Page last updated at 12:20 GMT, Friday, 19 February 2010

Montenegro embroiled in language row

By Mark Lowen
BBC News, Montenegro

Jelena Susanj
Jelena Susanj works to promote Montenegrin culture and language

In her downtown office in Montenegro's capital, Podgorica, Jelena Susanj is training me to move my mouth in new and subtle ways.

She pronounces the letter "s" with two different accents, one after the other. To my untrained ear, they sound identical - roughly equivalent to the "shir" in "shirt".

I force my tongue from the top of my palate to the bottom, in an attempt to emulate her, but to no avail.

"I'm struggling to hear the difference," I venture.

"Well they are different," she replies. "The first we have in Montenegrin and Serbian, but the second is just in Montenegrin."

Ms Susanj works in the Matica Crnogorska, an organisation promoting Montenegrin culture and language.

In 2007, a year after this small Balkan country broke from its big sister Serbia, Montenegrin - or Crnogorski - became the official language, as defined by the constitution.

"Montenegrin is different in many ways," she says. "Take the word for 'milk', for example. In Serbian it's 'mleko', in Croatian 'mljeko' and in Montenegrin 'mlijeko'."

Language, or dialect?

Beyond the pronunciation differences, Montenegrin purists say there are also some words that are specific to their language, although it takes Ms Susanj a few minutes to find a commonly-used example.

"In Serbian, they say 'dinja' for melon, but in Montenegrin, that actually means 'watermelon'," she says.

Two letters newly added to Montenegro's alphabet in Latin script
The two letters were added to the Montenegrin alphabet last year

The most notable distinction, say Montenegrin linguists, is in two letters, "s" and "z", each bearing what resembles a French acute accent, neither of which exist in Serbian.

They were always present in the spoken language in Montenegro, but were only formally added to the Montenegrin alphabet last July.

"If you have Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian languages, why can't you have Montenegrin as well?" asks Ms Susanj. "Montenegro is a nation. And in Montenegrin culture and tradition we have a specific... well... let's call it language."

But the problem is that many here are not prepared to call it a language. The last census in 2003 - three years before independence - showed two-thirds still called their language Serbian.

While that number has undoubtedly decreased since the break, there is still a large number who say there is no such thing as Montenegrin - that it is just a dialect of Serbian.

Campus rivalry

In schools across the country, the row is defused by calling language classes "mother tongue".

It is a compromise solution to an issue that first reared its head with the collapse of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.

The constituent republics declared the death of the old lingua franca Serbo-Croat, which, alongside Macedonian and Slovene, was spoken across the country. The new independent states used language to cement their own identity.

But Montenegro was always considered the closest republic to Serbia in cultural terms, hence the widespread resistance to a separate language.

Serbian teacher Goran Radonjic
Goran Radonjic says the new "language" creates barriers

It has become a politically charged issue here, with the nationalist government and Serbian opposition parties engaged in a linguistic tug-of-war.

The battle lines are clearly marked at the university in the town of Niksic, 60km (37 miles) from Podgorica, where Serbian lessons are taught just down the corridor from the new Montenegrin language faculty - the first in the country.

"The point of language is to communicate," says Goran Radonjic, a Serbian literature professor and member of the opposition party New Serbian Democracy. "But by creating a new one, they are throwing barriers between us."

Opinion split

He tells me that those defending Serbian no longer feel able to do so publicly.

"In order to keep your job, you should accept that there is a Montenegrin language and that you speak it," he says. "People employed by the government are very afraid to be marked as a traitor if they don't."

Dejan Radulovic
I used to speak Serbian, but now we are an independent country
Dejan Radulovic, journalist

A couple of hundred metres away, Zorica Raduovic is teaching her second-year class the basis of Montenegrin grammar - although no text book has yet been published.

"There is some tension between the two departments," she tells me. "We have to defend ourselves to the Serbian teachers to tell them Montenegrin does exist."

Out on the streets of Podgorica, opinions are split.

"I speak Montenegrin," says local journalist Dejan Radulovic. "I used to speak Serbian, but now we are an independent country. The languages are very similar but we have our specifics."

Jelena, 26, disagrees. "I learned Serbian and I'll always speak Serbian," she says. "Montenegrin and Serbian are the same language. In America they speak English, don't they?"

If all former Yugoslav states fulfil their goal of joining the European Union, their individual languages will become institutionalised, with official documents translated into Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Montenegrin.

For now, bodies like the UN War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague skirt around the problem by using a handy acronym: BCS, or Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian.

This picturesque country has just 630,000 inhabitants, but plenty of national pride.

Yet as it forges its own identity, separate from Serbia, the language row could make it harder for Montenegro to speak with one voice.

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