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What Language Do Montenegrins Speak?

Even the average Montenegrin isn’t quite sure. by Aida Ramusovic 16 April 2003 PODGORICA, Serbia and Montenegro--Though most Montenegrin citizens speak the same language, if you ask people on the street in the capital of Podgorica what language they speak, you are bound to get a handful of different answers: Montenegrin, Serbian, Serbo-Croatian, or Serbo-Montenegrin.

“I speak Serbian,” a 25-year-old law student from Podgorica says quickly and with conviction. His friend, a 22-year-old accountant, agreed, but only on a technicality: “We speak Serbian because that’s what it says in the constitution. But if we change the name, I will speak Montenegrin.”

There are Montenegrins who insist they speak nothing if not Serbian. There are Montenegrins who are adamant that as long as they are Montenegrins, they will speak Montenegrin. And there are Montenegrins nostalgic for the past, for the days of Yugoslavia, who are certain the language they speak is pure Serbo-Croatian.

“I speak Serbo-Croatian, my children speak Serbo-Croatian, and their children will do the same,” a 40-year-old man said, irritated at the need for such a question.

But for the undecided, the uncertain, and even the adamant, it’s a question that will soon be answered one way or another, as the government of Montenegro has only a couple of months to bring its constitution into line with the constitutional chapter of the new union of Serbia and Montenegro.

If no parliamentary parties bring the language question to the table in the next couple of months, Montenegro’s official language will remain Serbian, as it says in the country’s current constitution.

Though the government has not yet hinted at what its position is, certain political and intellectual circles have already begun the debate.

Over the past decade, Montenegrin academic Vojislav Nikcevic has written and published several books on the topic. He believes that public pressure to rename the language spoken in Montenegro is immense and growing.

“As we speak, a petition for introducing the Montenegrin language is being signed,” said Nikcevic. “We need 10,000 signatures to have this initiative addressed [in parliament]. The Constitutional Charter [of the new union of Serbian and Montenegro] makes the introduction of the Montenegrin language possible by forbidding language discrimination,” he said.

A handful of nongovernmental organizations, including the Duklja Academy of Science and Art, the Matica Crnogorska writers’ society, the Montenegrin Pen Center, and the Montenegrin Ethnic Association of Australia (MEAA), have already gone public with their request to introduce Montenegrin as the official language.

“We invite the Montenegrin nation to protect the linguistic and cultural rights of all Montenegrins,” MEAA chairman Mihailo Mandic said in a statement to local media.

But some say that the language is what it is, and what it is officially called won’t change anything.

“Giving languages a national name, such as Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, or Montenegrin, does not mean that the languages become grammatically distant or that the common structure is splitting. The common structure remains, and the richness of the structure, which has the form of the national language, represents the unity of South Slavic languages,” Matica Crnogorska chairman Branko Banjevic said.


Linguists generally agree that there are only small differences in the languages spoken by Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), and Montenegrins. Serbo-Croatian, one of the official languages of the former Yugoslavia, was standardized by the so-called Novi Sad agreement in 1954. After the breakup of Yugoslavia, however, each ethnic group insisted on having its own language. But Serbian remained the official language of Montenegro.

Though the differences are miniscule, those who propose Montenegrin as an official language claim that the Montenegrin alphabet has at least three more letters than Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian, whose alphabets consist of 30 letters.

“The soft ‘s’ in words such as sjekira [ax] and sjutra [tomorrow], … and the soft ‘z’ in the verb izjesti [to eat] are the most representative characteristics of the Montenegrin language,” Nikcevic said.

But linguists and writers haven’t been the only figures trying to sway public opinion regarding the official language. Politicians have also been using the issue as a campaign tool.

Montenegrins need 33 letters to express themselves in writing.
Dragan Koprivica, spokesperson for the opposition Montenegrin Socialist People’s Party (SNP) and a well-known writer and university professor, says he fails to understand what all the fuss is about.

“Montenegrins and Serbs speak the same language: Serbian,” Koprivica said, adding that Serbs do not have any more right to the Serbian language than Montenegrins do. “The regime is using the language question for political purposes,” he said.

“The government generates a never-ending language topic as a replacement for discussion about reforms.”

According to Koprivica, certain media are supporting what he calls the “absurdity” of the language question. It’s a theory, says Koprivica, that basically goes: "Call me Petar until noon, and from noon to midnight call me Pavle, but all in all I am one and the same person."

Koprivica concedes that differences in dialects do exist, but the languages are essentially the same. “The Montenegrin language does not exist. Dialects of Serbian ‘colored in our way’ exist in Montenegro and ‘in their way’ in Serbia,” he said.

The cultural editor for the daily newspaper Vijesti, Balsa Brkovic, who is also the author of the novel Private Gallery, says he thinks Montenegrins have a legal right to speak their own language--Montenegrin.

“It is important to mention the fact that this is a language that three nationalities [Serbian, Croatian, and Bosniak] use, and from a linguist standpoint it is one language that they refer to according to their different nationalities. With that in mind, Montenegrins are obligated to do the same,” Brkovic said.

Montenegrin public opinion is equally divided over the name of the official language. Montenegrin Education Minister Slobodan Backovic recently told the public that the official language should be Montenegrin. Backovic is the first member of the ruling Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) to openly support Montenegrin as the official language.

Vuk Minic, also a DPS member, as well as a philologist, says that the most rational solution, in his opinion, is to call the official language “Montenegrin-Serbian,” in congruence with the name of the new union, Serbia and Montenegro.

“By suggesting this compromise I am aware that I am talking more about a political than philological solution,” Minic said.


Professor Nikcevic, however, says Minic’s “rational” solution is not satisfactory.

“[Montenegrin-Serbian] would be an artificial creation that would collapse like Serbo-Croatian did. Languages should be separated, coded independently, and adapted to the state, so those states can be recognized owing to the language,” said Nikcevic.

But Vjesti's Brkovic, while he supports Montenegrin as the official name of the language, says that changing the words, as Nikcevic has suggested, could have negative repercussions. The problem, he says, isn’t one of content at all, but merely the question of what to call the language.

“When some linguists and other influential intellectuals try to introduce hard, archaic words and forms, they are not actually addressing the main problem--the name of the language,” said Brkovic.

Aside from politicians, linguists, and intellectuals, the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC) and the Montenegrin Orthodox Church (MPC) also have their own, varying opinions about the official name of the language.

Though the two churches share the same Orthodox beliefs, they do not necessarily see eye to eye on the language question--or any other question pertaining to national identity for that matter.

The SPC’s news agency, Svetigora press, recently released a statement reminding people that the language of Montenegro has been the same for centuries: Serbian. For the answer to the question of what language is spoken in Montenegro, the Serbian Orthodox Church directs the curious to centuries-old Orthodox textbooks.

On the other hand, the Montenegrin Orthodox Church constitution recognizes Montenegrin, using the Cyrillic alphabet, as the official language. “Our faith in the Orthodox Church, the Montenegrin people, the nation, and the language should be tough and strong in order to obtain independence,” is the MPC’s official stance.

But if Montenegrin is to be the future official name of the language, its coding and the introduction of the first Montenegrin orthography will have to be worked out first.

“We will probably solve the language question at the same moment that we are able to define the language we speak, not only in name, but also in coding, which is essential,” said linguist and university professor Igor Lakic.

The language question in Montenegro, which has been long neglected in public and scientific circles, is much more of a political issue than a linguistic one. As such, politicians may be the only ones motivated enough to put the ball in motion.

“The politicians have to show their willingness and courage to rename the language ‘Montenegrin,’ and then experts will code it based on linguistic rules,” said Lakic.

This article first appeared on TOL's Balkan Reconstruction Report.
Aida Ramusovic is a freelance reporter based in Podgorica.
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