Wednesday, 16 September 2009

What country are we in again?

Caught out once again by the semantics of this country. I was out and about near the east of the Bosnia, very close to the border with Serbia. This part of the country is a part of the Republika Srpska, the Serb half of Bosnia, usually known as the RS. It is very beautiful; forested hills, green valleys and the stately Drina River. This time of year there are cornfields and fishermen. The temperature is cooling to very pleasurable levels, it is really pretty Garden of Eden perfect like.

I'd been having a coffee with some very nice people, who had been more than welcoming and had offered me vast quantities of food and drink leading to us all having a very convivial time. They asked me where my children were, and I had said, in Bosnian, that the boys were at nursery. They asked me how the boys were coping with the language and I had replied that I thought they understood everything and that now they were actually starting to speak Bosnian.

There was a silence and then one of the men looked straight at me and in that sort of voice that says do not even think of contradicting me said that they weren't learning to speak Bosnian, they were learning to speak Serbian.

I forget sometimes about the realities of this country. If I had been to the south or the west of Bosnia, the men would have looked at me and told me that my children were learning to speak Croatian. The fact that these 'different' languages are as different as American and Australian are to English is neither here nor there. Nor was the fact that I struggle to speak any of them well, so to have to worry about who I am talking to and to remember to say Bosnian, Serbian or Croatian is way beyond me. It was important to them that I knew and that I understood that the language we were speaking was not Bosnian.

It is not restricted to the language. If you are in the RS when Bosnia are playing football you would never know it. Noone is watching. Their football team, the team they want to go to the World Cup, is Serbia and they are passionate about that. In the Croat areas of the country, they support Croatia (must remember not to say 5-1 at inappropriate times, the Croats are devastated, their media is imploding with grief in a way that I thought only the English could really do).

It is only the Bosniaks (also known as the Bosnian Muslims) who really identify with Bosnia. They speak Bosnian, they support Bosnia, they understand themselves to be Bosnian. They will do whatever it takes to keep the country together and at the more extreme end of the scale this involves trampling all over the sensitivities of the Serbs and Croats in the country.

The Americans say that they speak English. Chucking the Brits out of their country didn't lead them to insist that their language is American. It really doesn't matter what they call their language, noone is going to get upset about it. But, when the conflict here is so recent it becomes obvious that this tiny thing, a foreigner mistaking the name of the language they are trying to speak, is unbelievably important.

Suddenly I feel that 14 years after the conflict ended, Bosnia still has a long way to go before it can really function as a normal country.


Athena125 said...

This is so true... I learned Serbo-Croatian at school (pre-91, of course), and can still speak the language, even read Cyrillic... Though whenever I go "south", I never know what language to admit to speaking... Croatian changed somewhat, and with all the nationalism I prefer to speak English or German in Croatia. Play tourist, so to speak. The Serbs from Serbia are a bit more liberal, so I can speak "my" version of the language and say it's Serbian. But I do believe the RS Serbs are a whole other story... And the Bosnian "dialect"? Well to be perfectly honest, they're still all pretty much the same to me!

Dino said...

Hi Emily,

I would suggest calling the language "naš jezik" ("our language")if a conversation ends up slipping into that topic and no one will be offended. Me and everyone I know of in Mostar just say "naš jezik" and no one will ever be offended by it.

The main reason non-Bosnian Muslims get offended by the term "Bosanski jezik" ("Bosnian language") is because this "Bosnian language" has had many Arabic and Turkish terms put in its dictionary in an attempt to make it indigenous and as different as possible to standard Serbocroatian. (Which is the term I personally prefer to use for Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian, because it is all really the same language).

So for example, a fair amount of Bosnian Muslims now reject the term "Dobar dan" ("Good day") and have replaced it with "salam al alaikum", which is an Arabic phrase. In fact, when a family friend went to Sarajevo last year and said "Dobar dan" to a sales assistant in a shop, the sales assistant told him he would only serve him if he said "salam al alaikum"!

Other stupidities of this newly created "Bosnian language" include the additions of "h" where it's not supposed to go, for example the word for coffee (either "kafa" or "kava") has now been turned into "kaHva". This is a particular annoyance to the non-Muslim population in BiH (but even some Muslims find it irritating) because they say that before the war no one who had any sort of education spoke like this; the only people that did were the old people in tiny villages who never had any sort of formal education. So this "Bosnian language" is rejected for being gramatically incorrect and backward by the non-Muslims. (And none of these terms were in any language dictionary before the war broke out).

But this "Bosnian language" is what is now being taught in Bosnian Muslim schools, and understandably many non-Muslim people find it hard to accept why people have now started talking like this when they never used to before the war, which is why the language issue continues to cause such fury. No non-Muslim can accept the fact that "salam al alaikum" and "KaHva" and other silly terms are now being passed on as the "Bosnian language".

So all in all, just use the term "nas jezik" and no one will be offended. :)

Mwa said...

The language thing happens in other countries as well. I'm never sure if I should say I speak Dutch or Flemish. The difference is small, but very big to some. Dutch may be the correct term, but then foreigners assume I live in the Netherlands.

Iota said...

I'd be putting my foot in it the whole time, if I lived there.

Oh ha ha - the word verification is stumblen.

Patrick said...

It's unfortunate that that fellow felt compelled to "correct" you, when, I suspect, it was doubtlessly obvious that you were not trying to make a political statement. And even if you were, he should just get over it! It's exactly this zero sum game that's the problem in BiH. They should be happy you're making an effort to speak njihov jezik (and it's not easy for native English speakers!) irrespective of what it's called.

I would also point out that not only Bosnian Muslims identify with Bosnia - there are Serbs and Croats who identify with Bosnia - before the war, during the war and now. Indeed, there are really only two groups of people in Bosnia: not Muslims, Serbs and Croats, but rather those who want a multi-ethic, liberal Bosnia, and those who don't.

Anonymous said...

Patrick you are very correct. It all comes down to that simple distinction. For multi-ethnic Bosnia or not.

Brit in Bosnia / Fraught Mummy said...

Athena125 - the dialects sound all the same to me - as someone learning the language, I don't have a clue which words are different.

Dino - Very interesting. To be honest, I live in a predominantly Muslim area, and I've never heard of anyone saying salam al alaikum instead of Dobar Dan nor seen Kahva on menus or adverts. I think, like most of BiH, there must be different experiences of what is happening to the languages in different places. Nas jesik sounds like a good phrase to use though, I shall remember that!

Mwa - the more I find out about Belgium the more I think Bosnia and Belgium are very similar!

Iota - oh, all the time. My foot is seldom out of it. The joy is though, I can play the foreigner card which usually gets me out of trouble.

Patrick - you are completely right, to talk about Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats was an unforgiveable generalisation. My best friend here is Bosnian Serb and she has never ever talked about talking Serbian. I prefer your distinction, I think it is more accurate.

Anonymous - Like I just said to Patrick, I think this is a much better distinction.

A Modern Mother said...

I'm so glad you have an open and find this all enlightening. I am still amazed you can speak Bosnian/Croatian (whichever one it is.)

Linda said...

Really interesting. I was going to do Serbo-Croat at university and decided against it in the end.

Thanks for posting about this and for all the insights you have inspired from your commenters.

I have sent a 'great read' award over from so thank you for a, um, great read.


Bosnjak88 said...

The Bosnian langauge does exist, we say words differently to the way Serbs and Croats do. To sum this all up for you: all 3 langauges are very similar. The only difference is in slang, dialect and how people say/pronounce words. Also, Arabic has not been thrown into the Bosnian language like that person said. Bosnian Muslims say "as salaymu aleykum" because we have accepted Arabic as the language of the holy Quran and Prophet Muhammed sallallahou alayhi wasallam.

Anyway. to aviod problems, The UN should of labelled the language Bosnians, Serbs and Croats use as "Yugoslavian". As it's all the same besides different accents and pronounce.

PS: Your blog is good and very informative for the outsider who hasn't visited BiH

Muddling Along Mummy said...

Its incredible whilst 14 years does seem like a long time that the impact of the war is still so very close to the surface -it must be so hard to navigate, especially when you're still learning the language

Dino said...


You either don't live in Bosnia or you have been away for a very long time if you claim that Arabic and Turkish has not been mixed into the so called "Bosnian language".
There are many more orientalisms in there then just "salaymu aleykum" for example "Poselami" (which is a Turkish/Arabic now being used instead of "Pozdravi" in Sarajevo), "tufinjaj" (which is a Turkish word which is now being used to replace "hodaj" among Muslims), "natalahaj" (which is another Turkish word which is being used to replace "obuci") etc etc. I could go on and name many more examples.

If you were to actually try and find information about this on Google you would also find many sources which would tell you the same, for example this one:

And I quote: "lexically, Islamic-Oriental loan words are becoming more frequent; phonetically and phonologically, the phoneme "h" is reinstated in many words as a distinct feature of Bosniak speech and language tradition"

Brit in Bosnia / Fraught Mummy said...

MM - saying I can speak the language is quite of an exaggeration. Can mangle it happily for the length it takes to drink a coffee is far more accurate.

Linda - That is fascinating that you were thinking of doing Serbo-Croat at University, what made you decide against it (beyond its impossibility difficult structure?). Thanks for the award!

Bosnjak88 - I agree, there should be one all encompassing name for the language. After all differences in slang, dialect and pronounciation doesn't make it a different language - or else we'd be saying that the Geordies, Brummies and people from Somerset all speak different languages. I was going to say the Scottish but I do sometimes think that they do speak a different language, as I can't understand an awful lot of what they say! (just joking Scots).

MAM - The impact of the conflict can be terribly close to the surface, particularly when you talk to people. But on a day to day basis here in Tuzla (which has been mostly rebuilt) the war can seem like a long time ago. Other cities, such as Mostar, still bear much more visible signs.

Dino - As Bosnian is phoenetic, does this mean that the 'h' that you say is being inserted into many words reflects how people are saying the word differently? Languages do develop, and as people have decided that there are three separate languages then do they not need to develop their languages differently to differentiate them? But ultimately, coming from an English background where many different dialects, accents, slang and pronounciation are all grouped together under the banner of 'English', I can find it frustrating to see how people are trying to differientiate their languages. I'm going to keep on saying 'your language' though, it does rather neatly get around a whole load of issues!

Anonymous said...

This blog is so interesting. I think you are doing brilliantly to even attempt speaking at all!

Michele said...

Hello! I landed here by following a comment of yours in Fanciful Alice.

I lived in Sarajevo and Pula for some time (studied BCS language and literature in university)and encountered many tricky language situations (and awkward politically-motivated corrections) too! When you're a foreigner just trying to be understood, it can be very difficult to take into account the language preferences of the person you're talking to. I think Dino's suggestion of referring to "naš jezik" is an excellent one--it's certainly what people who were making an effort to be polite did with me.

It's also good to remember that the borders of language and dialect aren't fixed and are largely political...we call both Mandarin and Cantonese, which are vastly different, "Chinese" after all! During the Yugoslav years of Serbo-Croatian, some of the dialectical differences were downplayed or discouraged. I think it's quite natural that we're seeing some reclamation of distinct languages/dialects in light of this.

Well, there's a long comment for you. Best of luck!

Emir said...

Dino! I think that you're the one who doesn't know his own language. Many words that you use are from arabian, like
1. arabian: dzejb -
engl.: pocket (bosnian: dzep),
2. arab. dzarabun - engl. socks bosnian: carape),
3. bantalonu - engl. trouses - bsnian: pantalone.
The list goes on and on. The only word that originates from slavic languages is "gace" - engl. pants

Emily - you're blog is great! My wife reads it and often mentions it when we are with friends. Beautiful insights in our culture which let us see ourselves from different viewpoint. :))

Bosnjak88 said...

@Dino: Well your wrong, you probably don't live in Bosnia or somewhere else along the Balkans. Bosnian Muslims only use words loaned from Arabic, which is a semetic langauge for religous purposes. Obviously there are a few words from the Middle-east but that applies to all languages, including Serbian. Actually, Serbs use alot of Turkish words in thier langauge - including "Delije", Turkish word for heroes and Gazimestan, which means land of judgement.

Also, you can't keep on making up these fake points as the Serbian and Croatian langauges use loaned words from Turkish aswell. Maybe you should look into your own history better before accepting baseless myths.

Dino said...

Emir and Bosnjak,

Please don't insult my intelligence by telling me I don't know my own language and that these are baseless myths when I have family friends in Sarajevo and in East (Muslim) Mostar.

In fact, the daughter of one of these friends (who is still in school) actually told me that at the Bosnian language hour at her school the students are told to use "Poselami" instead of "Pozdravi" (among many other Arabic/Turkish words) and are also told to use all those silly words with "h" added to them, for example "lahko" and "kahva".

In fact, she even told me to "Poselami sviju"-now before the war, who in the whole of Bosnia said "Poselami sviju" instead of "Pozdravi svakoga"??

I don't dispute the fact that there are borowings from Arabic in all South Slav languages. But what I (and many others) dispute is where on earth did these new words from Arabic and Turkish that were never used before the war come from suddenly?? Who said "Poselami" and "Salam alaykum" and "kahva"? Signs advertising coffee in East Mostar say "kahva" on them, so does this not indicate that this way of talk has become normal among some Muslims since such words are being used on public adverts? (which I saw myself earlier this year)

Emir said...

Dino, you're acting like an offended internet troll. You're family is the greatest source of truth, and guess what - I live here and witness that things are different. Yes, we're saying now "kaHva" and "poselami" but only to the ones that we know, and ONLY if we know that they are Muslims/Bosniaks (not to those who are atheist/Bosniaks).
Cope with it.
And another thing - As-Salamu Alaykum is a common greeting in Arabian world among Christians and Muslims (e.x. Egypt, Lebanon).
About "kaHva" - we're using it when we're talking about authentic Bosnian coffee (in Turkey they drink tea, so you can't say Turkish coffee - turska kahva). (in Arabian they say "kahva", and Ottomans brought it on these area, so why the fuss?). Of course, when we want to drink espresso we say "kafa".

Emily, I hope you don't mind these comments. It seems that someone who doesn't live in Bosnia knows better how it is around here.

Elizabeth Mahlou said...

How does the Bosnian version of Eid differ from Eid as celebrated elsewhere?

Brit in Bosnia / Fraught Mummy said...

Hi guys,

It is so interesting to read your comments and definitely allows people to understand the passions this topic arises in people in and around Bosnia. I would love to respond to you all properly, but am in Croatia (it is a tough life, beautiful weather, noone here as it is end of season!). Anyway, I am typing on a Croatian keyboard and am being defeated with the y and the z so could we pause briefly until I get back next week?
Thanks all. x

Shunj said...

@ Elizabeth Mahlou

I’m not sure how it differs from elsewhere for I’ve seen it only in BiH, never had a pleasure to be a witness such an event practiced by someone from a different culture.
However, I can tell you how was it celebrated in my family (grandparents strictly), and in families of the people I knew (northeast BiH).
For me as a kid Eid (Bajram, an Arabic word we use as well) would start pretty early for two main reasons (both connected to money).

First. Since my grandfather was a tailor, I’d go to his studio to pick up a few brand new suits specially ordered for the event. Those guys were his top customers and from them I’d get the best ever “tringelt” (from a German word Trinkgeld, which means a “tip”) in the world.

Now comes the main reason all the kids love Eid, which is also the second element. You take hand of a person, say “Bajram Bajra Čula” (Not sure if spelled correct for, ironically, I don’t hear the difference between the letters č and ć. Sounds the same to me.), and pres the hand against your forehead. As the result, regardless of the tip just received, you get money.

That’s what I’d do whole daylong. Accompanied with my cousin, we’d pay the visit to the whole family and family friends to collect money. This would include some very old members of family who were senile and who would have the pleasure to see us more than once on that particular day (I know, it’s horrible).
Around the noon (if it is a weekend), or late afternoon (a weekday, for Bajram wasn’t an official holyday in Yugoslavia, just as Christmas wasn’t as well), the main part of family would gather at grandma’s and grandpa’s place for a lunch/dinner (that would be the last part of family left for money collecting).

There would be ridiculously lots of food, including something new and the dishes that just have to be there (such as baklava, kadaif, sevdidžan, burek, pita, … my favorite bamlja, which is an okra stew prepared with veggies, goat meat, spices, served with cornbread and fresh yogurt with some dill mixed in it). Basically everybody overdoses with food and alcohol (except kids of course) and talks a lot. Later that night some people would retire home. However, most would move to a bar (café) and stay up pretty late drinking.

That’s pretty much Eid the way I remember it. And it was pretty much the same every year except some of the grandma’s dishes and my uncle’s girlfriends. I’m pretty sure some people celebrate differently.
After the war broke nobody in family celebrated the holyday ever again.

Hope the answer satisfies your curiosity.

Shunj said...

I forget to say something.
After you say “Bajram Bajra Čula”, you have to kiss a hand, and than press it against you forehead. Very important detail.

Elizabeth Mahlou said...

Thanks for the long and interesting description. It is similar to what I have seen in Jordan and Bahrain. I spent Eid al fitr one year with a bedouin family in Wadi Rum. That was very interesting and a little different, mostly visiting relatives in sequence and lots of eating of celebratory foods. I did not see any money given, but then I don't think the bedouins have much money.

I am sorry that the war stopped the celebration. I remember it as a joyful one where family & friends had real time to spend with each other.

Brit in Bosnia / Fraught Mummy said...

Crumpet - to say we speak it is a bit of an overstatement, but we give it a good go.

Michele - hello! I liked Nas Jesik too. Did you manage to master the language? I'm very very impressed.

Emir - Thanks! Glad that Bosnians like to read it too.

Bosnjak - interesting that Delije is a Turkish word, given that it is also the name of the Red Star fan base in Belgrade.

Dino - I'm wondering, as nas jezik is a phonetic language, does spelling coffee as kahva reflect the different pronounciation of the word?

Emir - I think it is great that people can comment and that others who don't know very much about Bosnia can see how passionately people here feel about an issue such as this.

EM - I'm afraid I don't know very much about how Eid is celebrated elsewhere! I should write a post about Bajram though, maybe at the second Bajram in a couple of weeks.

Shunj - thanks, I knew about giving money to people and eating vast quantities, but I didn't understand the whole ritual behind it. People still celebrate it here in Tuzla and it doesn't seem to matter whether they are catholic or orthodox to join in!

Dino said...

Yes, the spelling reflects the pronounciation. The same goes for "lahko" and all these other silly words which have had "h" put into them since the war ended. (And by the way none of these words are gramatically correct, hence the reason you won't ever find them in any dictionary published for any dialect of nas jezik before the war)

Oh and by the way Emir, just because I don't live there doesn't mean I don't have a clue how things there are. You're not automatically right just because you live there-I know a lot of people who still live in BiH who would completely disagree with you and everything you're saying.

Just answer me this: why do you think no Catholic Croat or Orthodox Serb would never in their wildest dreams send their kids to a "Bosnian language" school? The answer is very simple: no one recognises this "Bosnian language" of yours (apart from the Muslims, of course) as long as there are idiocies like "kahva" and "lahko" and "merhabah" and "poselami" and "salam alaykum" in there (oh and by the way, Muslims have said "Poselami" to me when they clearly know that I'm not a Muslim). And I find it very strange how you use the argument that Muslims and Christians use "salam alaykun" in the Middle East...does it look like Bosnia is in the middle of Saudi Arabia???

And this is the last post I'm making on this topic-frankly I have better things to do with my time.