Language as a Symbol of a Fractured Country

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In this paper we look at the bipolar Serbo-Croatian language which has undergone various processes in the past two centuries: a) integration in the mid-nineteenth century; b) variation during SFR Yugoslavia, when a common, but not a ‘unique’ Serbo-Croatian language was promoted, and when national varieties were tacitly allowed within the borders of the republics; c) disintegration upon the fall of SFR Yugoslavia in the 1990s; and d) the promotion of successor standard languages (Croatian, Serbian, Bosnian, Montenegrin). In these processes, unitarian and separatist language policies have constantly changed, and many times the language has been a symbol (its name, script, certain lexemes, etc.) and a means of connecting with the national identity that the advocates of nationalist politics used to promote their political ideologies – by enforcing linguistic changes with the aim of creating as many differences as possible between ‘Our’ language and ‘Their’ language.

Following the historical and cultural context, the paper describes the period during the 1990s, which is marked by turbulent socio-political changes, showing that the tendencies towards the dissolution of Serbo-Croatian could have been expected. Two contradictory approaches to Serbo-Croatian and successor languages are further highlighted: on the one hand, it is considered to be a common, polycentric (standard) language realised in national varieties (Bosnian, Montenegrin, Croatian and Serbian); while on the other hand, these languages are considered to be separate standard languages with their own histories and language and cultural particularities. For that reason, forced linguistic changes are implemented by the language policies of the newly-formed states with the aim to preserve and strengthen national identities. This is illustrated by the examples of language nationalisation, including purist cleansing of lexis in Croatia, the enforcement of Cyrillic script in Serbia, the introduction of new phonemes/graphemes in Montenegro, and the nationalist education policy in Bosnia and Herzegovina. As a response to these language policies, a language document entitled The Declaration on the Common Language was published online in 2017. However, it does not offer any concrete solutions for different linguistic realities, but instead advocates the idea of language standardisation which has not been particularly successful in the past. It is therefore concluded that linguists should take into account the limited influence of politics on language and begin conducting systematic language research from the philological and cultural standpoint, putting political views and agenda aside.



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