Language Politics and Language Policies in the Contemporary Western Balkans: Infinitives, Turkisms, and EUrolinguistics | Wilson Center

Language Politics and Language Policies in the Contemporary Western Balkans: Infinitives, Turkisms, and EUrolinguistics

Staff-prepared summary of the discussion with Victor Friedman, Andrew W. Mellon Professor, Department of Slavic Languages and Literature and Director of the Center for East European and Russian/Eurasian Studies, University of Chicago

Through his treatment of language as both an act and an artifact, Victor Friedman illustrated how language, politics and linguistics have intersected in the Western Balkans in the years since the break up of Yugoslavia, and especially in the years since the 1999 war in Kosovo and the 2001 insurgency in Macedonia.

Linguistics categorizes Balkan languages into four groups; Slavic, Romance, Greek and Albanian. Despite their dissimilar origins, Friedman contends that these languages have come to resemble each other in form and structure due to the intense contact the speakers of these languages have had with each other over time. This phenomenon is what linguists call mutual multilingualism. It was during the Ottoman period that this mutual multilingualism took place in the Balkans in relatively peaceful environments, forming modern day Balkan grammatical structures and forms. Indeed, the term Balkanism was coined to describe linguistic convergence due to interaction. Today, speakers of Balkan languages routinely, and unconsciously, use linguistic characteristics adopted from other language groups. This finding challenges linguistic ideology, which holds that any given language must be shown to be as distinct as possible from other languages and language groups.

Another important aspect of Friedman's research was to map out the dialects spoken over the region of the former Yugoslavia. Linguists from the region tend to associate certain dialects with distinct religious and ethnic identities. However, Friedman's maps reveal that dialectic boundaries rarely correspond with ethnic or political boundaries. This means that people living in the same area tend to speak the same dialect despite ethnic or religious difference.

This finding is particularly meaningful in the Gora Region of southern Kosovo, which is inhabited a group Muslims called the Gorani. The current political ideology regarding this issue by Bosnian political leaders is that all Slavic speaking Muslims are Bosnians. Judging from its features and dialectic differentiation, however, the Gorani language more closely resembles Macedonian in structure and pronunciation than Bosnian.

Ideology and linguistic reality conflict further in the Balkans with regard to the standardization of modern languages, which presents an opportunity to politicize language. Politics rarely produces good linguistics, however: in a book on Croatian linguistics published just a few years ago, it states that any town with a Catholic population can be considered to be speaking a dialect of Croatian. With Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Montenegrin already so similar, such statements do not contribute anything to the knowledge of the distinctions between these languages.

Through the process of mutual multilingualism, Balkan languages have borrowed heavily from Turkish since the period of the Ottoman Empire. Politics have since interfered, driving a process of marginalizing these "Turkisms" in the modern standardization of their languages. Bosnian is the exception here, since their identification with Islam has caused them to embrace Turkisms in their language as a way to differentiate their dialects from Serbian and Croatian. Nevertheless, the use of Turkish words is still prevalent throughout the region, even if they are used only colloquially.

Today, there is a new threat to linguistic purity: Freidman claims that English is the new Turkish in the Balkans, since it now has the ability to contaminate Balkan lexicons. The goal of European Union accession may push this process along. But along with the new words, Friedman is optimistic that EU norms will infiltrate the region as well. It was only EU accession that the Greek government published a Pomak textbook, which is a clear reversal of a long history of cultural assimilation of minorities. Certainly more tolerance and cultural accommodation will help bring a lasting peace to former Yugoslav countries as well.