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Chakavian officially recognized as a language

Chakavian officially recognized as a language

Pag, Croatia

By Marin Tudor

Without much fanfare and completely unnoticed by the Croatian media, Chakavian, a dialect spoken in Croatia, was officially recognized as a language by the main international academic and standardization organizations back in 2020. 

Chakavian was therefore assigned its own ISO code “ckm” for the identification of this language in all domains of human activity.

This historical recognition means Chakavian speakers will now receive greater local and national recognition, which has been missing until now because Chakavian was considered only a dialect of the standard (shtokavian) language.  

Seeing that no one had yet scientifically identified and classified the Chakavian language, Kirk Miller, a field linguist from the prestigious University of California, sent a request for the recognition and documentation of the Chakavian language to the Summer Institute of Linguistics International (SIL) back on September the 2nd, 2019.

SIL is an international organization headquartered in Dallas, Texas, whose main purpose is to study, develop and document all languages of the world, aimed at expanding linguistic knowledge, promoting literacy in all languages, and developing the language of linguistics minorities.

SIL is also the publisher of the prestigious scientific journal Ethnologue. This is the leading reference publication in print and online that provides statistics and other information on all living languages of our world. Most of the world’s top linguists have publicly praised Ethnologue as the main journal in the field of language classification and thousands of linguists work together on it every year.

Another important responsibility of SIL International is to work in cooperation with the International Organization for Standardization (International Organization for Standardization – better known as ISO, based in Geneva and whose member is also the Republic of Croatia) the ISO type 639-3 codes for the comprehensive coverage of human languages. SIL proposes and the ISO organization and its linguists verify and approve each language after a thorough analysis of each case. 

This is important to note, because recently there have been some nationalist voices within Croatia trying to attack SIL International as the ultimate verifier and to minimize its importance because the organization has religious roots.

It is interesting that Professor Miller based part of his request on the previous request of a leading association of Kajkavian language speakers called “Kajkavian Renaissance”. This group of enthusiast managed to win the recognition of Kajkavian as an independent language already in 2015. Although back then the ISO organization recognized Kajkavian only in the literary form that was used in the period from the 16th to the 19th century and in some works from the 20th century.

Contrarily to Kajkavian, Miller’s proposal was accepted in its entirety already in 202 and the Chakavian language was given the highest possible linguistic recognition: namely, it was recognized as a living (independent) language, in its presently spoken form.

It is interesting to note how useful this will be also for the future of the Kajkavian language, because it will allow for an accelerated verification of the status of their spoken language precisely on the basis of the recent Chakavian recognition, and it is to be expected that also this Croatian language will be recognized as a living independent language rather soon.

Who came up with the term “Narječje” used to avoid the term “Language”?

Chakavian and Kajkavian have long been considered languages in the international world of academic linguistics, and not a mere branch of the Croatian standard language, which is to say the Shtokavian Croatian language. 

Both speeches are in fact much older languages than the standardized version of Shtokavian (the first few centuries all Croatian dictionaries and literature were only in Chakavian), which continued to exist and develop even after the creation of the Shtokavian standard, so in fact they cannot be dialects of that standard at all. Chakavian can even be considered in a way a bit of an international language, because it is indigenously spoken not only in Croatia, but also in pockets of four other EU member states (Slovenia, Austria, Hungary and Slovakia).

Spread of Chakavian and related dialects (Ceha/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Despite this, once Yugoslav, and later a meaningful part of Croatian linguists, kept stubbornly throwing Chakavian and Kajkavian in the category of “narječja” for decades.

But the very concept of “narječje” has always been a controversial one for linguists beyond the Balkan peninsula. It is enough to know that in almost no other language in the world there is a translation of the word “narječje” itself, and therefore the concept that is encompassed in that word is foreign to most of the whole world, with the exception of a couple of other Slavic countries. In international linguistics, only the terms “language”, “dialect” and “sub-dialect” are used to classify speeches. 

That is why the Croatian linguists were forced to come up with an English translation for the word narječje. They chose the term “supradialect” to indicate something that has all the linguistic, social and historical features of a language, but they have the need to consider less than a language.

As is often the case in the Balkans, this approach is a product of the fact that political circumstances directed science in Croatia, and science has often had a very hard time at influencing national policies: the Croatian nation fought hard for almost a century and a half to get their place under the sun. 

Being recognized by the world as an independent national community required great effort and desire that was passed from generation to generation until the official creation of a modern Republic of Croatia. So entire generations of Chakavian and Kajkavian intellectuals and scientists preferred to neglect their mother tongue and local culture in favor of the greater good of the entire Croatian nation, of which they strongly felt a part throughout history. It was arguably a logical and noble approach at the time, but left certain negative consequences for the local cultures that are still here today.

A language is the heart and soul of a culture

“If culture was a house, then language would be the key to the front door, to all rooms inside it.” – says Khaled Hosseini, American writer and doctor born in Afghanistan, 3 times New York Times bestseller.

Language is indeed the very essence of culture, because its soul begins and ends with language. It shapes the way people think, dream, communicate with each other, build relationships and create a sense of community. It is the main guardian of our value system, because it directly transmits all our set of symbols, meanings and norms.

It is that first form of communication with the universe, those first children’s words that initiate verbal contact between people. Knowing one’s linguistic roots automatically enables the person to more easily identify with the community around him and to keep the welfare of that community at heart in the deepest sense.

Language is a technology that enhances and expands the capacities of categorization that we share with those around us and those who came before us, and therefore plays also a key role in the transmission of our culture to those who come after us.

All of this of course also applies to that part of Croatia where Chakavian is the autochthonous language. The local Croatian culture will disappear when and if the language on which it is based disappears. This is not such a remote possibility: Currently Chakavian is classified as an endangered language and if the current usage trend continues, it is quite likely that within 2 generations Chakavian will become an extinct language. And when Chakavian disappears, so will a most significant part of Croatian culture and heritage.

Unfortunately, the statesmen working on the Croatian national branding did not take advantage of the independence of the country, nor the next three decades of freedom, to valorize the local linguistic and cultural specificities.

The future of Chakavian

This international recognition is not only significant, but also a truly epochal event for the Chakavian speaking world. At the global level, the Chakavian language will be studied more seriously and more research will be promoted also at universities outside Croatia. A small boom in academic and non- academic literature on the Chakavian language is to be expected over the next few years.

But above all, the newly achieved status will really open the door for Chakavian speakers to request official recognition of their language where it most needs to be recognized, that is, in the regions where Chakavians have lived for almost 1,500 years. It would indeed be a very sad and perversely ironic historical turn of events if, after surviving all kinds of enemy invasions, legal prohibitions and fashions for at least 12 long centuries, the Chakavian language were to die out in the early age of the first truly independent and free state of the Croatian people, to whom Chakavian is the original mother tongue.

Croatia’s next steps will thus become an important cultural milestone on the European path of the country and of Croatian civilization itself, because in Europe local and minority languages have been successfully nurtured for decades, and unique regional and national brands are built on them in a very efficient (and profitable) way. 

Moreover, they are often used to promote better respect of local community life and services.

All municipalities and counties where Chakavian is the original indigenous language are now given the opportunity to recognize Chakavian at the highest level, as a par language alongside the standard Shtokavian one.

The Croatian government itself should launch initiatives and political guidelines to first preserve the language, and then help the Chakavians standardize to some extent and effectively promote this beautiful Croatian language both on the local and global stage.

Of course, this requires a lot of work and an orchestrated multi-year effort of all stakeholders in the Chakavian world. But the goal is fundamental in nature and certainly achievable, especially considering the generous funds and the instruments offered by the EU in this field.

If languages that were completely extinct like Cornish or Manx can be revived despite the constant pressure exerted on them by the most spoken language in the world, or the unwritten Maori language of New Zealand can be revived from almost disappearing, then it cannot be that difficult to reverse the negative trend of a language that is still fluently and daily used by hundreds of thousands of people in a well-developed European country. 

The venture only requires good will, diligence and, of course, much love for one’s own culture. Things that Chakavian speakers never lacked.

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