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Croatian language

The Croatian language is one of the standard versions of the Central-South Slavic diasystem, formerly (and still frequently) called Serbo-Croatian language. It is used primarily by Croats.

Modern Croatian standard language is a continuous outgrowth of more than nine hundred years old literature written in the mixture of Croatian Church Slavonic and vernacular language. If we narrow out the subject, the Croatian Church Slavonic had been abandoned by mid 1400s, and Croatian “purely” vernacular literature has been in existence for more than 5 centuries — a story of remarkable linguistic continuity with only a few shock points.

Table of contents
1 Early development
2 Modern language and standardisation
3 Illyrian period
4 The Serbian connection
5 Unification and separation with Serbian
6 References
7 External links

Early development

The beginning of the Croatian written language can be located in the 9th century when Old Church Slavonic was adopted as the language of the liturgy. This language was gradually adapted to non-liturgical purposes and became known as the Croatian version of Old Slavonic. The two variants of the language, liturgical and non-liturgical, continued to be a part of the Glagolitic service as late as the mid-9th century.

Until the end of the 11th century, Croatian medieval texts were written in three scripts: Latin, Glagolitic, and Croatian Cyrillic (bosančica), and also in three languages: Croatian, Latin and Old Slavonic. The latter developed into what is referred to as the Croatian variant of Church Slavonic between the 12th and the 16th century.

Glagolitic Missal of Duke Novak, 1368

The most important early monument of Croatian literacy is the Baška tablet from the late 11th century. It is a large stone tablet found in the small church of St. Lucy on the Croatian island of Krk, containing text written mostly in čakavian, today a dialect of Croatian, and in Croatian Glagolitic script. It is also important to the history of the nation as it mentions Zvonimir, the king of Croatia at the time. However, the luxurious and ornate representative texts of Croatian Church Slavonic belong to the later era when they coexisted with the Croatian vernacular literature. The most notable are the "Missal of Duke Novak" from Lika region in northwestern Croatia (1368), "Evangel from Reims" (1395, named after the town of its final destination), "Missal of Duke Hrvoje" from Bosnia and Split in Dalmatia (1404) and the first printed book in Croatian language (1483).

The Vinodol Codex, 1288

Also, during the 13th centiry Croatian vernacular texts began to appear, the most important among them being "Istrian land survey", 1275 and "The Vinodol Codex", 1288., both in Čakavian dialect.

The Štokavian dialect literature, based almost exclusively on Čakavian original texts of religious provenance (missals, breviaries,prayer books) appeared almost a century later. The most important purely Štokavian vernacular text is Vatican Croatian Prayer Book, ca. 1400.

Vatican Croatian Prayer Book

Both the language used in legal texts and that used in Glagolitic literature, gradually came under the influence of the vernacular which considerably affected its phonological, morphological and lexical system. From the 14th and the 15th centuries, both secular and religious songs at church festivals were composed in the vernacular.

Writers of early Croatian religious poetry (začinjavci), translators and editors gradually introduced the vernacular into their works. These začinjavci were the forerunners of the rich literary production of the 15th and 16th centuries. The language of religious poems, translations, miracle and morality plays, contributed to the popular character of medieval Croatian literature.

Modern language and standardisation

Although first purely vernacular texts of Croatian language, distinctly different from Church Slavonic go back to the 13th century, it was in 14th and 15th centuries that modern Croatian language emerged (recorded in texts as Vatican Croatian prayer book from 1400.) in the form (morphology, phonology and syntax) that only slightly differs from contemporary Croatian standard language.

Bartul Kašić's manuscript Bible translation

The standardization of Croatian language can be traced back to the first Croatian dictionary (Faust Vrančić: Dictionarium quinque nobilissimarum Europae linguarum — Latinae, Italicae, Germanicae, Dalmatiae et Ungaricae, Venice 1595) and first Croatian grammar (Bartul Kašić: Institutionum linguae illyricae libri duo, Rome 1604). Interestingly enough, the language of Jesuit Kašić’s unpublished (until 2000) translation of the Bible (Old and New Testament, 1622-1636) in the Croatian štokavian-ijekavian dialect (the ornate style of the Dubrovnik Renaissance literature) is as close to the contemporary standard Croatian language (problems of orthography apart) as are French of Montaigne’s “Essays” or King James Bible English to their respective successors — modern standard languages.

This period, sometimes called "Baroque Slavism" was crucial in formation of literary idiom that was to become Croatian standard language — the 17th century witnessed flowering in three fields that shaped modern Croatian:

Ivan Gundulić: Tears of the prodigal son, 1622

This "triple achievement" of Baroque Slavism in first half of the 17th century laid the firm foundation upon which later Illyrian movement completed the work of language standardisation.

See also: List of books on Croatian grammar, Croatian dictionaries

Illyrian period

But, due to the unique Croat linguistic situation, formal shaping of Croatian standard language was a process that took almost four centuries to complete: Croatian is a «three dialects» tongue (a somewhat simplistic way to distinguish between dialects is to refer to the pronoun «what», which is ča, kaj, što in, respectively, čakavian, kajkavian and štokavian dialects) and «three scripts» language (Glagolitic, Croatian/Western/Bosnian Cyrillic and Latin script, with Latin script as the ultimate winner). The final obstacle to the unified Croatian literary language (based on celebrated vernacular Croatian Troubadour, Renaissance and Baroque (acronym TRB) literature (ca. 1490 to ca. 1670) from Dalmatia, Dubrovnik and Boka Kotorska was surmounted by Croatian national «awakener» Ljudevit Gaj's standardization of Latin scriptory norm in 1830-50s.

Gaj and his Illyrian movement (centred in kajkavian-speaking Croatia’s capital Zagreb) were, however, important more politically than linguistically. They "chose" štokavian dialect because they didn't have any other realistic option — štokavian, or, more precisely, neoštokavian (a version of štokavian which emerged in the 15th/16th century) was the major Croatian literary tongue from 1700s on. The 19th century linguists and lexicographers’ main concern was to achieve a more consistent and unified scriptory norm and orthography; an effort followed by peculiar Croatian linguistic characteristics which may be humorously described as “passion for neologisms” or vigorous word coinage, originating from the purist nature of Croatian literary language. One of the peculiarities of the "developmental trajectory" of the Croatian language is that there is no single towering figure among the Croatian linguists/philologists, because the vernacular osmotically percolated into the "high culture" via literary works so there was no need for revolutionary linguistic upheavals — only reforms sufficed.

See also: Croatian linguistic purism

The Serbian connection

The 19th century language development overlapped with the upheavals that befell Serbian language. It was Vuk Stefanović Karadžić, an energetic and resourceful Serbian language and culture reformer, whose scriptory and orthographic stylisation of Serbian linguistic folk idiom made a radical break with the past; until his activity in the first half of the 19th century, Serbs had been using Serbian variant of Church Slavonic and a hybrid Russian-Slavonic language. His “Serbian Dictionary”, published in Vienna 1818 (along with the appended grammar), was the single most significant work of Serbian literary culture that shaped the profile of Serbian language (and, the first Serbian dictionary and grammar thus far).

Following the incentive of Austrian bureaucracy which preferred some kind of "unified" Croatian and Serbian languages for purely practical administrative reasons, in 1850, Slovenian philologist Franc Miklošič initiated a meeting of two Serbian philologists and writers, Vuk Karadžić and Đuro Daničić together with five Croatian "men of letters": Ivan Mažuranić;, Dimitrija Demetar, Stjepan Pejaković, Ivan Kukuljević and Vinko Pacel. This, so-called "Vienna agreement" on the basic features of unified "Croatian or Serbian" or "Serbo-Croatian" language was signed by all eight participants (including Miklošič).

Karadžić's influence on Croatian standard idiom was only one of the reforms for Croats, mostly in some aspects of grammar and orthography; many other changes he made to Serbian were already present in Croatian. Both languages shared the common basis of South Slavic neoštokavian dialect, but the Vienna agreement didn't have any effect in reality until a more "unified" standard appeared at the end of 19th century when Croatian sympathisers of Vuk Karadžić, so-called "Croatian vukovites", wrote first modern (from the vantage point of dominating neogrammarian linguistic school) grammars, orthographies and dictionaries of language they called "Croatian or Serbian" (Serbs preferred Serbo-Croatian). Monumental grammar authored by pre-eminent fin de siècle Croatian linguist Tomislav Maretić (Grammar and stylistics of Croatian or Serbian language) and dictionary by Broz and Iveković (Croatian dictionary) temporarily fixed the elastic (grammatically, syntactically, lexically) standard of this hybrid language.

Unification and separation with Serbian

The neutrality of this section is disputed. Some of the conflicting views can be seen at the discussion page

Some Croats believe that their language was supressed in "Serbian-dominated Yugoslavia", both during the kingdom period (1918-1941) and in socialism (1945 onwards). Some Serbs acknowledge that this was possible during 23 years of Kingdom of Yugoslavia, ruled by Serb kings, but reject the notion during the 36 years of SFRY, held in totalitarian rule by a Croat Josip Broz Tito, during which they claim that the Serbian language and its Cyrillic alphabet was systematically opressed.

In 1954 the leading linguists which supported the idea of the unified standard language signed the so-called Novi Sad Agreement about the Croatian or Serbian Literary Language (Novosadski dogovor o hrvatskom ili srpskom književnom jeziku). The signers seemed to be mostly Serbs, and the first person to sign it was an important Bosnian Serb novelist Ivo Andrić, a 1961 Nobel laureate in literature. Some Croats believe that the Novi Sad agreement of 1954 was the single most important effort by ruling Yugoslav Communist elite to erase the "differences" between two languages and impose the ekavian form (associated with and mostly used in Serbian), written in Latin script, as the "official" language of Yugoslavia.

Yugoslavian lexicographical institute was creating and publishing official and practically the only encyclopedias and dictionaries in Yugoslavia at the time. It was based in Zagreb and operated by Croats. Tito himself was natively speaker of what is known as Kajkavian dialect of Serbo-Croatian language and for more then 40 years of life in Belgrade never learned Serbian accent nor pronunciation. Some Serbs believe that these facts invalidate Croat claims of oppression of Croatian language.

Serbian and Croatian have had a radically different past of almost four hundred years and only a few decades of moderately peaceful convergence — some believed that it was inevitable that they should diverge, especially when political pressures were applied to forge them into one language, which both parties claimed was based on the other language.

In March 1967, Croats reacted against what they perceived as the "Serbianization of Croatian language and culture". Eighteen Croatian scholarly institutions and cultural organizations dealing with language and literature, including foremost Croatian writers and linguists like Miroslav Krleža who was the head of the Lexicographic Institute, issued the "Declaration Concerning the Name and the Status of the Croatian Literary Language". The Declaration accused the federal authorities in Belgrade of imposing Serbian as the official state language and downgrading Croatian to the level of a local dialect. Some Serbs believe that the Declaration was an abuse of trust.

In the Declaration, they asked for amendment to the Constitution expressing two claims:

  1. the equality not of three but of four literary languages: Slovenian, Croatian, Serbian and Macedonian, and consequently, the publication of all federal laws and other federal acts in four instead of three languages;
  2. the use of the Croatian standard language in schools and all mass communication media pertaining to the Republic of Croatia.

The Declaration was vociferously condemned by Yugoslav Communist authorities as an outburst of "Croatian nationalism". These events eventually led to the movement known as Croatian spring in the early 1970s.

Notwithstanding the official opposition to the Declaration, Serbo-Croatian forced unification was essentially halted and the uneasy status quo remained until the end of communism. The opponents of Serbo-Croatian were mostly advocates of Croatian linguistic purism, which some associate with the notion of newspeak.

Political ambitions played the key role in the "invention" of the Serbo-Croatian language. Likewise, politics again was crucial agent in dissolving the "unified" language. With the collapse of Communism, Serbo-Croatian language officially followed suit.

Croatian language is today the official language of the Republic of Croatia and, along with Bosnian and Serbian, one of three official languages of Bosnia and Herzegovina.


External links

Language history

General links