, neoštokavian (a version of štokavian which emerged in the 17th /18th century) was the major Croatian literary tongue from 1700s on. The true transition to neoštokavian and establishment of a corpus of worthy (although aesthetically inferior to the TRB) literature can be located in the works of writers from southern Dalmatia, Herzegovina, central Bosnia and Slavonia in the 2nd half of the 18th century. The main authors are Grabovac, Kačić, Relković, Kanižlić and numerous Bosnian Franciscan chroniclers. This is a full-fledged literary language, accepted even in Croatian pockets where kajkavian dialect had been still spoken and written on, as the lingua franca of the Croatian nation. The 19th century linguists and lexicographers’ main concern was to achieve a more consistent and unified scriptory norm and orthography; an effort followed by peculiar Croatian linguistic characteristics which may be humorously described as “passion for neologisms” or vigorous word coinage, originating from the purist nature of Croatian literary language. One of the peculiarities of the "developmental trajectory" of the Croatian language is that there is not one towering figure among the Croatian linguists/philologists, because the vernacular osmotically percolated into the "high culture" via literary works so there was no need for revolutionary linguistic upheavals-only reforms sufficed.

Serbian language

As for Serbian standard language, there is a complete asymmetry between its position at the beginning of the 19th century and the Croatian linguistic situation. Unlike Croats, apart from a few writers like Obradović and Venclović ( in the 18th century ), Serbs did not have a literary tradition in the vernacular. It was Vuk Karadžić, an energetic and resourceful Serbian language and culture reformer, whose scriptory and orthographic stylisation of Serbian linguistic folk idiom made a radical break with the past; until his activity in the 1st half of the 19th century, Serbs had been using Serbian variant of Church Slavonic and a hybrid Russian-Slavonic language. His “Serbian Dictionary”, published in Vienna 1818 (along with the appended grammar), was the single most significant work of Serbian literary culture that shaped the profile of Serbian language (and, the 1st Serbian dictionary and grammar thus far). Considering Croatian language and linguistic history, Karadžić's upheaval was the revolution that decisively moulded the language for Serbs; yet, his influence on Croatian standard idiom was only one of the reforms for Croats (mostly in some aspects of grammar and orthography; also, the majority of his innovations were not, as far as Croatian language is concerned, “innovative” at all- they have been present in Croatian literary and linguistic corpora for centuries). Since both languages shared the common basis of South Slavic neoštokavian dialect, they interfered in many normative issues, particularly in orthography, phonetics and syntax. But, due to the fact that these two languages have had a radically different past of almost four hundred years, only a few decades of moderately peaceful convergence- it was inevitable that they should diverge, especially when political pressures were applied to forge them into one, Serbian-based, language.

Bosnian or Bosniak language

The irony of Bosnian language is that its speakers, Bosnian Muslims or Bosniaks, are, on the level of colloquial idiom, more linguistically homogenous than either Serbs or Croats, but have failed, due to historical reasons, to standardize their language in the crucial 19th century. The first Bosnian dictionary, rhymed Bosnian-Turkish glossary authored by Muhamed Hevaji Uskufi , was composed in 1631. But, unlike Croatian dictionaries, which were written and published regularly (in the formative period 1600. to 1850s more than 20 Croatian dictionaries had appeared), Uskufi’s work remained an isolated foray. At least two factors were decisive:
-Bosnian Muslim elite wrote almost exclusively in Oriental (Arabic, Turkish, Persian) languages. Vernacular literature, written in modified Arabic script, was thin and sparse.
-Bosnian Muslims’s/Bosniaks’s national emancipation lagged behind Serbian and Croatian, and since denominational, rather than cultural or linguistic issues played the pivotal role, Bosnian language project didn’t arouse much interest or support. Here, one must add a word of caution: from ca. 1600 to ca. 1800, a number of Croatian dictionaries and grammars mention the term “Bosnian language”. But, in these works it stood as a reference to štokavian dialect (as distinct from kajkavian and čakavian) of the common name for stylised Croatian language-Illyrian or Slovinian language, which encompassed all three dialectal variants. No “Bosnian language” reference has had any ethnic/national implication in the modern sense of the word. Also, now we can witness a growing tension due to a rather bizarre situation: Croats and Serbs object to the name «Bosnian» for the language of Bosnian Muslims/Bosniaks and contend that this is a sneaky manoeuvre to boot Croatian and Serbian languages from administration and media by imposing one «official» language with deceptively all-encompassing name. They say that the language of Bosniaks should be called Bosniak ( no «Bosnian» nation-no «Bosnian» language) . So far, they failed to halt what they see as a «creeping Bosniakization» in areas of mass media and state administration.

So, prescriptions for the language of Bosnian Muslims in the 19th and 20th centuries were written outside of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was an artificial blend of Croatian and Serbian, a stew of Serbian and Croatian orthographies, phonologies, vocabularies and morphologies- “Serbo-Croatian” language. After the collapse of Yugoslavia Bosniaks remained the sole inheritors of the “Serbo-Croatian” hybrid and are trying to reshape it, under the new name of “Bosnian language”, into a distinct national/ethnic standard language.

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