Language, Dialect, and Nationalism in the Former Yugoslavia: My Dutch-German Conversation with a Montenegrin in Croatia

One day in March while actively avoiding working on or thinking about my MA thesis, I stumbled across a great deal for a trip to Croatia in October. I found it on, basically the Dutch equivalent of EBay for travel, and the deal was for a week-long stay in a beachside villa near Split. I’ve never traveled like this before in my life – the closest thing to a ‘resort’ I’ve ever stayed in was a party hostel on South Beach in Miami where your $20 got you three free meals and discounted entry into overpriced nightclubs. But this deal came out to €67 (about $80) per person for the week, roughly equivalent to what you’d pay for a hostel, so I thought, fuck it, if I ever finish this thesis, I’m gonna need a fancy vacation.

And last week I used that vacation as a starting point for two weeks exploring the fuzzy boundaries between language and dialect in the Balkans.

language dialect and nationalism former yugoslavia Trogir

View from the balcony of our swanky villa in Trogir, Croatia

Leading up to my trip I took an interest in the recent history of the region, especially its linguistic profile. All of the former Yugoslav countries are home to South Slavic languages (in fact, ‘Yugoslavia’ means ‘Land of the Southern Slavs’), and the people of the region and their languages have a long and intermingled history. After reading up on local (linguistic) history and watching a few good documentaries, I flew to Split expecting to land in a region of simmering ethnic tension and uneasy post-war coexistence, but this wasn’t really the case.

Where I did get a glimpse of some tension was in questions of language. Most of my two weeks here were spent listening to locals in various parts of Croatia and Bosnia insisting that the language linguists refer to as ‘Serbo-Croatian’ is actually four different languages: Croatian, Bosnian, Montenegrin, and Serbian.

“A language is a dialect with an army and a navy”

In August this year a friend and I went hitchhiking from Utrecht in the Netherlands all the way to Barcelona via Luxembourg and France, so on the way we had to navigate hitching rides and talking to strangers in five or six different languages.At first I felt a bit useless trying to talk to people at gas stations (German and French were the languages of currency as soon as we were out of the Netherlands and I speak neither one), but I eventually got a bit more linguistically daring, and was surprised by the outcome.

First was an old German couple passing through Maastricht who, being old and German, spoke no English. But still, they seemed very friendly, and didn’t immediately walk away after we established that there was a language barrier, so I gave it a try with a (probably awful) attempt at what was essentially just Dutch with a German accent and the six or eight German words I know. They seemed amused by my half-assed attempt at German and we went further with a lot of gesturing, “bitte?”, and slow repetition, eventually establishing that, no, they couldn’t give us a ride, but they wished us luck since Sunday wasn’t a very good day to try to go hitchhiking (or, alternative interpretation: “fuck off kids, it’s Sunday, go pay for a bus.” But language is all about approximation and nuance.) I had a similar experience later trying my hand at fake-French by means of Spanish, which doesn’t work quite as well as turning Dutch into fake-German, but I still got my point across, also still to the amusement (irritation?) of my francophone conversation partner.

serbocroat dialects nationalism former yugoslavia

A dialect map of Serbo-Croatian. As you see, the language varies as much within countries as it does between them.Wikimedia Commons.

The Dutch-to-fake-German route is much easier than Spanish-to-fake-French because there’s a much narrower gap between the first two. When I hear German being spoken, I always have the strong feeling that if I could just listen a liiiitle bit closer, I’d understand it; I usually get quite a few words and phrases, though not usually enough to really understand what’s going on in the conversation. Spanish speakers might have a similar impression reading French, but listening to it won’t be quite the same (though Spanish and Italian work something more like Dutch and German).

So what’s the difference between the universal distinction between German and Dutch as two separate languages and the seemingly less clear status of ‘Serbo-Croatian’ versus ‘Serbian’ or ‘Croatian’? Well, Spanish, French, Dutch, and German, at least in their European contexts, coincide pretty much one-to-one with Spain, France, the Netherlands, and Germany1. There is no hard and fast distinction between a language and a dialect from a linguistic perspective, but it’s often said that “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy”.

Serbo-Croatian and the dialect continuum in the former Yugoslavia

During Yugoslav times under Tito’s forced ethnic harmony, the languages variously called Croatian, Bosnian, Montenegrin, and Serbian were predominantly seen as one pluricentric language called Serbo-Croatian (which is how nearly any linguist would classify it today). The Novi Sad Agreement assured that the Yugoslav people would officially view themselves as speakers of equal western (Croatian) and eastern (Serbian) variants of one great language, for the unity of Yugoslavia, but eventually national and inter-ethnic tensions led to a change in attitude.

Most estimates put mutual intelligibility between the Serbo-Croatian dialects upwards of 95%, and interestingly, despite the assertions in Croatia that there they speak Croatian and in Serbia that there they speak Serbian, most locals, when directly asked, seem to also estimate about the same. But clearly most people feel that there is a difference, if not a quantifiably large one then certainly a qualitatively important one.

trilingual serbocroatian dialect former yugoslavia

A ‘trilingual’ warning on a pack of cigarettes. The Croatian and Bosnian are exactly, letter for letter, the same, and the third is the Serbian, written in the Serbian Cyrillic alphabet.Imgur.

My first discussion about this was with a Croatian Couchsurfer in Split. When I asked him about the differences between his language and Serbian, he first told me that they sometimes “don’t pronounce their words all the way”. He gave me a few examples of how a Croatian would pronounce any given word, proudly enunciating each vowel sound, next to how a Serbian would say it, lazily slurring chunks of the word together, and I realized all he was talking about was monophthongization, or the simplification of complex, two-part vowels into simple, pure, one-sound vowels. You have the opposite case (‘diphthongization’) in different varieties of American English, for example: the speaker of Standard North American English will pronounce the word ‘there’ how it looks, /ðεɹ/, but a Southerner from Mississippi or Alabama will likely give the vowel a twist and stretch it out to something more like ‘thay-ur’ /ðej’ʌɹ/. Essentially, in Croatian the latter is the normal, and the prior is the equivalent of the Serbian, “not pronounced all the way” variant.

A week or so later while sitting in a bar in Sarajevo with three twenty-something Bosniaks and a handful of internationals, I brought up the topic again. The Bosniak guys couldn’t resist the opportunity to take a jab at the Croatians’ liberal predisposition toward neologisms (newly invented words), particularly calques or literal translations of English or German words whose equivalents exist simply as the (perhaps slightly Slavicized) original international word in Serbian and Bosnian. They laughingly gave the example of the Croatian word for ‘internet’, literally a Croatian translation of the preposition equivalent to ‘inter’ and the noun ‘net’, which all the Bosnians in company found ridiculous.

Trains, freedom fries, and nationalism

Anyone I pushed in Croatia and Bosnia would at some point admit that, well, yeah, they understood just about everything their neighbors in other countries said to them, even though one spoke ‘Bosnian’ and the other answered in ‘Croatian’. Yet a lot of people (though I think I wouldn’t quite go so far as to say most) still find these differences important.

My first Croatian Couchsurfing friend in Split told me a brief story about a visit he’d made to Belgrade, the Serbian capital. It turns out that Croatian and Serbian have different words for train, vlak and voz (written in Serbian Cyrillic as ВОЗ). When my Croatian friend tried to order one ticket for the vlak, his request was met with a sneering correction from the older Serbian ticket man, who told him that there was no vlak, but he could see if there were any spots left on the voz.

I imagine I’d get a similar response if I found myself wandering around rural Texas and asking for directions to the nearest ‘petrol station’ or where I could get some good ‘fish ‘n chips’ (“you c’n git some fried catfish and a plate o’ Freedom Fries at that gas station there yonder, if y’ain’t a commie”), and it comes from a similar place: the desire to distinguish one’s group (nation, race, class, social minority, age, etc.) from another group, especially when that other group is one we’re not so crazy about and might not be so flattered to be mixed up with.

language dialect and nationalism former yugoslavia Sarajevo

Sarajevo is a huge exception to the ‘nation-state’ norm in the Post-Yugoslav balkans: the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina is full of Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs, and Catholic Croats living side-by-side.

The present-day Balkan Peninsula is comprised primarily of nation-states: Slovenes in Slovenia, Croats in Croatia, Bosniaks in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbs in Serbia, Montenegrins in Montenegro, and (mostly) Albanians in Kosovo2. To a lot of the outside world, this list (let’s not forget the Macedonians, neighboring Albanians in Albania, Bulgarians who kind of speak a similar language, Magyars who I think have something to do with these people and what country are they in again and btw what’s going on with gypsies aren’t they somewhere here too???) is most easily simplified to ‘those poor and violent sort-of-but-not-really-Europeans that had that really isolated communist state and then suddenly they all hated each other for no reason’.

If you momentarily put yourself in these shoes and imagine that the rest of the world can’t (or doesn’t care to) tell you apart from your neighbor, and moreover that a huge part of how you view your own cultural or national identity is the fact that you are not like those neighbors in ways A, B, and C, then you can imagine why you might start looking for concrete ways to set yourself apart. But it’s not just external forces that lead the mutually-intelligible speakers of the Serbo-Croatian dialects to want to differentiate themselves: after all, Croatians have been doing it for most of the twentieth century, and Macedonians have been fighting tediously with Greece since forever over the right to call their country Macedonia and their language Macedonian. There’s clearly a link between language and national identity here, and it seems to go beyond simply attaching a label to your forehead that says “we are not them”.

Making friends with a Montenegrin in four languages

In Dubrovnik I found myself once again practicing my fake-German while walking over a narrow bridge on a high-speed highway. I stood hesitantly in the last patch of dirt and grass on the side of the highway just before it narrowed at the opening of the bridge, and I watched as cars zoomed past at 100 km/h or so (~60 mph), wondering if crossing on foot was really a good idea. Then I saw a man walking up from behind me, more or less clear down the middle of the road. When he came within distance, I noticed he was older, probably 55 or so, and he seemed to be local, so I waved and asked in Serbo-Croatian, Govorite li Engleski (“do you speak English”)? He smiled and shook his head no, then said a bit apologetically, Ich spreek ein bisschen deutsch (“I speak a bit of German”).


The Franjo Tuđman Bridge, where I met my Montenegrin friend, as seen from my hostel the day before.

So we gave it a try. I told him I spoke Dutch and asked if he understood me if I spoke slowly, to which he gave a slow confused nod (in hindsight, I think it was more of an “uh-huh, yeah I’m listening, go on” kind of nod than one of comprehension). So I gestured to the road and asked in Dutch, veilig? gevaarlijk? (safe? dangerous?) He blew out his lips and made a dismissive gesture, then said in German something like we wandelen (“we walk”, in Dutch; since I don’t actually speak any German, most of the conversation as I tell it here is how I approximately heard it with a Dutch-speaking ear).

We walked along the road, cars swerving around us, sometimes uncomfortably close, but none of the drivers seemed particularly perturbed. My new friend introduced himself as Milan, and proceeded to tell me that he had worked in Vienna when he was younger and that’s where he learned German, and further I didn’t understand much (I got the feeling his German wasn’t super great, but in any case it was better than his English or my Serbo-Croatian). After his introduction I asked in Dutch if he was from Dubrovnik, but he didn’t seem to understand, so I tried it again in a blend of fake-German and Serbo-Croatian: du bist Hrvatski? (“You’re Croatian?” or something like that). Milan smiled and shook his head, nein nein, montenegrinischen! Govorite li crnogorski? I told him no, I didn’t speak Montenegrin, and silently filed away the absurdity of this old man asking a Dutch tourist in Croatia if he spoke Montenegrin, right in the middle of our not-quite-German conversation. Du bist deutsch? I shook my head and answered, nein, Niederlandisch. Milan nodded and smiled, and asked engagedly if I was from Berlin. The conversation never quite reached a meeting of souls, but the man was relentlessly friendly and seemed sincerely curious about me.

We continued walking for a couple minutes and he rattled on in some garbled mix of German and Serbo-Croatian, now and then proudly throwing in a decontextualized English phrase like ‘cruise ship’ that left me wondering what the hell he thought we were talking about. At the end he abruptly pointed and said DAS IST MEIN HAUS in a way that really only sounded like it was in angry capital letters because it was German and he had raised his voice marginally. He smiled and shook my hand, so I said doviđenja (‘goodbye’ in Serbo-Croatian) and he answered “bye-bye!”


View from the bridge once I had safely reached the other side.

Tense past, less tense present

Even though I think I understood just less than half of what the Montenegrin man said to me and he might have understood less than that, it was really easy to talk to him, because we both felt like chatting to each other. Furthermore, and maybe more importantly, we didn’t have any kind of preexisting beef; I expect that a twenty-something American living in the Netherlands and a fifty-something Montenegrin living in Croatia have a few more than six degrees of separation between them. At any rate there are no instant associations of one’s ancestors having attacked or stolen the bikes of the other’s, so the interaction starts with an intercultural clean slate.

I recently met a German girl in London who grew up in a tiny village next to the Dutch border, and she told me that the people in her village and their counterparts in the Dutch village down the road “hate” each other, presumably on the basis that you’re Dutch and we’re German so fuck you and vice-versa. However, if they wanted to talk to each other, their speech would be well north of 90% mutually intelligible (or at least among dialect speakers; not so much for the youth who are more likely only speaking national Dutch or German standards). So it made me wonder, if historical ties between the Netherlands and Germany had gone differently, if the Netherlands hadn’t spent centuries distinguishing itself as a secular haven for commerce while the Germans were busy with holy wars and Baroque art, if there hadn’t been competing colonial empires and that whole World War II thing, would the Dutch-German dialect continuum have developed differently? Would people now view Dutch as a dialect, something like Schweizerdeutsch or the stronger dialects in Austria?

Probably not. In black and white, there are simply more differences between Dutch and German than there are between the various dialects (or languages, if you prefer) that fall under the Serbo-Croatian umbrella. Serbo-Croatian was the language of the Yugoslavs, but now Croatian, Bosnian, Serbian, and Montenegrin are all dialects with their own national borders, their own armies and navies3. Since the Yugoslav Wars only ended fifteen years ago4 and the states that have replaced it didn’t separate from each other on very good terms, it’s no surprise that each one is proudly convinced that their own national language in fact exists as something different from those around it, an integral part of their nation and national identity.

But what is perhaps a surprise is that this, in my two weeks and two countries in the Balkans, was the only thing approaching ‘tension’ I really witnessed here. When asked about relations with their new neighbor states, not a single Croatian or Bosnian inhaled sharply through their teeth and apologetically tilted their head to say something like “Mmmm, ya know it’s kinda touch-and-go with those Serbs these days” or gave a pained cry about what one or other group put them through during the wars. One Bosnian, when I asked him about this, politely but chidingly asked me if French and Germans were running around setting each other’s houses on fire because they’re still angry about World War II.


Split, from a hill over the city. You’d prbably be pretty friendly too if you were surrounded by views like this.

The Balkans – or at least what I saw of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina – is a region with picturesque landscapes and open and friendly people. The coasts of Croatia are easily the most gorgeous I’ve seen in Europe, and the street food in Bosnia is super cheap and addictively delicious. Whenever I make it back to the region, I’ll be sure to take advantage of locals’ openness to chatting up a stranger, and the twenty or so Serbo-Croatian (or Bosnian, or Montenegrin, or Serbian…) phrases I learned will be a great starter for those conversations throughout the region, regardless of what it’s labelled where.

1The obvious exception here is German-speaking Austria, which despite having its own identifiable dialects would never be said to have its own language. My un-researched guess here is that this has something to do with hectically redrawn political lines in German-speaking Europe throughout the twentieth century.
2Bosnia is much more complex, with its plurality of Muslim Bosniaks living alongside Serbs and Croats in their partitioned federation of a country, the structure of which was only meant to be a temporary solutioin during the wars. Kosovo is also complicated, with its Albanian majority and ethnic Serb minority.
3Okay, Serbia is landlocked and doesn’t actually have a navy, but it does have a river floatilla and a couple intimidating-looking boats here and there.
4Thats the simple version, but really, some conflicts lasted until 2006, and the status of Kosovo is still an ongoing debate.