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The language debates: preparing for the war

in Yugoslavia, 19801991

Sociolinguists and other social scientists often play an inuential role in
determining the symbolic value of language and in shaping public attitudes
toward language. In the decade prior to the civil wars in Yugoslavia, social
scientists were prominent in the public discussion of nationalism, national
identity, state formation, and political options for the future such as
confederation and dissolution. Linguists were especially inuential in public
debates in Slovenia and Serbia. In Slovenia, independence was a major
theme of linguistic analysis, with linguists arguing in both scholarly and
popular publications that independence from Yugoslavia most eectively
protected the Slovene language. In Serbia, Serb nationalists argued in the
Memorandum of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts that crucial
sociolinguistic and ethnocultural issues divided Serbs from other nationalities in Yugoslavia. In examining the deep personal involvement of linguists
and other social scientists in the politics of dissolution in Yugoslavia, this
article argues that the technical work of social scientists often has broad
sociopolitical aims that must be critically examined.

Many language-policy specialists who adopt a language-rights perspective
(Ru z 1988; also see Kontra et al. 1999) argue persuasively that mothertongue education is often a crucial component of eective educational
programs for linguistic minorities and broader social policies designed
to reduce economic and political inequalities based on language (for
example, see Phillipson 1992; Skutnabb-Kangas 1984; Skutnabb-Kangas
and Phillipson 1989; Tollefson 1991). Moreover, when language rights
are protected by national language policies, such as in Australia during
the 1980s and in post-apartheid South Africa, mother-tongue promotion
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Intl. J. Soc. Lang. 154 (2002), pp. 6582

66 J.W. Tollefson
is often central to those policies (see Kamwangamalu 1997, on South
Africa; Lo Bianco 1987, on Australia; also see Skutnabb-Kangas and
Phillipson 1994; Skutnabb-Kangas 2000). Yet as research on language
policy in apartheid South Africa has shown, mother-tongue education
and use can at times be part of a broad strategy for maintaining the
linguistic advantages of dominant groups (Cluver 1992). Thus it is widely
acknowledged that sociolinguists should be cautious about generalizations regarding the impact of mother-tongue promotion policies. In
some instances, such policies are part of social and political agendas that
have little to do with human rights and instead are central to struggles
for political power.
This article will examine Yugoslavia, where, before its recent dissolution, advocates of mother-tongue use in broad areas of social life
eectively used public sympathy for mother-tongue promotion as part
of larger political strategies. Particularly interesting is the role of linguists
in the public debates about nationalism, national identity, and state
formation in the years immediately preceding the wars in Yugoslavia.
What were the broader social and political aims of proposals for mothertongue promotion? How were technical linguistic arguments about
language planning linked with the deepening political conict? Through
examining the discussion of mother-tongue policies advocated by leading linguists in Slovenia, where the wars began in June, 1991, and in
Serbia, the center of Serb nationalism, we will see that the debate over
mother-tongue policies was shaped by broader social and political
agendas. The article ends with an analysis of the importance of the
language debates in Yugoslavia for central issues in sociolinguistics and
language-policy studies.

Background to the debates

The mother-tongue debates in Yugoslavia during the period 19801991
were a reaction to language policies of the Tito period, 19451980,
adopted to deal with Yugoslavias signicant ethnolinguistic diversity.
Following its creation by the Treaty of Versailles in 1918, Yugoslavia had
no majority ethnolinguistic group. Serbs were the largest group, making
up about 40 percent of the population, while Croatians comprised about
20 percent, and Macedonians and Slovenes less than 10 percent each.
Fifteen other nationalities made up the rest of the population; see Table 1.
These groups have important historical and cultural dierences.
Slovenes and Croats live in regions that were part of the AustroHungarian empire, while much of Serbia, Bosnia, and other regions in the







Sources: Zvezni zavod za statistiko (1988); also see Tollefson (1981).



Table 1. Population of Yugoslavia, 1980 (in thousands)








Preparing for the war in Yugoslavia 67

68 J.W. Tollefson
south were under Turkish rule. The northern populations of Slovenes and
Croats are largely Roman Catholic, while Serbs are mainly Orthodox, and
nearly two million Moslems (an ethnic category in former Yugoslavia)
inhabited Bosnia in the 1980s. Linguistically, Serbian and Croatian are
largely mutually intelligible, but lexical and grammatical dierences
clearly mark regional dierences (see De Bray 1951/1963/1969; Magner
1972). Croatian and Slovene are written in the Latin script, while Serbian
is written in Cyrillic. Slovenes, Macedonians, Albanians, and Hungarians,
as well as smaller ethnic groups such as the Italians in Slovenia and
Croatia, speak distinct languages.
Except for a brief period of Stalinist state centralism immediately after
the Second World War, Yugoslavia under President Josip Broz Tito
(19451980) generally developed an increasingly decentralized system of
state authority. Within the decentralized system, constitutional changes
beginning in 1953 institutionalized the principle of duality of state loyalty
and national (ethnolinguistic) loyalty. The principle of state loyalty was
concerned with the maintenance of a unied political state (Yugoslavia),
while national loyalty concerned maintenance of the major languages and
cultures. State loyalty was linked with discourses of economic development, national unity in the face of the external (Soviet) threat, and
democratic centralism. Under democratic centralism, the major nationalities were proportionately represented in state bodies. That is, it was
not individuals who participated democratically, but rather the nationalities. Thus identication with ones nationality was essential for eective
political participation. Loyalty to nationality was linked with linguistic
and cultural rights and was a central component in Titos strategy
to ensure that the diverse population remained committed to a united
Yugoslavia (Denitch 1996; Glenny 1992). (From the 1970s, ocial
terminology did not include minority, which was considered to denote
inferior social status [Joncic 1974].)
In language policy, pluralism became the dominant approach to
managing language conict, beginning with the constitutional changes
in 1953 and lasting until Titos death in 1980 (see Tollefson 1981, 1997).
The major language-policy concerns were language in education, in
the courts and other state agencies, and in a range of semiocial areas
of language use including publishing, radio, television, lm, and cultural institutions such as theater groups. The Titoist ideology of language and nationality, and its associated public discourse, entailed
powerful legal protections for language, with detailed policies at the
federal, republic, and local (communal) levels designed to guarantee
language maintenance and use for a wide variety of languages,
including Serbian, Croatian, Macedonian, Slovene, Hungarian, and

Preparing for the war in Yugoslavia 69

Albanian. Pluralism became fully institutionalized with the constitution
of 1974, which largely moved power to the republics and their associated
Yet the system of language rights did not apply equally to all groups.
Constitutional guarantees of ethnolinguistic rights distinguished between
two categories of ethnolinguistic groups (Sentic and Breznik 1968). The
nations (narod) consisted of six groups that were granted special status
in each of the six republics, namely Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Macedonians,
Montenegrins, and Moslems. (Until the 1980s, ocial terminology designated Moslem as an ethnolinguistic rather than religious category;
more recently, in English usage, the term Bosnian refers to Moslems
living in the republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina.) The nationalities
(narodnost) included national minorities that were guaranteed ethnolinguistic rights only in designated local areas (communes) where they
often formed a majority (e.g. the Italian bilingual communes in Slovenia
near the Italian border). Two nationalities held special, intermediate
status: Hungarians and Albanians in Serbia living in the semiautonomous provinces of Vojvodina and Kosovo, respectively. Although the
decentralized system of decision making meant that Hungarians and
Albanians held key policy-making posts in Vojvodina and Kosovo, the
provinces remained ultimately subject to Serbian parliamentary decisions.
Thus many Hungarians and especially Albanians sought republic status
for their semiautonomous provinces. Events in the 1980s and 1990s
conrmed the control of Serb authorities over Vojvodina and Kosovo,
as their semiautonomous status was rescinded.
Thus ethnolinguistic rights were tied to territory for the nations,
which enjoyed full rights within their republics, and for the nationalities, which exercised full rights within the two semiautonomous
provinces and specied communes (Pleterski 1968). Despite the implicit
inequities of this multilevel politicoadministrative system, the decentralized system of pluralism worked reasonably well in managing
language conict. In the 1980s, however, Titos death (in 1980), a
severe economic recession, and the post-Tito federal system in which the
presidency rotated each year to a dierent republic meant that it
became increasingly dicult to reach agreements at the federal level.
Indeed, some critics (e.g. Wachtel 1998) have argued that a key weakness of the decentralized system was that republics exercised too much
power, thus leading to stalemate at the federal level. After Titos
death, there was initially no powerful individual leader in the Presidency
until Slobodan Milos evic lled that vacuum, with his popularity in
Serbia based upon the primacy of Serb national interests, as an alternative
to Titoist pluralism.

70 J.W. Tollefson
Language debates in Serbia
In Serbia, a key event in the rise of Serbian nationalism was the
Memorandum of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, which
caused an uproar throughout the still-united country when it was leaked
to the press in September, 1986. A contributor to and leading defender of
the Memorandum was the inuential Serb linguist Pavle Ivic, who became
an eective public advocate for policies to promote the Serbian language.
The Memorandum oered a detailed discussion of the relationship
between the Serb nation and other ethnolinguistic groups in Yugoslavia,
including linguistic, cultural, and educational issues. The Memorandum
articulated widespread fear that the country had entered a historic crisis.
Its introduction, for instance, states, Not just the political and economic
system but the entire public order of the country is undergoing a severe
crisis _ . An objective examination of the situation in Yugoslavia
suggests that the present crisis might well culminate in social upheavals
with unforeseeable consequences, not even precluding such a catastrophic
outcome as the break-up of the Yugoslav state (Mihailovic and Krestic
1995: 95). This document was written in 1986, ve years before the
wars began.
A long, complex document, the Memorandum blamed decentralization
and pluralism for the economic and political crisis facing Yogoslavia in
the 1980s. This analysis implicitly suggested that the solution to the crisis
required new limits on the autonomy Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and other
republics had gained under the 1974 constitution. Specically, the
Memorandum linked pluralist policy and regional and local autonomy
with what it called dangerous centrifugal forces ... ethnic egoism and
polycentrism _ and special ethnic interests (Mihailovic and Krestic
1995: 105106). The Memorandum attacked what it called regionalized
culture, and it called for a renewal of a Yugoslav and universal culture
(114). The Memo specically criticized language policies outside Serbia
for promoting Croatian, Slovene, and Albanian mother-tongue education. Eorts to model the Albanian literary language in Kosovo after that
of Albania were criticized as an attack against the Serb minority in
Kosovo. Croatian eorts to encourage the development of distinct
Croatian and Serbian standards, and to ensure that Cyrillic was not
widely used in Croatia, were cited as evidence that Serbs in Croatia would
be unable to maintain their distinct identity. In fact, the Memo repeatedly
used the term genocide to describe what it considered anti-Serb
language and nationality policies in the other republics.
The Memorandum favored new policies to centralize authority, end
regional autonomy, and promote a single national culture, based upon

Preparing for the war in Yugoslavia 71

Serbian preeminence. For instance, the Memo favored a unied
national education curriculum and specically called for highlighting
in that curriculum the historical contributions of Serbs. The Memo
supported Serbian mother-tongue education in Croatia, as well as eorts
to unify Serbian and Croatian, and to grant Cyrillic equal status outside
Because the Memorandum was a single unied document of the Serbian
Academy, it is impossible to isolate the specic contributions of Pavle
Ivic. However, he was an outspoken defender of the Memo, and an
important public gure in promoting its proposals. For instance, in a
book published by the Ministry of Information of Serbia (Vucelic 1991,
1992), Ivic rejected Titoist pluralism, new Slovene proposals for political
confederation, and the principles of the 1974 constitution; and he called
the desire for unication of all Serbs a natural right, based upon their
linguistic unity. He argued here and elsewhere (e.g. Ivic 1992) that
Croatian language policy was aimed at separating Serbian and Croatian,
which in his view meant that Serbs in Croatia would ultimately be cut o
linguistically from Serbia. From Ivics publications and interviews, it is
clear that by 1990 he had rejected what he called the illusion of a unied
Yugoslavia (Ivic 1992: 69) and instead had adopted the explicit aim of
creating a Serb state, including the Serb minorities in Croatia, Bosnia,
and Kosovo, where Serbian mother-tongue use would be ensured in all
public and private domains.

Language debates in Slovenia

In Slovenia, Slovene independence from Yugoslavia was a major theme
of linguistic analysis in both academic and popular publications during
this period. Two linguists played key roles in the public discussion of
language in Slovenia (see Paternost 1997). The distinguished Slovene
linguist, Joze Toporis ic, was a leader among the intelligentsia in arguing
that the Slovene language was threatened in a unied Yugoslavia, and
that independence most eectively protected the language and the people
it symbolized. Velemir Gjurin reached a mass audience through his inuential column about the Slovene language that appeared in the popular
weekly 7D. Gjurins column was a forum for technical discussions of
linguistics that often had important political implications. As the leading
popular advocate for a pure Slovene language and a range of mothertongue promotion policies in all social and educational domains, Gjurin
developed a deep, personal involvement in the politics of nationalism

72 J.W. Tollefson
during the crucial two years leading up to Slovenias declaration of
independence and war with Serbia. Thus Toporis ic and Gjurin made
distinct contributions to the language debates in the years leading to the
war in Slovenia in 1991.

Joze Toporisic
Arguably the most important Slovene linguist of the past century,
Toporis ic has played an inuential public role in language planning in
Slovenia for many years. He has been responsible for some of the most
eective standardization eorts, based upon the normative reference
work called the Slovenski pravopis, which means Slovene orthography
but also includes a reference for morphology and stylistics in Slovene as
well as a dictionary. The pravopis was rst published in 1899, with
subsequent editions culminating in the important 1962 version. After
eighteen years of work on the project, Toporis ic was instrumental in
bringing out a revised version in 1990. He was also involved with the
important Language Arbitration Tribunal, established by the government
of Slovenia in 1980, to advise the public on the proper use of standard
Slovene, particularly the importance of restricting the intrusion of forms
from Serbo-Croatian (Toporis ic 1997).
Two recurring themes of Toporis ics work over the years have been
a concern for maintaining the purity of the Slovene language and promoting its use (Toporis ic 1991, 1992). Toporis ics concern with the
structure of Slovene and particularly with lexical inuences from other
languages is not, in his view, merely an academic exercise but, rather, is
central to the argument for Slovene independence. In his words, it is
noteworthy that the programs for Slovene independence have all
formed around the idea of a Slovene literary language (Toporis ic
1997: 7). Thus Toporis ic has conducted inuential work on the history
of Slovene. A specialist on Slovene standardization, Toporis ic wrote
many articles during the 1980s about the history of the Slovene
literary language, in order to trace the current variety to its historical
source in sixteenth-century Slovene. In his view, tracing the history
of the Slovene language is a key part of the process of revealing the
historical roots of the Slovene state. His inuential book, Druzbenost
slovenskega jezika: Sociolingvisticna razpravljanja [The Social Aspect
of Slovene: Sociolinguistic Studies], published in 1991, collected some of
his important articles and interviews up to 1989. One of its major themes
was the range of historical threats to Slovene, including German and

Preparing for the war in Yugoslavia 73

In addition to his concern with the history and structure of Slovene,
Toporis ic has also had an intense interest in language use. Much of his
writing and public speaking during the 1980s focused on this issue. For
instance, he discussed the implications of the Armys use of SerboCroatian signs at army barracks in Slovenia in this way: It is precisely
language that reveals the violence that is engendered by the desire to
dominate: it is impossible to hide the fact when certain of the highest
functions of a language are denied a community _ . At times like this,
language issues are an aront to national pride (Toporis ic 1997: 7).
In the late 1980s, Toporis ic wrote a number of important articles about
the need to promote Slovene, the central importance of the language
in Slovene identity, and the threats to what he called Slovene linguistic
sovereignty coming from Serbia and Serbo-Croatian.
Although Toporis ic was clearly the most important linguist arguing
for the link between language and national independence, he had
some opponents among Slovene nationalists, particularly in his insistence
on the use of a spoken variety of the literary language and the norms
associated with it. He believed that professional linguists have a special
role to play in shaping the forms of public language (Toporis ic 1993).
Such important matters should not, he argued, be left to the vagaries
of mass media, popular opinion leaders, or his critics who were not
With Slovenias independence, Toporis ic has remained active in his
advocacy for the Slovene language, particularly concerning the potential for displacement of Slovene by German and English. For instance,
he favors a law requiring that Slovene be the language of business and
administration, even in border regions or in enterprises under foreign
ownership. He also advocates a law requiring that all public signs be
written in Slovene. Toporis ic also remains concerned about borrowings
in Slovene. He has publicly criticized cartoonists and writers for using
foreign terms and idioms and has spoken against the use of foreign
vocabulary in school textbooks. A major goal of Slovene language
planning today should be, in his view, eorts to resist German and
English inuences on Slovene vocabulary.

Velemir Gjurin
Between July 1987 and July 1989, Velemir Gjurin wrote 103 columns
about language that were published in the popular weekly 7D and
collected in a book titled Slovenscina zdaj! [Slovene Now!] (Gjurin 1991).

74 J.W. Tollefson
Throughout these columns, Gjurin used technical discussions of language
as a mechanism to argue for the use of Slovene in a full range of
social domains and ultimately to attack what he believed to be Serbian
linguistic and political domination of Slovenia. For instance, he wrote
at length about the important military trial in Slovenia in 1988, in
which the Army tried four Slovene writers in Serbo-Croatian rather
than Slovene, as was guaranteed under the policy of pluralism, and
he was instrumental in mobilizing public opinion against the military
for its use of Serbo-Croatian in the trial. Like Toporis ic, he wrote
about the dominance of Serbo-Croatian in the military in Slovenia
and elsewhere. Particularly important were a series of articles about
the use of Serbo-Croatian on military structures in Slovenia. Often
tongue in cheek, these articles were widely seen as implicit attacks on
the Army, and they helped to identify the Army with narrow Serbian
interests. Gjurin also wrote columns about language use on currency,
about the need to use Serbo-Croatian when applying for visas at the
US Embassy, and about Turkish inuences on Serbo-Croatian all
of which, he argued, showed the unequal status of Slovene, despite
constitutional guarantees of equality. One of his columns on currency,
for instance, was titled The linguistic racism of Yugoslav bank notes
(Gjurin 1991). That column noted that inscriptions on currency notes
began with Serbo-Croatian in Cyrillic, and then followed with Croatian
and Slovene, with Macedonian last. He argued Yugoslavia as a union
of six nations and their sovereign states must also be represented
symbolically in the matter of language (1991: 42). Gjurin also publicized
the political work of other linguists. For instance, he wrote about
the formal complaint by the Slavic Society of Slovenia to Yugoslav
and Slovene ocials about Serbo-Croatian in the military. Gjurin
ridiculed the lack of ocial response to this complaint by gleefully
announcing that he would reprint the ocial response and then
leaving two columns of blank spaces.
Over the course of two years, from 19871989, Gjurins columns
became increasingly explicit in linking the fate of the language with the
political future of Yugoslavia. Later, in March 1990, he wrote about
the advantages of a confederation or an independent Slovenia for the
Slovene language. Although he initially had to be cautious, his bold and
explicit statements calling rst for confederation and then for independence reected the fact that Slovene ocials, including those in the
Slovene League of Communists, had themselves come to accept the need
for Slovene independence. Thus Gjurins column helped to lead popular
opinion toward independence, and it also reected, in its increasing
boldness, the success of his eort.

Preparing for the war in Yugoslavia 75

Other Slovene linguists
Gjurin and Toporis ic were not alone in oering linguistic arguments for
Slovene independence and in promoting the Slovene language. In essays
about the Slovene Romantic poet Pres eren, who lived in the rst half
of the nineteenth century, the poet and translator Niko Grafenauer
(Grafenauer 1991) argued that the Slovene language is the foundation for
Slovene cultural and national identity, and the basis for the Slovene
nation state. Linguists from the university in Ljubljana were instrumental in involving the Slovene Institute of Linguistics in international
lobbying for recognition of the new Slovene state in 1991 and 1992, as
well as operating a translation center that provided English-language
material for the international press during the crisis and the war with
Serbia in 1991 (see Grafenauer 1991).
Particularly important was the group of writers and linguists who
formed the journal Nova revija. In 1987, the journal published a special
edition titled Contributions to a Slovenian National Program, which
outlined the cultural and linguistic basis for an independent Slovenia,
and which elicited strong attacks from Belgrade, including calls for
prosecution of the linguists. The group at the journal played a central
role in the politics of protest leading up to independence (see Grafenauer
1991: 11). In the 1990 elections, DEMOS, the victorious coalition of
opposition parties and organizations, was headed by Nova revija editorial
board member Joze Pucnik. The rst multiparty Assembly elected as
its president France Bucar, another member of the editorial board, and
the coalition government that prepared for the plebiscite on independence
in late 1990 chose as its Minister of Foreign Aairs a former editor of
the journal.
Another important group was the Association of Slovenian Writers,
which included many active linguists. The Association played a key role
in organizing mass demonstrations, primarily through its daily literary
readings, which galvanized public opinion and led to mass demonstrations against the Yugoslav military (Stojko 1992). A major reason for the
demonstrations was the decision by the military to use Serbo-Croatian
rather than Slovene for the trial in Ljubljana. Thus the issue of Slovene
language use was especially eective in mobilizing public opinion and
public demonstrations, resulting in the rapid shift in public opinion
toward independence from 1988 to 1990. Indeed, even though the four
defendants at the Ljubljana trial were found guilty, huge demonstrations
and continuous public outcry resulted in their release by the military, and
soon after, the main defendant, Janez Jans a, became the Slovene Minister
of Defense. Thus in response to pro-Serbian language policies advocated

76 J.W. Tollefson
by Ivic and other Serb intellectuals that increasingly served as a wedge to
separate Serbs from Slovenes, Albanians, and Croats, Slovene linguists
used language issues as a force for shaping public opinion in the direction
of autonomy, and ultimately for mobilizing virtually the entire population
in support of Slovene independence (see Tollefson 1997).

Key issues in the debates

For sociolinguists, the language debates in Yugoslavia from 1980 to 1991
are important because they confronted some of the central questions in
language policy, perhaps most importantly, what is the relationship
between group and individual rights? A united Yugoslavia had developed
a system of national rights rather than individual citizenship rights, and
those national rights had a territorial basis. After Titos death in 1980,
nationalist leaders in Serbia were able to successfully exploit fears among
individuals who lived outside their national territories, particularly
Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia, precisely because these groups lacked the
constitutionally required basis for state protection, namely territory.
A second key question was, what is the relationship between standard
languages and variability? The ocial formula in Titos Yugoslavia was
that Serbo-Croatian was a language with two equal variants Serbian
and Croatian. Faced with the rising movement of Serbian nationalism,
this formula became increasingly untenable, not only to Serb and
Croatian nationalists, but also to Moslems in Bosnia, who increasingly
argued for republic norms that is, recognition of additional variants
based in each republic. In Yugoslavia, this was not an idle debate. During
the 1940s and early 1950s, Tito had ensured the loyalty of Macedonian
nationalists by promising that Macedonian would be recognized as
an ocial standard language in a united Yugoslavia (Lunt 1959). Titos
success in moving Macedonian from the uncertain sociopolitical status
of a dialect of Serbo-Croatian or Bulgarian to a fully recognized standard and the basis for a distinct Macedonian nationality and republic
demonstrated the political and economic benets associated with
standard languages. Thus when linguists (e.g. Dunatov 1987) argued
that a Bosnian variety deserved equal status with Serbian and Croatian,
the larger issue was clear: one could not describe language variation
without also declaring ones position on the distribution of political power
and the political/administrative structure of the future Yugoslav state.
Once dissolution became inevitable, a third question one with great
importance for Europe and Central Asia presented itself: what shall
be the basis for the new states? In Yugoslavia, the two alternatives were

Preparing for the war in Yugoslavia 77

the traditional republics (namely, territory) or the nationalities (that is,
ethnicity or nationality). Ivic and Milos evic argued that both principles
should apply to Serbs. The borders of the Republic of Serbia, which
included both Albanian and Hungarian minorities, should be the
foundation for a smaller Yugoslavia dominated by Serbs; and outside
Serbia, ethnic Serbs should have the right to self-determination, meaning
that they should be able to join a greater Serbia. Applied only to Serbs
and not to other dispersed nationalities, this formula was unacceptable
to Croatia, Bosnia, and Slovenia, which viewed the formula as leading to
a two-tiered system, with Serbs in control of state policy and other nations
and nationalities cut out of decision making (Denitch 1996; Rogel 1998).
Yugoslavia also raises an important question for advocates of
pluralism, particularly within decentralized politicoadministrative systems that grant signicant autonomy to several ethnolinguistic groups:
how should ethnolinguistic autonomy be reconciled with the need for
eective decision making at the federal level? The tensions in Yugoslav
politics in the 1980s were partly over disagreements about the relative
power of federal and republic authorities. Operating under the 1974
constitution, which granted republics veto power over many federal
decisions, Yugoslavia was unable to reach consensus at the federal level
in debates about how to solve the deepening economic and political crisis.
Thus an opening was created for a new centralism that promised eective
and ecient decision making by federal authorities. Unfortunately,
the new centralism that emerged was based upon Serbian nationalism
rather than a continuing commitment to regional and ethnolinguistic
equality. Nevertheless, Yugoslavias experience suggests that pluralism
may be particularly threatened during periods of economic and political
crisis. Finding decentralized systems of decision making that can withstand the pressures and promises of centralism remains a signicant
challenge for advocates of pluralism in the Balkans and elsewhere.
The language debates in Yugoslavia also demonstrate the enormous
power of language and language planning to shape public opinion, to
mobilize populations, and to dene in concrete terms more abstract issues
of power and control. During the decade leading up to the war, issues
of language policy, particularly proposals for mother-tongue promotion,
were often in the forefront of popular discussion on radio, in the press,
and in public conversation. As it became increasingly clear during the
1980s that some sort of political and administrative reorganization was
likely, the discussion of language helped to dene and eventually to shape
options. From a vision of Yugoslavia as a pluralist, multinational
state that enjoyed widespread popular support through the 1970s, the
options for the future gradually became limited to some sort of loose

78 J.W. Tollefson
confederation of more or less independent states (the option favored by
the government of Slovenia until the nal months before independence) or
dissolution (the option ultimately chosen, and largely imposed by Serbia).
Yet it is also important to recognize that the decades-long policy
of pluralism was not easily reversed. Turning popular opinion against
pluralism, and nally closing o the pluralist option, took great eort by
Serbs for nearly a decade, and the discussion of language was one of the
key mechanisms for that process. As Rogel (1998) points out, ethnic
hatred and ethnic cleansing were products of the linguistic and political
conicts in Yugoslavia in the 1980s, not the cause.

Conclusion: the role of linguists

Finally, how are we to assess the contributions of Serb and Slovene
linguists to the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia and the decade of
misery that accompanied it? In contributing to eorts to end the decentralized system of pluralism, Ivic in Serbia favored a smaller Yugoslavia,
with a strong Serbian center. Faced with growing evidence that pluralism
was threatened by Serb nationalism, Toporis ic and Gjurin in Slovenia
favored either confederation or dissolution. In their debates about language, these linguists articulated not only diering conceptions of the
organization of the state, but also its nature, in particular, the language
and nationality rights of citizens. As they presented their dierent visions,
they examined important linguistic issues: the role of mother tongues, the
relationship between standards and dialects, the function of vernaculars,
and the links between language and the state, and language and nation.
In their linguistic analyses, Serb and Slovene linguists played dierent,
though complementary, roles in ending the policy and ideology of
pluralism that had been fundamental to a peaceful and united Yugoslavia.
While their technical linguistic analyses formed the basis for broad claims
about mother-tongue policies, nationalism, and the organization of the
Yugoslav state, it is important to understand as well that their linguistic
analyses and support for mother-tongue promotion were shaped by social
and political agendas.
Although it is perhaps impossible to quantify the impact of linguists and linguistics upon the politics of dissolution in Yugoslavia, it is
important not to underestimate the sociopolitical role that linguists
and other social scientists play in public debates about ethnolinguistic
nationalism. Weinstein (1979, 1983) argues that cultural elites,
including writers, publishers, and translators, often have more impact
than political leaders and ocial policies. In particular, by attaching

Preparing for the war in Yugoslavia 79

positive values to specic language varieties, these language strategists
transform language into a form of capital, useful for gaining entry into a
community or for claiming economic benets (1983: 62). Sociolinguists
and other social scientists play a similar role in inuencing the symbolic
value of language and in shaping public attitudes toward language. This
work is carried out not only by activists who take public positions on
matters of public policy; theoretical work and other forms of academic
research can also shape public discourse. For instance, in an analysis
of social-scientic explanations for the persistence of ethnic-group
solidarity, Scott (1990) describes the concept of primordialism, which
attaches ineable aective signicance to ethnolinguistic attachments
(1990: 148). Taking many forms in dierent theories in the social sciences,
primordialism is an important concept not only in attempts to explain
ethnolinguistic attachments, but also for describing those attachments
as absolute, overpowering, and coercive. As Scott argues, primordial
theories emphasize the dangers of ethnolinguistic identities; van den
Berghe, for instance, refers to the blind ferocity and orgies of passion
that he claims are characteristic of ethnolinguistic attachments, in contrast to what he describes as the rational costbenet calculations of
interest-group politics (van den Berghe 1978: 405; cited in Scott 1990:
154). Thus primordial theories in the social sciences contribute to public
mistrust of claims for ethnolinguistic rights and proposals for autonomy
for ethnolinguistic minorities.
Other analysts have explicitly focused on the sociopolitical impact of
linguistics. For instance, Hassanpour (2000) criticizes apolitical linguistic
analyses of Kurdish, arguing that a critical discussion of genocide against
Kurds must be part of any analysis of the sociolinguistic situation of
Kurdish. Branson and Miller (2000) argue that most linguistic analyses of
sign languages have emphasized the similarities between signed and
spoken varieties, thereby colonizing signing communities and devaluing and distorting their dierences from speaking communities (2000:
29). In an analysis of several social-science conferences in Germany,
Menk (2000) concludes that most German social scientists favor centralist, monolingual, and assimilationist language policies, despite paying
lip-service to diversity. In response to such concerns, Phillipson (2000)
argues that linguists should merge research, applied work, and advocacy;
in his view, changing the world is a fundamental responsibility for
social scientists (2000: 267). Phillipsons perspective explicitly rejects
scholarship that seeks to eliminate personal commitment so as to
conform to a norm of academic objectivity which _ is itself a
major political statement (2000: 269). Similarly, calling for a more
comprehensive understanding of the role of researchers and other

80 J.W. Tollefson
intellectuals, Skutnabb-Kangas (2000: xxiii) argues that linguists and
other social scientists must be deeply involved in social and political
In both Slovenia and Serbia, linguists played active, public roles in
social and political struggles over the future of the country. Ultimately,
Ivic oered a linguistic rationale for Serbian centralism, while Gjurin and
Toporis ic used their linguistic skills in the service of pluralism and Slovene
independence. In assessing the sociopolitical role of linguists and other
social scientists in any context, it is critical to ask these key questions:
What are their social, economic, and political aims? How is the technical
work of social scientists linked with broader sociopolitical issues? Whose
interests does this work promote? In Yugoslavia between 1980 and 1991,
both Serb and Slovene linguists openly acknowledged their sociopolitical
agendas. Although such openness is less evident in other settings, these
questions are no less important.
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