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Patric Moore (RFE/RL BALKAN REPORT, Vol. 4, No. 16, 25 February 2000)

Three Cheers for the Montenegrin Language

        As the decolonization process took shape after World War II,
apattern soon became evident that each newly emerging state
had to copy in order to gain full international
respectability. This included acquiring a flag, a national
anthem, a seat in the UN, and where possible a national
        This has been repeated in the former Yugoslavia and with
one important addition: a national language in the cases of
groups whose language was formerly called Serbo-Croatian. For
most non-nationalists--and in moments of candor, for many
nationalists as well--Serbo-Croatian is one language with a
set of dialects based on geography, not ethnicity. It was
thus that many rural Croats from Kosova had to take language
training after they were resettled in distant Croatia in the
course of the 1990s. More to the political point, the speech
of the Bosnian Serb is virtually identical to that of his
Croatian and Muslim neighbors but noticeably distinct from
that of the Serb of Belgrade or especially Nis.
        This state of affairs has not gone down well with many
insecure nationalists over the years. They have hence gone to
great pains to create or exaggerate real or imagined
differences between the "language" of their people and those
of the neighbors. During World War II and in the early 1990s,
Croatian nationalists were best known for such efforts. The
results were often the butt of jokes, even among many very
patriotic Croats.
        One should not forget the actions of others, such as the
Bosnian Serbs, whose leadership has had voting ballots
printed only in Cyrillic in spite of the fact that many Serbs
cannot read that script. One may also recall the wartime
vogue in Pale and Banja Luka of using Belgrade speech, so
that the Sarajevan Biljana Plavsic often spoke on television
with a Belgrade affectation that would be roughly equivalent
to Hillary Clinton using the accent of her husband or to an
Austrian politician trying to force the pronunciation of
Hamburg or Berlin.
        The Republika Srpska leadership has slowly retreated
from Belgrade linguistic as well as political models. But
Bosnian Muslim nationalists still like to show off their
"Bosnian language" with its real or forced Turkish or Arabic
        If this model of language creation were applied
elsewhere, German and French could easily break down into
dozens or hundreds of languages, and Spanish and English into
even more. But no one feels the need to proclaim a distinct
national language in the case of Austrian German, U.S.
English, or Mexican Spanish. In those countries it is
recognized that independent statehood does not necessarily
require a distinct language.
        This is not, however, appreciated by many nationalists
in the former Yugoslavia. It therefore came as no great
surprise when last week the Matica Crnogorska cultural
society demanded that "Montenegrin" be named the official
language in that republic in place of "Serbian." The
society's statement showed that it believes in a clear link
between linguistic and political sovereignty. Ergo, the
reference to "Serbian" in the Montenegrin constitution is
evidence of submission to Belgrade's political ambitions and
of inferiority complexes and a loss of identity, Matica
Crnogorska maintains.
        One wonders which "language" will be the next to emerge.
In any event, your editor has never been able to get a clear
answer from nationalists as to why their respective leaders
do not need interpreters to speak to each other. When
Presidents Milosevic and Tudjman had their famous walk at the
Wright-Patterson airbase in Dayton, or their secret meetings
to partition Bosnia, no translator was present. 

Patrick Moore

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