bosnia report
New Series No. 4 June - July 1998
Bosnia and its Languages
by Josip Baotic

At the end of April 1998 The Bosnian Institute organized a two-day seminar on the possibilities for, and obstacles to, a common education system for Bosnia-Herzegovina. Held at the Monastery of St Anthony in Sarajevo and conducted in Bosnian, the seminar enjoyed the support of the Congress of Bosniak Intellectuals, the Croat National Council, International Forum Bosnia, the Jewish Community of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Serb Civic Council. The four sessions were chaired by Bojan Bujic, Atif Purivatra, Ljubomir Berberovic and Ivo Banac, and a distinguished range of participants (including historians, linguists, theologians, former ministers, school principals, etc.) ensured that the level of discussion was extremely high. Observers attended from the World Bank and the Office of the High Representative. The Bosnian Institute plans to print a selection from the proceedings translated into English and, if possible, will arrange for the full transcript to appear in Bosnian. Meanwhile we publish here an edited text translated from the stimulating contributions made to the seminar by Professor Josip Baotic.

I will speak, as promised, about the place, function and significance of language within the education system, with the aim of answering two questions: 1) does the linguistic situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina demand separate school systems?;
2) can the three literary languages used in Bosnia-Herzegovina - the Bosnian, the Croat and the Serb - function on an equal footing within a single educational system?

Schools divided by language?

It is obvious that language is a key component of any educational system. One need not go back to the distant past, but only to the 19th century when the South Slav national languages still did not have the requisite social status and prestige, to become aware of the terrific effort that was needed to raise each national language functionally and socially to the desired level within the educational system. When speaking of language in Bosnia-Herzegovina, we are immediately confronted with a situation in which each individual speaks, in our contemporary terminology, three standard languages - the Bosnian, the Croat and the Serb. This means that in terms of the basic function of language - i.e. communication - each of these has the ability to serve as a common language throughout the country. In other words, it is a false supposition that education cannot be carried out in any of the three languages in any part of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

A good illustration of what I am saying is the fact that the Catholic School Centre in Sarajevo is attended by children of all three national groups. The fact that the Croat language ÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ is the language of instruction has not prevented Serb and Bosniak parents from sending their children to this school, because of the quality of education they receive there. There is no doubt, moreover, that by the time they finish school all the Serb children will speak the Serb language and all the Bosniaks the Bosnian language - since according to our nomenclature a Serb can speak no other language but Serb, a Bosniak no other language but Bosnian, a Croat no other language but Croat.

Language as National Symbol

So why is the claim so frequently made that each child must have education in his or her mother tongue? This is because the basic function of language as a means of communication has been pushed aside in favour of its symbolic function. The motive behind this, of course, is not linguistic in nature. Other aims are involved here, in particular to alter the content of education. The truth is that no one dares to admit publicly that they wish education to increase the gulf between the three national groups by stressing values that separate them. So they behave surreptitiously, using language as a convenient pretext to introduce separate national curricula. Clearly language itself cannot disintegrate the school system. But discussion of the content of education is absent at all political levels, and the politicians instead concentrate on language.

Language is not a barrier to a common education system for Bosnia-Herzegovina or the other areas in which the language that used to be called Serbo-Croat is spoken. We can discuss linguistic specificities only in relation to standard languages: only standard languages constitute systems with their own components and relations between these.

This means that in Bosnia-Herzegovina only the standard languages can claim individuality and be named as the Bosnian literary language, the Serb literary language or the Croat literary language. It is between these languages that differences exist - and a single difference is enough to separate one from the others. We are in fact speaking here of perhaps 5ü10% of such differences, which is sufficient for them to be treated as different standard systems - different languages with their own norms. But when we move beyond the standard forms towards language as an organic, typological phenomenon, then few linguists indeed could, or would want to, draw a sharp line between Bosnian, Croat and Serb - not just in Bosnia-Herzegovina but more widely. The three nations of Bosnia-Herzegovina, thanks to circumstances, speak three standard languages. But these have developed on the basis of a single dia-system provided by the East Herzegovinian tongues and - despite the efforts made to increase the differences between them - they differ from each other less than each differs from organic idioms present within its own body.

This means that there is no communicative bar to a school using all three languages, or to everyone involved understanding any message that is carried. But instead of the communicative function, it is the symbolic function of language that has become dominant over the past decade. So people often speak today of language in the manner of the 19th century, from Humboldt on, claiming that it is the emanation of a nation's spirit; that nurturing the linguistic code affirms this spirit and indeed deepens national sentiment. This is the second lie current today. If it were the case, I once wrote, then Knin Serbs would be more Croat than Herzegovina Croats, and Vojvodina Croats more Serb than Serbs from Bosnia-Herzegovina - something which we have seen during this war is not true. A linguistic code or self-definition does not serve to deepen national consciousness, but rather legitimizes national identification. In these troublesome times, the fear of not being sufficiently Croat, Bosniak or Serb has opened the door to a norm that is decided not by linguists but by politicians. As an illustration I will mention the case of the Serb language inÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ B-H. The Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina have rejected the very feature that unites all B-H Serbs: their ijekavski speech. Ijekavski is common to all the Serbs of Bosnia-Herzegovina (though not to all Croats or all Bosniaks, since the latter two peoples speak both ijekavski and ikavski), yet in RS they have given it up in favour of ekavski in order to be Serbs. This is sheer absurdity.

Linguistic equality

The second question is whether all three standards can be used on an equal footing throughout the educational system. My answer here, again, is yes. As I have said, in our country each speaker is a polyglot - each speaks three languages. A visiting foreigner [Paul Garde] told us not long ago: 'When I am in Zagreb they tell me I speak excellent Croat, in Belgrade they say I speak excellent Serb, and here in Sarajevo you say I speak excellent Bosnian, yet in each of the three cities I speak the same language. Can you explain to me what are the differences between the three?' 'Yes, of course, if you are a linguist. You have to distinguish between two meanings of language: a language as an organic idiom, as the sum of linguistic data characterizing it; and a standard language, which has a norm. I can tell you immediately that you probably do not speak correctly either the Croat or the Bosnian or the Serb language; but we who listen to you are not bothered by that, because we are simply too delighted that you do know our language. And we shall praise you for speaking it so well. But we shall warn every local interlocutor who uses a word not common in the area that they are speaking Serb or Croat or Bosnian, depending on their national affiliation, and we shall in a certain sense hold it against them.

The basic question underlying the struggle over language, of course, is that of linguistic equality. This is a longstanding topic of discussion in our parts. It is constantly repeated that national equality demands linguistic equality, and that there is nothing strange about each of the three nations wishing to have its own standard language. This is indeed true. I, as a linguist, have nothing against each of the three nations wishing to establish its own standard - especially since I am sure that such standards are not a barrier to communiü cation. Even so, it would be far better if this country could establish a single standard, whose norm need not be that of an ideal standard language but rather one that would not obliterate complexities; one that would allow synonymy and permit each individual to chose from the wealth of synonyms whatever is closest to them and simultaneously, by communicating through this hypothetical common language (a standard language is always an abstraction), fully to feel a member of their nation.

Dangerous road

In my view the road along which we are now going, unless we sit down and adopt a serious literary-language policy, is leading the nations of Bosnia-Herzegovina towards inequality. For if we accept the model of a territorially pluralist polyglotism and see our languages as being as different as the languages of Belgium, for example, then each canton and county in the country will have an asymmetric polyglotism, with one language being primary and the other two secondary. Those speaking the non-dominant language will then have to choose between assimilation and emigration. In other words, the linguistic policy that is now being pushed has as its aim the completion of ethnic cleansing and the creation of ethnically pure territories. And it is not linguists but politicians who make the decisions.

There is a possibility, of course, that all three standard languages could function in parallel across the whole territory as equal literary languages, not in the sense that in each canton or region only one of them is used in the schools, but in the sense that all three are used and respected everywhere. A canton or a school could then say: 'Instruction in this school will be in the Bosnian languageÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ ', but the student would be free to speak Serb or Croat and the teacher would treat the three as parts of the same linguistic system of communication. In that way no language would be placed in an inferior position in any area. I speak strongly on this subject because I believe that language is being systematically used to fragment the eduü cational system in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and that the aim behind this is not to affirm national values but to separate and keep apart the three national groups. No linguist in the world today would resist the tendency of each national corpus to create its own spe cific standard, provided that the idea is to enrich the standard in question. But if the real aim is to insist on differences between individual speaü kers on the same territory, then there is no way we can speak about common existence now or in the future. For the differences will only deepen and lead to completion of the partitionist project that is already under way.

As a linguist I am aware that by further separation and differentiation we shall reduce the communicative value of language, so that in a few years we may well end up with English as a common standard, since that will be the only language through which we shall be able to communicate with each other. Once we have broken up our language in this manner, we shall not easily be able to move about, since our school certificates will be valid only within a very narrow territory and we shall consequently be tied to the place where we live. In one text I wrote, I evoked the Tower of Babel and recalled how Jehovah, when he saw the people building a tower to reach the sky, said: 'We must confound their languages, and otherwise they will become omnipotent.' So he confounded their languages.

Language and nation

Language standards are an aspect of democracy. The more democracy there is, the greater the possibilities for a community to realize one of its basic rights, which is to establish its own linguistic norm. Starting with de Saussure we have learnt, however, that the linguistic sign is arbitrary; that it is impossible to use linguistic criteria to decide that one expression is better than another; and that the values underpinning any standard language no longer hold. The question of which idiom can become, or serve as, a standard language depends on its position or prestige; in other words, it has to do not with linguistic expression, but with the milieu whence the particular idiom derives. This is the essential question: the prestige of the milieu. The milieu that is strongest will impose its idiom, and linguists will then speak of that idiom as being the best, the most correct, etc. - even though the science of linguistics rejects the concept of correct form and argues that every linguistic form is correct, since each can serve in its own way as a medium of communication. The terms 'correct' and 'incorrect' refer only to a standardized idiom.

As a linguist, I wonder how long we shall go on fetishizing standard languages. All nations have a language, of course - Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs have all had a language since their beginnings. The standard forms came later, gradually. Indeed, the Bosnian standard existed before it was named. What we have here in Bosnia-Herzegovina is an attempt to define a nation solely by language, in line with the watchword: 'No language, no nation' - even though, as the historian Srecko Dzaja has argued, our part of the world proves that it is impossible to define a nation exclusively by reference to language. I myself believe that four nationally defined norms are possible (the fourth being Montenegrin, which, given sufficient democracy, will soon emerge as a standard in its own right), because this is what the reality is. The problem lies, however, not in the existence of four standards, but rather in the unnatural multiplication of differences in order to justify the existence of separate standards. But the truth is that Croats in Bosnia-Herzegovina, forÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ example, will never speak in the way that the Croats of Croatia do, because they live with Bosniaks and Serbs - because they are polyglots. So we must fight against the illusion that national identity is a simple function of the sum of differences existing between the standards.

Value what is common

We could begin tomorrow to write a dictionary of the Bosnian language, indeed we should do so, since this is a cultural task of the highest order. But standardization of the Bosnian language is a long and arduous task, demanding a great deal of money. It is doubtful that our society at this moment is capable of such an endeavour. It may be simpler and more natural for us to declare that everything that belongs to the Serb, the Croat or the Montenegrin languages belongs also to the Bosnian language, so that I can tell my students: 'When you see a grammar called "Croat Grammar", simply read this as "Bosnian Grammar", since there are hardly any structural differences.' The only problem is that the differences that do exist, though no greater than 5ü10%, are nevertheless visible: it is enough for us at the Institute to read a text to know whether it is written by a Bosniak, a Croat or a Serb.

So differences do exist, but they should not be mystified. We must insist that our textbooks contain as much as possible of what the languages have in common, so that they can be acceptable to all. I repeat, language is not what may divide us, but what could unite us. After all, standard languages are needed by states, not national groups. They appear not within nations but within states, in order to integrate the members of a given state community. In non-homogeneous national communities, standard languages never achieve a unified physiognomy. This is what helped alter the theoretical approach - the realization that languages need not have a unified physiognomy. Over the past ten years we have been going in the opposite direction and have created languages with unified physiognomies, and now there is no way back. But if it is declared that in one particular area you may say only vlak and not voz, while in another area only voz will do, then what is involved is a misuse of language to segregate a social community. Whether this community of ours will integrate is a question of good will. If that exists, all these problems will be easily solved. But they will not be solved if the aim is to to create ethnically pure territories.

Ivo KomÐic has told us how, when he visited Croat refugees in Munich, the first thing they asked was what language their children would be taught in if they returned to Bosnia. My own answer to such queries would be (as appropriate): 'In the Croat language... in Serb... in Bosnian.' The truth is that these people have no idea what language is. They have simply been frightened with the notion that their children will be taught in, say, a weird Bosnian language that they believe to be imported from Turkey - so they are afraid that their child will become a Muslim. Or a Serb. Or a Croat. Hence the resistance. And this reminds me of a story that takes place in a village in northern Bosnia, where the locals get down to discussing writers. They argue about whether the Latin or the Cyrillic script is better. Seven of them spend some time in hot dispute and in the end, unable to resolve the issue, they divide into two groups and a punch-up ensues. When they are taken before a magistrate, it turns out that five of the seven cannot even sign their own names. That is the language problem in our country: the 90% who argue about its languages know nothing of the subject, but merely fear the names associated with them.

Language studies

The greatest danger for Bosnia-Herzegovina lies in homogenization on an ethnic basis. I have defended here my view that language is not a barrier to Bosnia- Herzegovina having a common educational system. And I have argued in that context that every citizen of Bosnia- Herzegovina is a polygloÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ t, since he or she speaks three languages: Serb, Croat and Bosnian. I have said nothing, however, about language as a subject of study. Here, however, it is possible for a common 90% to be taught to all, while the remaining 10%, say - the part that deals with language culture at a higher level, with lexical units and small differences in grammar - could be taught as a supplement. Even before the war, we used to ask our students to overcome terminological differences deriving from the polymorphic structure of the language, and there is no reason why in each year some five or six grammatical specificities characterizing each of the three standards could not be learnt. Coexistence of linguistic norms is characteristic for our society: if we separate on an ethnic basis, then we may live next to each other but there will not be enough cohesive elements to permit us to survive as a community without an external force majeure.

If we continue along this road we shall find that the Croat, Bosniak and Serb minorities will be in continuous danger of not being able to master the appropriate norm and culture, because of the environment in which they live. Let us suppose five hours at schools that are nationally and linguistically separate, plus time spent at home; but at all other times there is the outside world where another language is spoken. We linguists know that the best one can hope for is that the children will be bi-lingual. At home and at school they will speak Serb, Bosniak or Croat, but when they walk the streets they will speak the language of their surroundings. If we decide to be tolerant, then there is no barrier to communication at the level of linguistic culture. If not, then the atmosphere of intolerance will make common life impossible.

The choice before us

The key question is whether we want to have common educational institutions. If we do not, we shall find hundreds of reasons not to have them. If we do, then we must seek mechanisms that will make such institutions possible. Language can be an integrative factor and Bosnia-Herzegovina can be a collective whole in the consciousness of its citizens only if it has an integrated school system. The state must have a comprehensive education system. This must be based on what is common and will not irritate any of the three national groups. We at the Philosophical Faculty have decided that the former 'Serbo-Croat Studies' should not be broken up into three courses - Bosnian, Croat and Serb respectively - but that it should be kept as a single unit. Within this students can graduate as teachers of the Bosnian, the Serb or the Croat language, but also in combinations: as teachers of Bosnian and Croat, Croat and Serb, or Serb and Bosnian. When we drew up the syllabuses, it turned out that there was only one subject - the norm and culture of the three national languages - that had to be studied separately. Old Slavonic, though, cannot be taught differently in the three languages; nor can phonetics or phonology. The whole course could naturally have been broken up into three separately taught options with three departments. But this would nurture a sentiment of separateness, of not belonging to a common state or being of Bosnia Herzegovina as the homeland of all three peoples.

These are serious questions. Our problem is that meetings like these involve like-minded people, but we need to meet with those who think otherwise and argue with them. The trouble is that such encounters are avoided: the parties in power have no arguments and they do not wish to listen to experts.

Professor Baotic heads the Language Department in the Philosophy Faculty of the University of Sarajevo.

This text represents an edited version of his interventions at the seminar.


   Table of contents

  Latest issue



  Support the Institute


home | about us | publications | events | news | Library | contact | bosnia | search | bosnia report | credits