University of Helsinki

Department of Modern Languages

Updating the Sociology of Language
in the Balkans

A research project funded by the Academy of Finland (2009–2013)

A collection of articles has appeared:
Balkan Encounters:
Old and New Identities in South-Eastern Europe.
For more information and a full-text PDF, click here.

Project Group: Krista BerglundDragana CvetanovićNina GravesŽeljko JozićJaakko KölhiJouko Lindstedt (leader) – Tanja TamminenPilvi TorstiJohanna VirkkulaMax Wahlström

At first glance, the latest developments in the Balkans at the end of the last century and at the beginning of the present century seem only to resume the aggressive nation-building process which had partly been held in check during the Cold War era. However, the process of European integration has now started slowly changing the situation, promising an end to the building of formally monoethnic nation-states and the marginalization of minorities. This new process is still at its early stage, and in some cases it requires either outright pressure from what is known as the international community or direct contacts, bypassing the national governments, between minority groups and the institutions of the European Union and the Council of Europe, but there are good chances that the positive features of the old Balkan pluralism from before the 19th century can be revived in the integrated Europe.

For the sociology of the languages in the Balkans, we see two important changes in the making. First, there is a pluralistic turn accepting first the existence of linguistic and other minorities, gradually also the need for a policy protecting them. Second, there is a pragmatic turn that sees the standard languages less as identity construction sites and more as means of communication; for instance, the various offspring of what used to be called Serbo-Croatian are again treated as a single communication area at least in pragmatic terms, if not yet in symbolic terms. In some Balkan states and regions all this is still very embryonic or only a future vision, to be sure. But a new social setting for the languages of the Balkans is slowly emerging and it necessitates a new research approach that is not conceived solely in terms of conflicts and splits, but takes the painfully stabilizing post-conflict situation as its primary object.

The project focuses on the sociology of majority and minority languages in five Balkan countries with a Slavic majority: Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia-Herzegovina. In addition, the Slavic minorities in Greece, Albania, Kosovo, and Romania are included. The main goal is to update scientific knowledge on the following problem areas:

1. The role of the languages as identity markers on the way to a pluralistic society.

2. The new constellations of social and local varieties inside each language community.

3. The interplay between divergent and convergent processes in the South Slavic countries, especially the relation between declared divergence (Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, and Montenegrin) and covert convergence (which still keeps the four declared languages together for the purposes of practical communication and basic language structure).

We hope that the project will contribute to stabilizing societal development in the Balkans by approaching the language situation from a pluralistic and pragmatic point of view, trying to counterbalance both the negative impact of extreme nation-state ideologies and the negativism inherent in much of current Western scholarship on the Balkans.

The project group and their research interests

Krista Berglund

Postdoctoral researcher at the Catherine Institute, University of Helsinki

As a member of this project, Berglund is researching Serbian spirituality and religious heritage as well as the ways in which the arguments and language of religion figure in political debates of the present-day Serbia. This research is of relevance because today it is largely the sphere of the Serbian Orthodox Church and the circles of its most devoted members where the opposition to Serbia’s EU membership is strongest and most principled. It has also been notable how, during the past years, even Serbia’s highest political leadership’s statements on the Kosovo question have often been marked by religious rhetoric; Prime Minister Jeremić, for one, has frequently called Kosovo “Serbia’s Jerusalem” when arguing why Serbia is opposed to Kosovo’s independence. The interconnectedness of religious and political arguments in Serbia is further accentuated by the fact that in the communist Yugoslavia it was mainly the Serbian Orthodox Church which tried to conduct research of the massacres of Serbs, Jews and Roma in the Jasenovac death camp. It was likewise the Serbian Orthodox Church which started to document the grievances of Kosovo’s Serb civilians whom it often fell to pay the price for the Yugoslav leadership’s anti-Albanian policies in the province.

Dragana Cvetanović

Doctoral student at the Aleksanteri Institute and at the Department of Finnish, Finno-Ugrian and Scandinavian Studies

Dragana Cvetanović's dissertation will deal with Finnish and Serbian hip-hop culture.

Nina Graves

Doctoral student at the Department of Modern Languages

Nina Graves's dissertation will deal with the use of verb forms in modern Macedonian dialects around the lake Ohrid as a result of a multilingual contact situation.

Željko Jozić

Postdoctoral researcher (2010–2012) at the Department of Modern Languages

Now Director of the Institute of Croatian Language and Linguistics (Zagreb)

Complexity and Diversity of Standard Languages in Contemporary Bosnia and Herzegovina

As a result of the dissolution of the common state, former Yugoslavia, in the year 1991 and 1992 new states were founded, which began to run on their own language policies. Croatian became the official language of Croatia in the 1990, and Serbian in Serbia a year later, but in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the situation caused by the national structure and warfare was most complicated, the Bosniaks started demanding that their language no longer be called the Bosnian variant of standard language, or Serbo-Croatian or Croato-Serbian – but rather the Bosnian language. The name of the Bosnian language is jointly denied by Serbs and Croats (in and outside of Bosnia and Herzegovina) because it implies that it is a language of all citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina, although it is actually, since Serbs and Croats in Bosnia have their own official languages called by their ethnic names, the official language of only Bosniaks, and should therefore be called the Bosniak language. The current result of this is that there are three official languages co-existing in Bosnia and Herzegovina today: Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian, and all three languages in the linguistic sense have actually one, neo-štokavian basis, and from the sociolinguistic point of view it is a unique example of a multistandard language.

The research objective is to create a new overall image of the (socio)linguistic situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina where the language policy is carried out by the institutions of higher education. Special attention will be given to the younger population, especially students of the official languages in Bosnia and Herzegovina: Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian.

The research will put emphasis on how linguistic policies are implemented in Bosnia and Herzegovina with respect to the centers, because only a cursory look at current linguistic and political situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina indicates the linguistic peculiarities of the situation. This means that we would have to include university centers in Bosnia and Herzegovina: in Sarajevo there is the Department of Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian language, in Banja Luka the Department of Serbian language, in Mostar the Department of Croatian Language and Literature, and in Bihać and Tuzla the Department of Bosnian language and literature.

Jaakko Kölhi

Research assistant at the Department of Modern Languages (2010–2011)

Jaakko Kölhi assists the participants of the project. He is writing his Master's thesis on the Montenegrin standard language.

Jouko Lindstedt, project leader

Professor of Slavonic Philology at the Department of Modern Languages

Conflicting discourses in the Balkan Slavic language area

The Balkan Slavic language area consists of the Bulgarian and Macedonian languages and the easternmost dialects of Serbian. Its external boundaries can be defined in structural terms, but its internal division among different languages is a matter of social convention and an object of strife among different nationalist discourses. Linguistic arguments are routinely employed in this debate, but the choice among different structural features and the weight assigned to them is always an arbitrary decision.

The prevailing Bulgarian opinion is that all of Balkan Slavic is linguistically simply Bulgarian: there is no Macedonian language, and what Serbian dialectologists consider their easternmost dialects are at least structurally Bulgarian, too. This official view of the Bulgarian language crystallized during the 19th century and has not essentially changed ever since. Macedonian dialectology does not lay claim to any Serbian territory, but it considers the dialects of south-western Bulgaria to be Macedonian, despite the lack of any widespread Macedonian national consciousness in that area. The use of structural linguistic arguments is for Bulgarian dialectologists and, to a lesser extent, their Macedonian counterparts, a way of ignoring the fact that the present linguistic identities of the speakers themselves in various regions do not always correspond to the prevailing nationalist discourses.

Several endangered or even moribund Balkan Slavic dialects are spoken in Albania, Kosovo, Greece, Serbia, and Romania. In some regions the identification of their speakers as Bulgarians or Macedonians is quite straightforward, in others the speakers face several alternatives, such as identifying themselves as either Bulgarian or Macedonian or, despite their home language, as members of the main nationality of their country (as Slavic-speaking Greeks, for instance). For Muslim Slavs there is the additional alternative to consider the local, religiously and linguistically defined ethnicity (such as Goran, Torbesh, or Pomak) to be their primary identity. The promotion of the minority rights of such groups is caught between the conflicting Bulgarian and Macedonian nationalist discourses. It is also hampered by the conflict between Macedonia and Greece about the use of the name Macedonia, as well as by the reluctance of Greece to acknowledge any linguistic minorities in the country. Bulgaria and Macedonia render support to those representatives of minorities abroad who are ready to identify themselves as Bulgarians or Macedonians, while Greece at least tolerates the attempts to create a distinct standard language for Pomaks, written in Greek letters.

Ethnolinguistic identities are social constructs and, at geographical or cultural boundaries, matters of free choice. It is my conviction that a linguist should show that conflicts among nationalist discourses cannot be resolved by linguistic arguments without taking into account the self-identification of the speakers themselves. The myth of the objectivity of structural and dialectological features and isoglosses should be dismantled.

Tanja Tamminen

Researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs

Tanja Tamminen, Doctor of Political Sciences from Sciences Po Paris, is a specialist in Southern Balkan politics. She is a researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, where she compiles policy oriented studies on the EU activities in the Balkans and the lessons learned as regards to EU state building efforts in Kosovo. However, her post-doctoral research consists also of more academic studies on the recent history of the Southern Balkans, the traumas behind the drawing of new borders and the modernization of the Kosovo society. (In 2008–2010 Tamminen is seconded by the State of Finland in the EU Rule of Law Mission, EULEX Kosovo.)

Pilvi Torsti

Postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Political and Economic Studies

Pilvi Torsti has focused her research in politics of history, uses of history and historical identities in particular in the former Yugoslavia context. Her work has included analysis of the historical consciousness and language divisions in Bosnia and Herzegovina from the perspective of culture of history that surrounds people in contemporary society. Currently she is also working on a research “Historical Consciousness in Finland”.

Johanna Virkkula

Doctoral student at the Department of Modern Languages

To the study of the sociolinguistic situation I will contribute with two different themes. The first of these is a contrastive study, aiming at complementing theories of personal names as sociolinguistic phenomena. The second study focuses on personal names as identity markers.

Personal names and social intuition

Choosing a personal name is a private affair – but the result of this choice is public. Also, official personal names in South-Eastern Europe are chosen for life, and as such they always reflect both the time in which they were chosen and the expectations the parents choosing the name had for the future. Personal names, thus, are sociolinguistic marks that reflect hopes, affiliation, and parents' reading of their current situation. Personal names have been shown to reflect a family’s social standing, but how do they do that in a Croatian and Bulgarian context? This will be surveyed in my doctoral thesis on social intuition and the influence of social circumstances when choosing a name for a newborn child in Zagreb and Sofia.

The use of personal names as identity markers in Bosnia-Herzegovina

Personal names are often treated as transparent markers of ethnic origin, also in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where different times have seen diverse tendencies within naming. As all of the major religious communities in the area (Muslim, Orthodox, Catholic) have their recommendations (or even rules) on suitable names for persons within their own group, the impact of these recommendations on the nation-building processes first regaining strength and now slowly turning towards more pluralistic values is undocumented. Thus the study of personal names and their use as identity markers is a relevant part of the study of the sociolinguistic situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina today.

Three different themes will be addressed: (1) Attitudes towards distinctly ethnic names in the workplace. The workplace has been identified as one of the few consistently inter-ethnicc settings in post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina (although a number of workplaces have turned into monoethnic settings, the general tendency is towardsinter-ethnicc work settings where tensions between ethnic groups do not show). (2) Names used as markers of ethnic background. Elsewhere in the world it has been shown that names are used to screen for applicants of unwanted ethnicity in recruitment of workers (especially the black-white interaction in the US has thus been documented). (3) Respect for others’ traditions. A new phenomenon in the Bosnia and Herzegovina web community seems to be that expecting a new family member joins young mothers of different ethnicities, and advice the expecting mothers give each other on how to choose names for the expected babies in these web communities is very tactfully worded in terms of “if you want to follow the xxx traditions, I suggest the following names …”. How this translates into life outside the web is to be documented.

Max Wahlström

Doctoral student at the Department of Modern Languages

The loss of case inflection in Macedonian and Bulgarian

Macedonian and Bulgarian differ from all other Slavic languages in one respect: while the other Slavic languages express the roles of noun phrases within a sentence by using both prepositions and case marking, the Balkan Slavic languages, Bulgarian and Macedonian, have lost all of their case inflections. This process was almost completed as early as the end of the Late Middle Ages, thus meaning that the loss of the morphological cases was a relatively rapid development having taken place only within three or four centuries. Two main explanations or combinations of these have been proposed: First, some scholars have seen the process mainly as a language-internal development aided by phonological changes in the Balkan Slavic languages. Second, contemporary research emphasizes the role of language contacts. Indeed, Balkan Slavic forms together with other Balkan languages a so-called linguistic union, the Balkan sprachbund, that is characterized by a number of converging structural developments that have led to a high level of shared grammatical innovations in these only remotely related languages.

This study seeks to develop a better understanding of the loss of the cases in Balkan Slavic from various points of view. The first decade of 21st century saw an increase in the research addressing the typological linguistic consequences of language contacts. It has been argued that particular sociolinguistic settings, such as those of the Balkans, may cause “simplification” of grammar. On the other hand, within the framework of grammaticalization theory, ambitious attempts have been made to develop models of the mechanism of contact induced language change, using a wide range of synchronic, historical and typological linguistic data but also including the analysis of the historical sociolinguistic circumstances. This research that uses the material of early Balkan Slavic texts and dialectal data can also mbe viewed as a case study testing these recently proposed models. As a consequence, it is hoped that this study will contribute to the understandig of the connectedness of sociolinguistic factors and language structure more generally.