Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Two Languages Divided...

First conundrum: a form asks for "country of birth".

Let me see, what is it they really want to know? When I was born, long
42 years ago, I was born in the city of Belgrade, Socialist Republic of Serbia, then part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Therefore, I was born in Yugoslavia, haven't I? Much more often than not, this is what I put in forms that express an interest in the fact. But, somewhere in the back of my mind, I know that they probably want to know where to go if they want to ask about me now. If I wanted to be helpful I should have written just Serbia in the box (or on the dotted line, if the form was a paper one). Still, even if the transition was gradual - from SFRY, to FRY (Federal Republic of Yugoslavia), to SER'MO (Serbia and Montenegro), finally to Serbia - I still can't get myself to feel as if my birthplace is (was) not just Yugoslavia.

Second conundrum: a dotted line asks for "native language".

Colloquially, I should say "
Serbian". But forms are serious business, and usually ask for more serious and formal answers. So, let me see, what was the name of the language I studied in primary and high school as my "native" language. Why, of course, it was Serbo-Croatian. But that was again almost a quarter of a century ago! And what if the form really wants to know what is the official language of the place I was born? We're back to Serbian in that case, but that feels wrong, somehow incomplete. I can read and understand spoken Croatian. If pushed, and with just a bit of practice I'm sure I could speak, and certainly write passably. Not to mention that I have successfully mastered both Latin and Cyrillic alphabets, and official Serbian is nowadays limited (I'd even say constrained) by using just the latter. Cheekily, I tend to fill in just Serbian in the end. This little trick allows me to list Croatian (and, for that matter, Bosnian and Montenegrin, too) as "foreign" languages.

And here's finally what I really wanted to tell you about. I already griped about it in a previous post. It bothers me on a personal level, but worries me more on a national one.

While I may have had a school subject that went by the name of "
Serbo-Croatian language and literature", to quote its full name, in reality what we were required to master was just the part before the hyphen. We were only required to be able to read all the Croatian authors with exactly the same, implied!, proficiency as the Serbian ones. Also, if a foreign book was on the curriculum, it didn't matter if we chose to read it in Serbian or Croatian translations. This was especially true in high school where the reading list was just that, a list of titles to be read during any given school year. In primary school we could (or rather, our parents could) opt for an official edition of reading materials. Still, Croatian authors abounded, and were never "translated". It was such a natural setup that I had almost a physical reaction to typing "translated" in the previous sentence, even if I had carefully restrained it by a set of quotes.

And this is exactly the point I (think I) want to make. In the olden days of
SFRY, Croatian was never a "foreign" language (for that matter, there wasn't even a murmur of Bosnian and Montenegrin). Even Slovenian and Macedonian, being Slavic languages, and Slovenians and Macedonians being Yugoslavs, were not considered fully foreign. But that is a different topic altogether. I want to get back to the Serbo-Croatian, as I think there's a very good argument this once truly was a single language with two variants.

It is that "was" that is bothering me, really.

This is especially so as differences between the two are considerably smaller than the differences between some Croatian
dialects! There are also regions in Serbia where the colloquial, spoken Serbian is way beyond my ability of comprehension. These are, of course, matters for linguists to discuss and earn PhDs over. Personally, I don't care about what's what in terms of the science of linguistics. I am, however, deeply personally concerned about the losses I, and other Serbian and Croatian speakers are experiencing, and which are getting worse by the day. Let me explain.

In the olden days of
SFRY, and the Serbo-Croatian moniker, we were all very much exposed to each other's language variants. You didn't even need school reading lists including Croatian authors to experience Croatian language in all its glory (and I do like it's sound and form). There was TV, with both entertainment, educational, and news programmes available to watch. And people did watch the other's programmes. Where Belgrade TV led the bunch with never surpassed educational programmes for kids of all ages, Zagreb TV shone with entertainment, both for the whole family on Sunday afternoons, and early evenings (who doesn't remember Kviskoteka quizzes! PS Can you believe it's not on Wikipedia!?), as well as late nights (where family may choose to watch in different rooms). Both had brilliant dramas and series, too. Even Bosnian TV (Sarajevo) chipped in with some marvels ("Bosnian" language being much, much closer to Croatian, with a few twists and quirks). Finally, news stands and book shops stocked books, both original and translations, in both "languages" indiscriminately. And this was still in the good old times when even Serbian translators knew what they were doing so one did not have to seek originals to truly enjoy a (truly) foreign book.

With all this, it is no wonder that it was practically impossible to claim you couldn't understand Croatian, either word or phrase. If you were to ask me now, I couldn't tell you which foreign book I read in which of the two languages. I don't think I even noticed in those days. I just read them, and enjoyed.

But now, things are a-changing. For the worse, in my, never so humble, opinion. I first realised this a few years ago when my sister-in-law came with a question about a Croatian word she didn't understand. It turned out the word was for "a week" ("
tjedan" or "sedmica" in Croatian, if you need to know, "nedelja" or "sedmica" in Serbian), a calendar week. You'd be hard pressed to come up with a more basic word, and she had no idea what it meant. Why? Simple. She never heard it or saw it written. She's 23 (she was probably 18 at the time). When she started school Croatia was a different, properly foreign country. An "enemy" country, too. Where did she have an opportunity to be exposed to Croatian? Nowhere, of course! Did she even feel she lost something? Of course, not. And understandably so. If you're not aware of something you can't miss it, can you?

This particular loss can be fairly easily corrected once a person is aware of the fact, and how really easy it is to get that little knowledge of Serbian (Croatian, for the other lot). Luckily, now there is cable TV in Serbia (and Croatia, of course; consider me writing about both from now on), and I've also seen quite a few magazines on the news stands (even if they mostly seem to be women's glossies).

So, apparently, for a willing person, there is no real problem.

Or is there?

I firmly believe there is, and a pretty serious one. I believe (linguists: please hold your fire) that in cases of languages as similar as Croatian and Serbian there is a threshold of mutual exposure and intertwining. If the two are above certain level, it takes practically no effort to keep abreast of the other's changes (and all languages change, all of the time). Below that level, however, keeping abreast requires considerable effort, and worse, a conscious one. The exposure is just insufficient for seamless absorbing all the new stuff. Worst of all, once set in motion, this process of divergence tends to pick up pace very easily and quickly. The languages may never (or at least not in any human noticeable time) become totally mutually foreign, maybe not even to the extent that, say, Macedonian differs from Serbian (and it does, a lot), but it fairly quickly becomes difficult, sometimes impossible to have such cosy intermingling I described above. And if that is not a great loss, then shoot me! I mean, it is something we had, it didn't cost a thing, and now we're losing it, possibly forever.

Stupid, just stupid.

Oh, and I forgot to mention the stupidest thing of all: if asked, I bet most of both Croatians and Serbians will tell you that they do not see a problem. It doesn't even matter if I (or you) believe the split-up of
SFRY was stupid or not (I do think it was stupid). This has nothing to do with sovereignty. This has all to do with limiting (or not) one's intellectual horizons. And if one so easily passes on adding one more language to one's intellectual war chest, then there's little more I can tell one (or many):

Stupid, just stupid.