Balkan Express
by Nebojsa Malic

November 23, 2000

It’s the Spelling, Stupid

Over the past week, Bulgarians have expressed their dissatisfaction with a government that keeps impoverishing their country; a Rumanian presidential candidate raised the issue of his government’s role in smuggling operations; Greeks have expressed skepticism about the state of human rights in Albania; Albanians have rioted and attempted to assassinate a government official; both major political factions of Kosovo Albanians joined in demanding independence yet again; and the people of Serbia sat in the dark and froze, democratically pleading for food and fuel aid from the countries that democratically bombed them last year.

With all these issues, problems and crises in the Balkans, it may appear less than serious to dedicate a few moments to the seemingly irreverent matter of spelling. Nevertheless, it is a matter that deserves attention. Given that pointing out the multiple ironies and injustices of the above described situations would not accomplish much, setting the records straight on spelling might actually be a bigger contribution to Balkan peace that it may seem at first.


The Balkans is the most ethnically and culturally heterogeneous area of Europe. Greeks, Albanians, Bulgarians and Rumanians are ethnically totally different people, and that is even without adding former Yugoslavia to the mix. The Yugoslav wars of the 1990s were largely a product of friction between assertive ethno-cultural identities of Slavic peoples, despite the fact that they speak similar languages and have a common ancestry.

In addition to languages, cultures and ethnic differences, three distinct scripts are currently used in the Balkans: Greek, Latin and Cyrillic. And that is where problems begin.

Since reproducing Greek and Cyrillic script in the West would have the same result as printing Chinese or Arabic names in their original form, they are usually transcribed phonetically, with a varying degree of success. Thus one can be Eltsin, Ieltsin or Yeltsin, Tsar or Czar, Stoichkov, Stoichkoff or Stoychkov. The commonly accepted form does not have to be the most accurate, just most practical. Hence it is normal to see Chernomyrdin and Chekov instead of Tchernomirdyn and Tchekov, though the latter would be logical if we think of Tchaikovsky.

Many of these old, forgotten transliterations come from the 19th century, when imperial courts of Europe decided the fate of the Balkans. Most of the transcribed forms were influenced heavily by the Austro-German influence in the region, though French is not to be underestimated. Western historians of World War One, for example, fairly consistently use German transliterations for Slavic names of people and places.

Since the Balkans had been a fairly uneventful place for almost half a century, though, transcription skills of the Westerners have deteriorated considerably. When the wars of secession from Yugoslavia began in 1991, reporters scrambled to get interviews from the locals. It turned out that their butchering of local names was comparably worse than any atrocities committed in the course of fighting.


On the other hand, though responsible for most of the mentioned butchery, the reporters are not to blame for all of it. In the former Yugoslavia at least, spelling is a puzzling notion. All of its languages have phonetic alphabets and scripts, in which every sound is always pronounced the same way. While simple on the surface, this also means that both the Latin and Cyrillic scripts used in the former Yugoslavia are slightly different than in other countries.

That "slightly" is the responsibility of two men, Vuk Stefanovich Karadzich and Iernei Kopitar, who in the early to mid-1800s standardized the alphabet and spelling rules for Latin and Cyrillic scripts in what would become Yugoslavia. To accommodate the specific sounds of those languages, they added and subtracted several characters from the "standard" Latin script according to Vuk’s modified standard Cyrillic. Standard Latin in the former Yugoslavia does not have Q, W, X and Y, for example.

Vuk’s axiom to "write the way it’s spoken, read the way it’s written" stands as the underlying notion of the Serbian language and makes for its stunning simplicity of spelling. It also makes for a mess in transcribing foreign names, as they are simultaneously transcribed into Cyrillic and phonetically. Still, it works most of the time.

Only Macedonians use Cyrillic exclusively. Croats, Slovenians and Bosnian Muslims use modified Latin, while the Serbs are skilled in both. Modified Latin is actually the real culprit for linguistic butchery.


Now 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.

Thus 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 pronunciation!

The "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…

Additionally, 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.

Though 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.


Ten 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.

The 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).

In 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.

Then there is a humorous dimension. Milosevich’s first name means "giver of freedom," and Voyislav [Koshtunitsa] gives "glory to war."

Names 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.

Then 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.


All 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?

And 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.

Because 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.

As 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.

Language 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.

How typical.

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