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Serbo-Croatian language issues

by Дарко Максимовић

From 1800s up to 1990s big efforts were made by many famous linguists in Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and other republics of former Yugoslavia to form a unique name and standard for the Serbo-Croatian language. There were differences between the spoken language in Croatia and Serbia, but these differences were all simply ignored and recognized as equivalent parts of the same language. The number of speakers was more than 20,000,000 in one moment and it all worked fine until ethnic clashes in 1990s took place all over.

War in Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo and Slovenia, fought between former "brotherly nations" of Yugoslavia, made a permanent impact on the language itself. From the very start of this war, ethnic Serbs already stopped using the term "Serbo-Croatian language", and returned to calling it "Serbian language". The same thing happened in Croatia, and thus we have Croatian language. Also, new languages arose: Bosnian Moslems, now called Bosniaks, declared their own language, the Bosnian language, which is nonetheless just another, third, name. Just recently, politicians in Montenegro, independent from 2006, declared their own name for the language - the Montenegrin language. So, at this moment, we have four languages to confuse the international public:

  • Serbian
  • Croatian
  • Bosnian
  • Montenegrin

The languages are mutually understandable, the grammar is identical (except for Future Tense, which differs between Serbian and Croatian), so for years now there's a widespread joke about former Yugoslavians all being polyglots. However, this situation isn't going to last forever. Not that we are going to remedy the hatred and return to calling our language one name, but, instead, life goes on, people study, watch their television and ads, read their books and linguists feel free to modify their language without accordance to their colleagues in other republics, so the differences actually multiply each day and there will possibly be a moment in our future when mutual understanding will be much more difficult than today. This is only my opinion, however.

The situation today isn't much better; although we all understand each other, in both spoken and written form, and frequently visit each other's forums and web-based newspapers, the differences are still obvious and anyone, if in situation to read the same source of information in both versions of Serbo-Croatian language, shall usually choose the one their ethos/nation dictates. For example, if you read an article from Blic or B92 (Serbian newspapers), you may bump into a word like "emitirati" (which isn't used in Serbia, but its equivalent "emitovati"), which usually suggests that the article was "translated" from Croatian, and this word scraped the eye of the journalist.

Today there are also Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian Wikipedias. Although a Bosnian, Serb or Croat can read any of these, there is a great competition between the projects, and no Croatian/Serbian wiki-article can enter the Serbian/Croatian Wikipedia without previous adaptation. Same thing with movie subtitles: a Serbian person will first look for a Serbian subtitle, but if none exist, they will search for a Croatian or Bosnian. A little annoying for many, but a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

Let's get to the point. The main differences between Serbian and Croatian language are:

Letters

  • In standard Serbian both Serbian Latin and Serbian Cyrillic letters are allowed (Serbian Latin and Croatian Latin are identical)
  • In standard Croatian only Croatian Latin letters are allowed

Ekavian/Ijekavian

  • In standard Serbian both Ekavian and Ijekavian dialects are recognized (words "Reka" (River), "Belo" (White), "Beležiti" (Note)... may also be spelled "Rijeka", "Bijelo", "Bilježiti" ...)
  • In standard Croatian only Ijekavian dialect is recognized (Rijeka, Bijelo, Bilježiti)

Future tense

  • In standard Serbian the future tense is built by merging the infinitive base with suffixes ću, ćeš, će... so it is spelled radiću (I will work), radićeš (You shall work).
  • In standard Croatian the future Tense is built similarly, but not the same: Radit ću, Radit ćeš, Radit će, etc.

Foreign names

  • In standard Serbian some nouns of foreign origin, but mainly personal, given names, all need to be transcribed, i.e. written as their are spoken, according to Serbian phonetic alphabet. So, John becomes Džon, Christopher-Kristofer, Duff-Daf, Willis-Vilis, Nathan-Nejtan, David-Dejvid, Bruce-Brus etc.
  • In standard Croatian foreign names are spelled in original, except for Chinese, Russian and other non-Latin languages, of course.

A thousand or two different words, from those slightly different (Lobanja-Lubanja-Scull, Emitirati-Emitovati-To Broadcast, Računar-Računalo-Computer) to those completely different (Voz-Vlak-Train, Januar-Siječanj-January, Krst-Križ-Cross, Paradajz-Rajčica-Tomato, Sijalica-Žarulja-Bulb, Direktor-Ravnatelj-Principal etc.)

Slight style and word order differences.

In order to cover all the mentioned topics and differences, and more, a piece of software was developed, IKIprev, able to convert any given text in Serbo-Croatian to any wanted dialect/language/letter. This software was published with a web interface at http://ikiprev.com and allows users to not only translate a piece of text, but also give a random URL and view the page in the target language. Something like Google Translate, but much better for the given languages and with no AI involved (none needed, for the grammar is virtually the same). People in Serbia, many of them complaining about the fact that the majority of Serbian sites are written in Latin, not Cyrillic, use this site for adapting web-contents they view daily. This became very easy since a Firefox addon had been published, https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/70892, which can be configured to auto-translate any requested page on certain domains. Wiki and subtitles translators need no longer waste time in doing this stuff manually.

Croatian users, which, especially with new generations, no longer understand Cyrillic letters, may access any Serbian site, not only in Latin, but also with specific Croatian words instead of Serbian, Ijekavian instead of Ekavian etc. As time goes by and linguists, shoulder to shoulder with medias, writers and scientists, shape their corresponding languages in accordance with their own style, culture, history and needs, this piece of software will have to be equipped with richer dictionaries, which at this moment contain more than 150.000 word forms, and will probably have to involve advanced algorithm techniques. This may also be a profitable project, especially if more people start using its web-translate option, and start reading their morning news in the way that suits them most. Big local sites, browsers and/or search engines, may contribute to this, too, offering their users the ability to read their text in any given form.

Serbo-Croatian networks are already clogged with different tools for translating between Serbo-Croatian, Latin/Cyrillic, etc. but they all either do just one thing (usually the simplest), either do it really poor, or both. The biggest piece of such software I saw had around 5000 mixed words which were simply Found & Replaced and just spoiled my texts instead of adapting them. Internet is still poorly accessible in the Balkans, and some estimate that e.g. only up to 15-20% of people in Serbia use it, many of them still on dial-up, so any language-related subject isn't worth much. The situation may be illustrated by the fact that this very project, although related to language, was developed by a sole person, a student of mathematics, which is merely interested in language in his spare time. Many still don't know how to write in Cyrillic/Serbo-Croatian Latin on the computer, so they use ASCII Latin (English Latin) instead and words such as Preći, Šuma, Čiko, Zavežljaj are spelled Preci, Suma, Ciko, Zavezljaj; ambiguous words are understood from context. IKIprev.com has started a project for correcting such texts, too, but is still in BETA. Until people get to know their language better, start using the Internet more and, maybe, get relief from recent wars and economy problems, this project is probably going to be used by enthusiasts, but it's certainly better to start earlier and follow the progress.

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