Declaration on the Common Language by Saša Ilić

Zagreb – Sarajevo – Podgorica – Belgrade

So far, thousands of citizens across the territory of the former Yugoslavia have signed the Declaration on the Common Language. This Declaration ruffled a few feathers in all former Yugoslav republics, being perceived almost as a “coup”. For political elites the Declaration was a hostile gesture, for nationalists a terrible news that needs to be silenced, and for everyone else an enlightening truth on the state of the linguistic affairs in the post-Yugoslav societies, since the disintegration of the SFRY in the 1990s. The reason why this document has upset so many could be found in its very first sentence, which reads: “The question – Is the same language in use in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Croatia and Serbia? – has an affirmative answer”.

One could argue that, observing from a distance, this is a logical and simple answer, but when this is observed through the lenses of the 1990s wars and the regional political crises – compounded with tensions visible on all levels – one could understand why it took so long for this “logical statement” to be declared. Simply, it is not easy to utter this sentence after all that has happened in Yugoslavia and to its citizens during the 1990s. The political elites, more than anyone else, insist on those traumatic events, since they have based all their political existence on “differences” between languages, culture, even the civilizational roots that supposedly exist between the ethnic groups which fought each other in the 1990s wars. The confirmation that the common language – which used to be called Serbo-Croatian or Croato-Serbian (nowadays we have Croatian, Serbian, Bosnian and Montenegrin) – is something that nevertheless remained of that detested Yugoslavia, despite all that happened there, is very difficult for some to accept, while for some others this is totally  unacceptable.

Croatian academic and linguist Snježana Kordić’s seminal work Language and Nationalism (Durieux, 2010) was the foundation for the text of the Declaration. The Declaration was drafted after four regional conferences, held in Podgorica, Split, Sarajevo and Belgrade during 2016. The participants included, beside Kordić, many intellectuals, linguists and authors, among which are Prof. Ranko Bugarski (Serbia), Bojan Glavašević (Croatia), Prof. Mate Kapović (Croatia), Prof. Hanka Vajzović (Bosnia), Prof. Rajka Glušica (Montenegro), Prof. Enver Kazaz (Bosnia) and many others.

Declaration on the Common Language comprises three parts: the first part is factual, where the common language is described as a polycentric language (as German, English, Arabic, French, Portuguese, Spanish, etc. are defined) with four standardised variants, with emphasis being placed on the fact that no change of the current names is required. The second part covers the list of freedoms which are  associated with the use of the common language, based on a fact that people already use this language across the region. Namely, people can call it as they like, they can codify it, but the regional differences and two alphabets in use remain perceived as the common language’s richness. In the third part, the signatories of the Declaration call for an end of language segregation and discrimination in public institutions. They also call for repressive measures and rigid laws regarding language standardisation to be abolished (as they lead to treating language variants as separate languages). Finally, they push for absolute freedom of dialectal and regional useage, as well as for freedom of expression using those regional variants.

Such a libertine declaration in the countries of the former Yugoslavia is unprecedented, as it calls for the suspension of violence and celebration of the common heritage, the very last thing remaining after the brutal destruction of the common country – namely, that of the common language.

Before being published in Sarajevo on 30th March 2017, the Declaration was signed by 200 academics, researchers, cultural workers, artists, authors and activists. The Declaration was signed in Sarajevo for a reason. Namely, the levels of language segregation in schools in the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina are alarming. The fact that translations between Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian are still compulsory in administration is equal to absurdity.

However, even before the Declaration was published the negative responses started to pour in. The most vicious attacks came from Zagreb and Belgrade. Both the Croatian Prime Minister and the President commented on the Declaration as something “that should not be discussed, given that Croatian language is defined by the Constitution of Republic of Croatia, being one of the official languages of the EU.” Kolinda Grabar Kitarović, the Croatian President, went a step further declaring that “the common language had died together with the Socialist Yugoslavia.” What followed were series of attacks by various language specialists and political analysts from both Zagreb and Belgrade. Refusing to even read the Declaration in the first place, they vilified the signatories from their own countries, accusing them of treason. The media was brimming with the deliberately distorted text of the Declaration, persisting on the old propaganda about the lack of mutual understanding and massive differences between the ethnic groups and cultures in the former Yugoslavia that are impossible to bridge.

The prominent linguist Snježana Kordić warns that the problem lies in the school curriculum and educational system which is framed by the ideology of nationalism: “In such a system the purpose of the education is purely political – to subjugate the will of the young people to the will of the nation. The schools are the tools of the state political agenda, just like the Army, Police or the Budget.” For such systems of education and politics, this Declaration on the Common Language presents a counterpoint and possibly, in the future, a significant platform for the necessary changes that are overdue in this region.

By Saša Ilić

Translated by Svetlana Rakocevic


This blog was originally published on ELit Literature House Europe website on 12 June 2017.

Category: ELit Literature House Europe Observatory


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