The Bosnian language has undergone significant changes since the fall of the Yugoslav Republic, as Bosnian speakers have attempted to use language as a means of defining a distinct identity separate from the other former Yugoslav Republics of Serbia and Croatia. Still, the past shared by Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia is evident in the similarities still found among these three languages.
Classification and Early History of the Bosnian Language
During the 6th century AD, the Slav people migrated from Old Poland and resettled throughout Eastern Europe. As a result, the Slavic language family divided into three distinct groups: Eastern, Western, and Southern.
Like Serbian and Croatian, the Bosnian language developed from the South Slavic language group, part of the Common Slavic language subfamily of the Indo-European family of languages.
Bosnian vs. Bosniak: Debates Regarding Terminology
The Bosnian language is also sometimes referred to as Bosniak, or Bosniac, and there has been some debate concerning which term is most appropriate.
The term “Bosniaks” refers to Muslim Bosnians, who are the primary speakers of the Bosnian language. Many people therefore argue that the language should be referred to as Bosniak, rather than Bosnian, as it is not the standard language of all Bosnians, due to the fact that a number of Serbs and Croats also inhabit present-day Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Although the issue has been debated, at this time the term “Bosnian language” is generally accepted. The UN, UNESCO, and many other linguistic agencies and government bodies have come to recognize the Bosnian language as a distinct language.
The Humac Tablet and Controversy Concerning an Indigenous Bosnian Script
It is believed that Bosnian was first written using a type of indigenous Bosnian Cyrillic, known as bonsancica, which literally translates to “Bosnian Script.” Evidence of this native Bosnian script can be found dating back to about the 10th and 11th centuries.
A notable example is the Humac tablet, a significant aspect of Bosnian history as it is written in the Bosnian Cyrillic purely native to Bosnia and Herzegovina, and free of Serbian, Croatian or other outside language influences. This has been a topic of controversy among Serbian and Croatian linguists, some of whom deny the exclusive association of the bonsanicica script with a medieval Bosnian state.
Development of the Modern Written Bosnian Language
Like the Croatian language, the modern Bosnian language primarily made use of a Latin alphabet script. In contrast, modern Serbian turned to a Cyrillic script, a difference due to the varying historical influences felt in modern-day Croatia and Bosnia vs. modern-day Serbia.
While the areas of Croatia and Bosnia came under a greater Western influence, the area of present-day Serbia came under Eastern influences, such as the Eastern Orthodox Church and the cultural center of Constantinople.
Close Relationship Between the Serbian, Bosnian, and Croatian Languages
The Bosnian language is very similar to spoken Serbian and Croatian. Most linguists agree that the three languages differ even less than the American, Australian, and British dialects of English. Primary differences exist in vocabulary developed since the fall of the Yugoslav Republic, and in the fact that Serbian uses a primarily Cyrillic alphabet, while the Croatian and Bosnian languages depend on a Latin alphabet.
The Croatian, Serbian, and Bosnian languages share three dialects: Cakavian, Kajkavian, and Stokavian. Most of the region uses the Stokavian dialect. Kajkavian is spoken primarily in northern Croatia, while Cakavian is spoken along the Croatian coast and on the Adriatic islands.
The Vienna Agreement of 1850: Serbo-Croatian, Croato-Serbian, or Serbo-Croato-Bosnian
The Vienna Agreement of 1850 was a landmark event in the histories of the Croatian, Serbian, and Bosnian languages. The agreement established that the Stokavian dialect shared by Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian would from then on serve as the basis for a standardized literary language for all three languages.
It was not until later in the 19th century that the Vienna Agreement began to gain real influence, thanks to the publishing of a number of official grammar, orthography, and dictionary texts in the late 1800s. This amalgamation of languages in a single standardized form was referred to as the Serbo-Croatian language, and has also been called Croato-Serbian or Serbo-Croato-Bosnian.
Formation of a Unified Yugoslav Republic and the Novi Sad Agreement
In the year 1918, the State of Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs was merged with the Kingdom of Serbia to form a single entity known as the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. In an attempt to establish a standardized single language for the area, Serbian and Croatian were officially combined in a single language. Over the next fifty years, land was added to this original union, power shifted several times, and the name of the area was changed multiple times.
Throughout this period of change, linguistic reforms were being undertaken. In 1954, the Novi Sad Agreement declared Serbo-Croatian to be the single official language of the Yugoslav Republic.
In 1946, a communist regime took power and the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia was established. With the addition of Istria and Rijeka in 1963, the Republic was renamed the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY), a union which remained intact until 1991.
Collapse of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and War
The collapse of the SFRY in 1991 was followed by a period of violence, as Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian forces fought for land and superiority in the splintered region. A peace accord was signed in 1995, and NATO peacekeeping forces were deployed to the region to aid the tenuous transition to peace.
After the dissolution of the former Yugoslav Republic, a newfound nationalism developed among the peoples of present-day Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia. One way in which they attempted to establish unique national identities, after having been part of a shared Yugoslav identity for so many years, was through language.
The Modern Bosnian Language
Contemporary Bosnian is spoken by approximately 2.5 million people, most of them residing in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in the Sandzak region of Serbia and Montenegro. The Bosnian language has also spread to other areas in the world, due to the fact that many Bosnian speakers were forced to migrate as refugees during the war.
Like the Serbian and Croatian languages, the Bosnian language has undergone some changes since the fall of the SFRY, as Bosnian-language speakers attempt to reaffirm a distinct ethnic identity via linguistic means. In an attempt to rid the language of Serbian and Croatian influences, many Muslim Bosnians (Bosniaks) have adopted Arabic and Turkish loan words in order to replace words the Bosnian language formerly shared with Serbian and Croatian.
Bosnian Quick Facts
Alternate Names & Spellings: Bosniak, Bosniac
Language Family: Indo-European, Slavic, South, Western
Official Language of: Bosnia and Herzegovina
Spoken by Approximately 4,000,000 people
Also Spoken In: United States
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