Southwestern-Slavic language question

This is a part of Standpoints (Marko Pinteric) site.

This is a simplified historical account of the most important events in formation of South-Slavic languages and nations.


It is often overlooked that language issue in the southwestern Slavic space (roughly area of present Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro) is not merely a linguistic but rather a socio-linguistic issue. Namely, nations of the continental Europe have formed under the influence of the so-called romantic nationalism, according to which ethnicity is defined as a group of people sharing common language, culture and customs. Therefore, language is seen as perhaps the most important attribute of nations' self determination. The importance of the language can be realized by noting that the linguists like Karadzic and Gaj or writers like Preseren were proclaimed to be the fathers of the nation. This is in striking contrast with some other European nations where statesmen like von Bismarck or commanders like Garibaldi were entitled to this grand title.

However, equally important and even more neglected issue concerns the history of western branch of South-Slavic languages. During last 200 years since the first modern standardization attempts, South-Slavic languages went through turbulent development, often converging and diverging among themselves, sometimes voluntarily and sometimes due to external pressure. This, along with the uneven political environment in their formative years paved the path to future linguistic and ethnic tensions. At the end of the 18th and at the beginning of the 19th century, when sovereignty shifted from the monarch to the population, it became clear that inhabitants in area between Adriatic sea and Drava river do not linguistically fit into any of neighboring ethnicity. Competing centers of new Slavic national awareness became the capital of Turkish province of Serbia - Belgrade, the capital of Austrian Kingdom of Croatia and Slavonia (Croatian proper) - Zagreb and the capital of Austrian Duchy of Carniola - Ljubljana. Very soon a dispute arose about the extension and the name of the new Slavic nation(s).

Dialect classifications and opposing language concepts

Dialect map

The whole Slav-populated area was characterized on one hand by the existence of the dialect continuum - gradual geographic transition of spoken language, and on the other hand by several dialect exclaves, which were the result of population resettlements due to Ottoman occupation of Balkan peninsula. Nevertheless, these dialects were successfully classified according to several criteria: most notably according to the variance of the word "what" to Kajkavian, Stokavian and Cakavian, or by the variance of the consonant 'jat' to Ekavian, Ijekavian and Ikavian dialects. According to the former, "what" word classification, the most spread dialect was stokavian dialect, prevailing in the east, south and center of the region, the second largest was kajkavian, prevailing in the north of the region, while cakavian was spoken in coastal area and in Istria. The latter "jat" classification on the other hand led to quintessential different dialect borders, which obviously diminish the adequacy of both classifications. To make situation even worse, either of these classifications failed to evade dialect exclaves.

Facing the absence of clear and definitive dialect classifications to break dialect continuum and dialect exclaves, linguist from Croatian proper Ljudevit Gaj proposed formation of one Slavic nation speaking one Slavic language, taking the name of province Illyricum, which territory roughly corresponded with the Slav-populated areas, as a national name. His Illyrian movement promoted full dialect equality, proposing the largest, stokavian dialect as a language standard. This way he actually sacrificed kajkavian, his native dialect and the dialect of Zagreb region where he lived, for a greater unification cause. However, his ideas were opposed by linguist from Carniola Jernej Kopitar and his counterpart from Serbia Vuk Karadzic. They instead proposed formation of three, exclusively kajkavian, cakavian and stokavian languages. National movement based in Carniolan capital of Ljubljana quickly embraced that idea. In order to attract kajkavian speakers outside Carniola it changed its original, Carniolan, name to the variant of Slavic name, Slovenian. Concomitantly, national movement in Serbia aimed to unite all stokavian speakers under Serbian name.

Gaj therefore found himself sandwiched between the exclusive stokavian movement on the east and exclusive kajkavian on the west. This situation was particularly frustrating since the population of his Croatian proper spoke all three dialects. Consequently, when Austrian authorities banned Illyrian name fearing the common national front of all south Slavs, he gave up the idea of single language. He renamed his movement after kingdom of Croatia, which at its peak during Middle Ages covered the most of the central Slavic area. However, the concept of the single language with three equal dialects and one Stokavian-based standard remained the same.

Factual language partition

Historically speaking neither of two opposing language concepts prevailed over the other, but Gaj succeeded in the attempt to preserve the cohesion of the population in Croatian proper. His concept was embraced not only by all Cakavian speakers, pushed away by Slovenian and Serbian national movements, but also by the majority of Kajkavian and Stokavian speakers in Croatian proper and Dalmatia. Since speakers of Croatian language came from all three dialects, the borders between new Slovenian, Croatian and Serbian languages (and consequently nations) could not be formed according to the dialect borders. Religious and administrative borders soon proved to be the key of these partition.

Since religious institutions were the most powerful institutions independent of the Austro-Hungarian state, they became the most powerful proponents of new national ideas. Due to the fact that most stokavian inhabitants of Serbian province were Orthodox and most stokavian inhabitants of Croatian proper Catholic, the language and national boundary was soon forged on religious affiliation. Religious split also cemented writing split, as Catholic church promoted Latin script and Orthodox church Cyrillic script. This religious exclusivism eventually led to formation yet another, Bosniak nation, as stokavian speakers of Muslim religion failed to identify with any of two opposing Christian ethnicities. Furthermore, the population speaking practically the same dialect and living in the same compact geographical unit was often parted into three different nations. This way an explosive national mixture was formed, which would during the wars of the 20th century led to tragic consequences.

On the other hand, since all Kajkavian speakers were Catholics, partition between Slovenian and Croatian language was somewhat more complex. The split generally followed administrative borders within Austrian empire, so that Kajkavian speakers of Croatian proper became Croats and Kajkavian speakers of Duchy of Carniola, Duchy of Styria, County of Gorizia and Gradisca and Duchy of Carinthia became Slovenes (including a few Stokavian speakers in Carniola). A notable exception was Margravate of Istria, where Cakavian speakers on the south opted for Croatian and Kajkavian speakers on the north for Slovenian movement. In fact, the border on river Dragonja that splits Istria between Slovenes and Croats is the only national border that was established according to Kopitar-Karadzic idea of dialect borders.

In the beginning of the 19th century, the ideas of Kopitar and Karadzic on one hand or Gaj on the other were merely competing academic concepts on the ethnic description of the southwestern Slavic space. However, after the national borders were already firmly established by the middle of the 19th century, their ideas became merely a tool of political manipulations. The most prominent example is the concept of Greater Serbia that misused Karadzic's concept that all Stokavian speakers should belong to one ethnicity long after this idea became long obsolete.

Later developments

The second half of the 19th century and the 20th century did not see any fundamental changes to established language status-quo between three main nations and languages. Since their standardization, Slovenian, Croatian and Serbian languages followed independent paths. There were continuous attempts to bring all three languages closer together. Initially, those attempts were voluntary, inspired by the new-established Yugoslav movement, aimed at closer cooperation or even uniting between South-Slavic nations. This attempts contributed to establishment of Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes and later Kingdom of Yugoslavia. From that moment on language merger became state policy, which was very unpopular, as it was often viewed as a method of oppressive subjugation of all other Slavic nations by the dominant Serbian nation.

The counterstrike was forceful particularization of Croatian language during the second world war. During that period many Croatian-specific expressions, slowly vanishing during preceding decades, were promoted. This process was again reversed in post-war Yugoslavia. Initially, Slovenian, Croatian and Serbian languages were acknowledged as separate languages. However in 1954, under sponsorship of the communist establishment, so-called Novi Sad Agreement merged Croatian and Serbian into one language with two equal pronunciations and scripts. Interestingly, two institutions, one Serbian and one Croat, were charged for the standardization. The decision was often disputed and opposed, especially in Croatia, where many claimed that Serbian component prevailed over Croatian one. Nevertheless, since the new Serbo-Croatian language standard was maintained by two institutions, Serbian and Croat language de facto kept developing independently, at least to some extend. After the break-up of Yugoslavia the project of language merger was finally dropped and Croatian and Serbian languages reappeared as two separate languages.

Postwar Yugoslavia also promoted emancipation of Muslim Bosniaks and re-emancipation of Montenegrins as separate nations. After break-up of Yugoslavia, following the agenda of romantic nationalism, Bosniak language was established and Montenegrin language was re-established as independent languages.


To conclude, the issue of the closeness between the Croatian and Serbian language that persist for last 100 years is primarily the consequence of the fact that Gaj and Karadzic took very close dialects for the language standards of Croatian and Serbian. Had Gaj used his native kajkavian dialect as a standard, the issue of similarity would exist between Croatian and Slovenian language instead. Moreover, in time of language standardization about 200 years ago Croatian language was much closer to Slovenian and much farther from Serbian than today.

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