I say elevator, you say lift, big deal, it’s only a problem when we start talking about pants. But there are languages where these kinds of distinctions provoke controversy and even violence, not because they are intrinsically meaningful but because big identities are invested in questions like the presence or absence of the letter “J.”
On the question of whether there is a Serbo-Croatian/Croato-Serbian language or whether this is two languages, three, or, since 2006, four, I remain determinedly and blissfully agnostic. As long as the hearer knows what the speaker is talking about, there’s no problem with people calling things whatever makes them happy. At the institution where I work I have been told that the policy is that we never say “Serbo-Croatian” but should say “Serbian slash Croatian.” I put this down to an obsession among sedentary academics with slashing people (NB: You can’t spell “Jason” without a “J”).
Because really this is a symbolic matter of no consequence, and satisfying people’s symbolic desires is a little bit like saying “thank you” when you are not really grateful or “sorry” when you have no genuine regrets. The fact that it is dishonest in a meaningless way is compensated by the fact that it is polite.
What makes these distinctions meaningful is the sets of associations that they call forward. The question of whether one set of habits related speaking and writing constitutes a “language” is least of all a linguistic question, and more than anything a political one. When Yugoslavia existed it was a coded way of expressing concern about numerical and cultural domination, and after Yugoslavia stumbled away through a pool of blood it became a signifier of prestige (as indicated by the similarly content-free dispute in the smaller entity of Bosnia-Hercegovina over whether there is a “bosanski” language).
The recent inflammation of dispute in Vukovar is a case in point. This is a city destroyed during the last war between Serbia and Croatia, occupied for a period by a parastate that made its best effort to erase all traces of Croatian identity, and returned to an authority that made its best effort to erase all traces of Serbian identity. It’s a sad fate for a town with a long multicultural history, but if there is one thing the nacoši of both dominant adjectives agree on it is the necessity of demolishing the other. This was acceptable populist policy as long as one side was weak, another side was strong, and states and political environments were at best semilegal.
Little factors like peace, legality and acceptance of the standards of the European Union disrupted the effort to translate military victory into a social order, though. Croatia has accepted the European obligation to protect the rights of minorities, and since the principle that Serbian and Croatian are separate languages has moved from coffee chitchat to law, that means protecting their linguistic rights as well. How has the Croatian government interpreted this? By deciding, against the resistance of most of the politically active population of Vukovar, that they would see the law observed and put up (five) bilingual signs on public buildings in the city. And since the question of which linguistic habit is Croatian and which one is Serbian, when it moves out of the territory of charming ethnic jokes and into codification, is one on which people can have endless nonproductive discussions, it is the most visible difference (not really a difference) that makes the Serbian part of the signs Serbian: the bottom part of the sign say the same thing as the top part, but in Cyrillic rather than Latin script. The fact that the difference has to do with letters underscores that the signs are a symbolic means of meeting a symbolic obligation.
This made members of veterans’ groups and professional carriers of particular national identities not one bit happy. One group, the picturesquely named “Croatorum” (after the kind of institution they should be sent to?) helpfully called the signs “genocide.” The signs went up early Monday morning, police were stationed near them to keep vandals away, and by noon crowds had formed, broken through lines of nonresisting police, and smashed the signs with a hammer. Upon which new signs were put up, and police let folks through with hammers again to smash the signs. And again. The representatives of groups dedicated to the exclusive national character of their town promised that as long as they have hammers, they will hammer in the morning, they will hammer in the evening, all over the local tax office.
So there is a predictable confrontation, not especially helpful to the government, but the glove has been laid down by both sides. The government is in a position where it has to have the law, including the law on minority rights, observed – and it also has the challenge of seeing that this happens without violence, which is why the police is heavily present but lightly reacting. The career veterans and their supporters in various opposition political parties and anti-government cleropolitical and parapolitical groups, are determined to draw the confrontation out a long as possible and hope to force the government to back down.
Eighteen years after Vukovar was “reintegrated” into Croatia, why is this happening? Let’s be clear: it is a conflict over whether the sign on the building of the “Porezna uprava” should also say ”Порезна управа” (which is itself not idiomatic Serbian; in Serbia the tax office would be called ”Пореска управа” – there will be a quiz for anyone who has not yet fallen asleep). Maybe a clue can be found in a single fact about the person who took the first hammer to the first sign: he is 73 years old.
Do the younger people in Vukovar, of whatever nationality, care? Maybe some of them do, but for the most part if they are employed they are not in Vukovar. The city was “reintegrated” territorially, but not politically or economically, and one of the few profitable jobs out there (available only to members of a certain generation) is being a veteran with a chip on your shoulder and time on your hands. Small surprise that there should be resistance to the introduction of European standards in minority protection in a place that has not been introduced to European standards in any other field.