Further Problems in Teaching Serbo-Croatian in the 90s: Croatian, Serbian, Bosnian

Wayles Browne, Cornell University

Despite the recent wars and the breakup of socialist Yugoslavia, Serbo-Croatian continues to be one unit in the classification of Slavic languages for historical-linguistic purposes. It is also usually listed as one unit in the course catalogues of those few North American universities which teach it. If the purpose of teaching it were only to impart a reading knowledge, it really could be presented as one entity. But in recent decades languages have been taught more and more for active oral use by the students. The Serbian standard and the Croatian standard have always been different enough in pronunciation, vocabulary, and stylistic preferences that no textbook could impart an active knowledge of both--unless it were written in parallel columns, like Magner's Introduction or the Foreign Service Institute materials. Intercommunication is nearly complete between native users of one and the other standard, but speakers were often heard to criticize any perceived "mixing" of the two. Teachers willing and able to teach a different standard than their own were a rarity, just as there have been few Britishers capable of teaching EFL students to speak like Walter Cronkite without gaffes.

In the new states, even more political significance has been attached to questions of language standardization. In Serbia the language is officially called "Serbian" and more than one new spelling dictionary has appeared; the Cyrillic alphabet is strongly favored as a national symbol. Some linguists in Serbia have shown themselves willing to accept the existence of a separate Croatian standard. In Croatia all hyphenated names are rejected: the standard is Croatian and nothing else. Long-standing traditions of purism have led amateurs and professional linguists alike to publish dictionaries stigmatizing various words as Serbian. A new factor in the equation is the independence of Bosnia-Hercegovina. Writers in Bosnia have long complained--with good cause--that they and their usage were underrepresented in the dictionaries supposedly embodying Serbo-Croatian. Now that there is a school system in Bosnia, it needs textbooks for the native language, and in fact a pravopis and other books on correct Bosnian have been published and adopted. Foreign interest in Bosnia has greatly increased, and indeed a good proportion of my recent language students were motivated to learn the language by the intention of doing something for the good of Bosnia. No textbook and no dictionary above pocket size have been published for standard Bosnian so far, however, and linguists in Serbia and Croatia, who may agree on nothing else, are united in claiming that a Bosnian standard cannot exist.

Given this state of affairs, language teaching is even more full of pitfalls than previously. No compromise can be satisfactory to everyone; but we will show a tentative solution which promises some practical value.


Senahid Halilovic. Pravopis bosanskoga jezika. Sarajevo: Preporod 1996. Milorad Radovanovic', ed. Najnowsze dzieje jezykow slowianskich. Srpski jezik. Opole 1996.