Serbian elites’ long war on clarity

Although it is 170 years since a simplified Serbian language became the norm, Serbian elites still prefer muddying the rhetorical waters
 In 1847, after three decades of struggle, Vuk Karadžić and his allies, Petar Petrović Njegoš, Branko Radičević and Đura Daničić, decisively won the battle for the standardisation of Serbian folk language and its literary use. Their victory was achieved by proving that the language spoken by illiterate peasants was versatile enough to be used for translating the New Testament, for Gorski Vijenac, Njegoš’s grand philosophical epic poem, and for capturing Radičević’s lyrical feelings, as well as conducting scholarly debates.

 Although Karadžić’s work on the language and collecting folk poetry and stories was warmly received by the key European intellectuals of the day, including Goethe, his battle for the folk language was a dangerous one. A few decades before him, Sava Mrkalj, who thought along the same lines as Karadžić and dared propose using the folk language, was pilloried for his ideas and eventually he lost his mind. Although back then Serbs lived split between the Ottoman and Habsburg empires, ironically it was not the foreigners that Karadžić was fighting – it was the Serbian cultural and priestly elite.

 Both in the Ottoman-controlled principality of Serbia ruled by Miloš Obrenović and in the Habsburg empire, the most educated and powerful Serbs shunned Karadžić’s work and insisted on prioritising Slavonic-Serbian, which was used in church services and literature but was unintelligible to the vast majority of the population. The elite’s resistance was in part due to snobbery, as they saw Karadžić’s language as unsophisticated, but also due to political concerns.

 Obrenović thought that the wider dissemination of epic poetry written in a language that was easy to understand would make his compromises with the Ottomans difficult to uphold. Stevan Stratimirović, then patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church, was determined to stop Karadžić, by trying to get his books banned and even spreading panic that Karadžić wanted to convert Serbs to Catholicism. Despite all the scheming, Karadžić won and the folk language, which was to be known as Serbo-Croatian from 1860, gained the upper hand. Slavonic-Serbian only survived in its church form and is used in Orthodox rituals.

 Although 170 years have passed since the victory of the folk language, the Serbian political and cultural elites have far from accepted the crux of Karadžić’s reform: that things that are written or said should be, ideally, widely understood.

Even now, obscurity of language and meaning in Serbia is not considered a necessary evil in highly specialised fields that lie outside the purview of laypersons knowledge. Partly due to our education, which does not value challenging authority, but also thanks to the tradition of concentrating power in small circles of confidantes. Obscurantism is the preferred style of Serbia’s elite and is even seen by the wider population as a signed of erudition and intellect.

 The tendency towards unintelligibility is, unsurprisingly, most pronounced in our bureaucracy. Although bureaucrats around the world are famous for complicating things, stylistic preference for unhelpful complexity in Serbia is especially strong. If you ever had the dubious pleasure of reading any official document in Serbian, you would find most them written in way that makes them almost impenetrable, even to an educated and informed reader. Documents that are supposed to be useful, like instructions on how to obtain a driving licence, are full of meandering sentences and staid legalese that one can barely comprehend.

 Speaking to a Serbian bureaucrat about any official business is often even more frustrating. No matter how animated or lucid they normally are, once asked for a clarification they slip into a monotone and unleash a torrent of needlessly complicated sentences to state a simple point. This attitude is not borne out of ignorance but is often a deliberate strategy. An ex-bureaucrat friend of mine was often ridiculed by her colleagues for wanting to write meeting notes in short bullet points. Clear messages result in accountability and may be challenged, murky meandering prose hides many faults.

 More tragically, our tendency towards obscurantism extends to public debates. Unlike their counterparts in the Anglophone world who often try to use simple language in their think-pieces to explain complex issues, a significant part of the Serbian intellectual elite happily clings to jargon and even tend to craft their own words. Paradoxically, this tendency is more pronounced among pro-democracy pundits and commentators who seem to be more concerned with dazzling the readership with their own erudition and creativity, rather than bothering them with an actual message.

 Reading think-pieces about relatively straightforward topics in pro-democracy media often requires not only a good Serbian dictionary but a high tolerance for quirky terms and sentence structures. Unfortunately, often it seems the more impenetrable the stylistic flourishes there are, the less substance there is behind them.

Our liberal elites think the lay readership needs to be ‘elevated’ to the author’s supposed intellectual heights, rather than pandered to with simplicity. One notable example of this attitude, Svetislav Basara, even suggested that Karadžić’s introduction of folk language was a disaster as it left the Serbian language poorer and severed its links with the great elite literature in the unpopular Slavonic-Serbian. The reasoning is that by making language simpler and more limited to the words of workmen who did not bother with abstract concepts, Karadžić reduced its sophistication. 
Although there is value in complexity and ambiguity, obscurantism also allows those in power to use linguistic smoke and mirrors to protect themselves against public scrutiny. The danger of this approach was recently proven by the collapse of the global financial system. The banks hid behind complex models and language that made them seem smart while making grave mistakes. The response to the crisis was to make the models and language simpler so the wider audience could easily spot problems. 

Similarly, Serbian democracy, already imperilled by too many shadowy private dealings among insiders, would benefit from at least an intelligible public debate, in which the citizenry could partake and voice their concerns. Obscurity only benefits those who are adept at hunting in murky waters. 

Perhaps equally important in our stagnant political climate is that clear language has the power to inspire. I noticed this first-hand once I attended the first church service that I could fully understand – in English. The rituals that used to feel mechanic and boring in incomprehensible Church Slavonic, became alive and relevant once I could actually engage with them. 

Karadžić and his allies, as well as their detractors, were very aware of this power and that is why they engaged in a decades-long brutal fight over unexciting things like grammar and spelling.

This article appeared in Belgrade Insight  


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