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The Bosnian Language

The Bosnian language is a standard Central South Slavic language which is based on a dialect called the Stokavian dialect. It is spoken primarily in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in the region of Sandzak in Serbia and Montenegro, although there are Bosnian speakers spread in various places throughout the world, as many Bosnians had to flee their home country during war. The language itself officially uses both Latin and Cyrillic alphabets, although the Cyrillic alphabet is used less and less today, and has been almost totally replaced by the Latin alphabet. It is hard to tell why it still has its official place as a script for the Bosnian language, but it seems probable that due to the years of political unrest in the area, keeping the Cyrillic alphabet even in name alone allows Bosnia to maintain some sort of link with its past. Bosnian was spoken in the area which was known as Serbo-Croat from the 19th century until the early 1990’s, and during this time it must be said that Serbian was the dominant language. However, the Serbian, Croatian and Bosniak languages are all mutually understandable, so although at times suppressed, the languages managed to stay alive and were revived during the 1990’s.

As noted above, the Cyrillic alphabet is used less and less in the modern world, but it is undeniable that it forms an integral part to the development of the Bosnian language. It dates from as far back as the 10th century and the Bosnian Cyrillic script is of huge national importance as it is native to Bosnia itself. It also provides the link between the medieval monarchy and medieval religion as the script is found on royal state documents as well as tombstones and other religious writings. In historical terms, the link between a monarchy and religion is not to be underestimated, and it is the language in this case which provides ‘evidence’ of that link. It may be hard for those who have not known what it is like to live in a war torn country to understand, but at times of intense rivalry and violence between Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats there was often a lot of controversy centered around the heritage of the Bosnian Cyrillic language, with different countries claiming it had originated from them. This was despite clear geographical evidence that it had in fact originated from Bosnia. Today it is accepted that the language is indeed Bosnia’s own, but what this fact demonstrates is the power of a language to fuel intense debate and spark argument. Given the time and effort put in by Bosnia to guard their own alphabet, it comes as little surprise that even though it is no longer used on day to day basis, that the Bosniaks are unwilling to give it up.

A particularity of the Bosnian language is identified when we discover that linguistically, its native speakers are actually more homogenous than either the Serbs or Croats, but unfortunately did not manage to standardize their language during the 19th century. The 19th century turned out to be hugely important in the establishment of languages as well as territories, so it is a shame that the Bosnian language could not have been more established at this time. Unfortunately though, the Bosniak elite wrote almost entirely in other languages such as Turkish, Arabic and Persian and so without any high powered advocates of the tongue, it simply failed to gain momentum at the rate of the Serbian and Croatian languages. The Bosniaks’ national emancipation trailed behind that of Serbia and Croatia, and people simply were not interested in the Bosnian language.

When the Bosnian language finally did get going, important documents were actually written from outside the country. Such was the position of the language at the time that its ‘revival’ actually saw scripts being wrote in Croatian rather than Serbian (which in itself was a brave step given the suppression of the Croatian language by Serbia), and using unmistakable Bosnian traits. This might seem a soft approach to reinstating a language, but it worked and a movement now known as the ‘Bosnian renaissance’ began. This is not to say that from this point on the Bosnian language flourished without any problems. Indeed the opposite is in fact the case, as during the days of Communist Yugoslavia the language was once again Serbianized and the script used was Latin. A name was coined for the Serbian influenced language – Serbo-Croatian. When Yugoslavia collapsed the Croats were keen to reinstate their own language, and Bosnia was the only country which kept the curious hybrid which serves as a reminder of the Communist years.

The fact that the collapse of Yugoslavia happened, in linguistic terms, fairly recently, means that the Bosnian language is just now beginning to distinguish itself, by adopting specific words from other languages and by developing standard pronunciation. This is a reason why it is interesting to study the Bosnian language, for although no languages have finished evolving, the Bosnian language can be considered to be a lot ‘newer’ or in a more formative stage than many other modern languages in today’s world. Controversies still remain however, the most significant of which is probably the debate currently raging as to the correct name for the language currently known as Bosnian.

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