What the heck is Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian* Anyway?

*A brief summary of why BCS are so similar

Studying Bosnian/ Croatian/ Serbian, or BCS as most people usually refer to it, is not a very common foreign language choice in the US.  So, it’s no surprise that I always have to explain what BCS is.  “Oh my gosh you study three languages at once!” “Why do they have different names if they’re all the same?”

            First off, it’s important to understand that discussing the status of BCS is a sensitive topic, and one that is inherently political too.  I will try my best to be fair and clear in my short blog post here, but theses and dissertations can be written on this topic.  (In fact, this is the topic of my thesis!)

So, let us begin, yes, Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian speakers can understand each other without problems, but that doesn’t mean that the languages are identical either. Think about Australian English, British English, and American English.  The differences between BCS and these three dialects of English are a good comparison.  Let’s say 98% of the time we can all understand each other, but we have different accents, some different vocabulary, and even some minor grammatical differences.

Why then do we talk about English dialects, but BCS as languages? Well, we need to start with the fact that America and Australia were British colonies.  Because of this American English and Australian English are inherently derivatives of British English.  This is not the case in the Balkans.  Let us first think about Latin and the Romance languages (French, Spanish, and Italian).  We know that Latin moved across Western Europe eventually developing into these different but related languages.  The same phenomenon happened with BCS.  An old Slavic language spread across the Balkans and Eastern Europe creating what are today all of the different Slavic languages.  How then are BCS still so similar?

This is a difficult question to answer.  But it is true that Croatians, Bosnians, and Serbians have been intertwined throughout their entire history due to their proximity, government, and economies.  Historically, there has always been a lot of movement and trading within the Balkan peninsula.  In addition, these lands were at different periods over time united under various kingdoms, empires, etc. and this probably kept the languages more similar than its brothers and sisters (Bulgarian, Macedonian, Slovenian, Slovak, etc.). 

Crucially for the history of BCS, starting in the 1800s there were Balkan linguists who advocated for a combined literary language.  Ljudevit Gaj was a famous Croatian advocate for this movement.  And Vuk Karadžić was a famous Serbian author and folklorist who also argued for a unified language.  Unfortunately, Gaj and Vuk did not agree on what this unified language should look like, and while progress was made, enemies were also made. 

In the early 1900s, under the successive Yugoslav governments (Kingdom of Yugoslavia and then the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia) the governments actively worked to bring these languages closer together.  They created a unified dialect, vocabulary, and grammar, and called it Serbo-Croatian or Croato-Serbian, but this was met with mixed success.  While Serbo-Croatian was taught in schools, in general, people continued to talk the same way their parents and grandparents did at home.

During the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s Croatia and later Bosnia declared their languages to be independent.  This was seen, both as a political move, and also as  move to take back their linguistic history before the 1800s when the languages were adapted to move closer to each other.

If Gaj and Vuk had never thought to unite the languages would BCS be as similar as they are today? It’s hard to say. But what is important is that, while we often refer to these languages together as BCS, we recognize each country’s autonomy to decide how to refer to the language of their people and the unique history of each place that allows it to have its distinctive differences.

By: Kaitlyn Lee

Program: Balkan Language Initiative (BLI)

Term: Summer 2020

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