Language and Nationalism and language and nationalism

One of my jobs for next year will be to take over teaching several postgraduate modules in nationalism, ethnic conflict and social research. The first step, not that I’ve even started work at that institution yet, is to revise each module’s syllabus.

(The first first step is to choose a consistent way of pluralising ‘syllabus’.)

I hope to post more on this process as each syllabus develops, but today’s post is about a discussion about language I won’t be able to have with my students because, between us, we won’t have a common language to access the material.

I’m going to be teaching these courses at a school of eastern European area studies, meaning that students will be applying the theory I teach about to eastern European case studies and the staff who teach them will all have research interests in eastern Europe. That includes me, one of many people there with research interests in the successor states of Yugoslavia.

The most controversial book on nationalism in former Yugoslavia to have been published in the last few years is Jezik i nacionalizam (Language and Nationalism) by Snježana Kordić, a linguist from Croatia who works in Germany. Kordić had received a grant from the Croatian Ministry of Culture supporting the publication. When it appeared, the director of the Croatian Cultural Council laid a complaint against the Ministry for financing the book:

‘[The complaint] states that the book ‘Jezik i nacionalizam’ is directed against Croatian culture, Croatian cultural identity and the Croatian language, and that it therefore should not have been financed from the state budget of the Republic of Croatia (RH). The book compares the contemporary democratic Croatian state with Nazi Germany, contradicts the RH constitution in the section about official usage of the Croatian language, and denies the right of the Croat people to call their language by their own popular name.’

Kordić is aiming to show that the policy to define or redefine the ‘Serbo-Croatian’ language as ‘Croatian’ after Croatia became independent from Yugoslavia was linguistically unjustified. Instead, she argues that the development of linguistic standards that drew Croatian ever further away from Serbian after 1991 was a deliberate effort to differentiate Croats from the group who became the national enemy, the Serbs.

Her case is that Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Montenegrin are still so mutually intelligible they’re not separate languages at all. Linguists recognise the idea of polycentric languages – languages spoken by several nations or states, which may even have more than one national body codifying them. We talk about speakers of ‘English’, not speakers of ‘American’, ‘Australian’, ‘Indian’ and ‘Canadian’ – even though, if the right disposition existed in one of those countries’ politics and academia, it’s always possible that one day we might be asked to do just that.

By this point, Kordić has already compared the linguistic purists of 1990s Croatia with Nazi German language policy on the very first page.

There’s a lot of detail about how the literary standard for Serbo-Croatian was brought together in the mid-19th century, how ‘the Croatian language’ didn’t always mean the language of a nation-state, and how contingent the whole process was, which draws on the same constructivist theorists of nationalism that my students are going to be reading.

(In summary: the Croatians who standardised their language in the 19th century agreed to base it on the štokavian dialect, not the kajkavian dialect spoken around Zagreb, because štokavian would make it easy to communicate with speakers in Bosnia, Herzegovina and Serbia.)

Not so much drawing on the perennialist theorists of nationalism that my students are also going to be reading, which would argue that nations do pre-date the modernisation of the state, but then that’s something we could discuss. That is, if we could all read it.

Even if my students never intend to study Croatia (and most of them won’t), I’d like them to be able to understand how this book has been received and why. Studying language and writing about it with academic authority has consequences in the real world – that ‘impact’ that we’re now supposed to identify in every research funding proposal. And they may not be the consequences that researchers like.

But Kordić, like many of the German-speaking linguists she cites, rarely publishes in English. Her bibliography contains three titles in Croatian, three titles in German, and a short English-language descriptive grammar of Serbo-Croatian published in 1997. Her articles and reviews are usually in German or Croatian, with a few in French, and the critical responses to her book – like this article by Mario Grčević, who systematically takes issue with her use of sources and descriptions of prominent Croatian linguists – are, of course, in the language of the public and scientific community they’re addressing.

So, as a class group in a UK university, we’re stuck, until or unless there’s an English translation of the book, or a research article comes out on the controversy in a few years. It ought to be translated, and ten or twelve years ago when ‘the Balkans’ had a cachet to academic publishers that they don’t today, maybe it’s more likely that it would have been.

Last year I designed a module on the breakup of Yugoslavia. Its ghost syllabus – the one I’d use if everyone’s head contained a babelfish, including mine – contains books on the visual culture of the Croatian state at war and cultural practices of resisting nationalism in Belgrade and Zagreb that I’ve never been able to use with undergraduates because they never had an English translation, only a summary article, maybe.

Some of the translation gap lies in my own shortcomings as an instructor. Decades ago, acquiring a reading knowledge of German would just have been part of getting socialised into the identity of ‘serious academic’ in the UK. I could have followed up Kordić’s references in German to inform my lectures; and I could have assigned her German-language texts, confident that postgraduates would have been able to digest them.

Given the multinational student profile at my institution, there’s a good chance many of them are able to operate in German and English, but that won’t help me if I teach similar courses elsewhere, or when I revive the Yugoslav wars course next semester with a group of predominantly British undergraduates.

Back to the syllabus mines, for now.


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