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Review of  Language Discourse and Borders in the Yugoslav Successor States

Reviewer: Donald Reindl
Book Title: Language Discourse and Borders in the Yugoslav Successor States
Book Author: Helen Kelly-Holmes Brigitta Busch
Publisher: Multilingual Matters
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 16.225

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Date: Mon, 24 Jan 2005 07:51:41 +0100
From: Donald F. Reindl
Subject: Language, Discourse and Borders in the Yugoslav Successor States

EDITORS: Kelly-Holmes, Helen; Busch, Brigitta
TITLE: Language, Discourse and Borders in the Yugoslav Successor States
PUBLISHER: Multilingual Matters
YEAR: 2004

Donald F. Reindl, Department of Translation, Faculty of Arts, University
of Ljubljana, Slovenia


Language, Discourse and Borders in the Yugoslav Successor States is a
collection of four essays by scholars of language and identity, followed
by a ''debate'' among the authors plus additional scholars, and concluding
with three response papers. The volume is the result of a roundtable
discussion entitled ''Language, Discourse and Borders'' held at the
University of Vienna's Institute of Linguistics on 29 September 2002 and
hosted by the Centre for Intercultural Studies, based at the University of
Klagenfurt, Austria.

Brigitta Busch (University of Vienna) and Helen Kelly-Holmes (University
of Limerick) introduce the collection by addressing broad theoretical
concepts such as the centrality of the nation state and the constructs
that underlie state borders, language boundaries, and speech communities.
Special attention is turned to the role of the media in affirming language
boundaries as a linguistic resource, in the implementation of language
policy, and as a metalinguistic forum. The authors then focus on the case
of Serbo-Croatian in the former Yugoslavia and its ongoing differentiation
since the 1990s into Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, and Montenegrin.

Dubravko Skiljan (Institutum Studiorum Humanitas, Ljubljana) uses the
analogy of a train journey from Belgrade to Munich (and intermediate
points) to illustrate how perceptions of dialect continua, linguistically
mixed areas, and contact between non mutually-intelligible languages vary
depending on the perspective of the observer. He clarifies theoretical
issues such as the nation-state, linguistic communities, and the
territories claimed by those communities by illustrating them with
concrete linguistic examples from the former Yugoslavia and beyond.

The article by Ranko Bugarski (University of Belgrade) is a sober look at
the former Serbo-Croatian, proceeding from the notion that both ethnicity
and nationalism are artificial constructs (21). He debunks the idea that
Serbo-Croatian was ever truly unified, despite political agreements or
proclamations to the contrary --from the Vienna Agreement of 1850 to the
Novi Sad Agreement of 1954 -- and concludes that the breakup of the
language in the 1990s clearly had historical roots (28). In particular, he
examines how the rhetoric of politics can feed conflict, which in turn can
foster overt language differentiation when language is subverted as an
agent (and becomes a casualty) of war (30).

Dona Kolar-Panov (Ss. Cyril and Methodius University, Skopje) provides a
detailed picture of language policy in Macedonia as realized through
broadcasting. In addition to Macedonian, the country's official media
broadcast in Albanian, Turkish, Roma, Aromanian (Vlach), and Serbian. At
the same time, unlicensed broadcasting has contributed to media chaos in
Macedonia. Although the licensed broadcasts are officially intended to
promote a diverse and multicultural identity, in some cases a linguistic
ghetto effect has been created instead. Kolar-Panov contrasts the
integrative approach of Roma television, which broadcasts in both Roma and
Macedonian, and includes Macedonian subtitling, with the separatist
approach of Albanian-language broadcasting, which is linguistically and
culturally exclusive and has created a parallel independent media.
Ultimately, she argues, media exclusivity breeds animosity, whereas
inclusiveness fosters tolerance (47).

The debate in the middle of the volume amplifies some of the ideas raised
in the papers, including the implications of naming languages and the
dictionaries of those languages as reification of political programs.
Bugarski points out that one should take care not to confuse language
policies with linguistics, because linguists are rarely instrumental in
establishing such policies.

Tatiana Zhurzhenko's (Kharkiv National University) response profiles the
linguistic situation in Ukraine, which has a number of parallels with the
territory on which the former Serbo-Croatian is spoken, including marked
religious, cultural, historical, and dialect differences. Although
Zhurzhenko states that Ukraine presents an ethnically simpler picture than
the Balkans, she oversimplifies the situation herself -- for example, by
referring to Rusyn groups (e.g., Lemkos and Bojkos, 68) as ethnic
Ukrainians. Her observation that today's territorially ''United Ukraine'' is
a legacy of nation building and language cultivation during the Soviet era
(69) is paralleled by similar observations regarding Slovenia (e.g., Gow &
Carmichael 2000: 60) and Macedonia in the Yugoslav context.

Marija Mitrovic's (University of Trieste) brief contribution is a response
to Bugarski's article. It is mostly a personal reflection on her own
multilingual experience in the former Yugoslavia. While rightly pointing
out that bilingualism was the norm for many in Yugoslavia, she paints an
overly ideal picture of the country with statements such as ''When you came
to Slovenia, you were simply expected to speak in that language'' or that
no translation was needed between ''Slovak, or Slovenian, or Kajkavian
Croatian'' (76). In practice, Serbian and Croatian speakers often lived in
Slovenia for decades without learning the language -- and the diversity of
Slovenian is so great that some dialects are not mutually intelligible,
let alone understood by Slovaks or Croats.

Melitta Richter Malabotta (University of Trieste) concludes the volume
with a response examining the semantics of war in former Yugoslavia. Like
Mitrovic, she paints an overly multicultural picture: ''In former
Yugoslavia ... the majority of people were used to being bialphabetical,
that is, able to read and write both Latin and Cyrillic characters'' (78).
While it is true that Serbian and Macedonian speakers generally read the
Latin alphabet without difficulty, the converse was not true -- after
relatively brief exposure in the classroom, Slovenians and Croatians
generally maintained little or no proficiency in reading Cyrillic. Her
assertion that ''everything that represented the texture of union ... is
destroyed and considered definitely past'' (82) is also an
overgeneralization. In recent years there has been a noticeable resurgence
of ''Yugonostalgia'' (cultural rather than political) in Slovenia and
Croatia, spawning publications such as a recent lexicon on the topic
(e.g., Matic et al. 2004) and increasing Slovenian attendance at Serbian
folk festivals (Staudohar 2004). Nonetheless, her commentary on the
artificiality with which Croatian is being differentiated from Serbian is
accurate and concise.


One shortcoming of the collection is that its contents do not entirely
correspond to the title of the volume. Among the languages of Yugoslavia,
the essays generally focus on the former Serbo-Croatian, aside from the
contribution by Kolar-Panov on Macedonian and Albanian. Slovenian is only
mentioned in passing on a few occasions. This omission of what was an
official language of Yugoslavia is a lost opportunity, because the
sociolinguistic situation in Slovenia today offers ample material matching
the issues raised concerning the other languages, including broadcasting
rights, purism, and protectionist legislation (e.g., Reindl 2002a, 2002b,
2003). In addition, much could have been said about small minority
languages in the former Yugoslavia, such as the Ruthenian of Serbia's
Vojvodina region or the Aromanian of Macedonia. At the same time, the
inclusion of Zhurzhenko's article on Ukrainian is incongruous in the face
of such omissions. The linguistic situation in Ukraine is certainly
interesting, and one may draw some parallels between language conflict in
Ukraine and the former Yugoslavia. However, from a geographical
perspective it would have been more appropriate to include a study of
language in neighboring Albania, Greece, or Bulgaria because of the
linguistic overlaps between the territories of these states and the former

Despite its diversity, the volume is tied together by a number of common
themes, such as the notion of ''soft'' and ''hard'' borders (e.g., dialect
continua or typological dissimilarities), elaborated in Skiljan (15-16).
Another common theme is the relative linguistic inertness of Serbian as a
successor to Serbo-Croatian, while proponents of Croatian, Bosnian, and
Montenegrin as independent languages (with decreasing success) have been
forced to differentiate these linguistic systems from the former shared
norm. At the same time, intriguing individual observations are raised,
such as fluid ethnicity crystallizing into hard nationalism through the
catalyst of conflict (34) and popular perceptions of bilingualism as
contamination or victimization (71).

Linguists that are unfamiliar with the history of the South Slavic
languages and peoples will welcome Bugarski's concise explanation of the
major linguistic divisions of the former Serbo-Croatian as well as the
different religions and scripts of its speakers (23-24). These basic fault
lines are so important for understanding the conflicts discussed
throughout the volume that the editors could have placed the information
in some sort of preface to the collection. Without it, the passing
references to cakavian and stokavian (16), or ekavian and jekavian (79),
would be meaningless to the majority of readers.

Because of the relation between legislation and language use -- be it in
public institutions or the media -- politics is an essential topic when
examining language policy. In general, the contributors to the volume
focus on politics and policy decisions that are relevant to the topic at
hand; for example, Kolar-Panov's cogent discussion of broadcasting
legislation in Macedonia and its effect on the ratios of Macedonian-,
Albanian-, and Roma-language material on television. Unfortunately,
Malabotta uses the conclusion of her essay to rage against Nazism, Tony
Blair, NATO, and US military action in Afghanistan. Not only is the misuse
of a linguistics publication as a soapbox for one's personal views
inappropriate, but it also provides a disagreeable conclusion to an
otherwise interesting collection.


Gow, James; & Cathy Carmichael (2000) Slovenia and the Slovenes. A Small
State and the New Europe. London: Hurst & Company.

Matic, Djordje, Iris Adric, & Vladimir Arsenijevic (2004) Leksikon YU
mitologije [Lexicon of Yugoslav Mythology]. Zagreb/Belgrade:

Reindl, Donald F. (2002a) Academy Adopts Language Declaration. In RFE/RL
Balkan Report 6(16), available at

Reindl, Donald F. (2002b) Slovenian: Alive and Well. In RFE/RL Balkan
Report 6(36), available at

Reindl, Donald F. (2003) Struggle for Slovenian Radio in Austria. In
RFE/RL Newsline 7(30), available at

Staudohar, Irena (2004) Med nostalgijo in zabavo [Between Nostalgia and a
Party]. In Zurnal, 26 November 2004, pp. 1, 4.

Donald F. Reindl has a Ph.D. in Slavic linguistics from Indiana
University. His research focuses on the history of the South Slavic
languages. As an instructor at the University of Ljubljana, he teaches
courses in translation and English grammar. He also contributes political
analyses to Radio Free Europe and the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 1853597325
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: 96
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