When politicians use language to create divisions

In Bosnia & Herzegovina, the anti-smoking warning on cigarette boxes is written in three languages... even if the phrase “Smoking kills” is exactly the same in all of them. Similar bizarre three-part rules apply to almost everything in the country. 

Lidija Pisker
Lidija Pisker NewsMavens, Balkans
When politicians use language to create divisions - NewsMavens
Cigarette warning from Bosnia and Herzegovina, YouTube

Why this story matters:

Languages have long been a political tool in the Balkans, but the language issue in Bosnia and Herzegovina has become so politicized that it is sometimes difficult to tell the truth from a joke. This is clearly the case with the anti-smoking warning on cigarette boxes. 

Over the last couple of years, however, claims that the language spoken in Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina is basically the same -- as stated in the book "Language and Nationalism" by Croatian linguist Snježana Kordić and the Declaration on the Common Language -- have become more structured and gained significant public attention. 

"The language belongs to all of us and matters to all of us," linguist Sandra Zlotrg, who is one of the signatories of the Declaration, told me during the interview for Equal Times. 

When university professor Senahid Halilović -- who created distinctive orthography rules for the Bosnian language in 1990s -- signed the Declaration this spring, it was big news. He said in an interview that we -- of course -- all speak the same language. As a result, he created new conventions for the writing of Bosnian that are far more inclusive and open to differences than previous versions have been. 

It gives hope that more inclusive language policies may help overcome divisions in the country. And both linguists and citizens should keep insisting on them. 

Details from the story:

  • The "Serbo-Croatian" language, spoken throughout former Yugoslavia, was fragmented into the Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Montenegrin languages during and after the wars in former Yugoslavia. 
  • In Bosnia and Herzegovina, three official languages (Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian) were instituted. 
  • The recognition of Croatian, Bosnian and Serbian as three distinct languages led to Bosnia's costly system of three-part public administration, public broadcasting service and schooling -- all provided in three different versions of what many people consider to be the same language.
  • In the parliament, for example, civil servants "translate" draft laws and other materials into all three languages for MPs who say they speak "different" languages. 
  • Public broadcasters hire proofreaders to adapt the news into all three official languages, depending on which ones journalists say they speak. 
  • Students, who are divided in separate classes in some schools, are being taught different curricula in these "different" languages. 
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