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Project RastkoHistory of Serb culture
TIA Janus

Pavle Ivic

Standard language as an instrument of culture and the product of national history

Chapter from the book
"The history of Serbian Culture"
The history of Serbian culture  


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Language is the basic tool of every nation's culture. The conceptual world which a society has mastered is maintained in it, and at the same time the further development of a society is determined by it, because it eases communication in certain ways and makes it more difficult in others. A closer examination of the history of the Serbian literary language indicates that all the pivotal changes in the orientation of Serbian culture are reflected not only in its vocabulary and syntax, but also in its morphology and phonology. Those changes denoted dimensions such as clerical or secular orientation, eastern or western orientation (including further subcategories, such as Byzantine versus Russian, German versus French versus Anglo-American), or aristocratic (elitist) versus populist.

A page from Miroslav's Gospel, one of the first extant manuscripts written in the Serbian variant of Church Slavonic

The language which Serbs speak is most often referred to in scholarship as Serbo-Croatian. This language is used by the Serbs and Croats, as well as by the Slavic Moslems of Bosnia and Herzegovina and of the Sanjak (a region which outlines the modern borders between Serbia and Montenegro). In the past, there were also groups who used the same language, but who were neither Serbs nor Croats. The Croats call the language Croatian, and the Serbs call it Serbian.


Serbo-Croatian belongs to the Slavonic group of languages, one of the three largest groups of the Indo-European family along with Romance and Germanic. In the early medieval period, differences among the Slavonic languages were relatively insignificant, probably being smaller than the differences among modern German dialects in Switzerland. During the sixties of the ninth century, two educated Byzantines from Salonica, the brothers Constantine (later known as Cyril from his monastic life) and Methodius, with their knowledge of the Slavonic language spoken around their native town, translated the most important religious books into Slavonic by order of the Byzantine emperor Michael. By the end of the tenth century, the language of those translations had become the liturgical and literary language of most Slavs in the area encompassing the Adriatic and Aegean seas and all the way to northern Russia. The fundamental corpus of abstract terms (religious, philosophical and psychological), into which the trends in the development of Greek thought in antiquity and in the early Middle Ages had been poured, thus obtained an adequate translation into Slavonic in a single move. The Slavs, therefore, also mastered the conceptual arsenal the Latins had acquired much earlier from the Greeks, and the later western European languages from Latin.

Old Church Slavonic, the creation of those two brothers from Salonika, thus entered the family of great liturgical and literary languages of Christian Europe, parallel to Greek and Latin. Beyond the borders of the Christian world, similar roles were played by Hebrew, classical Arabic and Sanskrit.

Constantine and Methodius also created a special alphabet which they used to write down their translations. This alphabet, known today as glagolitic, contained almost forty letters. The phonological pattern of Slavonic at that time was much richer than that of Greek, and glagolitic had a letter for each of the sounds. Among Orthodox Slavs, the glagolitic alphabet was soon replaced by one which would later be called Cyrillic. Cyrillic was, in fact, the Greek uncial alphabet of that period, complemented by fourteen special letters for Slavonic phonemes which did not exist in Greek. Thus, an instrument of culture was created which was far more suitable than the Latin alphabet, which had been created for the Latin language in antiquity through an adaptation of the Greek alphabet, and which lacked letters for the special phonemes of later European languages. This would burden the literature of those languages with many problems, vacillations and inconsistencies. The solution was most often sought in assigning a group of two or three characters for a single phoneme. Thus, the well known case of the consonant marked in English by sh, in French by ch, in Italian by sc or sci, in German by sch, in Swedish by sj, in Polish by sz, and so on. In Cyrillic there is only one letter for that sound, and it is the same wherever that alphabet is used.


The common literary language and common alphabet of the Bulgars, Serbs and Russians facilitated sharing of literary and scholarly works among those milieus, and thus to a great extent one may say that they had a common literature. In time, the languages of those peoples developed divergently, but the language of the liturgy and literature remained basically the same. In fact, differences in pronunciation arose even in that common language, like in the Latin of western European countries in the Middle Ages, but among the Slavs those differences were also expressed in writing. The replacement of certain vowels by others in spoken language was accompanied by a corresponding change in writing. Since the phonemic changes themselves were not the same everywhere, several different variants of Church Slavonic (no longer Old Church Slavonic) were produced - Russian, Bulgarian and Serbian. Those slight changes had no effect on whether a text could be understood or not, nor did they undermine the enormous advantage the extensive exchange in culture.

The mutual literary language of the Serbs, Bulgarians and Russians consolidated their participation in the cultural milieu of Orthodoxy, which was always open to influence from Greek. Many texts were translated from Greek, and once translated the texts circulated throughout the Orthodox Slavic world, as did original works by Slavic authors. The Slavic monasteries on Athos were among the main translation centres. The Serbian monastery there is Hilandar, founded by Stefan Nemanja, the founding father of the most significant medieval Serbian dynasty. These translations constantly enriched literary Serbian Church Slavonic, which took in neologisms coined according to the models of Greek words. Most of these words had abstract meanings. Slavic authors themselves developed and widely practised the art of creating such words. The potential for expression in Church Slavonic was constantly expanding, and it reached a very high level in the field of religious and abstract themes. It was remarkably well developed for formal expression, for rhetorical figures of speech and stylistic arabesque, which was in accord with the Byzantine poetics of the time. There were very few loan-words in the language. Translators and authors usually did not borrow Greek words but rather replaced them with calques, obviously out of respect for the ideal of purity in language.

The Esphigmen Charter of despot Djuradj Brankovic, issued to the monastery of Esphigmen on Athos in 1429

Unlike Latin, Church Slavonic was not completely incomprehensible to those who had not studied it specially. Differences between Serbian, Russian and Bulgarian from Church Slavonic became greater with the passing of time, but in the Middle Ages comprehensibility was reduced only to a limited extent. This was not entirely advantageous, because it meant that domestic literature appeared quite late. In the countries where Latin was the language of the liturgy, such literature appeared much earlier.

Yet, there was a domain in which the vernacular was widely used in medieval literacy in the Serbian lands: the charters of rulers and magnates, and other secular legal documents such as codes of law, were written in the vernacular. The goal of such documents was to be clear to all so that there would be no misunderstandings or arguments about their interpretation. Along with that, the texts were filled with things about every day life which could not be expressed well with the language of the church since it lacked vocabulary in those particular semantic fields. These legal texts reveal a surprisingly rich terminology of legal, social and economic life. The areas in which words of domestic origins dominated and those in which loan words prevailed were clearly defined. Legal expressions, including the terminology of the feudal societal hierarchy, were usually Slavonic, having been inherited from ancient times or created on Serbian soil. Loan words from Greek were central in the terminology of church life, contrasted with the terminology of religion itself which was consistently Slavonic. In the domain of economy, apart from Greek words, there were many Romance words especially among the names for measures and monetary units. There was also a remarkable contrast between trade, whose international character was evident also in the terminology, and agriculture in which there were practically no words of foreign origins. In mining, which was done at that time by Germanic settlers (the Saxons), the majority of expressions were German.

In many documents, especially in the endowments made to the monasteries, there were introductions written in ecclesiastical language, in which the donator's intentions in doing an act pleasing to God were presented. One could speak of God, or to God, only with the holy language of the church. The vernacular was used only when the theme was appropriate. In truth, the use of both languages in one text indicates that the two languages were not considered to be different, rather that they were functional variants of the same language. It often occurred that a word or form from ecclesiastical language was put into the context of the vernacular.

Around the year 1400, the orthographic norm in Serbian books was notably changed in the desire to make it more archaic and to bring it closer to the Greek model. After this hint of humanism, the movement never became widespread among the Serbs because it was stopped short by the Turkish invasion.

Up to the fifteenth century, the only social group with an education to speak of was the priesthood. In its hands were the literatures of both religion and erudition. Members of the clergy used church language in every day liturgical practice, and they were practically the only ones who completely and willingly mastered that language. This consolidated their superiority in the field of culture and the powerful influence they had on culture in general. The basic orientation for the Serbs of the Middle Ages in terms of the literary language was given by the church.

Nevertheless, there was also literature in the vernacular at that time. Medieval romances were translated for the entertainment of the feudal lords. Such popular literature was more attractive for the reader if it was presented in a language which he could understand without much effort. From the fifteenth century onward, annals were included in the repertoire, historical documents with laymen's contents. Finally, the vernacular was undoubtedly the media of expression in oral literature, for which there is evidence that it flourished in the medieval period, even though no written texts are extent.

The Ottoman invasion did not change the existing relationships in literary language. The parallel existence of ecclesiastical language and the vernacular was retained, especially the predominance of the ecclesiastical. Characteristically, the only form of expression found in printed books of the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was that of Church Slavonic. In fact, Turkish rule conserved the state of things as they had been in the Middle Ages. The changes that did occur were in favour of ecclesiastical language, which corresponds to the situation in Serbian society. Since the political rulers of the Serb nation were wiped out, the heads of the church were its only leaders.

Changes came about in the second quarter of the eighteenth century, first among the Serbs living in the lands of the Habsburg Empire. The Empire had snatched most of the territory of medieval Hungary from Turkey, and found a large population of Serbs living there, including refugees who had just arrived from the lands which remained under the Turks.


The Austrian government made liberal use of the Serbs as soldiers, and at the same time they put pressure on the Serbs to accept unification with the church of Rome. The church hierarchy put up resistance to that pressure. The church was the only form of leadership that the Austrian government tolerated. The Orthodox church was tortuously restricted by the lack of church books necessary for the liturgy and for the training of the priesthood. The Austrian government intentionally did not allow the publication of Serbian books, which turned out to be a grave error. Russia took over the role of the protector of Orthodoxy. For the needs of the Serbian church, church books from Russia were imported, often through secret channels. Thus, the Russian variant of Church Slavonic was introduced. At the initiative of the Serbian Metropolitans, Russian teachers began to arrive in 1726, and they taught the young Serbian clergy the type of Church Slavonic which they knew themselves. Soon afterwards, the Russian variant became the official language of the Serbian church, pressing traditional Serbian Church Slavonic into the background. Changes in the language corresponded to changes in cultural policy: the main trends in Serbian culture continued to be defined by the church, but now it took on a marked orientation toward Russia. A new language resulted from that orientation, and it was the greatest tool in the development of that orientation.

The cover page of the Serbian Dictionary by Vuk Stefanovic Karadzic, printed in Vienna in 1818

Independently of the intentions of the Serbian church authorities, in the second half of the eighteenth century, other matters were introduced from Russia along with the religious ones. Russia, which had been open to western European culture from the time of Peter the Great forward, became the mediator through which that culture penetrated into the milieu of the Serbian middle class, created during the eighteenth century in the Habsburg lands. This made it possible to deviate from the norm of Church Slavonic. On one hand, many Russian words which had not existed in Church Slavonic remained unchanged when Russian texts were adapted for the needs of the Serbs. Certain Serbian authors even began writing in the Russian literary language of the day, intending their texts to be read by both Serb and Russian readers. The concept of a common "Slavonic" literary language also began to spread, which would insure an expansive cultural exchange.


However, all of that proved to be an illusion. Both Church Slavonic and Russian were too far removed from the living language of the Serbs; large segments of the population did not understand texts written in those languages. The development swung unstoppably in the direction of drawing the literary language closer to the language of the people. In 1768, Zaharija Orfelin introduced a mixture of Church Slavonic and the vernacular into the Serbian literary language by proclamation; in this language there was always room for specific Russian words. This language was later called Slavo-Serbian, and it united the possibilities of expression of two or even three languages in itself. However, it was burdened by two significant weaknesses which proved fatal to it. It was different from normal literary languages in that it was chaotic. Instead of grammatical rules, arbitrariness reigned; according to the subjective premonition of the author, he could choose the Serbian, Church Slavonic or Russian form. With such an instrument of expression, there was also a lack of intellectual precision and aesthetic refinement. Altogether, the language suffered from the fact that large portions of the population could not understand it. Many of the words were unfamiliar to the Serbs, and there are a lot of words which have a different meaning in Serbian than in Russian or in Church Slavonic. Along with these difficulties stood the fact that church language did not have the lexical stock to deal with the realities of every day life in the central European civilization of the day. Also, Russian could not be heard anywhere in Serbian society and it was not taught in schools. As the pressure for church unification eased, the reasons for despising the cultures of non-Orthodox Europeans disappeared, and as the middle class began to grow, Serbian society in the Austrian territories began to become secularized, as did its culture. In place of Russia, which was far away and unfamiliar, Europe was taken ever more to be the model, especially those countries where German was spoken since German was the dominant language of the Habsburg Empire; one could not advance in one's military or clerical career without German, or in trade or artisanship. The role of components of folk language grew ever greater in the Serbo-Slavic literary language.

In 1783, Dositej Obradovic, the central figure of Serbian literature in the eighteenth century, came out with his language programme. Inspired by the ideas of the European enlightenment, he took a utilitarian approach to literary language. Language must be comprehensible to the reader, even to women for whom schooling was not available at the time. Advocating, in theory and practice, the use of the vernacular in literature, he left those Russian and Church Slavonic words intact (mainly words for abstractions) which did not have equivalents in the Serbian vernacular. His followers continued in the same direction. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, there where practically only two forms of language still existing: the Slavo-Serbian mixture and the vernacular introduced by Obradovic. The Russian literary language was no longer used by Serb writers, and Church Slavonic had become truly rare outside of theological or liturgical books. In accord with changes in Serbian society and culture, the literary language of the Serbs was transformed once again. It was no longer determined by the church, and its basic orientation was toward other parts of Europe and not toward Russia.


In 1814, an extremely talented, brave and aggressive autodidact entered the arena of literary language. The son of a peasant, Vuk Karadzic moved to Austria as a refugee from Serbia after the First Serbian Uprising. He carried the unquenchable spirit of that uprising in himself, along with the rich folklore tradition of the Serbian peasantry. Karadzic's meeting with Jernej Kopitar, the great Viennese Slavist, was decisive for his further lifework; Kopitar was carried away with a romantic delight in the authentic folk spirit, incarnated in the pure vernacular and in folklore. At Kopitar's insistence, Karadzic began to publish folklore and to work on language materials. His book, A Serbian Dictionary, with a section on grammar was published in 1818, and it laid the foundations for a new type of literary language whose roots were in the speech of country folk and not urban dwellers. In his later works, Karadzic defined a new attitude toward the heritage of Church Slavonic. It was to be retained to the extent that it actually had to be, and strictly adapted to the phonological and morphological structure of Serbian. Karadzic fundamentally reformed the Serbian Cyrillic alphabet as well, omitting all those letters which did not correspond to a particular sound in the Serbian vernacular. He introduced an orthography in which the written word precisely reflected the spoken word, according to the principle of "a letter for every sound".


The resistance to Karadzic's reform was great. Conservative leaders in the church defended the Orthodox heritage characterised in Church Slavonic words and the traditional set of Cyrillic letters, whereas most of the writers and most of the bourgeoisie were not ready to sacrifice their "noble" language, which they elevated above the speech patterns of the peasantry. Even the dialect in which Karadzic wrote caused a sharp reaction. In the literary language up till then, the ekavian neo-stokavian dialect of the northeastern regions had dominated, because the most significant cultural, political and economic centres of the Serbs had been located in those regions. This included all of Vojvodina and most of Serbia which had been liberated by then. Yet, Karadzic wrote in his ijekavian mother tongue, which covered areas in western Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, in Montenegro and among Serbs in Croatia, Slavonia and Dalmatia.

It seemed from the very beginning that Karadzic's reforms were doomed to failure. However, he had a great reputation abroad, and even among the Serbs, mostly because of the collections of folk poems he gathered and published. In the 1840s in his homeland, he became the idol of the romanticist young people, who found inspiration for their fiery patriotism in folk poetry. The opposition of the conservatives was just another reason for the young to be delighted with the spiteful innovations of Karadzic. The influence of the priesthood in Serbian society was on the decline, and on Austrian soil the advances in education broadened the group of those interested in the democratization of culture. The spirit of Karadzic's struggle echoed the populist mentality, lending the tone to the new Serbian state, created by the uprisings of the peasant masses against the Turks in 1804 and 1815. Last but not least, Karadzic's Cyrillic alphabet and orthography were obviously superior to the existing heritage (even today Karadzic's system of writing is one of the most adequate in the world). At the beginning of the 1860s, his reform came in to common use, and the government in Serbia removed the last surviving limitations on the use of his form of Cyrillic in 1868.

The victory of Karadzic's reform meant the consistent secularization of literary language and its total democratization by opening up to the language of country dwellers. The language stood on a purely Serbian foundation, which emancipated it from its historical connections to other Orthodox Slavs. All of that fit in perfectly with the general orientation in the culture of the Serbs at the time.

Quite naturally, much less of the Church Slavonic heritage remained in the literary language of the Serbs than in that of the Russians or Bulgarians. The Serbian lands are not only farther west, but also a large part of those lands belonged to predominantly Catholic Austria.

The title page of the Concise Serbian Grammar by Vuk Stefanovic Karadzic as translated by Jacob Grimm, published in Vienna in 1824

In one sense, Karadzic's victory was not complete. Serbia and Vojvodina, with their solidly rooted literary tradition, were not prepared to exchange their characteristic ekavian for ijekavian, while in the areas where ijekavian was spoken, his reforms were accepted unaltered. Additionally, in his consistency towards his phonetic principle, Karadzic took out of use the Cyrillic letter for the old Slavonic vowel whose differing development had created the contrast between ekavian and ijekavian. In doing so he made it impossible for a unified graphic form of the Serbian language to be preserved, regardless of the existence of two different pronunciations. That explains creation and coexistence even today of two versions of the Serbian literary language, a fact which has been a source of problems, both cultural and political. A part of those problems are rooted in the fact that the Croats accepted Karadzic's ijekavian as their own literary language during the nineteenth century, however gradually and in stages, even though only a small segment of the Croat population actually spoke in that idiom. The literary-language unity of the Croats was realized in that process, because before that they had used regional literary languages. At the same time, it became possible for Croat national determination to penetrate into regions whose population had only been conscious of its regional affiliation before that. Likewise, the language they spoke was much closer to that of Karadzic's reform than to Croatian kajkavian, which had held the status of the literary language in Zagreb until the 1830s.

This language policy on the part of the Croats, often accompanied by statements about linguistic and even ethnic unity of Croats and Serbs, created a new constellation in the territories where Serbo-Croatian was spoken: the ijekavian variant of Karadzic's literary language became consolidated among the Croats at the end of the nineteenth century, catching on among the Moslems of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Serbs living in the western lands before that, including Montenegro in the southwest. The ekavian variant remained in Serbia, including Vojvodina which was a part of Hungary until 1918.


In doing away with its Church Slavonic heritage in an unnecessarily rigorous way, along with some of the changes introduced later which had made the writer's sentence more flexible in the preceding period, the literary language of the Serbs took some steps backward in terms of certain features. However, the gains made in the victory of Vuk Karadzic's ideas were greater still. The way was paved for the spontaneous, unforced development of the literary language. That development has moved in a straight line since then, through the simple expansion of fields of possible expression, without modifying or abandoning that which already exists in the language. The vocabulary is increasing through word formation, mostly using domestic (Slavonic) roots, and existing lexemes are gaining nuances of meaning, but there is also broad acceptance of loan-words. The orientation of the Serbian literary language is mostly cosmopolitan, as are, for example, Russian, Polish and English; they stand opposed to other languages, Slavonic and otherwise, which have purist tendencies. The main difference between the Serbian and Croatian variants of the literary language is the greater willingness of Serbian to take in a foreign word, while the tendency in Croatian is to translate it with a neologism. The main body of foreign words adopted during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have consisted of internationally used words from Greek or Latin roots, especially in recent times. The structural similarities of Serbian with the two great classical languages allow it to incorporate such words with relative ease. Apart from that, many French words were assimilated in the early decades of the twentieth century, while many English words have been adopted since World War II.

The development of possibilities for expression in literary language has taken place in parallel with the appearance of various kinds of new professions and with the advances made in economy, science and technology. The introduction of each new concept also introduced words for those concepts. That process has gone on naturally, basically without interference from political quarters or from the purism of philologists. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the so-called "Belgrade style" appeared, first in essay prose; its protagonists were highly sophisticated writers, connoisseurs of many languages and of world literature. They introduced the urban spirit into the literary language in a definitive way, this time accompanied by spontaneity and the elegance of effortless expression. The sentence in Serbian attained a new kind of flexibility from the pens of those writers, significantly influenced by models taken from French. The trend they started continued to develop. Later development brought even greater stylistic diversification. The active imagination of certain writers led them to experiment with both literature and language, while others developed concise, precise expression in which everything was functional and nothing was excessive.

In the state of Yugoslavia which was formed in 1918, the relationship of Serbs and Croats toward their mutual literary language has changed. In the nineteenth century it was the Croats who insisted on the idea of unity, in language and otherwise, and when unification actually occurred it turned out that they needed it only to solve some of the problems they were going through at the time. They did not intend to construct and develop a mutual state, their goal was to separate themselves from Yugoslavia. Toward that end, Croatian linguists began to attend to differences and not to similarities. The Serbs, who took the idea of unity seriously, were surprised by this attitude. Those struggling for secession found a stronghold among Croat language experts, who had gained in strength especially after the Declaration on the Name and Position of Croatian Literary Language (1967); they presented the desire for unity to the Croatian public as Serbian unitarian pressure. The Croatian literary language was proclaimed to be a separate entity, and discussions about that served as psychological preparation for secession. Massive numbers of new words were coined so that the Croatian literary language would differ as much as possible from Serbian. On the Serbian side there was no such behaviour. Serb linguists did their own work, aware that linguistic unity means a broader market for culture and a richer culture, and that the change of language norms and the introduction of a multitude of new words inevitably cause confusion in the public whose linguistic habits get uprooted and replaced by others. Thus, the development of the literary language among the Serbs was protected from extremism and damaging changes.

Political events and the war in 1991 and 1992 caused the break up of state unity in the area where Serbo-Croatian is spoken. Croatia is being flooded with a new wave of artificially created differences in language in relation to the Serbs, the greatest wave since the so-called Independent State of Croatia which existed under the protection of the Nazis from 1941 to 1945. However, on the Serbian side there were no similar changes, and the existing conditions among the Serbian public indicate that no such changes will occur. On the other hand, among the Serbs in the west lands, especially those in the Serb Republic (Republika Srpska - in the territory of former Bosnia and Herzegovina), there is a strong tendency to consolidate the cultural unity of Serbs, which means a reduction of the already small differences in the language spoken there with that which is spoken in Serbia.

// Projekat Rastko / The history of Serbian culture //
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