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Slips of the Tongue Can Incite Lashing by Locals In Former Yugoslavia

When she returns to her native Zagreb, Olinka Gjigas doesn't have to tell people she's been living abroad for the past three years. They can tell as soon as she starts to speak.

"Each time I visit, more words have been changed or added to our language," says Ms. Gjigas, who works in neighboring Hungary and returns only a few times a year to visit her family. "I try to catch on to the new way of speaking, but people know immediately that I haven't been living here. At first it seemed funny, even ridiculous. But when a vegetable seller snubbed my mother in the market because she used an 'old' word, I just couldn't believe it."

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The fighting may be over, but the successor states of Yugoslavia are waging new wars over words. Like Yugoslavia itself, the Serbo-Croatian language is breaking apart, ending a tumultuous century-old marriage of a half-dozen south Slavic dialects.

Croats and Bosnians are rewriting dictionaries and grammar books to emphasize the distinctiveness of their languages and, therefore, their nations.

But many people find themselves caught in the crossfire.

Bosnians are reviving Arabic, Turkish, and Persian words from the 19th century. Croatians are replacing words deemed foreign with both new and old terms - all in an effort to reverse decades of alleged "Serbianization" of their language. Croatia has been most aggressive, encouraging teachers to accept only new words as correct on student exams. Extremist parliamentarians even launched a failed attempt to criminalize the use of "words of foreign origin."

Requesting bread with the "Serbian" hleb rather than the Croatian kruh elicits scowls in Zagreb grocery stores, while waiters become surly if an "unpatriotic" construction is used. And as the country's state-run schools, television, and publishing houses push new words and phrases it's becoming easier than ever to tell who is Croatian and who is not.

"The whole point is to create new differences between Croatia and [Serb-dominated rump] Yugoslavia so that communication between the two is more complicated and the idea of separate identities strengthened," says historian Ivo Banac. "There's no basis for this campaign in Croatia. Our identity is very strong, and the idea of the Serbian language somehow threatening it is preposterous."

Preposterous or not, Croatian authorities are aggressively "purifying" their country's language by substituting words deemed to be foreign with Croatian words. New words are either newly invented or borrowed from medieval and baroque Croatian literature. "It's as if they were trying to purify English by removing all the words of French origin and reintroducing words from Beowulf [the 8th-century epic poem]," says Victor Friedman of the University of Chicago's Slavic Languages Department. "They're not just trying to turn back the clock but inventing a clock that never existed."

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The creation of new national languages is causing great confusion, because Serbo-Croatian dialects are based on geography, not ethnicity. "In any given village the people are all going to speak the same dialect, whether they are Serbs, Croats, or Muslims," says Dr. Friedman. Serbs from western Herzegovina or the Krajina region of Croatia, for example, spoke the same dialect as their Croat and Muslim neighbors. Now that this dialect has been dubbed "Croatian," the Serbs are under considerable pressure to prove their identities by adopting the Belgrade-standard, a dialect unfamiliar to them.

Before being pushed out by an August 1995 Croatian offensive, Krajina Serb radio announcers in the town of Knin could be heard stumbling over the new "Serbian" words and pronunciation in their broadcasts.

Even Croatian President Franjo Tudjman gets confused. During US President Clinton's visit here earlier this year, President Tudjman accidentally used the "Serbian" word for "happy," srecan, instead of the "Croatian" sretan, during a live speech. His error was edited out of later broadcasts on state television, but opposition press had a field day.

Another problem with the Croatian reforms is that only a handful of professional linguists actually knows which words are truly Croatian and which are foreign borrowings. Amateur reformers in the state bureaucracy reject one Serbo-Croatian word for "one thousand" - hiljada - in favor of another, tisca. Hiljada was favored by the Communist authorities who ran the former Yugoslavia, and thus is regarded as "Serbian" by amateur reformers. "It's ironic because hiljada is actually a very old Croatian word, perhaps more authentic than tisca," says Ivan Supek, president of the Croatian Academy of Sciences.

The reforms will continue to have difficulties. "We don't even have a Croatian dictionary yet," says University of Zagreb linguist Bulcs Lszl. "How can the poor primary school teachers teach their pupils the 'correct' way to speak? They don't even know it themselves."

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