Languages and Space-Related Identity: The Rise and Fall of Serbo-Croatian

Reference work entry


When Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803) formulated his concept of the cultural nation in contrast to the civic nation, he defined nations by a group of people sharing elements of culture, e.g., language, religion, historiography, arts, dining, clothing, and other aspects of lifestyle, but he put language at the top of his rank list. A group of people speaking a common language, he argued, forms a nation. This concept of a cultural nation has spread over wide parts of Europe and was well received especially in Central, East, and Southeast Europe.

But it is not only that cultural nations are based on already existing languages. It is sometimes also the other way round: national ideas are shaped on the basis of other cultural elements like denomination or historiography. And only after a national idea had already developed – or parallel to its development – a language is codified or intrinsically developed further. How a language is codified or into which direction the intrinsic development of an existing language goes is again closely related to national/political ambitions (inclusive or exclusive/reductive), to the image of self a nation or to where the innovation center is. These are all very geographical aspects relating language as an element of culture to space.

A case in point is the rise and fall of a Yugoslavian national idea and (later) Yugoslavia and the almost parallel rise and fall of the Serbo-Croatian or Croato-Serbian language. When the national idea developed, a common language of Croats and Serbs, Serbo-Croatian or Croato-Serbian, was codified or standardized. When Yugoslavia, originally conceived as a nation-state of the Yugoslavian nation (composed of the three tribes Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs), had already in the interwar period failed to reflect this ideal and was after the second, Titoist Yugoslavia finally dissolved, the successor states developed and partly even created (codified) their own languages.

Croatia reacted very fast by elevating its actually widely spoken version of the Serbo-Croatian into the rank of an official language and by purifying it from “strange” elements. This was very necessary to enforce its national identity and to make it resistible against regionalist aspirations as well as traditional and partly prestigious dialects.

Bosniaks used the years after the Dayton Agreement to develop the variant of Serbo-Croatian spoken in Bosnia-Herzegovina to support their Muslim national identity by preserving and underlining the Turkish and other oriental linguistic elements. Although this language is termed “Bosnian” now, it is much less a language including all nations of Bosnia-Herzegovina than the earlier Bosnian variant of Serbo-Croatian.

Serbia reacted to the fall of Yugoslavia and the political developments in the 1990s and 2000s by abandoning its earlier aspirations to include all speakers of Serbian (also in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro) and to make its standard language acceptable for all of them but directed it toward the standard of educated city dwellers of Belgrade.

Montenegro started its efforts of language building parallel to its gradual dissociation from Serbia in the later 1990s and in close connection with its development of a Montenegrin cultural nation, while Montenegrins had conceived themselves as an integrated part of the Serbian cultural nation before and only as a civic nation of their own. The chapter focuses on the successor languages of Serbo-Croatian. But this case is very typical, and its analysis bears a strong potential for transfer to situations elsewhere.


Cultural nation Common language Yugoslavia Serbo-Croatian language Serbia Montenegro Identity Change 


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of Urban and Regional ResearchAustrian Academy of SciencesViennaAustria
  2. 2.University of the Free StateBloemfonteinSouth Africa

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