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About Bosnian Language

Bosnian (bosanski, Cyrillic script: босански, Bosnian pronunciation: [bǒsanskiː]) is a South Slavic language spoken primarily in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in the region of Sandžak (Raška) in Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo and Macedonia although it is also spoken in various places throughout the world, as many speakers were forced to become refugees during the Bosnian war. The standard Bosnian is based on the Neoštokavian dialect, which regardless makes it mutually intelligible with standard Croatian and Serbian. Up until the dissolution of former SFR Yugoslavia, those three were treated as one Serbo-Croatian language, and that term is still used to refer to the same dialectal base (the core vocabulary, grammar and syntax) of what are today three separate standards. The language itself uses the Latin alphabet although the Cyrillic alphabet is also accepted, chiefly to accommodate for its official usage in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the past, especially in the former SFR Yugoslavia, but is seldom used in practice.

The name of the language is a subject of some controversy in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and Serbia and is sometimes alternatively referred to as Bosniak (also spelled "Bosniac"; bošnjački), reflecting a position that it is the standard language of Bosniaks, not all Bosnians (i.e. Croats, Serbs and Bosniaks).


The modern Bosnian language uses the Latin alphabet. However, scripts other than Latin were used much earlier, most notably the indigenous Bosnian Cyrillic called bosančica (literally "Bosnian script") and dates back to the 10th/11th century. The Humac tablet, one of the oldest Bosnian literacy monuments, is written in this script. The script is of the greatest significance to Bosnian history and linguistics, since it is the one script that is purely native to Bosnia and Herzegovina and is linked to the Bosnian medieval monarchy and the medieval Bosnian religion where it was used abundantly. It can also be found in many royal state documents and as well on old stećci. The substantial influence of bosančica on medieval Bosnia has unfortunately made it a target of controversial debates and propaganda[citation needed] throughout the history which has led to the tendency of some Croat and Serb philologists and paleographers to deny the exclusivity of association of the script with medieval Bosnian state, and associate it to Croatian and Serbian cultural provenience, despite its geographical origin and the historical prevalence of usage. Other, less important, scripts used include: begovica (used by Bosniak nobility) and arebica - Arabic script adjusted to write Slavic speech, also chiefly used by Bosniak nobility during the Ottoman era.

In addition, the oldest South Slavic document is the Bosnian statehood charter from 1189, written by Bosnian ruler Kulin Ban in Bosnian Cyrillic. Some other early mentions include one from July 3, 1436, where, in the region of Kotor, a duke bought a girl that is described as: "Bosnian woman, heretic and in Bosnian language called Djevena".

The irony of the Bosnian language is that its speakers are, on the level of colloquial idiom, more linguistically homogeneous than either Serbs or Croats, but have failed, due to historical reasons[why?], to standardize their language in the crucial 19th century. The first Bosnian dictionary, a rhymed Bosnian-Turkish glossary authored by Muhamed Hevaji Uskufi, was composed in 1631 . But unlike e.g. Croatian dictionaries, which were written and published regularly, Uskufi's work remained an isolated foray. At least two factors were decisive:

  • The Bosniak elite wrote almost exclusively in foreign (Turkish, Arabic, Persian) languages. Vernacular literature, written in modified Arabic script, was thin and sparse.
  • The Bosniaks' national emancipation lagged behind that of the Serbs and Croats, and since denominational rather than cultural or linguistic issues played the pivotal role, a Bosnian language project didn't arouse much interest or support.

Prescriptions for the language of Bosniaks in the 19th and 20th centuries were written outside of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Probably the most authentic Bosniak writers (the so-called "Bosniak revival" at the turn of the century) wrote in an idiom that is closer to the Croatian form than to the Serbian one (western Štokavian-Ijekavian idiom, Latin script), but which possessed unmistakably recognizable Bosniak traits, primarily lexical ones. The main authors of the "Bosniak renaissance" were the polymath, politician and poet Safvet-beg Bašagić, the "poète maudit" Musa Ćazim Ćatić and the storyteller Edhem Mulabdić.

In the days of Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia the lexis was influenced by standard Serbo-Croatian and the Latin script became dominant. The official language name was Serbo-Croatian.

On a formal level, the Bosnian language is beginning to take a distinctive shape: lexically, Islamic-Oriental loan words are becoming more frequent; phonetically: the phoneme /x/ is reinstated in many words as a distinct feature of vernacular Bosniak speech and language tradition; also, there are some changes in grammar, morphology and orthography that reflect the Bosniak pre-World War I literary tradition, mainly that of the Bosniak renaissance at the beginning of the 20th century.


The name for the language is a controversial issue, primarily for Bosnian Croats and Serbs, and as was mentioned above, it is alternatively referred to as "Bosniak" (bošnjački; also spelled "Bosniac"). Of the three Bosnian ethnicities (Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs) only the Bosniak ethnicity uses the Bosnian language in significant numbers. The heart of the issue is that the terms "Bosnian" and "Bosniak" are not interchangeable: "Bosnian" refers to all three ethnicities of Bosnia and Herzegovina, while "Bosniak" refers only to Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims). The name "Bosnian language" is controversial primarily because it is thought by some to imply it is the language of all Bosnians, which includes Bosnian Croats and Serbs. Croats and Serbs (who together form a majority in Bosnia) overwhelmingly speak Croatian and Serbian, respectively. It should be noted that all three languages are mutually intelligible and are examples of ausbauspraches. Due to the conjunction of historical circumstances, all are essentially identical due to being codified on the same Neoshtokavian dialect, with a number of people identifying their language as the unified Serbo-Croatian language.

A number of Croatian linguists, specifically Radoslav Katičić, Dalibor Brozović, and Tomislav Ladan, consider the appropriate name to be "Bosniak" rather than "Bosnian" whilst some other Croatian linguists (Zvonko Kovač, Ivo Pranjković) recognize it as Bosnian. In the opinion of the former, the appellation "Bosnian" refers to the whole country, therefore implying that "Bosnian" is the national standard language of all Bosnians, not only Bosniaks. According to Croatian participant Radoslav Dodig, the renaming of "Bosniak" into "Bosnian" was not a process, but a semi-hidden manoeuvre.

The constitution of Republika Srpska, the Serbian entity within Bosnia and Herzegovina, did not recognize any language or ethnic group other than Serbian when it was created. Bosniaks were mostly expelled from the territory controlled by the Serbs from 1992, but immediately after the war demanded to restore their civil rights on those territories. The Bosnian Serbs refused to make references to the Bosnian language in their constitution and as a result had constitutional amendments imposed by High Representative Wolfgang Petritsch. However, the constitution of Republika Srpska refers to it as the "Language spoken by Bosniaks" (Језик којим говоре Бошњаци, Jezik kojim govore Bošnjaci), due to the fact that the Serbs had to officially recognize it, but still avoid recognition of its name. The Committee for the Standardization of the Serbian Language, uses "Bosniak language" as the prescribed name but the Serbian Ministry of Education recognizes it as Bosnian. Serbia includes the Bosnian language as an elective subject in primary schools. Montenegro officially recognizes the Bosnian language, as its 2007 Constitution specifically states that while Montenegrin is the "official language," also "in official use are Serbian, Bosnian, Albanian and Croatian languages."

The term "Bosnian language" can be traced to the Middle Ages. Furthermore the status of the Bosnian language is also recognized by bodies such as the United Nations, UNESCO, and translation and interpreting accreditation agencies. Another argument is that there are a number of Bosnian Croats and Serbs in Sarajevo, Zenica and Tuzla regions who speak Bosnian. For instance, Željko Komšić, a Croat member of Bosnian Presidency stated that his mother tongue is the Bosnian language. The Dayton Peace Accord recognized Bosnian as a distinct language spoken in Bosnia and Herzegovina by Bosniaks. The distinction and official recognition of the Bosnian language is further acknowledged by signatures of the former presidents of Bosnia and Herzegovina (Alija Izetbegović), Croatia (Franjo Tuđman) and Serbia (Slobodan Milošević). As such the Bosnian language is officially recognized by constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina as well.


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