Dictionary as Historiography: Vuk’s 1818 Srpski rječnik and the Idea of a Serbian Language

Kristin Vitalich, University of California, Los Angeles

The instruments that linguistics has contributed to literary analysis have given us such distinguished disciplinary hybrids as discourse analysis and poetics. I will suggest that if we take a page from literary studies and look at linguistics itself as a discourse another area of interdisciplinary interest emerges, particularly if we consider the role that linguistics has played in debates on what constitutes a literary language. Nowhere is the relationship of literary language to the ever-evolving discourse of linguistics more apparent than in lexicography, and in the nineteenth-century Slavic world, where the codification of national languages coincided with a lexicographical boom, the two are essentially inextricable. The dictionary offers a remarkably self-contained philosophical microcosm as it represents an essentially positivist enterprise – a lexicographer believes that he or she is producing a complete picture of a language as it is. I propose that if we take advantage of this untapped resource by moving from historical linguistics’ lexicological interest in nineteenth-century Slavic dictionaries – an approach in which the dictionary is valuable merely as a means of accessing a particular lexical corpus – to a lexicographical focus on how this repository of words is written, the metalinguistic implications of dictionary writing come to the fore.

Vuk Karadžić’s populist 1818 Srpski rječnik is a noteworthy exemplar of nineteenth-century Slavic lexicographical practice, written at a time when considerable instability surrounded the Serbian ethnonym and presenting a notion of what a Serbian language should look like that constituted a complete innovation over what little consensus then existed among church fathers in Vojvodina. Traditional treatments of Vuk’s dictionary and its linguistic theory have sought to assess the tenability of Vuk’s vision for a full service Serbian language. Applying sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of habitus, I will argue that by bracketing the partisan question of the viability of Vuk’s vision and approaching his dictionary as a manifestation of a specific scientific discourse - a methodology that requires an examination of both the dictionary's contents and its structural organization – a snapshot emerges of what (to this man at this time) a Serbian language was and what it did. This comprehensive picture of Vukian linguistic habitus is not of ancillary but critical importance to literary studies as well as intellectual history given the conflation of literary and national languages in the nineteenth century that allows us to this very day to speak of “Serbian literature” as a recognizable and cohesive entity.