In the Old Dialect, a Balkan Region Regains Its Identity

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Feb 24 17:55:15 UTC 2005

>>From the NYTimes,

February 24, 2005


In the Old Dialect, a Balkan Region Regains Its Identity


NOVI PAZAR, Serbia and Montenegro - Ahmed Halilovic's hand shot up to
reply to a question from his teacher: "Can any one tell the difference
between Bosnian and Serbian?" Looking around the classroom in the Mesha
Selimovic primary school here, it seemed that Ahmed, 7, was the only one
to know. The other children could be forgiven: it is a question that many
adults in this largely Muslim region of Serbia are finding hard to answer
as well.

Bosnian is one in a series of languages that have blossomed in former
Yugoslavia since the country broke up in the early 1990's. Before then,
most Yugoslavs considered that they spoke Serbo-Croatian, a language
recognized since the 19th century but with many regional differences.
Since their country fractured, their culture and language has, too.
Croatia, Bosnia, and even Montenegro have all sought to reassert
traditional differences and distance themselves from Serbo-Croatian, a
language some felt was too heavily dominated by Serbian.

What were considered dialects until recently are now regarded as their own
language. In fact, three "new" languages - possibly four, if one counts
Montenegrin - have appeared, distinguished as much by national pride (and
perhaps pronunciation) than any deep distinction in grammar. Vocabulary
differs here and there. The Serbs and Montenegrins also use the Cyrillic
alphabet, while Bosnians and Croatians use the Latin alphabet.  But many
people read both.

Still, before the war, Yugoslavs most everywhere in the country could
understand each other. The same holds true through the region today. There
is in fact probably less difference in spoken language and accent between
and a Sarajevan and a Belgrader than between a Londoner and Glaswegian.
But that has not stopped the proliferation of languages, and now the
southwestern region of Serbia, known as the Sandzak, is following suit. As
of this month, pupils here may study a dialect of Bosnian.

Textbooks emphasize expressions and vocabulary particular to the region.
Introduction of the classes is seen as a victory for the mountainous
region's Muslim minority, which argues that the local language was eroded
by the education system and bureaucracy in Belgrade, which were dominated
by Orthodox Serbs who speak a different dialect with its own accent.

"Language defines the identity of a people," said Zekerija Dugopoljac, the
director of education for the Bosnian National Council, the official body
that represents Muslim Slavs in Serbia and Montenegro. "Having the Bosnian
language brings recognition to a people who have lived in Serbia and
Montenegro for centuries." The lessons, which have the approval of the
Serbian Education Ministry, are intended to comply with European law
allowing minorities to be taught their own language. But Serbian
nationalists oppose the classes, which they see as a first step toward a
separatist movement. The ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party has called
for the education minister to step down.

Such moves are closely watched in this region, one of Serbia's most
ethnically diverse. The Sandzak managed to escape the ethnic conflicts of
the 1990's that took place just across its boundaries in Bosnia and
Kosovo. Muslims here say they are keen not to alarm their Serb neighbors.
Others appear confused about the need for the classes. "I speak Serbian,"
said Nedzat Zenunovic, a 23-year-old Muslim who works in an Internet cafe.
"Bosnians speak Bosnian. We don't live in Sarajevo, we live here."

A straw poll in the cafe revealed that several people had difficulty in
giving any name to the language they spoke. "It's Serbo-Montenegrin!"
quipped a young student, smiling.  Serbo-Montenegrin is not a recognized
language. The authors of the new textbooks say such responses show how the
region's culture has been splintered along with the country they used to
live in, leaving people unable to define who they are.

"I was also assimilated," said Mevluda Malajac, a teacher at the Mesha
Selimovic primary school and one of the textbooks' editors. "The language
I speak is absolutely Serbian, but my parents spoke Bosnian. We want to
bring back what has been gradually lost over the last 150 years." Croatia
is perhaps most notable for its effort to define its own language.  The
late President Franjo Tudjman, founder of the independent state,
introduced new words to replace foreign or Serbian vocabulary.

Helicopter, for example, became zrakomlat (air-beater). He called
television sets dalikovidnica (seen from afar). Proponents in the Sandzak
of teaching classes in Bosnian, among them most of the region's Muslim
politicians, note that the language was recognized in the Ottoman court
and that the first Bosnian dictionary was written in 1631.

What has attracted controversy is the attempt to emphasize local
expressions not used in Bosnia itself, and the inclusion of literature by
lesser-known local poets and writers. This has prompted some to question
the expertise of the textbooks' authors. Enes Halilovic, the editor of
Sent, a monthly cultural magazine published in Novi Pazar, derided the
texts as the work of amateurs. "I am not against the introduction of the
language," he said, "but the way in which it is being done."

Critics say some textbook sentences like: "I speak Bosnian. My language is
the most beautiful in the world," are likely to offend Serbs and could be
"dangerous" to Muslims for the nationalism they evoke. The Sandzak
Democratic Party, one of the main Muslim political groups in the region,
has called for a new textbook to be written. Mr. Dugopoljac of the Bosnian
National Council, however, defended the language texts, saying they had
not been intended to offend anyone, but rather to add to the variety of
the region.

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