Question: In what countries can you find people speaking different languages but conversing freely with each other at the same time?
Answer: Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina
What makes a language? Is it the words you speak or the country in which it is spoken? In the Balkan region where Yugoslavia was once unified, the language is split along the borders of four nations still bearing scars from their pasts. The people of Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina have faced a complicated history along their ethnic and national lines and have chosen to separate their language along these boundaries. But according to linguistics from the countries, it’s really all one common tongue.
During the days of Yugoslavia, “Serbo-Croatian” was the language spoken across the nation, but after its breakup in the 1990s, the language was also divided along the respective country borders into Bosnian, Serbian, Croatian, and Montenegrin. In hopes of creating an independent national identity, the governments in each of these new countries began treating each language as separate, even though linguistically they were all pretty much the same. In theory, having separate languages was meant to protect each cultural identity, but in reality, it has created more divide.
Experts say that the language should be categorized as a polycentric language, meaning it is a single language with different variations, separated by country. It’s similar to how English varies between the United States, Britain, and Australia. We can all basically understand each other, but there are slight variations in pronunciation, terminology, and grammar. In Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, virtually everyone can understand each other except the language changes slightly based on country and ethnicity. In a region where there is still animosity between these groups, variations in speech can cause dramatic tensions—from eye rolls to fistfights.
Classifying each language as different also has serious effects in the way the government operates and in daily life. To this day, many school children are put into different classes based on their language and taught different curriculum, even though they can converse freely with one another. Sometimes they are even separated by fences in school—a practice called “two schools under one roof” in Bosnia and Herzegovina. According to teachers, this deepens the perceived differences between the ethnic groups and can be viewed as a form of segregation by human rights organizations. In the legal system, defendants often demand interpreters in court for their preferred language which has caused a backlog of criminal cases. Also, government administration work is frequently translated across all four languages, even though they are nearly the same.
For years, experts in the region have been arguing for the language to be united, but opposition remains fierce. In 2017, intellectuals of all kinds including scientists, writers, journalists, and activists from the four countries came together to sign what is known as the Declaration of the Common Language, which states that Croats, Bosnians, Serbs, and Montenegrins all share a common standard language. They believe that a united language can help with the reconciliation process following many years of conflict in the region; however, to many nationalists, the idea of uniting the Balkan language triggers difficult memories of life in the former Yugoslavia.
Language is such a large factor in one’s identity, especially in this region. Linguists make it clear that speaking one common language does not prevent anyone from expressing their affiliation with a certain ethnic group or country. One day it might be united under one name, but for now, if you hear what you think is one language being spoken across this region, it’s most likely four separate ones.
A Little More Background on These Complex Countries:
- Despite the similarities in language in Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, be sure not to assume the countries are all one and the same. They each have their own separate histories, religions, and influences.
- The Balkan Peninsula—which spans from the Adriatic to the Baltic Sea—has always been a crossroads of cultures. The Greeks, Celts, and Romans all moved throughout the region at one point in time. In the seventh century, Slavs moved to the region and have remained ever since with influences from various other empires.
- Religion is a large part of identity here and there are three prominent religions—Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and Islam—which were brought there by different empires. Roman Catholicism was first brought by Charlemagne, Eastern Orthodox Christianity by the Byzantine Empire, and Islam by the Ottomans.
- These empires also contributed to several distinct ethnic identities—Croat, Slovene, Serb, and Bosnian, which are all considered South Slavs.
- Today, religion and national identity are complicated and intertwined. For example, the terms Bosnian and Bosniak are not synonymous. A Bosniak is an ethnic Muslim while a Bosnian is someone from Bosnia. There are Bosnian Bosniaks (Muslims), Bosnian Serbs (Orthodox Christians), and Bosnian Croats (Catholics).
- These groups are somewhat split along geographic lines but overlap a lot, which made the breakup of Yugoslavia so challenging. In general, Roman Catholic Croats live west of the Dinaric Mountains, Orthodox Christian Serbs live mostly east of the Dinaric Mountains, and Muslim Bosniaks live mostly in the Dinaric Mountains. The region is also home to many Slavic minority groups including Hungarians and Albanians.
- In the 17th century, Croatia and Slovenia joined the Austrian Habsburg Empire while Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia remained in the Islamic Ottoman Empire. This made the cultures in these areas vastly more different from one another which contributed to further tensions down the line.
- Following the violent breakup of Yugoslavia and the wars that followed, there are still tensions that exist throughout the countries, especially in the most war-torn parts, based on these ethnic and national lines. But most have found a peaceful coexistence with one another, making the region safe to travel and learn about today. When visiting, make sure to hear all sides of the conflicts without judgement.
Speak with locals across this region to hear about the turbulent history of their home when you join us for Crossroads of the Adriatic: Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and Slovenia.