This article will feature in Issue 38: Language and Culture

In 2017, the Declaration on the Common Language was signed. It marks a culmination of attempts to counter nationalistic factions in the Western Balkans and a move towards a discussion of language, independent of nationalist tendencies. Language politics has been an important factor in the creation of the new national identities which have emerged out of the fall of the Former Republic of Yugoslavia. The significance of language in such identities is profound. Cigarette packets in Bosnia and Herzegovina still feature the health warning in Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian. The Declaration’s statement that Croats, Bosniaks, Serbs and Montenegrins have a standard language may make sense linguistically, but the impact of such a suggestion may have served to conceal a tension rather than provide resolution to the problem. 

Recent attempts to create a standardised language in the region are not a new phenomena. Language planning was a prominent feature in early nation-building during the nineteenth century. It is the deliberate effort to influence the function, structure or acquisition of languages within a community. In 1850, the Vienna Literary Agreement initiated the linguistic standardisation of Serbo-Croatian. It made efforts to acknowledge the similarities between Croatian and Serbian literature. Just over a century later, the Novi Sad Agreement revived the operation of implementing a unified linguistic standard; a reflection of Tito’s ‘brotherhood and unity’ policy. Yet both agreements overlooked incentives to foster linguistic support for a Bosnian identity. Moreover, neither agreement involved the active participation of Muslim Slavs from Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

With the expansion of the European Union (EU), the strife to standardise identity has increased. In recent times, language and the planning of it has evolved into a political strategy used in appealing to European ideals. Moving away from past identities associated with the former socialist republics and towards a euro-centric characterisation of themselves is one motivation behind such reforms. Yet this has caused further divide within South Eastern Europe. There now exists a disunion between those who want to acquire accession into the EU and those who harbour traits perceived as nostalgic or a hindrance to obtaining EU membership. Language politics has fuelled this division while also contributing to the subsistence of nesting orientalisms in the region. 

The utility of language as a marker of national and social identity makes de-politicisation unintelligible. Previous agreements and attempts at reform have served as a tool to ostracise certain ethnicities or subgroups. Questions must therefore be asked over how these issues can be resolved moving forward. With the emergence of the field of language economics, there is some optimism for the future. However, whether we should expect the development of a European identity in the future remains an open question.

By Siobhan Coleman

Image: The original uploader was Трајан at Serbian Wikipedia. – Transferred from sr.wikipedia to Commons., Copyrighted free use,