The War of the Words

Every small nation goes through particular birth pangs in an attempt to foster its peculiar linguistic character
Even before a war starts shaking up a new country, fights about national languages abound. The endless debate about the Croatian language may have been the prime motive that turned ex-Yugoslavia into a pulverized powder keg. For every nation, language and religion constitute two main pillars of national identity; without its language, the nation melts away into a wider structure of anonymous denizens using often bizarre idioms. The hybrid "Serbo-Croatian" language was not only an oxymoron - it was primarily a political ploy for bringing two different peoples into a unitary unnatural whole. With the establishment of the new state of Croatia in 1991, there was the public outcry to purify the Croatian language of all Serbian words, and to show the world Croatian distinctiveness - often at the expense of doctoring up new and bizarre words.

The effort regarding the purity of the language is not only symptomatic of Croatia, but is a hallmark of all smaller nations in search of identity. Every small nation goes through similar birth pangs in an attempt to foster its peculiar linguistic character. Approximately, five million people speak the Slovak, Norwegian, Georgian, Albanian, Danish languages respectively - and as long as their languages are shielded by strong state bureaucracy, there is no fear that they will die away. Very different is the story regarding the Chechen, Abkhaz, or Islandic languages, which are spoken by half a million citizens respectively.  Many of these peoples do not have solid states in sight, and are still searching for world recognition. Chances are, though, that with no state, their language may well disappear.

The battle of the languages always precedes the battle of the guns. All new governments, once entrenched in power, must first tackle the language issue. It is worth recalling that immediately after the French revolution, in 1792 (probably one of the most fateful political event in Europe), early Jacobin revolutionaries, including its rabble-rouser mouthpiece Barrere, adopted a law stipulating that "the German language is the language of counterrevolution, Spanish that of inquisition and the papists, and Italian that of run-away aristocracy." Side by side with massive genocides carried out by French revolutionary self-proclaimed world-improvers, all dialects and regional languages in France were wiped away. Yet, despite, all of that, until mid-19th century over 50 percent of French citizens spoke different dialects that had nothing in common with the modern Parisian French. Similarly, after the Passion Play of Bleiburg in 1945, the Yugo-communist commissars, enacted decrees that would thoroughly emasculate the linguistic treasure trove of the Croatian language. The rooted Croatian language was considered "counterrevolutionary." Moreover, the usage of some popular regional idioms and expressions from the cakavski or the kaikavski dialects, was viewed as provincial, "hickish," or at best, primitive.  Meanwhile the titophile intelligentsia, in search of careers, started to popularize the new hybrid of "Serbo-Croatian language."

In 1886 one unitary language was also designed for citizens of Bosnia and Hercegovina. Following the annexation of Bosnia-Hercegovina by the Austrian authorities, an attempt was made to create a common language for the three different peoples and cultures. This attempt soon came to a pitiful end.  Likewise, there is a tendency today, encouraged also by the international community, to introduce the "Bosnian language." Most likely, this centralistic attempt will also fail. 

The Balkan peninsula, and particularly its center known as former Yugoslavia, is not the only case of an attempt at crafting an artificial language.  After the peaceful departure of Norwegians, Danes and Swedes into their own separate states, in 1904, the new elites in Norway began to cultivate their own idiom, cleansed of Danish and Swedish verbal residues. The new political class turned to the Norwegian countryside in order to replenish the Norwegian vocabulary. The "Landmal" thus became a code word for the Norwegian language, as opposed to the Swedophile "Bokmal," the language of the books. 

The opposite side can best be observed in the former Soviet Union. As early as 1922 the early Bolsheviks adopted the language policy which aimed at forceful russification of all other languages in the newly created multiethnic communist empire. The cyrillic script was imposed on muslim peoples, who had previously used the Arabic script, such as the  Kirghis, the Turkmens, etc.  This was also the case in the former constituent Soviet republic of Moldova, which despite its Latin roots and Romanian origins, had to use the Cyrillic script. Naturally, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the subsequent rebirth of new nation states, the first move on the part of the new elites was to establish their own national languages.

Cases like this abound: Czechoslovakia, in 1920, imposed upon its citizens the Czech language as the only official language, although half of its citizens spoke German, Hungarian, and Slovak as their mother tongues. Nor is the situation different in Western Europe. The Irish language is on the verge of extinction. So is the old Gaelic in Scotland and the Breton language in France. In Croatia, not long ago, the peculiar Veliot language was spoken by a few old islanders ("boduli") on the island of Krk. Today the Veliot language is gone with the wind.

The Croatian language is the hallmark of Croatian national identity; it has to be nurtured at all cost, notably by introducing into its vocabulary idioms and expressions from the local cakavski and kajkavski dialects. This "return to the roots" is certainly much more expedient than resorting to some new words, i.e. neologisms which often leave a bad political aftertaste among domestic and foreign listeners and interlocutors.  Of course, all Croats, particularly professionals, must work on their fluency of the American language, which has become, so to speak, the obligatory "lingua franca" all over the world. It is beside the point whether the American language is "bad" or "good", "nice," or "ugly" - or a symbol of cultural imperialism.  The American language has become a universal language, and must be learned by anybody who is considering a career or who wishes to understand the modern world. Thus, for example Swedish professionals, working at large enterprises, when discussing business deals, serious economic or financial issues with their German or Portuguese counterparts, often resort to the American-English language.  What the German or the French language was fifty or one hundred years ago, is now the role of the American language. This American language is increasingly losing its ties with the classical English language and its normative grammar. New cliches and new idioms are constantly made up, which makes American very graphic and a rapidly evolving language.

The American language has many other advantages, notably phrasal verbs and abundant colloquial trove, as well as the increasing trend towards phonetic transcriptions. Thus, for instance, even in official correspondence, some cumbersome sufixes and prefixes, are dropped and double consonants are shrunk into one.  "Thanks" has become "thanx," cool is "kool," etc. Of course, from working out hard to making out, hardly… 

Tomislav Sunic

The author is a writer and former US professor in political science.

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Author`s name Michael Simpson