YUGOSLAVS CAN’T SPELL
the absurd situation comes into a sharper focus: Yugoslavs
did not know how to spell because they did not need to.
Subconsciously keeping Vuk’s axiom in mind, using Latin script
to aid the confused foreigners, they gave spellings of their
names the only way they could – using Latin characters. It
hardly ever occurred to anyone to transcribe special characters
into phonetic English, since transcription is not a common
practice among Latin-writing people. And English-speakers
simply assumed that Yugoslav modifications on standard letters
were just accent marks and ignored them accordingly.
Slobodan Miloshevich became "Milosevic," Ali’ya
Izetbegovich became Alija Izetbegovic and places like Kraguyevats,
Focha and Surdulitsa became Kragujevac, Foca and Surdulica.
And it doesn’t help that the last term is written the exact
same way in Serbian Latin – but with a markedly different
"C factor" has been consistently the worst transcription
error made by English speakers. It is really pronounced as
"ts", while the modified "c" is really
"ch." How does one figure out which is which? Well,
there are marks above the latter…
the Serbo-Croatian "j" is actually "y,"
modified "s" is always "sh," one has to
know where the use "dj" and "dz," how
to transcribe "nj" and "lj" … well, it
gets worse as one goes along.
the rules are fairly simple for a Serbo-Croatian/English linguist,
common people hardly knew them. In the flurry of events, no
one had time or inclination to look them up. Haste made waste
as absence of proper spelling distorted the names of places
and people to a grotesque proportion and made understanding
the Balkans increasingly difficult.
years after the wars of Yugoslav secession broke out, names
and places in this torn-apart country are still being violated
by improper transcription tantamount to functional illiteracy.
This phenomenon has lead to such spectacular flops as confusing
Sarayevo’s Koshevo hospital with Kosovo (the crippled spelling
"Kosevo" certainly did not help), or Montenegro
(Italian for Tsrna Gora) with Macedonia.
importance of names is frequently understated, though it should
not be. Names are the most overt expression of a people’s
cultural and historical heritage, and carry more meaning than
meets the eye. The context in which they were founded is just
under the surface of Los Angeles (a former Catholic mission),
New York (formerly Dutch New Amsterdam, then renamed by the
British) and Philadelphia (after a Biblical city, a choice
of the founding Quakers).
the Balkans, many names are descriptive in nature. My name,
Neboysha, means "fearless." Aleksinats means "city
of Alexei," Belgrade is "white city" and Mt.
Kopaonik is named after ancient ore mines. The town of Uroshevats
in Kosovo was named after the second emperor of medieval Serbia,
Urosh the Weak.
there is a humorous dimension. Milosevich’s first name means
"giver of freedom," and Voyislav [Koshtunitsa] gives
"glory to war."
play an important role in staking political claims. For example,
while Kosovo in Serbian means "field of blackbirds,"
the Albanian word "Kosova" (their preferred name
for the province) means absolutely nothing. But by using the
name "Kosovar" to describe themselves – with plentiful
help of the western media – the Albanians convey an impression
they are the legitimate owners of the territory. When papers
like The Guardian consistently refer to Mitrovice (Albanian)
instead of Mitrovitsa (Serb), Gjilan (Gnylane) and Ferizaj
(Uroshevats), it does not matter if this is done out of support
or ignorance – the impression is support, and impressions
are sometimes all that matters.
consider the word "Bosnians", which refers to all
who live in the territory of Bosnia. Yet it is often confused
with "Bosniaks" or "Bosniacs" – name promoted
by the leaders of the Bosnian Muslims that lays claim on Bosnia
as exclusively theirs. Not to mention the grotesque situation
that ethnic Muslims (Slavs in origin) in Rashka and Kosovo
are also called "Bosniaks," even though their connection
to Bosnia is nonexistent.
of this points to a fairly straightforward conclusion. How
is it possible to even try to understand the Balkans if one
cannot even comprehend the names of people and places?
yet, for the sake of understanding, one tends to give in to
the common usage and forget about accuracy. That is why the
name in this column’s header still says "Nebojsa Malic"
instead of Neboysha Malich.
the people of Yugoslavia had been free from imperial domination
for almost a hundred years, Western understanding of their
languages deteriorated. Misinterpretation of their modified
Latin script caused more confusion than the use of Cyrillic,
Arabic or Chinese would have.
a coup de grace, language has been used as a weapon
of war and hatred. Efforts to forcibly differentiate ethno-cultural
identities have led to bizarre occurrences, such as the Croatian
use of subtitles when showing a Serbian film (Rane)
regardless of the fact that Croats understand Serbian perfectly,
or that the film’s own captions were using Latin script.
had a significant part to play in what the peoples of former
Yugoslavia did to each other over the past decade, and even
before. Ironically, old imperial transcriptions turned out
to be more accurate and fair than modern Western renditions
of emancipated Yugoslav languages.
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