Montenegrin King Nicholas monument in Podgorica - Copyright by Vijesti

Montenegrin King Nicholas monument in Podgorica

September 2007

What language do most Montenegrins speak?

Until 1991, this was an easy question to answer: the language most people in Montenegro spoke was called Serbo-Croatian. In 1991, the new constitution defined the official language as "Serbian in the ijekavian version". Following independence, many prominent Montenegrins argue that this, too, is inadequate. "If the Serbs call it Serbian, the Croats Croatian, the Bosnians Bosnian, why shouldn't we call it Montenegrin?" Montenegro's ruling DPS-SDP coalition is trying to declare Montenegrin the official language of the state.

In the 2003 census, 62.9 percent of the citizens said that they spoke Serbian, which was declared the republic's official language under its 1992 constitution, while only 25 percent said the language they spoke was Montenegrin. However, this may all have changed since independence. Research by the Centre for Democracy and Human Rights (CEDEM) in June 2007 revealed that roughly a third of citizens say they speak Montenegrin, another third opt for Serbian, and the balance are undecided.

The Serbian List insists that the language in the Constitution must be Serbian, considering, as they claim, that Montenegrins are in fact Serbs, or at least of Serbian roots. The Socialists People's Party, the People's Party and the Democratic Serbian Party are also in favour of Serbian as the official language. The DPS and its allies prefer that the language be known as Montenegrin. A compromise position will have to be found, in order to ensure the two-thirds majority in parliament required to adopt a new constitution (otherwise a referendum on the constitution will have to be called).

Dragan Koprivica - Copyright by Vijesti

Dragan Koprivica, a writer and official of the Socialist People's Party, says that "as far as the history and literature of the Serbian and Montenegrin peoples go, it is clear that our ancestors and our greatest poets and writers were proud of speaking Serbian language":

"In Serbia and Bosnia, those who speak a very similar language obeyed the will of the majority of their people and called the language Serbian or Bosnian. In Montenegro, the majority of the people claims to speak Serbian. The argument of the government that the language should be named after the state is therefore flawed."

Branko Radulovic - Copyright by Vijesti

The Movement for Changes proposed a compromise solution: "The official language is a single language that may be referred to as Montenegrin, Serbian". Branko Radulovic, vice president of the Movement for Changes, told ESI:

"Linguistically speaking, it is obviously the same language, but seen through the lens of the nation and the state, different people can call it Serbian, Bosnian, or Croatian. Four years ago, the census showed 60 percent in favour of the Serbian language, but if you repeat the questioner now, you would probably get some 60 to 70% in favour of Montenegrin".

Miodrag Vukovic

In August 2007 a representative of the ruling DPS, Miodrag Vukovic offered a similar solution:

"The official language in Montenegro is Montenegrin, but it may be referred to as Serbian, Bosnian or Croatian".

Vaselj Sinistaj - Copyright by Vijesti

Vaselj Sinistaj, official of the Albanian Alternative, prefers the language to be called Montenegrin, after the state:

"In the municipalities where minorities are represented in great numbers, their mother tongue should also be used in official communication. Next to the state-official language, on the local level the same status should be given to minority languages. This should, concretely, be the case with Albanian in Ulcinj and Tuzi."

Vojislav Nikcevic - Copyright by Vijesti

The Bosnian Party argues that Montenegrin, Serbian, Bosnian, and even Croatian, should all be listed as official languages. In the conflict between Serbian and Montenegrin, Bosnian may also sneak in as a political compromise.

"We all speak a single language, we are within the same linguistic system, but the people call it Serbian or Montenegrin. If Bosnian is added, we would support this proposal."

Beyond the political battlefield, there is the clash of linguists of the Faculty of Philosophy in Niksic. The followers of the recently passed away Vojislav Nikcevic, a linguist who wrote a grammar of the Montenegrin language, point out the fine differences between Serbian and Montenegrin.

Adnan Cirgic - Copyright by Vijesti

Adnan Cirgic, executive director of the institute for Montenegrin language, told ESI that the Montenegrin language has had more than a thousand years of tradition, and that it developed alongside the Montenegrin nation in a particular geographic and historical environment.

"While until mid-19th century the Serbian writers wrote in a language foreign and incomprehensible to their people, Montenegrin language had a local base long before the birth of Vuk Karadzic, and it gave birth already then to some of the most famous works of Montenegrin literature. In that sense, Montenegro had little use for the Vuk's language reform (19th century), except with regard to orthography, because there was very little to reform. As a confirmation of wide differences, I would cite one characteristic example: Njegos's Mountain Wrath has been abridged and translated into Serbian language as a short story, for the benefit of the Serbian readers. If it were the same language, there would have been no need to translate it."

According to him, the most important difference is the dialectical usage of long e (e in Serbian, je, ije in Montenegrin).

"In addition to the 30 letters in Serbian, Montenegrin has three more distinct sounds, of which two are widely used all across the Montenegrin linguistic space. This has also been acknowledged by Serbian linguists. These consonants should therefore find their way into our standard language. Besides, Montenegrin has a handful of other sounds produced by the conversion of the long e which are unknown to Serbian… I am currently working on the differences between Serbian and Montenegrin language. The number of such differences is more than obvious and sufficient to speak about a separate Montenegrin standard."

He adds that Montenegrin is not officially standardised nor can be until the state adopts it under that name.

"This does not mean that textbooks are missing. Academic Vojislav Nikcevic already systematised the language: he wrote the grammar, orthographic rules, as well as a two-volume history of the language. We have started together the Dialectology of the Montenegrin language, and the Institute for Montenegrin language, founded by him, began working on the project of a Dictionary of Montenegrin Language. His textbooks are used in the programmes of Slavic Studies around the world. A month ago, a Polish linguist Przemislav Brom defended a PhD dissertation on Montenegrin language."

Balsa Brkovic - Copyright by Vijesti

Montenegrin writer Balsa Brkovic, also argues for the adoption of Montenegrin, albeit not based on its differences with Serbian:

"Seeing that, out of four nations using the same language, which linguistically is undoubtedly the same, three (Serbs, Croats, Bosnians) call it by the name of their state or nation, the right of Montenegrins to do the same is indisputable. On the other hand, in reaction to this a number of Serbian linguists jump to claim that it is not the same language, but if Serbian and Croatian, Serbian and Bosnian, or Bosnian and Croatian are all different languages, then Montenegrin is just as different."

Commenting on the fact that most of South America speaks Spanish and the North English, Brkovic explains that in their cases the language came as the language of a colonial power and an imposed culture which ate up the native ones.

"Our case is very different. This language did not come to Montenegro from Serbia so that we should call it Serbian. There is another unusual reason for Montenegrins to call their language Montenegrin. All the ancient Croatian texts before the Vuk and Danicic 19th century reform can barely be understood nowadays. Even the Serbian texts from the same period can only be read if translated from the Church Slavonic, Slavo-Serbian etc. to the contemporary language. In Montenegro, however, if you take the texts written by Peter I, who lived long before the Vuk's reform, or even older texts, you will be surprised, for you do not need a translator. Why? Vuk, the creator of the reform was from Montenegro and he used this reform to impose the Montenegrin standard as a basis for the literary standard of all south Slavs. It is an undeniable proof: not only should Montenegrins not hesitate to call it their own name, but, and I do not like saying it like this, but they have at least as much right as others to call it as they wish."

However, professors advocating for the language to be called Serbian also claim that science is on their side. Jelica Stojanovic, linguist and professor at the Faculty of Philosophy in Niksic defends this position to ESI:

Jelica Stojanovic - Copyright by Vijesti

"Speaking of dialects, the territory of today's Montenegro fits perfectly (and always did!) into the wider continuum of the Serbian language, as its inalienable part – no speech, no dialect nor a single linguistic specificity or a trait ends on the borders of Montenegro, none of it is "only Montenegrin", nor "generally Montenegrin", as the non-scientific circles attempt to portray it. As for the traditional and cultural identification and name-giving, the language in Montenegro, ever since it has a name, has been only Serbian."

According to Stojanovic, neither the literary (standard) expression nor the local language spoken in Montenegro contain any linguistic elements to set it aside from the wider Serbian language.

"Now, if on account of this story you publish and interview with two people of different opinions, it does not mean that the scientific community of linguists is divided on the question. The best representation of the attitude of science and profession towards this "problem" is the recently held conference in Podgorica (organized by the Montenegrin academy of arts and sciences and the Institute for South East European Languages in Oslo). Of some forty participants, only one (R. Glusica) argued in favour of "standardisation" of the Montenegrin language. The non-scientific basis of his presentation has been clearly exposed in the subsequent discussion."

She gives the example of English, which is the only official language, or one of the languages, in some 45 countries of the world: "What would happen if they too applied our "golden rule" to "give" English each their local or national title?!"

Further articles:

Montenegro and the EU
Return to Europe film
ESI Montenegro reports
Montenegro picture stories
Background information
Literary walk
We thank the Montenegrin daily Vijesti for access to their photo archive.