The object of this article is to present the process of making separate (from Serbian, Croatian and Montenegrin) Boshnjak ethnolinguistic national identity by using the technique of “linguistic engineering/chirurgic” in the process of creation of an independent (from Serbian/Montenegrin and Croatian) Bosnian language as a national language of Bosnian-Herzegovinian South Slavic Muslims (former speakers of common Serbo-Croat language).


We will present as well the ways in which various elements of linguistic diversity within former Serbo-Croat language have been “emblematized” and taken as markers of ethnonational and political identity of Muslim Boshnjaks in multicultural/multiconfessional Bosnia-Herzegovina from 1993, when official Boshnjak ethnonational identity was introduced, up today.

The relationship between language, nation and state is a part of an ideological composition either in Bosnia-Herzegovina or in the rest of the Balkans (similarly to majority of European regions).

Bosnia-Herzegovina is a Balkan historical province where the consequences of the clash between national ideologies, which are both domestically rooted and imported from outside with more or less autonomous currents of thinking and behaviour, have been deep and extreme.

Imported ideology of the 19th century German Romanticism of linguistically rooted ethnonational identity and solving the national-state problem (“Eine sprache, ein folk, ein staat”) is fused with more autonomous currents that were heavily imbued with “bloody memories” from the WWII and resulted in what is labelled to be “post-Communist nationalism”. Such amalgamation became a basis for creation of increasingly homogeneous states with rejuvenation of inter-ethnic intolerance in the most extreme meaning.

The land of Bosnia-Herzegovina is probably the best Balkan example of a crucial interface between language and nationalism. For the purpose that they are separate nations all three major ethnoconfessional players in Bosnia-Herzegovina legally proclaimed their own national languages to be disconnected with ex-Serbo-Croat one. That was of especial importance to the Muslims/Boshnjaks as without “evidence” that their native language is different from Serbian and Croatian they will hardly convince international community that they are not originally Serbs or Croats what was of a crucial justification of their claims to live in internationally independent “national” state organization.

The Bosnian language (de facto of only Muslim Boshnjaks), as a separate (South) Slavic one, was officially inaugurated in 1996 by publishing the book: S. Halilović, Pravopis bosanskog jezika (Orthography of Bosnian Language) in the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina – Sarajevo. According to the Orthography… (and other similar publications), Bosnian language is different in comparison with “relative” Serbian and Croatian because of the following main reasons:

  • The use of phoneme “h” in certain words differently from Serbian, Croatian and Montenegrin. For instance, the word “coffee” is written and pronounced in these languages as: in Bosnian: kahva; Serbian/Montenegrin: кафа/kafa; Croatian: kava; in Bosnian hudovica (widow), in Serbian/Croatian udovica, etc.
  • Greater use of “Turkish” words (i.e. of Oriental origin) like ahbab (friend); amidža (uncle); adet (custom/habit), akšam (twilight), etc. (all of these words are known in Serbian, Montenegrin and Croatian languages but not used regularly as they are replaced by the Slavic words).
  • Using of only one form of the Future tense: “ja ću kupiti/kupit ću” (I will buy) that is used in standard Croatian as well, but no use of forms “купићу/ја ћу да купим” as in standard Serbian/Montenegrin.
  • The use of Ijekavian sub-dialect of the Shtokavian dialect but not the Ekavian one of the same dialect. However, Ijekavian sub-dialect is used in spoken and standard language by all Serbs, Croats and Boshnjaks westward from Drina River (historically and politically separating Serbia from Bosnia-Herzegovina) and by Serbs in Western Serbia and by all Slavs in Montenegro.

Nominally, Bosnian language is written by both Latin and Cyrillic scripts. However, in practice it is done only by Latin (like Croatian) for the purpose to break any link with the Serbs for whom the Cyrillic script is (by language law) the first, while Latin is the second national alphabet. It has to be emphasised that Croatian, Bosnian, Montenegrin and Serbian Latin script is absolutely the same one. In historical context, the native language of the inhabitants of Bosnia-Herzegovina (claimed to be Bosnian one) was written by three alphabets: “latinica” (Latin), “bosančica/bosanica” (Cyrillic) and “arabica” (Arabic). However, what concerns “bosančica”, it is not recognized the fact that this script came to mediaeval Bosnia-Herzegovina from Serbia and during the Ottoman rule it was known within the Bosnian Muslim feudal circles as “Old Serbia” up to the mid-19th century. At the same time Croatian philology claims that “bosančica” is Croatian national Cyrillic script. By “arabica”, undoubtedly, it was written one of the most beautiful profane lyric, religious and fine literature – “književnost adžamijska”.

Regardless on official domestic and international recognition of separate Bosnian language from the neighbouring ones, linguistically speaking, grammar and orthography of Serbian, Montenegrin, Croatian and Bosnian languages are the same what means that linguistic structure of them is not differentiating. It shows that all four of them have the same origin, process of development and linguistic essence. Even the fact that there are 8% of lexical differences between them does not make any practical obstacles for inter-understanding in everyday life.

The common link that is connecting in practice and even in literature Bosnian with neighbouring Croatian, Serbian, Macedonian and Montenegrin languages are about 3000 Oriental words (“turcizmi”). For many of them there is no domestic Slavic alternative.

One of the main problematic issues concerning ethno-linguistic-statehood reality of Boshnjaks is the fact that their ethnic, language and state names are not having the same terminology as it is championed by majority of European nations (ex. Polish nation; Polish state; Polish language, etc.). In the other words, their ethnonational name – “Boshnjaks” does not correspond to the name of their national state – “Bosnia-Herzegovina” and both do not correspond to their national language name – “Bosnian”.

In this context, we can wonder, for instance, which language speak population in Herzegovina or why Boshnjaks does not speak Boshnjak language but Bosnian one? On this place it has to be said that originally from 1991 up to 1996 Boshnjaks pretended to officially speak Boshnjak language (but never tried to rename Bosnia-Herzegovina into “Boshnjakia”). Such practice was even internationally sanctioned by the Dayton Peace Treaty in November 1995 when the text of the agreement was signed in four languages: English, Croatian, Serbian and Boshnjak (not Bosnian!).

However, very soon the ideologists of Boshnjak ethnonational identity understood that international science of Slavonic philology is very suspicious upon the use of Boshnjak language as it is not at all rooted in the historical sources in which from the year 1300 up to 1918 is mentioned only Bosnian language (in fact as a provincial language spoken by the Orthodox, Catholic and from 1463 Muslim communities).

Elevation of Bosnian language, as a mother tongue of all inhabitants of Bosnia-Herzegovina was especially promoted at the time of Austro-Hungarian administration in this province from 1878 to 1918. However, such solution was decisively rejected by the Serbs and Croats from Bosnia-Herzegovina who called their languages after their ethnic names. Thus, the idea of Bosnian language at that time (as today as well) was accepted only by local Islamic inhabitants.

Nevertheless, the Austro-Hungarian policy of Bosnian language as a native one of all inhabitants of Bosnia-Herzegovina is accepted today in a full extend by the main advocators of Bosnian language as a mothertongue of Serbs, Croats and Boshnjaks from Bosnia-Herzegovina and of the Boshnjaks from Sandžak area (Рашка in Serbian language and historiography). The last one was devided after 1913 between Serbia and Montenegro but before 1878/1908 being a part of Ottoman province (pashaluk in Serbo-Croat) of Bosnia (not of Bosnia-Herzegovina!) which existed from 1580 to 1878/1908.

There is also and unproved claim (in the sources) that even before Slavic settlement at Bosnia (the 7th century) existed such name for whole Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The truth is that in the 15th and the 16th centuries “Bosnian” (or “Serbo-Croat” or “Serbian” or “Croat”) language was second diplomatic and official language at the court in Istanbul (after the Turkish one) due to the fact that at that time there were many highest Ottoman officials and the Janissaries in Istanbul (including and Grand Vizirs) originating from Bosnia-Herzegovina. However, this fact became a basis for the claims that exactly Bosnian language was at that time some kind of Balkan lingua franca and even one of the most diplomatic languages in Europe. Nevertheless, the sources are telling us that in the most cases the local South Slavic population of ex-Serbo-Croat language (especially those from Dubrovnik) have been calling their language as “our language”, “Slavic language”, “Illyrian language”, etc., but only in very rear cases by ethnic names.

The creators and promoters of modern idea of separate Bosnian language from the relative neighbouring ones, in order to prove their standpoint, implied the technique of “linguistic engineering”, similar to their Croatian colleagues concerning Croatian language. In both cases, it was and is done for the very purpose to prove that their ethnic groups are linguistically independent what has to give them a right to call themselves as a separate nations who is justifiably struggling for their own independent political entities which has to be internationally recognized as independent national states according to the rights to self-determination. However, differently to Croatian case, Bosnian “linguistic engineering” is not based on introduction of neologisms but rather on re-introduction of the Oriental words which have been brought to the Balkans by the Ottoman authorities (those words are of Turkish, Arab and Persian origin).

In conclusion, we can say that the problem of official recognition of a separate Bosnian language of the Bosnian-Herzegovinian Boshnjaks can be solved taking into consideration two standpoints:

  • Linguistic standpoint
  • Socio/polito-linguistic standpoint.

De facto (linguistically), Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Montenegrin languages are still belonging to one standard-linguistic system. They express unity in orthography, grammar, morphology, syntax, phonology and semantics. For instance, all of them have 30 phonemes (25 consonants and 5 vocals). Between them there are only app. 8% lexical differences (including and “neologisms”). However, there is a tendency to create lexical differences for the sake of lesser inter-understanding in order to firmly justify ethno-linguistic and state-political “independence” from, in fact the same, ethno-linguistic neighbours. The obvious fact is that the level of inter-understanding is almost 100% (excluding the most newest neologisms).

De Iure (in socio/polito-linguistic point of view) these four languages are separate ones and internationally recognised. However, Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Montenegrin are separate languages according to the names, almost no different according to the essence and no separate in structure.

The crucial technique of “linguistic engineering/chirurgic” of Bosnian language is its lexical Orientalization with the three sociolinguistic and ethnonational tasks to be achieved:

  1. Inner homogenization of Boshnjak nation
  2. Denacionalization of Croats and Serbs within Bosnia-Herzegovina (by suggestion that all inhabitants of this state speak Bosnian language)
  3. External heterogenization of ethnoconfessional Boshnjak nation in relation to the neighbouring Serbs and Croats.

The politics of “linguistic engineering” or “linguistic chirurgic” in the case of Bosnian and Croatian languages was implied for the final aim to create firstly independently standardized national languages within officially common Serbo-Croatian one (during ex-Yugoslav (con)federation) and later (after collapse of Yugoslavia in 1991) internationally recognized separate languages by deepening and using as much as the dialectical/regional differences of the same spoken Serbo-Croatian language. The ultimate result was that minor speaking differences were proclaimed for the national characteristics and as such have been used to be the foundations of the newly declared autonomous national languages. Consequently, common Serbo-Croatian language cessed to exist together with a common Serbo-Croatian nationality.

Finally, the Muslim community in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 20th century passed the way from religious community in inter-war Yugoslavia, to nationhood in Socialist Yugoslavia and statehood in post-Communist era with the final codification and internationally recognized their own national language. However, Boshnjaks, Croats and Serbs from Bosnia-Herzegovina (likewise from Montenegro, Sandžak or ex-Republic of Serbian Krayina) all speak the same language which in the 20th century came to existence as Serbo-Croat and have a shared historical past.

The only difference between them is discrete confessions. If one will apply German Romanticist criteria upon ethnonational identity of/among the Yugoslavs surely at least all Shtokavians (all Serbs, all Montenegrins, all Boshnjaks and majority of the Croats) would be considered as a single ethnolinguistic nation with the right to live in their one national state organisation which we can name as Shtokavia.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of InSerbia.