New Borders, New Language
It is one thing for war to break a country apart-especially one as cobbled together as the former Yugoslavia-but quite another for it to splinter the national language. This is the phenomenon explored by Robert Greenberg ’83 in his book, Language and Identity in the Balkans: Serbo-Croatian and its Disintegration. The bloody demise of Yugoslavia left such psychic scars, he says, that the Croats and, to a lesser extent, the Bosnian Muslims, are systematically purging their once-common language of Serbian words. In a generation or so, many citizens of the former Yugoslavia will not be able to understand one another.
In January Language and Identity in the Balkans was awarded “Best Book in Slavic Linguistics” by the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages. It has also been translated into Croatian. Greenberg is an associate dean at the University of New Haven and adjunct professor in Yale’s department of Slavic languages and literatures. At Sarah Lawrence he studied Russian, before embracing its southeastern European sister languages in grad school. He is fluent in seven languages and reads still others, including Old Church Slavic, the thousand-year-old literary mother tongue of the Slavs.
During the wars that sundered Yugoslavia, Greenberg appeared frequently as an expert source in the media; but in recent years the Middle East has replaced the Balkans in the news. “Forgetting the Balkans can be problematic; it’s one of those places that, if not constantly cared about, can go haywire,” he says. He has written about studying Yugoslavia in order to understand Iraq. “The ethnic parties won the election in Iraq, exactly what happened in Yugoslavia before the blow-up. The coalition stayed together for six months before things fell apart.” -J.B.