Language and Identity in the Balkans: Serbo-Croat and Its Disintegration
October 28, 2004
Staff-prepared summary of the EES book launch with Robert Greenberg,
Professor, College of Arts and Sciences, University of New Haven and Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, Yale University. Commentator: Susan Woodward, Professor, The Graduate Center, City University of New York.

In his new book, Language and Identity in the Balkans: Serbo-Croat and Its Disintegration, Robert Greenberg traces the rise and fall of Serbo-Croat as a united language. He began his talk on his new book, by describing how he approached the study of the various dialects in Yugoslavia. At the time, he traveled through the region to survey the many dialects of Serbo-Croat, but never paid much attention to the ethnic identities associated with those dialects. Only after the breakup of Yugoslavia did he realize that the ethnic component of the different dialects were crucial to understanding the language. After Serbo-Croat morphed into several languages (Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and, most recently, Montenegrin), Greenberg decided to study not only the dialects, but also the history of the study of those dialects.

Over years of research, covering the 1960s to the 1990s, Greenberg found that there were nationalist agendas associated with the study of Serbo-Croat dialects. These studies sought to maximize the distinctiveness of a dialect in order to support the recognition of a separate language for a specific ethnic group or, on the contrary, to bolster the unity of the language by acknowledging differences. Nationalists later used these studies to prove that there was no natural unity of these languages, but that each ethnic group could claim its own, distinct language. As a result, many have joked about the fact that people who previously only spoke Serbo-Croat can now claim to be polyglots. But Greenberg reminded the audience that it is important to accept the ‘new' languages, because they reflect emotionally-charged feelings of identity among the distinct ethnic groups.

Susan Woodward commented that Greenberg's book is not only academically valuable, but that it offers an important insight: language is political. Moreover, she applauded the book's style, which is extremely accessible to non-linguists.