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In Their Words: Speaking their Language

By Rachel George

Protesters in Belgrade, Serbia
"Ne Davimo Beograd," a protest against exclusive, high-end refurbishment of part of the waterfront in Belgrade, Serbia. Photos courtesy Rachel George.

For young Serbs, political and cultural identity often depends on language and word choice, according to Assistant Professor of Anthropology Rachel George.

Lana and I sat at a noisy sidewalk café in Belgrade, Serbia, a small voice recorder perched on the table between us. Practically shouting over the thumping beat of the pop music blasting overhead, I asked her a question I had asked several of her high school classmates: which of Serbia’s two writing systems—Cyrillic or Latin—did she use most regularly? Lana laughed and said that she almost always chose Cyrillic. For one thing, she said, she was just used to it. Besides, Cyrillic was one thing that set Serbia apart from other former Yugoslav republics, something that made Serbian unique. She warned that Cyrillic was likely to disappear in favor of the more international Latin script if young Serbs stopped using it.

On Facebook and elsewhere online, however, Lana explained, she almost always typed in the Latin alphabet because she often used websites that did not support Cyrillic, and switching back and forth between keyboard scripts would be cumbersome. Unlike her “nationalist” ex-boyfriend who used Cyrillic whenever possible despite the inconvenience, she had limits, Lana claimed. “I’m not crazy,” she laughed. “Not that crazy.”

Lana’s description of her linguistic choices encapsulated many issues that interested me during my research on coming-of-age in post-Yugoslav Serbia. In 2010 and 2011, I spent a year in Belgrade, Serbia, with high school juniors and seniors like Lana, born during the Balkan Wars and the breakup of Yugoslavia. I am an anthropologist, so I approach my subject matter through sustained observation and participation with people as they carry out their everyday lives. While some social scientists conduct experiments in labs or send out surveys, most anthropologists choose to embed themselves in communities they wish to study, to participate in routine activities and observe in order to understand better people’s worldviews and behavior.

I integrated myself into one high school in central Belgrade, attending classes five days a week, hanging out with students and teachers outside of class, conducting interviews, and attending school functions and citywide events. I also collected school materials such as textbooks, exams and handouts. Because social media was a huge part of students’ lives, with many of them spending several hours a day on Facebook, I participated and observed there, too, connecting as “friends” on the site and—with students’ permission—collecting and analyzing their posts.

Language and Identity

Modern high-rise buildingsAs an anthropologist, I am interested in how cultural practices and ideas persist, change or disappear across generations and in how young people form political, ethnic and civic attitudes and identities. My research examined how Serbian high school students growing up after war and political upheaval were learning about what it means to be a Serb, how they were coming to understand their place as citizens and Serbia’s position in the region and the world. As a linguistic anthropologist, I am also interested in the cultural and political dimensions of language. Thus, I also focused on how ideas about language and identity in the Balkans were taking shape among a generation too young to remember Yugoslavia or the conflicts that dissolved it.

The factors that influenced Lana’s choice of writing system both on- and offline spoke to many themes I had noticed during my research. Cyrillic has long been associated with Serbian tradition, Eastern Orthodox religion and, by extension, nationalism; Latin, on the other hand, is associated with cosmopolitanism, the West and Croatia, Serbia’s neighbor and former war enemy. Thus, the choice of Latin versus Cyrillic has been politically charged for over a century.

The students’ linguistic attitudes were more complicated than I originally thought. Particularly online, political and ideological considerations often collide with practical and technological concerns, as Lana’s remarks indicate. Her comments also speak to a widespread desire I noticed among students to participate in global popular culture without losing a sense of Serbian distinctiveness. They point to the challenges of communicating national pride without identifying with the extreme nationalism that characterized Serbia in recent years.

Serbia has had a long and contentious historical relationship with its neighbors, particularly Croatia. Over the past two centuries, the two nations have repeatedly shifted from allies to rivals and back again. In the late 19th century, Serbs and Croats participated in efforts to forge South Slavic unity to resist Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian imperialism. After World War I, they formed the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, later renamed the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. After World War II, Serbia and Croatia became fellow republics—along with Macedonia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Slovenia—of the newly formed Socialist Federalist Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY). The SFRY, often known simply as Yugoslavia, was the center of the non-aligned movement during the Cold War, meaning that it identified with neither the Eastern nor the Western bloc. Older Serbs like to boast that the most valuable passport during the Cold War was the Yugoslav passport.

The arrangement lasted until 1991, when Slovenia and Croatia each declared independence (followed by Macedonia and Bosnia & Herzegovina in 1992), and the region descended into war. The years leading up to the war had seen a revival of nationalism among both Serbs and Croats, as leaders of both republics stoked ethnic fear and resentment by claiming that Croat minorities were experiencing discrimination and mistreatment in Serbia and vice versa, and linked such accusations to past conflicts between Serbs and Croats during the Axis occupation of the region before World War II. Serb military leaders have been accused of orchestrating genocide against Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica during the war. For most of the 1990s, the United States imposed sanctions on Serbia for its wartime actions, and in 1999, a U.S.-led NATO coalition bombed Belgrade for more than three months to halt Slobodan Milošević’s alleged targeting of the Albanian minority in Kosovo. Widespread citizen protests overthrew Milošević in October 2000, and Serbia has since sought to reintegrate itself into the international community. The European Union set multiple requirements for Serbia’s candidacy, including that Serbia turn over three high-profile alleged war criminals for trial at The Hague. Serbia complied and attained candidate status in 2012, but the requirements stirred resentment among Serbs who felt unfairly blamed and stigmatized for the whole of the wars. Meanwhile, Serbia’s territory has continued to shrink, as Montenegro declared independence in 2006 and Kosovo followed in 2008, a move still highly disputed in Serbia.

Language Debates and Social Media

I first arrived in Belgrade for research in 2008, roughly six months after Kosovo declared independence and mere days after Radovan Karadžić, the first of the three accused war criminals to be apprehended, was turned over to The Hague. I was conducting research on a project aimed at teaching cooking skills to orphan youth seeking to ease the transition from state care to full-time work. The young people there were eager to befriend me but suspicious of my intentions: Surely I was a CIA agent. Why else would I be there? As I got to know them, I was struck by their engagement with politics and their nuanced understandings of Serbia’s global position. Those experiences sparked my interest in studying how young people develop political attitudes and identities, particularly after conflict and regime change.

No picture of Balkan politics is complete without understanding the role of language in ethnic identity and conflict. A central question in the former Yugoslavia concerned whether Serbian and Croatian are varieties of one language or two separate languages; the answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, has often depended as much on politics as on linguistic details. In 1954, the Novi Sad agreement established a Serbo-Croatian, or Croato-Serbian, language with an Eastern (Serbian) variant written in Cyrillic and a Western (Croatian) variant written in Latin. Starting in the late 1960s, the agreement began to fracture, with Croatia asserting an independent language. In the early years of the war, Serbian leaders imposed the Serbian variant on disputed territories in Bosnia and elsewhere. Serbs and Croats accused each other of suppressing the linguistic expression of minorities in their regions. During this time, the smallest grammatical, pronunciation, spelling and word choices began to carry enormous weight: every detail of language use was a potential symbol of one’s ethnic or political affiliations.

Writing systems were, and continue to be, a centerpiece of debates on the Serbian language. Choosing Cyrillic can be seen as an appeal to tradition or religion, an assertion of ethnic and/or national pride. Choosing Latin, on the other hand, can be interpreted as taking a global, cosmopolitan stance and rejecting nationalism. Script choice can also reflect regional identity or even educational training—students who had attended elementary school outside of Belgrade sometimes came from regions where Latin was more prevalent and were more likely to prefer using it in school whenever possible. For example, one student in my study had come from a German-language elementary school where they had taught only Latin.

This brings me back to my examination of script choice online. I wanted to know how young Serbs understand the symbolic weight of Latin versus Cyrillic. When I examined their social media posts, I noted not only what they posted about, but also which writing system they used to do it. The students in my research used Cyrillic sparingly on social media, so I wanted to know what motivated the switch when it did happen. I found that when students used Cyrillic online, they often did so with a touch of irony, using it as a source of humor in combinations with English or global popular culture imagery or to poke fun at Serbian nationalism. In one example, a student shared a painting of an Eastern Orthodox saint, photoshopped to look like he was holding a lightsaber. The poster named this saint St.Arwars (Star Wars) and used Cyrillic, in a typical church font, to write the caption Mej d fors b vid ju (“May the force be with you”). The humor seemed to stem from the unexpected combination of Cyrillic with English, of traditional Serbian religious imagery with a contemporary global film.

I interpreted this and other similar images as part of a larger effort by young Serbs to participate in global popular culture on distinctly Serbian terms, while maintaining some critical distance from both Serbian nationalism and Western media. Many students did not want to be associated with the nationalism or isolation of the past. They wanted to learn multiple languages, travel widely and consume global media. Facebook, for many of them, was the perfect place to cultivate and display a cosmopolitan identity: Students could share and create memes; circulate movie clips, song lyrics and music videos from all over the world; and show off their multilingual chops, particularly their skills in English. At the same time, many young people resented the United States and Western Europe for blaming them for the Balkan Wars, imposing sanctions on Serbia and bombing Belgrade during the 1990s, and generally misunderstanding Serbian culture and values, in their view. Thus, engaging too uncritically with Western popular culture, abandoning Serbian in favor of English, or even choosing Latin over Cyrillic carried a risk of making them appear too willing to give over Serbian values, practices and traditions to Western dominance.

This tension, in my view, helped explain why, despite the factors weighing against using Cyrillic online, students did not abandon it altogether. Instead, I noted that using Cyrillic in combination with English or with global pop cultural imagery allowed students to show their fluency in both spheres without appearing to accept either uncritically. By combining traditional symbols of Serbia with such popular culture, students could also create a type of humor and social commentary that poked fun at both Serbia and the West while at the same time questioning their reputation as distinct, incompatible cultural spheres. In interviews and classroom discussions, I had noted a theme of students and teachers alike not wanting to be forced to choose between the stigmatizing and isolating nationalism of the past on the one hand and European assimilation on the other. Facebook seemed to provide a platform where students could navigate that tension with creativity and wit.

Social Media, Language and Culture

At Whitman, my research informs every class I teach. I use examples from my time in Serbia to illustrate how cultural practices and ideas take shape and transform on social media, how students might conduct anthropological research in online spaces and how language becomes politicized all over the world.

Spray-painted writings along the Sava River in BelgradeA big, and relatively recent, question for anthropologists concerns how to incorporate social media into traditional forms of anthropological research. How do we examine what people do online to answer questions about cultural practices and values? More broadly, how can students investigate online spaces with an anthropological eye? In my Anthropology of New Media course, for example, students research an online or digital site or platform of their choosing. Students turned in projects on a range of topics, including the use of slang in group chat messages, the representation of native peoples under the hashtag #OregonCulture on Facebook and the social interactions on Wikipedia’s editor pages.

In Ethnographic Methods, students design a semester-long project in which they visit a site regularly, participate in activities, conduct and record interviews. Students chose a variety of sites from campus clubs and classes to local restaurants and wineries. One component of their work included analyzing the online or social media presence of the group in which they were embedded. How did such research complicate or clarify their understandings of what they were observing during their site visits? One student, for example, studied the Instagram page of the winery she was visiting to understand better how they were cultivating a brand identity. Adding a social media component helped students understand the similarities and differences between online research and traditional ethnography and think critically about what research questions are suitable for each context. Further, it enabled discussions of how practices observed at one site might play out or be modified online.

In Language and Culture, a course that introduces linguistic anthropology, I urge students to see language not only as an abstract system with analyzable patterns, but also as a living, changing set of resources that are affected by social and political forces. People use language not only to describe the world, but also to affect it. Fights about language are almost always fights about power and about culture—those who set linguistic standards give additional power and prestige to groups who already use such standards in their everyday speech. By teaching students about the Serbian case, in which questions of spelling, grammar and writing have been the subject of recent, high-profile debate, we chip away at the idea that standard language is a natural phenomenon, separate from the people and societies that use it.

By teaching students about the Serbian case, in which questions of spelling, grammar and writing have been the subject of recent, high-profile debate, we chip away at the idea that standard language is a natural phenomenon, separate from the people and societies that use it.

This spring, I will teach a special topics course called Language and Nationalism, which builds on some of the topics covered in Language and Culture. In it, we question the idea that one “people” will have a unified and distinct language that marks them and sets them off from neighboring groups. The “one language, one people,” notion, which was popularized by German philosopher Johann Herder, has underscored nationalist movements, particularly in Europe, for the past two centuries. We will read about the various ways in which planners have tinkered with the standard language to bolster claims of national unity or independence. We will also consider how the “one language, one people” notion can create fear of multilingualism and perpetuate inequality and discrimination against people who do not have a full grasp of the national “standard” language.

In a broader sense, my research in Serbia has helped me bring a global perspective to the classroom. Serbia is understudied and often misunderstood; when discussed at all in American media, the recent conflict is too often dismissed as ethnically motivated, the complex politics of the region overlooked, and citizens’ experience of the stigma against their country and desire to work toward a different future ignored. Nationalism, war and regime change are nearly universal issues that are nonetheless experienced on the ground in complex and locally specific ways. Sharing an understanding of the Serbian context as an example of a place where youth have grown up in the aftermath of massive societal upheaval can, I hope, endow students with new means of evaluating world events and their coverage in the United States.

Published on Apr 10, 2017
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