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University of Toronto · Academic Electronic Journal in Slavic Studies

Toronto Slavic Quarterly

Vinko Grubišić

The Language Situation in Post-Dayton Bosnia and Herzegovina

Is it possible today to answer a very simple question: How many Slavic languages are there? When focusing on the classification, or rather on the re-classification of the Slavic languages, we have to take into account discrepancies between linguistic theories and the linguistic reality in Slavic countries.

We have to start with a very basic question: Can the Bosniac language be considered a separate South Slavic language at the same level as Croatian, Serbian or Macedonian? If, as Bosnian linguists have lately pointed out, the Bosniac language has been considered, for several decades, to be a “neutralization between Croatian and Serbian variants,” then which recent changes should be so essential that today we have another Slavic language, one that just some twenty years ago was not even mentioned by anyone, especially by anyone in Bosnia?

No other country in Europe has changed as often and as radically, not only its borders but also its masters, as Bosnia has: from a small region around the upper Bosna River, it became first a dukedom, then for some hundred years (from 1373 to 1463) a more or less independent kingdom, then again for four centuries a peripheral region (“vilayet”) of the Ottoman Empire, and at the end of the nineteenth century a troublesome province of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. There have been six different alphabets used in Bosnia: Greek, Latin, Gothic runic, Glagolitic, Bosnian Cyrillic and Arabic. We should mention also four different religions, Islam and three Christian creeds: Catholicism, Bogomilism and the Orthodox faith. Let us mention also that the name Bosnia and Herzegovina was introduced by the Austrian administration at the end of the nineteenth century and that it never became a commonly used term by Bosnians and Herzegovinians.

Today Bosnia and Herzegovina is the only European country without any nation constituting an absolute majority of the population. This means that each of the three constitutional nations — Bosniacs, Croats, Serbs-makes up less than 50% of the total Bosnian and Herzegovinian population.

* * *

The famous Dayton Agreement of 1995 was signed in four languages: English, Bosniac, Croatian, and Serbian, which shows that its signatories recognized the Bosniac language as a separate linguistic entity.

There are three different ethnonyms for a male person from Bosnia: “Bošnjanin,” “Bošnjak” or “Bosanac” (pl. “Bošnjani,” “Bošnjaci,” “Bosanci”), and while first two terms denote a person of the Islamic faith, that is, not so long ago, a “Muslim with a capital M,” the third term, “Bosanac,” refers equally to a Croat, a Serb or a Muslim from Bosnia. Since the term “Bošnjanin” is somewhat archaic, we should examine more closely the meaning of the two remaining terms, “Bošnjak” and “Bosanac,” and their respective adjectives, “bošnjački” (Bosniac) and “bosanski” (Bosnian). The “Bosniac language” is the language spoken by Bosniacs, while the “Bosnian language” designates the language used by Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian Croats or Bosnian Bosniaks (formerly Bosnian Muslims).

In theory this is quite clear, but in reality the situation is much more complicated. According to the last census taken in 1991 in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 1,165,115 people, or some 90% of the Islamic population, declared “Bosnian” as their language, while only 2,545 people, or 0.06% of the polulation, indicated their language to be “Bosniac.” How are we to explain this? The results of the census published in 1991 were arrived at during the common Yugoslav state, when the Bosniacs believed in some possible unified Bosnia and Herzegovina, but today the picture would probably be quite different.

Senahid Halilović states that the “national name 'Bosnian language' has changed throughout history. First, it meant the language of all the inhabitants of Bosnia, but since the end of the nineteenth century its meaning has been reduced to mean the language of the Bosniacs, [that is] of the Islamized Slavic population in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in the former Yugoslavia in general.”1

On the other hand, it is rare to hear people in Herzegovina using either the term “Bosnian” or “Bosniac,” because Serbs and Croats from Herzegovina do not consider themselves to be Bosnians. Croats from Herzegovina are convinced that they speak the purest Croatian, while Serbs from Eastern Herzegovina like to emphasize that their dialect was chosen by Vuk Stefanović Karadžić as the standard for the Serbian language more than a hundred and fifty years ago.

Bosnian linguists correctly point out the following very simple fact: if Bosniacs exist as a nation, ipso facto it is only up to them to decide what to call their language, regardless of its similarity to any other languages.

* * *

In order to understand the linguistic situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina today, we have to sum up briefly the linguistic situation of the past fifty years in that country, where only uncertainties may be taken for granted.

The tragedy of the Bosnian Islamic population comes from the fact that they want to create their nation a century and an half after the majority of European nations came into existence. Compared to Western European nations, Serbs and Croats were a few decades late, but by the end of the nineteenth century, they both possessed all the essential attributes of nations.

Benjamin Kallay, the Hungarian governor of Bosnia and Herzegovina appointed by Vienna at the end of the nineteenth century, tried to meld Serbs, Croats and Bosniacs into a single uniform Bosnian nation. Both Croats and Serbs considered his attempt to be political provocation.

The Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes did not recognize any nations in Bosnia and Herzegovina other than Croats and Serbs, and similarly, neither did Communist Yugoslavia after World War II. The Constitution of the People's Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, issued in 1946, proclaimed that “laws and other legal decrees in the People's Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina should be published in the Serbian or Croatian language.”

In 1946 the Islamic population did not and certainly could not demonstrate their disagreement with such a constitutional formulation, one that neglected them or denied them the basic human right to call their language by any name they wanted. In practice, those Islamic Bosniacs who at that time did not accept either the Croatian or the Serbian nationality as their own were considered to be “undecided” or, eventually, “Yugoslavs,” the nation which was the final aim of Communist Yugoslavia, anyway. During the fifties and early sixties, the ijekavian variant of the Serbian language was predominant not only in the Bosnian and Herzegovinian educational systems and the republican administration, but also in all aspects of public life.

The most popular linguist at that time in Sarajevo was Jovan Vuković, whose Dictionary of Words Containing je/ije (Sarajevo, 1949) is still today the best of its genre. Regrettably, Jovan Vuković himself, formerly the main advocate of the ijekavian variant, switched to the Serbian ekavian variant, thereby abandoning his native ijekavian Montenegrin dialect.

The Novi Sad Agreement, signed in 1953, was preceded by lengthy linguistic discussions and arguments, but among the more than one hundred writers and linguists invited to participate in formulating this agreement, only two linguists were from Sarajevo: the Montenegrin Jovan Vuković and Marko Marković, a Serb from Bosnia. Consequently, in the famous joint dictionary planned by Matica Srpska and Matica Hrvatska, entitled A Dictionary of the Croato-Serbian/Serbo-Croatian Language, which was partially published in 1967-69 but completed by Matica Srpska alone in 1976, only 1.5% of all lexical entries are attributed to the Islamic writers of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In 1963, the new Constitution of the Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina was adopted. Paragraph 216 reads: “Laws and other decrees of the Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as all other public acts, should be published in the Official Gazette of the Republic in the Serbo-Croatian language.” Croatian, or so-called Croato-Serbian, was not even mentioned. Such an omission could not have been accidental.

In 1967, Sarajevo intellectuals were opposed to both the Declaration on the Name and the Status of the Croatian Literary Language signed by Croatian linguists and to the Proposals for Reflections prepared and published by Serbian linguists. “For a long time, Bosnia and Herzegovina has been showing a respect for the breadth and depth of our linguistic heritage We do not want to face the consequences of national antagonism,” wrote Jovan Vuković in “Oslobođenje.”2 The Executive Committee of the Communist Party of Bosnia and Herzegovina emphasized the linguistic freedom of the individual, and the mixing of Croatian and Serbian were thus not only acceptable, but favoured. Editors and correctors were not allowed to change an original text in any way.3

The period from 1967 to 1975 might be called “the time of the idealization of the linguistic picture” in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Many meetings and several linguistic symposia were held in Sarajevo, Mostar and Zenica.

The “Symposium on Language Tolerance” held in Sarajevo in 1970 was especially important. The first statement of the conclusions made at this symposium reads: “Each citizen has an individual right to use his or her own choice of our literary language, including forms of both variants, regardless of their specific features.” Here, “individual right,” meant that students could essentially write the same text in both Serbian and Croatian, in Cyrillic and Latin script. In the 1980s, the so-called “Bosnian inter-variant language” was very popular, but once again, like everything else in Bosnia and Herzegovina, it was very short-lived.

At a symposium held in Mostar in 1973, several linguists voiced a new proposal for the common name for the language of Bosnia and Herzegovina: “Bosansko-hercegovački standardni jezički izraz” — ”The Bosnian-Herzegovinian Standard Linguistic Expression.” One of the main proponents of this term, Milan Šipka, pointed out that such a name was neutral, open and sufficiently broad to include all the best linguistic features used by Serbs, Croats, Muslims and Montenegrins. However, the use of four words to designate the name of a language was not very practical and shortly it also fell into oblivion.

The “language tolerance” referred to above led to the creation of a very loose kind of a “third variant” regardless which term was used, and in the late eighties it was simply accepted as “the Bosniac language.”

At the beginning of the Bosnian-English English-Bosnian Dictionary by Nikolina Užičanin (New York: Hippocrene Books, Inc., 1996), we read: “The Bosnian language is a symbiosis of the Serbian and Croatian languages, which are Slavic tongues with strong Turkish and German influences.”

Alija Isaković, in his Dictionary of Characteristic Words of the Bosnian Language (Sarajevo: Svjetlost, 1992), gives us a completely different definition of the Bosnian language: “The Bosnian language is not created within the framework of either the Serbian or the Croatian language. It is not derived from them, but is an objective parallel language. The Bosnian language had its own course of development up to the beginning of the twentieth century, when political circumstances changed its public status.”

The easiest way out of this confusion would be to say that the truth is somewhere in the middle. However, the situation is quite complicated, because it is hard to find another language where genetic criteria are more opposed to the socio-linguistic situation than they are in the Bosniac language.

In 1991, Bosnia and Herzegovina practically came to an end. The language of snipers from the hills above Sarajevo was the loudest speech, and, unfortunately, it seemed to be the only language understood by the international powers who accepted the partition of Bosnia and Hercegovina. The Dayon Agreement signed in 1995 was intended to be a framework for peace, but the horizons of a real solution remain in a distant fog.

Besides the two dictionaries already mentioned, a third dictionary, A School Dictionary of the Bosnian Language, has been published by Dževad Jahić (Sarajevo: Ljiljan, 1999). This was soon followed by a Grammar of the Bosnian Language authored by Dževad Jahić, Senahid Halilović and Ismail Palić (Zenica: Dom štampe, 2000). The term “Bosnian language” instead of the appellation “Bosniac language” is a kind of revival of the Bosnian unitaristic ideas initiated by the Hungarian politician Benjamin Kallay some hundred years ago. Earlier, Senahid Halilović published an Orthography of the Bosnian Language (Sarajevo: Preporod, 1996) that presents linguistic norms very close to those of the Croatian language.4

Neither Croats nor Serbs feel any need to prepare special language manuals for the Bosnian Croats or Bosnian Serbs, because these peoples continue to use the same manuals which are in use in Croatia and in Serbia, respectively. We should also add that, generally speaking, Serbian and Croatian linguists do not take part in Bosniac language questions. The only concern expressed on both Croatian and Serbian sides has been a clear opposition to the usage of the term “Bosnian language” for the language spoken by the Bosniacs.


  1. Senahid Halilović, Bosanski jezik, 2nd ed. (Sarajevo: Baština, 1998), pp. 5-6.
  2. 2 Jovan Vuković, “Language Politics, the Rights of the Nation and of the Citizens,” OsloboĐenje, March 26, 1967.
  3. “O književnojezičnoj politici u Socijalističkoj Republici Bosna i Hercegovina” [“On Literary and Linguistic Policy in the Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina”] (Sarajevo: OsloboĐenje, 1975), pp. 41-42.
  4. Senahid Halilović, Bosanski jezik, p. 9. The same can be found in Halilović's work in German “Das Bosnische”, Handbuch der Südosteuropa-Linguistic, (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz Verlag), p. 423. When he speaks about the double forms of words by taking into consideration word formation, phonetics, syntax and lexica, Halilović presents the following picture:
Serbian BosniacCroatian
(Phonetic differences)
so (not “sol”) 
 sretan (not “srećan”)
 plaća (not “plata”)
 uopće (not “uopšte”)
 općina (not “obština”)
 saopćenje (not “saopštenje”)
 bašča (not “bašta”)
uveče uvećeruvečer
 jučer (not “juče”)
 takoĐer* (not “takoĐe”)
 ogrjev (not “ogrev”)
 janje (not “jagnje”)
(Word formation)
 četvero (not “četvoro”)
 peterica (not “petorica”)
istorijahistorijahistorija, povijest
 slavenski (”not “slovenski”)
usleduslijed (not “usljed”)zbogdječji (not “dječiji”)
 spomen (not “pomen”)
munara (not “minaret”)  
 šutjeti (not “ćutati”)
 puhati (not “puvati”)
  zrak (not “vazduh”)
 uvjet (not “uslov”)
 sigurnost (not “bezbjednost”)
 vlastiti (not “sopstveni”)
 grah (not “pasulj”)
 odgoj (not “vaspitanje”)
 otok (not “ostrvo”)
voz (not “vlak”) 
da + present tenseda + present tense(”želim vidjeti”, not “želim da vidim”)

Appendix I

Article 6 of the Constitution of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina reads:
“(1) The official languages of the Federation shall be the Bosnian language and the Croatian language. The official script will be the Latin alphabet.

(2) Other languages may be used as a means of communication and instruction.

(3) Additional languages may be designated as official by a majority vote of each House of the Legislature, including in the House of Peoples a majority of the Bosniac Delegates and a majority of the Croat delegates.”

In the Constitution of the Republika Srpska on the language issue, Article 7 states: “The Serbian language of ijekavian and ekavian dialects and the Cyrillic alphabet shall be in official use in the Republic, while the Latin alphabet shall be used as specified by law.
In regions inhabited by groups speaking other languages, their languages and alphabets shall also be in official use, as specified by law.”

Even if all cantonal constitutions (”ustavi županija”) point out that they are in accordance with the Constitutiton of the Federation of Bosnian and Hercegovina, there are some descrepancies between the cantonal constitutions about language use:

Canton Constitutional Formulation
Una-Sana The official languages are the Bosnian language and the Croatian Language. The official alphabet is Latin. Other languages can be used as means of communication and education. (Amendment III, Article 8)
Posavina The official languages of the Canton are Croatian and Bosniac. The official alphabet is Latin. The other languages can be used as means of communication and teaching in accordance with the law. (Article 10)
Tuzla-Podrinje The official languages are the Bosnian language and the Croatian Language. The official alphabet is the Latin alphabet. Other languages can be used as means of communication and education. (Article 6)
Zenica-Doboj The official languages of the Canton are the Bosnian and Croatian languages and the official script is the Latin alphabet. Other languages can be used as means of communication and education. (Article 9)
Bosnian Podrinje Canton of Goražde The official languages of the Canton are the Bosnian and Croatian languages. The official alphabet is the Latin. Other languages may be used as means of communication and education. (Article 8)
Central Bosnia The official languages of the Canton are the Bosnian and Croatian. The official alphabet consists of Latin characters. Other languages can be used as means of communication and teaching. (Article 8)
Herzegovina-Neretva The official languages are the Croatian and Bosnian. The official script is Latin. Other languages may be used as means of communication and education according to the law. (Article 8)
West Herzegovina The Croatian language and the Bosnian language are the official languages in the Canton. The Roman alphabet is the official alphabet. Other languages can be used as a means of communication and for education in accordance with the law. (Article 10)

Appendix II:

Daily papers:   
Oslobođenje (B, C, S)
Večernje novine (B, C, S)
 Dnevni avaz
* Bosnet
 Glas srpski
(Banja Luka)
Weekly papers:   
Svijet (B, C, S)
(Banja Luka)
Hrvatska riječ
Biweekly papers:   

(* Source: Janet Crayne, «Publishing in Bosnia and Hercegovina», in Publishing in Yugoslavia's Successor States, eds. Michael Biggins and Janet Crayne [New York: Haworth Press, 2000], pp. 41-82.)

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