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The Serbian Language

The first thing to note is that when studying the Serbian language it is inappropriate to concentrate solely on Serbia. This is because it is the most widely spoken South Slavic language. For example, it is spoken in Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Croatia, and is a minority official language in Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Croatia, Romania, Macedonia and Hungary.

The fact that two alphabets are used to write the Serbian language gives us some clues as to its origins and history. The two alphabets are Cyrillic and a variation of the Latin alphabet. Cyrillic alphabets are used by many South and East Slavic nations, and were used by almost every country in the Soviet Union. The fact that the Cyrillic alphabet is still used in Serbia therefore confirms to us its prominent place as one of the main Slavic Nations.

What is a little more surprising however, is the fact that the Latin alphabet is also used. Latin influenced the development of ‘Romance languages’ such as French, Spanish and Italian, but to have such formal proof of a maintained Latin influence in Serbia is unexpected, especially when considering the prominence of the Russian language during the time of the Soviet Union.

Prior to the creation of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes in 1918, the only alphabet in use was the Cyrillic alphabet, but Latin was used by Serbs in the coastal area of modern Montenegro as well as in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. It had even been suggested by some famous literary historians and critics from Belgrade, such as Jovan Skerlic, that the way to end arguments and so-called literary chaos would be to accept Latin as the only alphabet. However, this view inevitably did not suit everyone, and so the matter was never really settled. It must be noted though, that during the socialist era, Latin made a major breakthrough even in Serbia itself. During recent times though, the Cyrillic alphabet has regained its place, and although cannot really be said to be more prominent than Latin is just as important nowadays. For example since the constitutional reforms in the early 1970s, most documents were published in "Serbo-Croatian" Cyrillic and "Croato-Serbian" Latin. Most important pieces are published using both forms of the alphabet, and for now most Serbian speakers seem to be happy with this compromise. Encyclopedias have been published in "Croatian or Serbian" (the way Croats referred to Serbo-Croatian language) Latin, "Serbo-Croat" (the way Serbs, Montenegrins, Muslims and all other nations in Yugoslavia referred to Serbo-Croatian language) Cyrillic, Slovenian, Macedonian, Albanian and Hungarian. This sounds slightly confusing, but what is important to remember is that although there are many different labels stamped on the language, actually there are relatively few variations. What the different labels reflect, rather than any significant change in tongue between country, is the fact that the effects of the Soviet Union are still being felt today, and each country is continuing to battle for recognition of their prominence. In order to progress compromise has been key and this is reflected in many ways. For example, the only newspaper which is not traditionally Serbian, Croatian nor Bosnian was printed in both alphabets: one page in Cyrillic, the following page in Latin and so on all through the journal, with the script of the front page alternating between the two every day. Whilst Serbo-Croat was widely accepted before the Yugoslav Wars, the Cyrillic alphabet was used predominantly in central Serbia and in Montenegro until the late 1990s. The Latin alphabet was preferred in Croatia and the only one used by the Croats. In Belgrade, the northern Serbian province of Vojvodina and in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in the larger more vibrant towns of Serbia, either alphabet would be according to the individual author’s choice.

In terms of dialects, standard Serbian is based on the Stokavian dialect. There is a version known as the Ekavian variant which is spoken mostly in Serbia and another dialect called Ijekavian which is spoken in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, south-western Serbia and Croatia. The Ijekavian dialect finds its roots in East-Herzegovinian, and the Ekavian, the Sumadija-Vojvodina dialect. Some have called it a hybrid version of all these languages, which has developed over time. Features of other Shtokavian dialects, as well of the Torlakian dialect, which is spoken in southern Serbia, are not accepted as standard.

The Serbian language has also been influenced somewhat by German words and it is interesting to note that even when coming across the odd English or French word in the Serbian language, that the most likely way in which they found their way into the tongue was through German influence. As a student of the Serbian language, the best way to identify a German ‘loanword’ is to listen for the rising accent. This subtle difference in how a word is pronounced often gives a good indication as to from where the word has originated. There are also a few Italian words scattered into the Serbian language, although again these tend to have found their way in via the German influence rather than through a purely Italian force. There are a few words however, which have come straight from Italy, and these are usually easily identifiable to a Serbian speaker. If they were taken directly from Italian, they show specific, not regular adaptations. For instance spagete for Italian spaghetti rather than the "expected" spagete. To someone who is unfamiliar with the language the difference might seem minute, but it is actually significant, especially in terms of pronunciation. The German and Italian influences we consider today only reach the tip of the iceberg in terms of how the Serbian language has developed over time. What is important however, is to realise that despite being the most widely spoken Slavic language, the Serbian tongue has not only been influenced by the East and Russia. Learning of the Latin, German and Italian injections will surprise many, but it is possibly due to the fact that these influences have been incorporated, and the language allowed to evolve, that Serbian retains its place of prominence within the Slavic nations.

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