Common language spells divisions in the Balkans

Rusmir SMAJILHODZIC, with Lajla VESELICA in Zagreb
In Sarajevo packs of cigarettes warn "Smoking kills" in three languages, Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian

Nicotine addicts in Bosnia are warned three times on their cigarette packets that "Pusenje ubija" ("Smoking kills") -- but this isn't an attempt to hammer home the health message.

The warning is printed in each of Bosnia's three official languages, Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian, even though the words are the same in each case, albeit one written using a different but widely known alphabet.

But the linguistic distinction is seen by many as artificial and driven by a wish to stir up nationalism.

A group of intellectuals from Bosnia, Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia drew up a declaration in late March claiming they speak a "common language" in the four ex-Yugoslav republics.

"It's as clear as day," said Fedja Isovic, a Bosnian playwright behind a popular regional sitcom, in which he says more than 300 Balkan actors "all speak their mother tongue" without any difficulty of comprehension between dialects.

"Only linguistic-nationalist hordes think differently," he told AFP.

From Zagreb to Podgorica through Sarajevo and Belgrade, around 15 million people speak the language that was standardised in the 19th and 20th centuries and was widely known as Serbo-Croatian during the communist Yugoslav era, written in either the Latin or Cyrillic alphabet.

But after the bloody break-up of the Yugoslav federation in the 1990s, nationalist elites tried to widen the linguistic gap between the newly-born countries.

- New words, new letters -

Croatia introduced words such as "zracna luka" instead of "aerodrom" for airport, while a spokesman is a now a "glasnogovornik" (literally "loudspeaker") instead of "portparol".

Montenegro, after declaring independence from Serbia in 2006, created two new letters in its alphabet.

In impoverished Bosnia, still deeply ethnically divided more than 20 years after the war that left 100,000 people dead, authorities circulate documents in three, often identical versions -- a significant cost for the country of 3.5 million people.

Meanwhile, in Serbia's southwestern Muslim-majority region of Sandzak, a local court had to hire Bosnian translators in 2015 due to defendants' claims that they didn't understand Serbian.

But not all attempts at changing the language have succeeded -- the Croatian effort to replace "televizija", the word for television, with "dalekovidnica" (distant vision), was given up long ago.

Attempts to subtitle Serbian films in Croatia were also abandoned after being publicly criticised and ridiculed.

The people behind the new declaration, which was unveiled in Sarajevo, say they were prompted by "political manipulations" of the language.

The manifesto calls for an end to linguistic purism and its consequences, such as the segregation of schoolchildren by ethnicity, particularly in Bosnia, on the pretext that they do not speak the same language.

While the terms BCS or BCMS are sometimes used administratively to describe the regional tongue, using initials of the relevant countries, the declaration did not propose a name for the common language, saying it is up to each speaker.

According to Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulic, who lives in Croatia and Sweden, people from the region living abroad often refer to it simply as "nas jezik" ("our language").

- 'Died with Yugoslavia' -

The declaration has sparked debate and criticism across the Balkans, where political tensions have risen in recent months and not everyone wants to emphasise linguistic similarities.

"That common language was a political project which died along with the former Yugoslavia," said Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic.

But Croatian satirist and writer Ante Tomic drily noted that the president had little difficulty communicating in the language with regional politicians.

Although the concept of a common language seems to be better accepted in Serbia, Milos Kovacic of the Serbian Literary Association argued it had not been named "since everyone knows well that it is the Serbian language".

Snjezana Kordic, a Croatian linguist and initiator of the declaration, described it as a "typical example of a polycentric standard language, spoken by several peoples, containing differences from which one can recognise where a speaker comes from".

She compared it with variants of English, French or German.

Although the declaration has won support from 8,000 people so far, critics have slammed them as traitors of their respective countries.

Croatian writer Davor Velnic described the signatories as "Yugo-intellectuals" and "parasites" who "never accepted the fact that there is an internationally-recognised sovereign Croatian state".