Bosnia: A linguistic reflection

3 years ago, I travelled to Bosnia by myself.

I took an 8 hour bus ride from Kotor, travelling through the North of Montenegro and the mountains of Eastern Europe to get to Sarajevo. As we got to Bosnia, the linguistic landscape of my surroundings changed. It became multilingual – yet, all these languages looked similar..

The history of Bosnia is long, and fraught. Graves scatter the capital, buildings still bear the scars of the war, a gentle but stark reminder of the war this young country had gone through not too long ago. The war tore civil society apart, and the effects of it still linger. This divide is evident in the language policies of the country.

The ordering of the languages on the signs were indicative of the area you were in. Either, Serbian, Croat or Bosnian. Mind you, all these languages are not mutually exclusive!

Understanding the language policies and the linguistic realities of Bosnia requires some knowledge of their history. I will keep it brief, and completely understand that this oversimplification does not do the country justice.

Bosnia & Herzegovina gained independence in 1992, after the disintegration of then, Yugoslavia. This new found independence was not a unanimous decision between all factions. The war lasted from 1992 to 1995, a peace deal was agreed upon. This tripartite agreement is crucial in understanding the complex political structure of Bosnia & Herzegovina. The peace deal, also known as the Dayton Agreement, was signed by 3 parties: the Bosniaks, the Serbs, and the Croats. The agreement divided the country into 2 parts, Bosnia & Herzegovina and the Republic of Srpska (controlled by the Serbs). A special administrative unit was set up and jointly administered by the 3 main ethnicities that make up the diverse nation.

During my travels there, I’ve always been so amazed by the diversity of the country. It was through my conversations with Bosnians that I came to understand that it has actually been fractured ever since the war. Before the war, there was much more unity and harmony between all 3 ethnicities. If you speak to most Bosnians, most would argue that the war was mostly political and fight for power.

It is impossible to talk about the linguistic situation and landscape of this beautiful nation without taking into account the situations in neighbouring Croatia and Serbia. As a result of the dissolution of Yugoslavia, new states began to create their own and new language policies to assert independence and justify their separation from the other states.

Bosnia is an interesting case study, because linguistic nationalism has been a big part of the national turmoil and struggle after independence. As mentioned before, Bosnia is made up of 3 main ethnicities, both were struggling and fighting for equal space in their own country. The history of establishing Bosnian as a distinguishable “language” is long, however, the results of the fight and struggle to codify this new language has resulted in the co-existence of 3 languages in Bosnia today. Hence, the moment you’re in Bosnia, signs would be marked in 3 different languages despite them all looking somewhat similar. The linguistic landscape is a unique example of languages having multiple standards and hierarchies.

However, the linguistic reality in Bosnia, in terms of everyday communication is not reflected in the policies and the codified constitution. The lingua franca pre-war has remained virtually unaltered despite the numerous codification to Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian languages in it’s constitution and language policies.

It’s interesting how the complexity of a nation and the nuances of their history is reflected in their language policies. The linguistic landscape, signs that mark their roads, and fences was my quick glimpse into the division and the politics of this country. My curiosity led me to ask some questions to my guide, who was incredibly enthusiastic to talk about politics. Sometimes he sighs because he’s jaded, but sometimes he laughs at the absurdity of the Bosnia’s politics.

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