The classical four–accent system in contemporary standard Croatian: Dead or alive?

Keith Langston, University of Georgia

Recent handbooks and dictionaries of the Croatian language, such as the Hrvatski jezicni savjetnik (Institut za hrvatski jezik i jezikoslovlje, 1999) or Anic's Rjecnik hrvatskoga jezika (multiple editions), adhere more or less faithfully to the traditional Vuk–Danicic neo–stokavian prosodic norm, with some minor adaptations reflecting western neo–stokavian accentual features or contemporary usage. It is questionable, however, whether the accentual system described in these works has much basis in reality in Croatia today. Zagreb, the capital and largest city (with about 1 million inhabitants out of a country of less than 5 million), plays a dominant role in the media and other spheres of public life, and the speech of Zagreb inhabitants is generally characterized by an accentual system that differs radically from the classical neo–stokavian norm. As a center of prestige, one would reasonably expect Zagreb usage to exert a significant influence on the norms of standard Croatian, particularly now that there is no longer any pressure to maintain a unified Serbo–Croatian standard.

The validity of the classical four–accent system in contemporary usage was called into question by Magner and Matejka (1971), who argued that only the place of accent and length in accented syllables could be considered distinctive for the standard language throughout the former Yugoslavia as a whole. However, their methodology and results were criticized by Browne (1972) and Lehiste and Ivic (1986), among others. In their own research, Lehiste and Ivic concluded that rising and falling accents and quantitative differences were indeed used distinctively, with some degree of variation, but it should be noted that their acoustic analysis was based primarily on the speech of Ivic himself, and out of their 12 additional subjects, 9 were Serbian, while the remaining 3 western stokavian speakers had already lived in Novi Sad for several years at the time when the recordings were made. Recent studies by Skaric have suggested that Croatian speakers generally do not distinguish rising and falling accents on short vowels, at least, and that the occurrence of falling accents in non–initial syllables is widely accepted. In fact, his test subjects often identified examples pronounced with the normative neo–stokavian accentuation as being characteristically Serbian rather than Croatian (Skaric 2001).

This paper will examine current scholarly debates about the accentual norm of contemporary standard Croatian that have appeared in the pages of Jezik and other sources. It will also present the results of an acoustic analysis of data from a set of test sentences that were recorded by 19 students of the Pedagogical Faculty at the University of Zagreb in 1998. As future teachers of the Croatian language in the school system, their pronunciation can be considered indicative of current standard usage as well as of future trends.