Sunday, July 26, 2009

Speaking in Tongues

Commenting on my post about linguistic idiocy, reader "Kris" asked a perfectly reasonable question:

Do you consider Croatian, Bosnian and Serbian separate but mutually intelligible languages or dialects of one South Slavic language? An example would be the Scandinavian languages of Danish, Swedish and Norwegian on one hand (mutually intelligible) or the numerous dialects of Italian on the other? Being interested in different languages I wondered if learning say Serbian would mean I could pick up Croatian easily.

I knew someone who was Croat by nationality (he called himself a Yugoslav since one parent was a Serb and the other a Croat) who would roll his eyes whenever I mentioned Bosnian as a language and tell me there is no such language. Yet I see dictionaries, textbooks and a wiki about the Bosnian language (and now I see there is a Montenegrin language?) so I'm confused and yet curious about your thoughts.

Also, for those of you who lived the former Yugoslavia, did you also have to learn Slovene and Macedonian in school (and they learn Serbo-Croatian)? Sorry for the length but I'm really interested in this topic. Coming from Canada French is mandatory learning for us in elementary school.

I'll start from the end, since that's the easiest part. Most inhabitants of Yugoslavia did not learn Slovenian or Macedonian; those were official languages in those respective republics (as was Albanian in Kosovo, and Hungarian in parts of Vojvodina, by the way), but Serbo-Croatian was the official language of the country and everyone was expected to be proficient in it, or at least capable of understanding it. The Canadian comparison is interesting, because I don't know if the Quebecois are required to learn English.

As for the matter of languages being related... It is absolutely not politically correct to point out that they are in fact as closely related as Italian dialects. Everything in the Balkans is political, including the language. If one tries to point out that even today the official languages in Croatia and Bosnia have about 80% (if not more) in common with Serbian, that's an automatic accusation of "Greater Serbian nationalism and imperialist chauvinism" with charges of "aggression" and "genocide" soon to follow. Kind of like that idiotic Daily Kos post I was referring to.

The truth is, linguists who worked in the early 1800s to modernize and codify the alphabet and grammar rules of what are today Serbian, Croatian and Slovenian often worked together and accepted the basic premise that would eventually lead to Yugoslavia, of "one nation, three tribes." In retrospect, the premise was flawed - there was just not enough shared historical experience for Croats, Slavonians, Dalmatians, Istrians and Carinthians to live in a common state with the Serbs (not to mention the Muslims) - but in the XIX century the Yugoslav idea was all the rage.

There is no question that Vuk Karadžić and Đuro Daničić were strongly influenced in their reform of Serbian by the work of Ljudevit Gaj and Jernej Kopitar, not to mention the political and cultural influence of Vienna. This is why Vuk's Cyrillic is interchangeable with Gajevica (the modern Latin script used in Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia), for example, and why modern Serbian sounds nothing like Russian.

There are further differences in regional dialects; for example, an Istrian or a Slavonian has issues with understanding Dalmatians, and none of them can understand the peasants of Zagorje (or people from nearby Zagreb) quite right. Differences in Bosnia, Herzegovina and Serbia are far less pronounced.

Modern Croatian - as well as "Bosnian" and "Montenegrin" - are products of political engineering in a reverse direction from the XIX century Yugoslav linguistics. They've been deliberately modified starting in the 1990s to be as different from Serbian as possible, in order to underpin the political independence of Croatia, Bosnia and Montenegro.

Modern Croatian has a dual purpose: to unify the regions which have historically been under different rulers (Dalmatia and Istria were Venetian for centuries, then passed to Austria, while Zagorje and Slavonia were dominated by Hungary and Dubrovnik was independent), and as a result have developed distinct regional dialects; and to establish an identity different from and opposite to Serbian. No one actually speaks the official Croatian yet, it's a sort of "newspeak" being adopted slowly. This incongruity was best described by Miljenko Jergovic, a Sarajevo Croat (who writes beautifully, whatever one may call the language he uses) a few years ago, in a piece about how the Croatian movie distributors subtitled a Serbian film.

Identity politics was behind the establishment of "Bosnian" and "Montenegrin" as well; in both cases, the ruling regimes in Sarajevo and Podgorica embraced the Croatian newspeak as a foundation, then added Turkish/Persian/Arabic words and expressions (Bosnia) or added a couple letters and enshrined a regional dialect as a distinct language (Montenegro). In what I thought was especially hilarious, last year a group of Muslim linguists actually protested the "increasing Croatization of the Bosnian language," apparently unaware of the irony. Ivo Andrić, Meša Selimović and Njegoš are spinning in their graves.

Mind you, only the Bosnian Muslims (renamed "Bosniaks" in the 1990s, the better to stake their claim to the entire country) say they speak "Bosnian," and take offense when Bosnian Serbs or Croats call that language "Bosniak".

I usually have no problem getting across to people if I use my native Sarajevo dialect of Serbo-Croatian (and remember to enunciate the vowels properly); barring that, I can speak official Serbian with little difficulty. For the life of me, I can't get a hang of the Croatian newspeak, or "Bosnian" (let alone "Montenegrin"), which results in hostile stares when I travel to Croatia or Bosnia. So I speak English instead.

That's what I advise to all foreigners interested in the region as well; trying to learn any of the local languages is not only fiendishly difficult (the grammar is almost completely irrational, even if spelling is a non-issue), but you risk annoying people by speaking the "wrong" language, and making things worse when you insist they are "all the same, anyway." Especially since, down on the basic level, they really are.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Linguistic Idiocy

Not being a follower of the Daily Kos, I didn't notice a post that appeared on that site on July 8 until very recently. Apparently, someone named Robert Ullmann (an American who lives in Kenya; see here) flew into self-righteous rage over the "linguistic genocide" allegedly perpetrated by "a small number of Serbian nationalists."

You see, there's a debate on Wiktionary whether to consider Serbian, Croatian and "Bosnian" as separate languages, or to keep the old Serbo-Croatian listing. And to Ullmann, the fact that some people are advocating keeping the old listing is a surefire sign of intent to create a "Greater Serbia"!

To call this a steaming pile of excrement is probably too charitable. Ullmann himself notes that, under this proposal, Serbian would not be recognized as a proper language. I'm not sure which universe he lives in, but in this one, denying one's own language is hardly a sign of "nationalism" - let alone "genocide."

Ironically enough, Serbo-Croatian is the farthest thing possible from some "Greater Serbian language" Ullmann is hallucinating about. Rather, it was a social experiment aiming to further undermine the inconvenient Serb national identity (which, as I explained elsewhere, was considered dangerous to the survival of Communist Yugoslavia). That way no one would have to actually speak Serbian - not even the Serbs themselves.

In fact, this went so far that in today's Serbia, 20 years after Yugoslavia's demise, the adapted Latin alphabet used in Serbo-Croatian has almost entirely displaced the native Cyrillic in public life. Spoken Serbian, meanwhile, abounds in imported Croatian phrases, both new and those dating to the "happy days of brotherhood and unity." If anything, this can be classified as Croat linguistic colonialism (though to be fair, not by modern Croatia). It's certainly the polar opposite of "linguistic genocide" that Ullmann alleges.

One commenter to Ullmann's post called it a "load of rubbish", and said he'd contacted the instigator of the Wiktionary vote: "he told me that he isn't even a Serb let alone a Serb Nationalist and is in fact a Croat."


As the old adage goes, better to keep one's mouth shut and be thought a fool, than to open it and remove all doubt. There are so many people, telling so many lies, inaccuracies and myths about the Serbs, Yugoslavia, and the Balkans wars of the 1990s that trying to refute, correct or condemn all of them would be a full-time job. Not being a "professional Serb," I try to catch the most egregious, when I can. So the reason I singled out this particular demonstration of idiocy is its inexcusable abuse of the term "genocide."

It is an insult to the victims of actual genocides (Armenians and Greeks in the Ottoman Empire, Serbs in the "Independent State of Croatia", Jews in the Nazi death camps) when this word is used so lightly. There is a whole industry dedicated to the claim that what happened in Srebrenica in 1995 was genocide on par with the Holocaust - a claim that defies logic as well as piety. And now there are idiots seeing "linguistic genocide" in online polls. What's next?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

On Victims and Visas

On July 15, the EU proposed the lifting of visa restrictions on Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia (FYROM).

The quisling regime in Belgrade has been promising its manipulated subjects the so-called "White Schengen" for years. Never mind that, thanks to the government's slavish obedience to the Empire, the people don't have jobs or can't afford food, and their country is being slowly dismembered - they'll be able to travel again! This is essentially a "let them eat cake" policy.

It is also a way to recognize the "independent state of Kosova" in a roundabout way, since the new visa regime won't apply to "Kosovians." Those Brussels commissars sure are clever, aren't they?

As for Montenegro and Macedonia (FYROM), they are EU protectorates in all but name. And I have a hunch the latter was included to provide a loophole for the Albanians, who have been moving freely between Albania, "Kosovia" and FYROM since oh, 2001 or so.

None of this matters overmuch to the Bosnian Muslims, or their partisans in Brussels and Strasbourg. They met the EU's decision with howls of protest and cries of "unfair", claiming it was discrimination against "victims of genocide" (themselves) and the "executioners" (the Serbs).

One typical example of this was an article in Turkey's daily Zaman, which accused the EU of "discriminating" against countries "with a Muslim-majority population" such as Bosnia (!), Albania and "newly independent Kosovo."

Though I'm sure the Turks - and many "Bosniaks" - love to believe Bosnia is a Muslim-majority country, that wasn't true in 1991 (Muslims were less than 50% of the population), and is probably not true today, either (because the Muslims are blocking a census to check the actual population numbers).

Wishful thinking is one thing; deliberate distortions of reality, though, are quite another. In its diatribe against the EU, Zaman reaches for the old myth about how "heavily armed Serbs butchered almost 250,000 Bosniaks" and the "EU refused to intervene to stop the massacre."

Reality check: the total number of war dead was estimated at 100,000,, and the final officially recognized figure was 97,000. Of that, some 29,000 were Serbs. That doesn't quite sound like a "massacre" of the innocent unarmed. Also, the EU (just established) was involved from the get-go, recognizing the jihadist regime of Alija Izetbegovic and saving it from defeat repeatedly. It's just that they refused to provide unconditional political and military support to Izetbegovic's jihad. That's apparently equal to "standing idly by" for militant Muslims; no surprise there.

Here's another bit of fiction posing as fact. Zaman claims that the EU is "punishing Bosnians [sic] because of the Bosnian Serbs and Croats' refusal to grant the right of issuing passports to the federal government."

By "federal" I assume they mean "state" here (in Bosnia, the Federation is one of the components of the joint state, in case you weren't sufficiently confused already). Either way, for a while after the peace agreement it was the entities, the Federation and the Serb Republic, that issued passports. But this has not been the case for years now.

I would venture a guess that the real problem with putting Bosnia on the "White Schengen" list is that many Bosnian passports are in the hands of... interesting people, for example, some of Osama Bin Laden's followers. Check any report about a captured Islamic terrorist, and odds are he will have the "Bosnian jihad" on his resume.

Most of the grist for Zaman's mill was provided ever so helpfully by Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a French "Green" (known as "Danny the Red" not so long ago) member of the European Parliament and an outspoken champion of intervention in Bosnia in the 1990s. What a shock. Somehow I think this visa fuss has less to do with the "poor victimized Bosnians" and more with Mr. Cohn-Bendit's shameless self-promotion - and the wishful thinking of some Turks to see the Ottoman times make a comeback.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Moments of Transition: Overload

New column over at

At a meeting in March 2009, Secretary Clinton presented her Russian counterpart with a red button that was supposed to read "Reset" in Russian. Instead, it read "Overload." It seemed like an innocent mistake, a syllable lost in translation. But was it, really?

During his Moscow visit, Obama said he wants Russia as a "partner". Somehow, I don't think that word means what he thinks it means...

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Why Karl Malden Stayed Silent

When Karl Malden passed away on June 30, I tried - without much success - to write up a short obituary paying tribute to an unusual Hollywood career. Here was a man who won an Academy Award (1951, A Streetcar Named Desire) and an Emmy (1984, Fatal Vision), lived to the ripe old age of 97, and was married to the same woman for over seventy years. It's hard to find a bigger contrast to today's world of celebrities, where looks and money substitute for talent, and everyone tries to "live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse."

Perhaps Malden's anomalous life may be explained by his origins; son of a Serb immigrant from Herzegovina, born Mladen Sekulovich, he never forgot his roots. He talked a fair bit about being an American Serb in a 2003 interview, which is worth reading. But in the days after his passing, I've heard many Serbs wonder why he hadn't done more during the 1990s to counter the widespread demonization of the Serbian people in the West.

Now, it is true that he didn't speak out. But neither did many others. There's a large number of Serbs in America, and most have stayed just as silent. Malden lived through the blacklists and purges in Hollywood during the McCarthy era. I'm willing to wager he didn't care to go through such an experience again.

And let's not kid ourselves, speaking out for the Serbs, challenging the Official Truth in even the smallest way, brings upon one the full wrath of the political and media establishment - not to mention the lunatic fringe. For most people, this is an unpleasantness they'd rather not deal with. And the fate of their nation is something quite abstract compared to the real and immediate threat to one's own career and family prospects, were one to deviate from the party line.

This isn't to say Malden couldn't have, or shouldn't have done more. But speaking out for the Serbs has been a risky proposition. The fact that even Malden did not dare publicly stand up for his people doesn't tell us much about what went through his mind - but tells us a lot about the extent and intensity of the demonization campaign. Originating from the land of Free Speech, no less.