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Kevin McCoy | Columns | Serbianna.com Dueling Scripts: The Ongoing War Between Latin and Cyrillic
By Kevin McCoy
January 23, 2007

Now that Romania and Bulgaria have entered the European Union, what about the future ascension of their Serbian neighbors to the west? The future depends on whether or not Brussels eases its ever louder calls for “absorption capacity.” With elections just completed, Boris Tadic, president of Serbia, and others in the liberal, democratic camps are coalition building in hopes of further distancing the country from its recently troubled past, with a keen eye on moving Serbia forward to joining the EU in the next several years. They may not be thinking about a debate on language scripts at the moment but in a few years that may become a simmering topic as it was at many points in time in the old days of Yugoslavia.

Following the Novi Sad Agreement in 1954 that further unified the state language system, Latin became increasingly prevalent especially at the federal level in Yugoslavia and the cultural elites in the capital preferred that script as well.  The region does have a history over the past 150 years of shifting the balance of power on the issue of language and politics has always played a key role and been a driving force on the ebb and flow. In the post-Tito era of the 1980s amidst a growing nationalism taking hold in Serbia, the question of whether to use the Latin or Cyrillic alphabet once again came to light.  Serbian nationalists clashed with Croatian nationalists on the orthography debate, but following the breakup of Yugoslavia, that no longer became an issue. Serbian independence paved the way for Cyrillic to take hold. “Cultural genocide” as some were calling it in the 80s would appear to be averted with the onslaught of successor states.

Hey Cyrillic, where'd you fly off to?

These days, hardly surprisingly, is the fact that Cyrillic is the official script of Serbia as written in Article 10 of the new Constitution.  Could there be a new threat of “cultural genocide” if Latin supplants Cyrillic as the predominantly used script in Serbia? Globalism is not absent here, particularly in Belgrade. On nearly every street one can find the Latin script along with a plethora of billboard advertisements and slogans written in Latin.  Along the main pedestrian-only street, Knez Mihaila, English words are in abundance. English is widely spoken throughout Serbia, especially among the younger generations, going hand in hand with an extensive use of the Latin alphabet. It’s even quite difficult to find a T-shirt sold anywhere in Belgrade that is actually written in Cyrillic.  The ubiquity of Latin is undeniable and the cultural purists may well use this as a tool in the near future to separate themselves from their adversarial, pro-western, liberal democratic types who the purists claim cave in to the U.S. and the EU. After all, it is easy to associate the Latin script with the West, with America, with globalization, and ultimately claim it is un-Serbian.

Perhaps it is possible for Serbia to live harmoniously with both scripts and that there will exist a peaceful coexistence between the two orthographies.  There are various reasons for script preferences, such as habit and comfort. More often than not, Cyrillic is the chosen script used by Serbs, however many use both scripts and would like to see each remain in use in the Serbian language. Many Serbs believe that the cultural benefits of Cyrillic are a unique and treasured part of its history. For the majority it would be deplorable to see it disappear under the weight of alleged progress, globalization, and further European integration which allies itself with the pervasive Latin script. The juxtaposition is that many see Latin as a useful and necessary script for Serbian society because of its ties with the outside world coupled with the fact that the Serbian language also shares a past here, albeit far younger, than its rival. A potential downside with a continued dual script is the possibility of political spark and division.

“Cyrillic is a political tool to differentiate Serbian people from ‘others’ to justify one’s identity – together with being Orthodox,” said Jelena Celebic, a former student of Serbian Language and Literature from Belgrade. Furthermore, she argued “maintaining historical and cultural tradition is very political at the moment since it’s working towards the exclusion of all ‘non-Serbian’ elements from mainstream culture. It’s not positive to work on national pride, not now, not ever.  The concept of ‘re-traditionalizing’ society involves both the use of Cyrillic and empowerment of the Serbian Orthodox Church so I don’t see it as a healthy process for a country.”

Regardless of script preferences, many Serbs are in favor of their country not making one distinct choice on the matter.  However, Ljubisa Jovanovic, President of the Organization for Serbian Cyrillic and high school teacher of English, believes that two scripts are not needed as there is an unwritten standard of one script per language.  He points to the fact that nowhere in Europe are two scripts in dual use in one language such as in Serbia.  “Serbia did not want or need another script and it was an imposed ideological experiment dating back to the post-WWI period when two scripts were put into use,” he said.  During that era, when King Alexander reigned as head of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, later named Kingdom of Yugoslavia, the first push for a common Yugoslav language in a politically unified region was set in motion.

Celebic takes a different angle, claiming that both alphabets were equally used in the former Yugoslavia.  “What creates the linguistic distinction between these two countries are attempts to present Serbian and Croatian as two different languages, which they are not, of course,” said Celebic. Today, according to Jovanovic, the use of two scripts is merely a product of that bygone era.  He suggests letting language experts decide which script to use, as does Milica Nikolic, a student of Spanish Language and Literature in Belgrade. Jovanovic added that a very open, democratic, and tolerant discussion on the matter by the informed experts should take place on which script to use.  Part of his case for Cyrillic is that it doesn’t interfere with the outside world.  Many foreign countries, such as those in Western Europe, must have a guarantee to have words translated from other languages into the official language, for example with ingredients on food products. Therefore, whether the Serbian language uses Cyrillic or Latin is irrelevant.  Asian languages such as Chinese and Japanese are obviously not understood by the market consumers of non-Chinese or Japanese descent in North America and Europe, for instance, and yet Asian goods are commonplace and pose no logistical problems in terms of understanding because of the translations.  Culturally speaking, the best Serbian writers and artists used Cyrillic.  The most important manuscripts were written in Cyrillic and institutions, museums, galleries, graves, and signs were all written in Cyrillic.  Additionally, a vast majority of personal correspondence, decisions, statements, and reports have all been historically written in Cyrillic. “With ten centuries of Cyrillic under its belt,” asked Jovanovic, “why is the shift to Latin suddenly necessary at all?”

A look into the past gives a glimpse of what might be the inevitable doom of Serbian Cyrillic. Nikica Strizak, a student of Serbian Language and Literature, said, “If any script is going to die here it will be Cyrillic, sad but true. The reasons are purely practical.  Cyrillic is going to become like the Glagolic script used in Croatia until the XIX Century and now obsolete.” The new schooling system is based on learning two foreign languages from the first grade, which will mean that Latin will be widely present in the future. Latin enables easier contact and communication in the sphere of technology and international matters.  Indeed, in the technological age that is our time, Latin has a much higher chance of winning out over Cyrillic.  Romania scrapped Cyrillic use altogether in favor of Latin as its only script more than a century ago.  Bulgaria is now the first EU country to have Cyrillic as its official script and insofar as EU matters are concerned, that shouldn’t become a stumbling block for future Serbian entry.

Serbia is far removed from its recent isolationism and perhaps a move away from the Latin script would represent a retreat from the rest of Europe to an inward approach politically. One well traveled foreigner, Matthew Theisen, recently quipped, “Are they still using Cyrillic or did they switch back to normal?”  In Serbia, it appears that many are happy with both scripts for a variety of reasons and hopefully this issue won’t turn fractious and divide the nation in the coming years, regardless of the outcome.  Cultural preservation or changing with the times?  Which way to go. Only time, trends, and societal preference will tell.


Kevin McCoy
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