Language Politics in BosniaTwo decades after Yugoslav collapse, Bosnia’s residents disagree on whether they speak one language or three.By Selma Boračić, Ajdin Kamber - International Justice - ICTY, TRI Issue 721, 5 Dec11When Yugoslavia dissolved in a series of bloody conflicts 20 years ago, little did Bosnians realise that not only would their country never be the same again, but that the common language they once shared would formally disappear.From 1918 until 1991, the language used in Bosnia, as well as in Serbia, Croatiaand Montenegro, was officially known as Serbo-Croatian. It served as the official language of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, and later of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. In the latter state, the same language with minor variantswas called Croato-Serbian in Croatia, but considered part of one unified tongue.When war broke out in Croatia in 1991, the new independent state defined its language as Croatian rather than the shared Serbo-Croatian. Similarly, the officiallanguage of Serbia was termed Serbian. Other former Yugoslav republics, including Bosnia, abandoned the formula “Serbo-Croatian”, too.In Bosnia and Hercegovina, however, instead of an agreed common variant, Serbo-Croatian became three official languages instead – Bosnian, used mainly by BosnianMuslims or Bosniaks, Croatian, used by Bosnian Croats, and Serbian for the Bosnian Serbs.Some linguists in Bosnia claim the division is artificial, and that the languageused all over their country should be called Bosnian, given that the three languages now in use are really different formalised standards of the same dialect,and are mutually intelligible. Others, by contrast, claim that a common Bosnianlanguage per se does not exist, so the Bosniaks should call their language Bosniak (rather than Bosnian) in order to avoid confusion with other cultural identities.Thus, the debate is around the use of “Bosnian” for one ethnic group or for all, andwhether in the former sense it should be replaced by the ethno-specific “Bosniak” – and all the wider political subtexts implied by these usages.LANGUAGE AS PART OF POLITICAL IDENTITYMany experts agree that the introduction of three separate languages instead ofa common linguistic standard in Bosnia following the 1992-95 war has served theinterests of political elites that wish to underline differences rather than commonalities among the three constituent ethnic groups. In their view, language policy is just another tool for deepening the divisions in an already partitionedcountry.During the Austro-Hungarian occupation of Bosnia and Hercegovina, BiH, from 1878until 1918, Bosnian was introduced as the sole official language there. It wasused by all Bosnians – Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats.This was a result of Austro-Hungarian statesman Benjamin von Kallay
s policy ofgiving Bosnia
s people “a sense that they belong to a great and powerful nation”. The terms of the policy were that all Bosnians spoke the same language although they were divided into three equal faith groups – Orthodox, Catholic and Muslim.