What is a language? It’s kind of an infuriating question — one that’s seemingly simple at first, but as you dig into the details, it becomes really hard to define. The boundaries between languages can be extremely blurry, and the rules that dictate what counts as a “language” versus a “dialect” can be entirely arbitrary. Linguists avoid “language” and “dialect” all together, tending to use the term “variety” as a catch-all for ways of speaking.
There’s a famous quip about defining languages that is often referenced in this context: “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.” It’s a saying popularized by the sociologist Max Weinreich, and though of course the phrase in itself is hardly scientific, it does seem to capture a certain truth about the world. How true is it, though? We wanted to put the quote to the test, and so we decided to look at an example where country borders have shifted along with linguistic borders.
There’s a famous quip about defining languages that is often referenced in this context: ‘A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.’
In the western Balkans, an area that for a time during the 20th century was Yugoslavia, there is an ongoing debate over how many languages are spoken. Some say there are four: Croatian, Serbian, Montenegrin and Bosnian. Others say these are all just dialects of one language: Serbo-Croatian. By looking at how this situation arose, you can learn a lot about how language is shaped by time, war and political interests.
A Brief History Of The Western Balkans
While small, the western Balkans have had a very complicated history, so this is hardly a comprehensive story. Through war, peace and empire, the region has come together and splintered several times. The area has long been home to a number of different ethnic groups, including Croatians, Bosnians, Montenegrins, Serbians and others. Throughout most of its history, however, the land had passed hands between various empires, including the Roman Empire and the Ottoman Empire. The ethnic groups maintained their own identity through all of these occupations, but their self-determination was limited.
By the 19th century, the western Balkans were gripped by nationalism, and many of the ethnic groups wanted to establish independence from their rulers, which at the time was the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There was disagreement, however, over whether that would mean uniting the western Balkans to create a new kingdom, or splitting off into separate kingdoms.
The nationalistic drive and the competing desires to unite or separate defined the region during the 20th century. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was broken up at the end of World War I, and the entirety of the western Balkans merged to create the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. But then, at the beginning of World War II, it broke apart again. And then at the end of World War II, the area was once again united as Yugoslavia. That is, until nationalism rose again at the end of the 20th century, when the Yugoslav Wars broke out, which resulted in what the region is today: the separate countries of Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia.
The Evolution Of Language In The Western Balkans
For much of its history, the western Balkans has spoken what is now called Serbo-Croatian (though that’ll get more complicated soon). In most ways, Serbo-Croatian is like a lot of other languages in the world. It’s descended from a proto-language — in this case, Indo-European, which is also the ancestor of almost all languages spoken in Europe today — and is part of the Slavic family of languages, which covers a lot of Eastern Europe.
Much of language history can be traced back to a series of large linguistic ancestors that eventually broke up into smaller distinct languages. It’s like a big family tree where Indo-European is the parent of Balto-Slavic, which is the parent of Slavic, which is the parent of South Slavic, which is the parent of Serbo-Croatian, and on and on.
The issue at hand is whether the Serbo-Croatian branch broke off into smaller languages, including Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Montenegrin. These languages are mutually intelligible, but so too are the Scandinavian languages Norwegian, Swedish and Danish, yet no one argues that those languages are indeed separate entities. Who decides, then, whether one is a dialect or a language? In the case of Serbo-Croatian, there’s actually an answer to that.
How Serbo-Croatian Was Standardized
The most important innovation when it comes to understanding the boundaries between languages is writing. Much like cartography allowed people to draw the borders of their countries, writing allowed people to draw the borders of their language. The process of standardization allows a specific manner of speaking and writing to declare itself as a language.
Much like cartography allowed people to draw the borders of their countries, writing allowed people to draw the borders of their language.
Serbo-Croatian, when looked at historically, first popped up in the 10th century CE. Looking at old texts, the evolution of Serbo-Croatian can be seen as evolving over time. But it wasn’t until the 19th century that Serbo-Croatian was actually recognized as a specific entity, and it was the result not of evolution, but of the Vienna Literary Agreement. This agreement was a meeting between representatives of Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia aimed at deciding how they would standardize their language, which at the time was similar enough to count as a single language.
At this point, Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia were still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and this agreement was an attempt to unite the south Slavic states linguistically and culturally. They chose a specific dialect — Shtokavian— and decided to make that the standard for literature and other forms of writing. By doing this, the various dialects that had been diverging across the region were reined in. If this hadn’t happened, it’s possible these dialects would’ve continued changing and been far more distinct than they are today.
The linguists in charge of this meeting, Croat Ljudevit Gaj and Serb Vuk Stefanović Karadžić, had political motivations behind their actions. They knew that uniting language can work as a tool for uniting people. It also was coincidentally useful to have established this language prior to the unification of Yugoslavia in the 20th century. The official language of Yugoslavia, of course, would be Serbo-Croatian.
How A Language Splits Apart (And Is Pulled Back Together Again)
When Yugoslavia split apart during the 20th century, so too did Serbo-Croatian. If you look at the official languages of the countries in the region today, none are listed as Serbo-Croatian, but instead as Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Montenegrin. This doesn’t seem as if it would be controversial. And yet it is!
In 2017, a huge number of people, including linguists and other experts, put together and signed a document called the Declaration of the Common Language. The writers of this document allege that Serbo-Croatian should be considered a polycentric language (meaning it has several dialects), and that Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Montenegrin are merely dialects. It may seem like an odd thing for thousands of people to sign, but the declaration is meant to fight nationalism.
The insistence on treating the languages as separate, argue the document’s writers, is “repressive, unnecessary and harmful.” People who speak Serbian, for example, have more prestige than those who speak Croatian. This in itself isn’t that strange or unusual. British English, for example, has often been treated as more intelligent and prestigious than American English.
Yet the splintering of Serbo-Croatian is considered worse because it is an institutional part of both the government and the schools. Of course there are also those who argue that they are indeed different enough to be considered separate languages, but as mentioned at the start, there’s no way to actually divide languages based on how different they are.
All together, Serbo-Croatian has been used since its conception as a political tool almost as much as a linguistic one. So yes, this is a case involving dialects with newly separated armies and navies, so the aphorism at the heart of this inquiry is on one level true for Serbian and the others. But perhaps more important is that people choose to recognize languages when they want to reinforce the similarities or differences between people.