By Jovan Nikolaidis

Jovan Nikolaidis was born in 1950 in Ulcinj, Montenegro. He is a writer, publisher, and journalist firmly committed to the affirmation of multiculturalism in his country, and for tolerance and peaceful coexistence in the Balkans, promoting dialogue with colleagues from Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Albania. Between 1974 and 1990 Nikolaidis has worked is Sarajevo for the leading Bosnian daily “Oslobodjenje”. In 1990 he returned to his birthplace, where he founded the first Albanian language newspaper in Montenegro – “Kronika”, and since fifteen years he is the editor of PLIMAplus, a bilingual (Montenegrin/Albanian) cultural magazine.

This piece is about the use of language in bilingual and multilingual environments. It looks at how, to what extent, and when language – as both a means of communication and as that which most obviously reflects and attests to the existence of a given nation – contributes to the rate of democratization, openness, and the advancement of civic communication in Montenegro. Particular attention will be paid to cases when one language exists alongside another language that is spoken by a different national group. How can a “free language” promote the freeing of others and work against the lack of concern that pervades linguistically mixed regions. Viewed from the perspective of its multilingualism, Montenegro is a good test case. This small country is the home of many ethnic groups, religions, and languages. The Montenegrin cities of Bar and Ulcinj are particularly valuables examples of this.

Let’s take a little foray into the past and, for once, not worry too much about historical accuracy. Comparing the habits and customs of this region, as well as its folklore and traditions, we can see that Montenegro’s people were guided more by patience and pragmatism than by sociolinguistic trends or political interests. The Albanian, Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, Montenegrin, as well as the Orthodox, Muslim, and Catholic populations, were often, in terms of maturity, far ahead of their political representatives. The people were wiser than their local leaders and, by their own general behavior, stronger than the any temptations and tribulations that history had offered; in their physical suffering, they were loftier than any political declaration or nationalist proclamation (of which there were many). People would often reject ideology and political dictates in favor of neighborliness.

Among the Kuçi tribe, one still hears Croatian words like netko [“someone”] and nitko [“no one”]. In northern Montenegro, one hears a lovely, natural mix of the ekavianand ijekavian varieties of Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian among the Muslim population. A Serb from Risan might speak the Bokelj dialect of Croatian. In Cetinje, many will use the stereotypical Croatian word for thousand [“tisuća”] instead of the Serbian one [“hiljada”], or for vitality [“krijepost,” “vitalnost”]. A Muslim from the hills surrounding Bar, whose family had been there for ages, speaks the ekavian variety of the language. Now take a listen to a Muslim from Podgorica: what a symphony of old Montenegrin sounds and phrases! You might find an Albanian from Tuzi who speaks Slavic as though he was from Cetinje, or a Serb from the Plevlje region who unabashedly uses Turkisms – even at an Orthodox christening. The southern part of Montenegro and, in fact, the whole Primorje region along the Adriatic uses words borrowed from the Romans and Italians. People from Herceg-Novi speak in a similar way to those from Dubrovnik. The Orthodox population of Rožaje and Gusinje has in their language a large number of Albanisms, and everyone uses Turkisms and Arabisms as well.

The dialects of Bar and Ulcinj serve as helpful examples of this phenomenon. It is an undisputed fact that these regions were predominantly inhabited by Albanians. First, historically speaking, by Catholic or Orthodox Albanians, and then by primarily Muslim Albanians. The Slavic peoples, Montenegrins and Serbs, arrived later. In these parts today, Albanian is spoken, without inhibition or discomfort, alongside Montenegrin, Serbian, Bosnian, and Croatian (the language once called Serbo-Croatian or Croato-Serbian in Socialist Yugoslavia, which now has four names).

When it came to issues of language use, the Ottoman administration had a simple formula: imperial matters and administration in Turkish; court business in Turkish with regulated translation into local languages; religious procedures in Arabic and Persian for Muslims, in Latin and Albanian for Catholics, and in Albanian and Greek for Orthodox. Religious and language-based autonomy was respected. Outside of pockets of the city where only individual mother tongues were used, bilingualism reigned, with a high degree of intermingling and mutual respect for each language. Utilitarian forces motivated people to work out who would benefit from certain negotiations. Even in the Principality of Nikola the First, the administration continued the established order under which religious and national affiliations were respected, there was a free choice of language, and sacred traditions in Bar and Ulcinj were preserved. Things were made somewhat more complicated when, not long after a government was assembled for the newly established territory of Montenegro, Montenegrin peasants started to leave their rocky hinterlands and resettle in areas abandoned by Turkish and Albanian populations. These newcomers did not acclimate well to the new order. Naturally, they knew little to no Albanian, the dominant language of the area. It was not too long, however, before the will to survive and individual interests forced those who had moved into the territory to adopt their new home’s local language, just as the region’s original Turkish and Albanian inhabitants learned to speak the language of the state that now hemmed them in. Thus, a benign paradox with effects that persist to the present day was set in motion in the region.

Not long after their arrival, those who moved to Bar and Ulcinj from villages in the hinterland learned the language of those who had long been settled there. It is rare for a Montenegrin family from around Bar or Ulcinj not to know Albanian: a shared life of hardship over time brought these groups together – and into the same language. The Albanian populace, living in far-flung villages and with a limited sphere of movement, did not need to master the language of the newcomers. And the Montenegrins who first moved into the cities as clerks, soldiers, or security officers, secure in their positions, did not immediately feel the need to learn Albanian, the majority language in these towns. Wealthy Albanian traders and craftsmen from Varo, meanwhile, were the ones who, following the logic of profit and prosperity did not think twice before adopting the local Slavic language. Or, to put it more accurately, the language with which they had already been somewhat familiar, given that these Varoš Albanians were a population that traversed borders frequently. In this way, the type of loyalty and decency that permitted one access to the Montenegrin administration and upward mobility within it was put on display for the incoming Montenegrin population, which was also motivated to learn Albanian and respect the customs of the locals. Both populations learned multiculturalism just by living. From that time up until the present day, they conducted their professional activities and developed friendships on shared streets. And their intermingled lives, their joys and sorrows, were indivisible and inseparable. This created the healthy foundation for a multinational, multiconfessional, and multicultural tradition of tolerance and forbearance. In life as well as in language. The residents of Bar and Ulcinj will continue to speak among themselves in the language that circumstance demands, just as they did yesterday and are doing today. Among people, pragmatism itself picks the natural language of communication. Periods of conflict brought animosity, but never resulted in all-out battle, arguments to the death, or racist hatred. Other regions with mixed populations in recent history have not been as wise as the peaceful inhabitants of Bar and Ulcinj.

Life side by side in one place and the rich experience of coexistence with those of different faiths, cultures, and languages has left us with the fascinating spiritual wealth of an ideal mixed community. These rare specificities happened in the languages of the people living on the territory of Bar and Ulcinj. A mixed folkloric language emerged over time, one that is (without getting too deep into linguistic minutiae) sometimes rough and archaic, undoubtedly full of irregularities that would bother the language purists, but sonorous and pleasing to anyone who listens carefully. There’s no need to nitpick language when you’re among those who don’t care how you speak, but rather what you say. And silence is golden.

How, though, did the ekavian variety of Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian end up in a region that had originally inherited ijekavian? What about diphthongs or the polyphony and phonetic inversion of speakers from the Rumija valley? And the Turkisms and Latinisms that are liberally sprinkled into the speech of Ulcinj Albanians? In Bar, you’ll even hear Germanisms, phrases that absorbed the Italian words you’ll notice in the speech of those inhabitants of Bar who live along the coast. What is the point of asking these questions when speakers themselves are perfectly comfortable with how these features enter their language?

Ulcinj Albanians speak an irregular variety of the Shkodër-Malësia Gheg dialect. This language sounds harsh, as it doesn’t have the characteristic melodiousness of the Albanian spoken in Tirana, Elbasan, or Durrës. Separated too long ago from the mainstream, Ulcinj Albanian has been both willingly and unwillingly ghettoized. Ulcinj never developed a literary language, nor did it produce an orthographic manual. Ulcinj Albanians will use Montenegrin words or phrases, just as Ulcinj Montenegrins will insert Albanian or Turkish words into their speech. Both groups use argot derived from Italian. When they speak in a relaxed way and focus on what they are saying rather than how they are saying it, they will mix words from both Albanian and Montenegrin. They will do this both with and without a direct motive, but most often immediately, without hang-ups or over-thinking it, thus confirming their desire for a common existence. Even if it offends the sensibilities of academics, this colorful intermingling of languages won’t be deconstructed among its speakers. Despite its lack of standardization and readily apparent anomalies, the beauty and liveliness of such speech transcends linguistic norms and flows unencumbered across the territory of Bar and Ulcinj. We are all aware of the fact that language functions as a safer societal barometer than the indicators put forth by serious, large-scale political analytics. A mixed population can demonstrate a tolerant and casual approach to language (and not only to language!); in such a multicultural society, friends and neighbors are not inclined towards established nationalist or patriotic political parties that force their own exclusive perspective onto a fluid reality. Plans to “purify the nation” fall short of their goals, precisely in these types of environments. A wave might emerge, a roaring storm that tears the branches off the trees and offends a few people. But a time of peace quickly returns, covering land frozen in conflict with a warm cloak. While it may be seeds of national purity that are sown, the spring quickly brings all kinds of different flowers.

This kind of diversity of ethnicity, religion, culture, and language is appealing to any democratic or open society, as well as a society in transition. Until standards have been established, let people, with their varied voices, keep discussing things to their heart’s content. Let the spontaneous speech of children flow freely, and the words of their godparents and neighbors resound like a bell.

Political purists, national tribunals, chauvinists and fascists, leaders and self-appointed guardians of the national consciousness, as well as the linguistic elite may not agree with the writer of these words. The question of language use is, in large part, political. But only by insisting on plurality of cultures – and they are alive and well and are, despite being full of “errors,” in regular communication with each other – is it possible to guarantee the continued survival and health of all Montenegro’s people.

Fine actions are more valuable than dulcet words. But those who come from these geographical regions have labored long to put into beautiful words what they have also done beautifully. Why should these words always need to be judged “correct” by the norm? Let us look happily at the situation in Bar and Ulcinj, where people do not speak “correct” versions of their own languages and, as a result, are more prone to act wisely.

Translated by Antje Postema