bosnia report
New Series No: 41 August - September 2004
Too frightened to call the language Montenegrin
by Rajko Cerovic

‘In March 2004 Montenegro’s minister of education Slobodan Backović announced that he would sign a new law on the national curriculum in which "Serb language" would be replaced by "mother tongue". Milica Kadić-Avković, speaking on behalf of the Montenegrin ministry of education, subsequently stated that the change did not contradict the constitution, since: "this change refers to the name of the subject, not to the language itself." According to Mrs Kadić-Aković, the subject involves studying the mother tongue, "which in our case is Serb", and which in areas with a majority Albanian population is Albanian. The new curriculum will be introduced this September, but only in selected schools.’ Monitor



For much of the past century Montenegro has lived in a state of confusion about its own nature. The proliferation of unbearable and highly irrational misunderstandings of its own’s identity also includes the question of the Montenegrin language. It was just about possible to subsume it under the former inappropriate Serbo-Croat or Croato-Serb name, which as a political convention - allegedly pursued in the interests of Yugoslavia’s internal peace - was used for the language of four South Slav nations [Bosniak, Croat, Montenegrin and Serb]; but the 1992 constitution called the language simply Serb, and in so doing canonized Montenegrin cultural and national slavery. We found ourselves in a situation where the first subject taught to Montenegrin children in Montenegrin schools was Serb language and literature.

The constitutional definition of the Montenegrins’ language as the Serb language with an ijekavian pronunciation confirmed the marginalization of the whole Montenegrin civilizational inheritance and future, through a willing acceptance of our own national obliteration. The government moved with surprising speed not just to suspend the Montenegrin cultural individuality, but also to threaten its own future national legitimacy. Seeking some poor comfort in the ijekavian ruse, the government thus unquestionably accepted Montenegro’s reduction to the status of a cultural province, since the Bosnian Serbs too claim the ijekavian speech as their heritage. As a result the nationalist part of the Serbian intellectual čaršija rightly makes fun of the Montenegrins, firmly convinced that a people without its own language and literature - and hence by its own admission a nation without its own cultural identity - cannot fail, sooner rather than later, to fall an easy prey to the old [Serb] assimilationist ambitions and appetites.

If in the past Montenegro offered itself quixotically as the automatic last protector of Yugoslav unity, it is incomprehensible why the same linguistic and cultural policy should continue even after Yugoslavia has ceased to exist, and after each former member has logically enough taken its own share from the common treasure chest. Those who deny to the Montenegrins the right to call the language they speak and write by their own national name hide behind the indisputable fact that four South Slav peoples speak and write a language which, though not quite identical, is sufficiently close to allow them direct communication. Yet those same individualsdo not deny to the Bosniaks, the Croats or the Serbs the right to call it by their national names. To be sure no one bothers to ask them, nor do those peoples feel any need to apologize to others for the fact that they exist as national and cultural individualities.

Even if, in collision with elementary logic, we were to accept the possibility that the Montenegrins alone among the four people lack their own language, one would at least have to accept that the Montenegrin language is as much Bosniak and Croat as it is Serb, and that its ijekavian form indeed makes it closer to the language spoken by Bosniaks or Croats than it is to that spoken by Serbs in Serbia. To lock the language spoken by the Montenegrins into an exclusively Serb category is to violate not merely linguistic science but also elementary logic. It is simply a lie that Montenegrins speak Serb rather than Croat, or that they speak Serb or Croat but not at the same time also Montenegrin. The Montenegrin language is as old as is the Montenegrin nation, which has been around for over a millennium. The truly traumatic and tragic 1992 now returns both as a violent assault on the nation and also as a farce, multiplying the misconceptions the Montenegrins have of themselves, their identity and their future. At a time when European standards, hopefully free of local falsifications and folklore, are being introduced into our schools, a commission composed of one university professor and six carefully selected secondary-school teachers has found itself unable to pinpoint the name of the language that the Montenegrins speak. Nor indeed could they decide whether to term it a ‘state’ or an ‘official’ one.

The commission, of course, is aware that it is dealing with another people’s language, ‘lent’ to the Montenegrins as an instrument of their assimilation. This is supposedly all laid down by the Constitution, even if the state whose constitution it was no longer exists. Montenegro is no longer a republic within a federation called FRY, but a state associated with Serbia - in a union that may indeed be short-lived, and that still lacks a final constitutional framework. There is, therefore, nothing that binds the authors of the school reform. They are inhibited only by their own fear of identifying themselves, and by an inherited inertia that forces them to adhere blindly to stereotypes that have long ago ceased to be valid.

This is how the commission explains how pupils in the last phase of their proposed obligatory nine-year elementary schooling are supposed to think of their language: ‘Pupils are aware that the Serb language is the state language in Montenegro [they later replaced ‘state’ by ‘official’]; they know the constitutional status of other languages, and the status of the Serb language in other countries. Pupils form a state and national consciousness, and at the same time a respect for other languages and cultures.’ If this how is things should be, then why not tell children that they should first of all be acquainted with the status of the Serb language in Serbia itself, followed by its position in Serbia’s cultural colonies - of which Montenegro is one. How otherwise explain to them that the Serbs in their own country call their language Serb, while Montenegrins in their own country cannot call it Montenegrin?

The resulting confusion in people’s heads, those of teachers in particular, breeds new misunderstandings. Feeling that Serb is not quite the right name for the Montenegrin language, the new body for general education set up by the Montenegrin government on 19 April 2003 decided at its meeting of 11 March 2004, i.e. a whole year later, to advise the ministry of education that the language taught in Montenegrin schools should be called ‘mother tongue’. This decision reached by a body composed of fourteen members, of whom six have Ph.D.s and five are university professors, did not pass uncontested, but it did win a significant majority.

Should one take this as a sign of progress, as the first step towards normality? The term ‘mother tongue’ is undeniably adequate for domestic purposes, but certainly not for science and certainly not for communicating with other states, since every language is someone’s mother tongue. For example, a foreigner who has studied our language cannot say or write that he has learned to speak and write ‘the mother tongue’. Mother tongues have their national names, and this is so regardless of the Montenegrin fear of self-identification or the Belgrade imperialist policy that holds the Montenegrin national and cultural identity by the throat. Will the Montenegrins finally realize that the old Ranković UDBA [state security service] is long gone, just like the old centralized party which - seeking to maintain domestic peace - insisted on creating thousands of false symmetries?

This article has been translated from Monitor (Podgorica), 26 March 2004.


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