Serbian signs of the times are not in Cyrillic

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Wed May 28 21:04:23 UTC 2008

Serbian signs of the times are not in Cyrillic
A symptom of Westernization: Serbs read and write as well with the
Latin alphabet.

By Nicole Itano | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor
from the May 29, 2008 edition

BELGRADE, Serbia - In the years since this city emerged, battered and
bombed, from the nightmare of Slobodan Milosevic's rule, Western
capitalism has remade this city's graceful streets. Billboards hawk
McDonald's and Coca-Cola, and young Serbs window shop for Diesel,
Nike, and other Western brands.

But the most visible symbol of Western encroachment may be the signs
themselves: Everywhere, the Latin alphabet is edging out Serbian
Cyrillic, the alphabet that once distinguished Serbs from their
Croatian neighbors.

Around the globe, English-dominated culture threatens to subsume many
small cultures and languages, but the Serbian Cyrillic alphabet is
particularly endangered because there's a perfectly acceptable form of
the written language, Serbo-Croatian, that uses the Latin alphabet.
It's just not, well, historically Serbian.

Before World War II, Serbian Cyrillic – a 19th-century adaptation of
the Russian alphabet – was dominant, and the Latin alphabet was rarely
used here. But under Josip Broz Tito's Yugoslavia, which tried to
forge a common identity among the its many peoples, the two scripts
had equal status. In the 1990s, some of Serbia's nationalist
politicians tried to assert the primacy of Cyrillic, but the wave of
Western cultural influence that has washed in since Milosevic's 2000
fall has largely swept away those efforts.

• • •

The Latin alphabet rules the streets of Belgrade today – with the
exception of official documents and the fraying campaign posters that
are almost all in Cyrillic, the vast majority of newspapers,
magazines, billboards, and menus are written in Latin characters.

"That's the price of globalization," says Zorica Tomic, a professor of
cultural and communication theory at the University of Belgrade,
waving her hand at the evidence in nearby signs.

Most Serbs say they're equally comfortable in both alphabets – many
insist they don't even notice when switching between the two. But in
subtle ways, Cyrillic is fading from everyday use and Latin is
becoming the alphabet of choice – particularly among Serbia's urban

The dimly lit Cyber-Shark Internet cafe is a good example. A dozen
young people sit hunched over computers, logged in to Western Internet
sites like Facebook, MySpace, and Skype. A giant poster advertises an
Internet role-playing game, Guild Wars. Here it's not just the Latin
alphabet that dominates, but English.

Goran Nikolovski, the 21-year-old manager, keeps his MySpace page open
all day so he can stay tuned to the lives of friends from his other
life as a popular Belgrade DJ. He is part of Serbia's new Internet
generation, which chats by text message (in the Latin alphabet,
because cellphone Cyrillic is not an option) and through online
communities like MySpace.

"Technology is the main reason young people use more Latin than
Cyrillic," he says. The default on all the computers here is the Latin
alphabet and Mr. Nikolovski only gets rare requests from "older
people" to switch them to Cyrillic.

• • •

What if Serbian Cyrillic disappeared altogether? Nikolovski shrugs.
"It's all the same to me."

But, Sanja Teric, who teaches Serbian language and literature to fifth
and sixth graders, fears a future sans Cyrillic.

Like many Serbs, she's proud of her linguistic heritage and sees the
use of the different alphabets as a sign of her people's successful
straddling of two worlds.

"We consider it an advantage to have both scripts in use, but when it
comes to our national identity, we consider that Cyrillic is part of
our heritage," she says, opening a Serbian-language textbook and
pointing to diagram showing how different Slavic languages developed.

Cyrillic has been used in Serbia for more than 1,000 years and, for
much of that time, it was the primary difference between the two
branches of the Serbian and Croatian branches of the language. When
the Christian world split in 1054, Balkan Slavic-speakers straddled
that fault-line. As literacy spread in the Middle Ages, in the south,
where Catholicism dominated, people adopted the Latin alphabet. In the
western regions, where the Orthodox religion held sway, the people
adopted Cyrillic. At times, and in certain places, the language was
also written in Arabic, and an alphabet called Glagoljica. In the
mid-19th century, a linguist named Vuk Karadzic adapted Russian
Cyrillic to the Serbian language, developing an alphabet that had
exactly one symbol for each sound.

At the Vladislav Ribnikar Experimental Primary School school where Ms.
Teric teaches Serbian language and literature, students study how to
write their native tongue in both Serbian Cyrillic and Latin
alphabets. But Cyrillic is the sole official script designated by the
2006 constitution. And last month, the school received a visit from
the Ministry of Education explaining new rules about which script must
be used when. Class lists and records, for example, must be kept in
Serbian Cyrillic, except in foreign language classes.

"As a small people, it's important for us to preserve [Cyrillic], just
like the Russians do," Teric says. "Sometimes I think we're ashamed of
our own alphabet." She adds that she believes that Serbs sometimes are
inclined to think that things from the West are better, and are too
willing to adopt things from outside. She cites the example of Russia,
where the signs for McDonald's are written in Cyrillic; in Belgrade,
they look just like in America.

But she and others also say they notice the creeping influence of the
Latin script – and foreign words – in their own lives. One day, they
suddenly notice that their signature is in Latin, not Cyrillic. Or
that they've started using an English word – like "trend" – when
there's a perfectly good Serbian one that means the same.

Some, like Professor Tomic, who also heads Serbia's UNESCO committee,
believes Serbia can continue to straddle both worlds, West and East,
Latin and Cyrillic. Some of her colleagues at the university believe
she should work to protect Cyrillic. Another professor once criticized
her, saying it was inappropriate for a professor to sign her name with
Latin characters. But Tomic dismisses such ideas as unrealistic. Her
recent scholarly book – a cultural critique of globalization on
communication – is published in Latin characters, and it's a Serbian

Still, she does defend Cyrillic letters: "Serbian Cyrillic is very
old, the most logical linguistic system in the world. It's absolutely
fantastic, an absolutely fantastic script," she says. "But it's good
for us to have the richness of both. When you're a small country, you
need to preserve your heritage and reach out."

Teric agrees. While she worries about the fate of Cyrillic, she
wouldn't abandon the Latin alphabet even if it were practical to do
so: "I think it's wonderful that after all the political troubles, we
can all still understand each other."

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