Puneet Varma

Croatian linguistic purism

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Croatian linguistic purism

One of the defining features of modern Croatian language is according to some a preference for word coinage from native Slavic morphemes, as opposed to adopting loanwords or replacing them altogether. This particularly relates to other Serbo-Croatian standards of Bosnian and Serbian which liberally draw on Turkish, Latin, Greek and Russian loanwords.



Croatian literature across the centuries is argued to demonstrate a tendency to cherish Slavic words and word coinage, and to expel "foreign" borrowings. Croatian philologist Zlatko Vince articulates this tendency as follows:

Croatian literature even in the old ages tends to stay away from barbarisms and foreign words, a certain conscious care in the works of literature is felt when it comes to language selection. In the course of centuries hence the tendency is formed for literary language to be as much as pure and selective as possible. One thing is the colloquial language, often ridden with foreign words, and entirely different thing is the language of literary works in which tendency for language purity arises. The way and the extent to which that need could be satisfied is different in various periods, but the tendency for as pure and selective language can be noted even in Old Dubrovnik writers, and in Vitezović. All the way to pre-Illyrian and Illyrian efforts and by the end of the XIX. century, when the osmotic influence of traditional Croatian literary heritage does not cease to stop...That care of language purity which characterizes Croatian literary expression even in the XIX. century, remains immanent in later periods...Literary language of the Croats is in fact organic continuation of older state of affairs in Croatian literature.

In a session regarding the issue of the usage for foreign words in Croatian language, as well on the problems of ongoing projects of coining Slavic replacements for established technical terms by combined efforts of linguists and specialists, the now defunct institution for the standardization of Croatian language—the Council for Standard Croatian Language Norm—has presented the historical overview of the issue as follows:

The attitude towards foreign words in Croatian literary language is multi-dimensional in many respects. The origin of Croatian language culture, when writing in Slavic, is determined by the tradition of Church Slavonic literature. Originating from copies of Ancient Greek liturgical texts, it places a distinct emphasis to Slavic expressive devices, and only exceptionally non-Slavic words are being borrowed. That tendency has been continued in Croatian language culture to this day. The usage of Croatian words, if necessary even in a modified meaning, or Croatian coinages, if they're considered to be successful, represents higher merit then mere mechanical borrowing of foreign expressive devices. That way the Croatian word is more solemn and formal (glazba, mirovina, redarstvenik), and the loanword is more relaxing and less demanding (muzika, penzija, policajac). This dimension of purism is incorporated into the very foundations of Croatian language sensitivity.


The Illyrian movement and its successor, the Zagreb Philological School, have been particularly successful in creating the corpus of Croatian terminology that covered virtually all areas of modern civilization. This was especially visible in two fundamental works: Ivan Mažuranić's and Josip Užarević's: "German-Croatian dictionary" from 1842 and Bogoslav Šulek's "German-Croatian-Italian dictionary of scientific terminology", 1875. These works, particularly Šulek's, systematized (i.e. collected from older dictionaries), invented and coined Croatian terminology for the 19th century jurisprudence, military schools, exact and social sciences, as well as numerous other fields (technology and commodities of urban civilization).

First Yugoslavia

During the Yugoslav period, from 1918 to 1990, Croatian and Serbian were treated as Western and Eastern variant of the Serbo-Croatian language. Parts of this policy were systematic attempts to eliminate traits of the Croatian literary language by which it distinguished itself from the Serbian literary language.

World War II

In the Independent State of Croatia, a World War II state that existed between 1941 and 1945, the totalitarian dictatorship of Ante Pavelić pushed purist tendencies to extremes.

The language law of 1941 promulgated purity as a policy, and tried to eliminate internationalisms, stigmatized Serbisms and introduced etymological spelling (korijenski pravopis).

No Croatian dictionaries or grammars were published during this period because of the opposition of the Croatian linguists. This era is best covered in Marko Samardžija's "Hrvatski jezik u Nezavisnoj Državi Hrvatskoj", (Croatian language in Independent State of Croatia), 1993.

Second Yugoslavia

In Communist Yugoslavia, Serbian language and terminology were prevailing in a few areas: the military, diplomacy, Federal Yugoslav institutions (various institutes and research centres), state media and jurisprudence at Yugoslav level.

The methods used for this "unification" were manifold and chronologically multifarious; even in the eighties, a common "argument" was to claim that the opponents of the official Yugoslav language policy were sympathising with the Ustaša regime of World War 2, and that the incriminated words were thus "ustašoid" as well. Another method was to punish authors who fought against censorship. Linguists and philologists, the authors of dictionaries, grammars etc., were not allowed to write their works freely and according to the best of their professional knowledge and competence. Hence, for example, the whole edition of the Croatian Orthography ('Hrvatski pravopis') edited by Babić-Finka-Moguš (1971) was destroyed in a paper factory just because it had been titled "Croatian" Orthography instead of "Serbocroatian" or "Croatoserbian" Orthography

The passive Croatian vocabulary contained many banished words equivalent to the actively used words of the politically approved vocabulary. For example, the officers of the JNA could be publicly called only oficir, and not časnik. For the usage of word časnik ('officer'), coined by a father of Croatian scientific terminology Bogoslav Šulek, the physician Ivan Šreter was sentenced to 50 days in jail in 1987. Concordantly, the possibility of using the previously frequent word časnik was already reduced to the extent that before 1991 it could occur only in special contexts, e.g. in relation to historical events.

After Communism

After the collapse of Communism and subsequent wars, the situation changed. Suppressive relations changed significantly after the dissolution of the SFRJ and the founding of the sovereign Republic of Croatia. The regained freedom enabled public usage of previously forbidden words in the semantic sphere of administration, army etc. As a consequence, formerly suppressed words switched from the more or less passive vocabulary of the Croatian literary language to the active one without any special stylistic marking.

Croatian linguists fought this wave of "populist purism", led by various patriotic non-linguists. Ironically: the same people who were, for decades, stigmatised as ultra-Croatian "linguistic nationalists" (Stjepan Babić, Dalibor Brozović, Radoslav Katičić, Miro Kačić) have been accused as pro-Serbian "political linguists" simply because they opposed these "language purges" that wanted to purge numerous words of Church Slavonic origin (which are common not only to Croatian and Serbian, but are also present in Polish, Russian, Czech and other Slavic languages).

In 1993, the Dr. Ivan Šreter Award was created to promote neologisms in Croatian.

Before 1994, the ruling Croatian Democratic Union (which had come into power in 1990) considered ideas reminiscent of the Independent State of Croatia language policy in the form of the so-called korijenski pravopis, but ultimately discarded it as too radical and instead made the londonski pravopis, originally made during the Croatian Spring, official. At the time, extreme forms of purism were advocated by nationalist-minded linguists who were in turn described by Radoslav Katičić as "marginal elements". The leaders of (mainstream) language purification were Stjepan Babić and Dalibor Brozović.

Since the 1990s, a form of language censorship has been practiced by the "proofreaders" (called lektori) in the media and schoolbooks. Despite forcing techniques for implementing purism, there has been significant resistance to purism in common usage. There have also been Croatian linguists that offer severe criticism of the language purism, e.g., Vladimir Anić, Snježana Kordić, Dubravko Škiljan, Kristina Štrkalj and Mate Kapović.


Croatian linguistic purism Wikipedia

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