Serbian signs of the times are not in Cyrillic

A symptom of Westernization: Serbs read and write as well with the Latin alphabet.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

  • close
    Alphabet blizzard: Latin letters are increasingly replacing Serbian Cyrllic in newspapers, signs, and even bestselling books.
    View Caption

In the years since this city emerged, battered and bombed, from the nightmare of Slobodan Milosevic's rule, Western capitalism has remade this city's graceful streets. Billboards hawk McDonald's and Coca-Cola, and young Serbs window shop for Diesel, Nike, and other Western brands.

But the most visible symbol of Western encroachment may be the signs themselves: Everywhere, the Latin alphabet is edging out Serbian Cyrillic, the alphabet that once distinguished Serbs from their Croatian neighbors.

Around the globe, English-dominated culture threatens to subsume many small cultures and languages, but the Serbian Cyrillic alphabet is particularly endangered because there's a perfectly acceptable form of the written language, Serbo-Croatian, that uses the Latin alphabet. It's just not, well, historically Serbian.

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

Before World War II, Serbian Cyrillic – a 19th-century adaptation of the Russian alphabet – was dominant, and the Latin alphabet was rarely used here. But under Josip Broz Tito's Yugoslavia, which tried to forge a common identity among the its many peoples, the two scripts had equal status. In the 1990s, some of Serbia's nationalist politicians tried to assert the primacy of Cyrillic, but the wave of Western cultural influence that has washed in since Milosevic's 2000 fall has largely swept away those efforts.

• • •

The Latin alphabet rules the streets of Belgrade today – with the exception of official documents and the fraying campaign posters that are almost all in Cyrillic, the vast majority of newspapers, magazines, billboards, and menus are written in Latin characters.

"That's the price of globalization," says Zorica Tomic, a professor of cultural and communication theory at the University of Belgrade, waving her hand at the evidence in nearby signs.

Most Serbs say they're equally comfortable in both alphabets – many insist they don't even notice when switching between the two. But in subtle ways, Cyrillic is fading from everyday use and Latin is becoming the alphabet of choice – particularly among Serbia's urban population.

The dimly lit Cyber-Shark Internet cafe is a good example. A dozen young people sit hunched over computers, logged in to Western Internet sites like Facebook, MySpace, and Skype. A giant poster advertises an Internet role-playing game, Guild Wars. Here it's not just the Latin alphabet that dominates, but English.

Goran Nikolovski, the 21-year-old manager, keeps his MySpace page open all day so he can stay tuned to the lives of friends from his other life as a popular Belgrade DJ. He is part of Serbia's new Internet generation, which chats by text message (in the Latin alphabet, because cellphone Cyrillic is not an option) and through online communities like MySpace.

"Technology is the main reason young people use more Latin than Cyrillic," he says. The default on all the computers here is the Latin alphabet and Mr. Nikolovski only gets rare requests from "older people" to switch them to Cyrillic.

• • •

What if Serbian Cyrillic disappeared altogether? Nikolovski shrugs. "It's all the same to me."

But, Sanja Teric, who teaches Serbian language and literature to fifth and sixth graders, fears a future sans Cyrillic.

Like many Serbs, she's proud of her linguistic heritage and sees the use of the different alphabets as a sign of her people's successful straddling of two worlds.

"We consider it an advantage to have both scripts in use, but when it comes to our national identity, we consider that Cyrillic is part of our heritage," she says, opening a Serbian-language textbook and pointing to diagram showing how different Slavic languages developed.

Cyrillic has been used in Serbia for more than 1,000 years and, for much of that time, it was the primary difference between the two branches of the Serbian and Croatian branches of the language. When the Christian world split in 1054, Balkan Slavic-speakers straddled that fault-line. As literacy spread in the Middle Ages, in the south, where Catholicism dominated, people adopted the Latin alphabet. In the western regions, where the Orthodox religion held sway, the people adopted Cyrillic. At times, and in certain places, the language was also written in Arabic, and an alphabet called Glagoljica. In the mid-19th century, a linguist named Vuk Karadzic adapted Russian Cyrillic to the Serbian language, developing an alphabet that had exactly one symbol for each sound.

At the Vladislav Ribnikar Experimental Primary School school where Ms. Teric teaches Serbian language and literature, students study how to write their native tongue in both Serbian Cyrillic and Latin alphabets. But Cyrillic is the sole official script designated by the 2006 constitution. And last month, the school received a visit from the Ministry of Education explaining new rules about which script must be used when. Class lists and records, for example, must be kept in Serbian Cyrillic, except in foreign language classes.

"As a small people, it's important for us to preserve [Cyrillic], just like the Russians do," Teric says. "Sometimes I think we're ashamed of our own alphabet." She adds that she believes that Serbs sometimes are inclined to think that things from the West are better, and are too willing to adopt things from outside. She cites the example of Russia, where the signs for McDonald's are written in Cyrillic; in Belgrade, they look just like in America.

But she and others also say they notice the creeping influence of the Latin script – and foreign words – in their own lives. One day, they suddenly notice that their signature is in Latin, not Cyrillic. Or that they've started using an English word – like "trend" – when there's a perfectly good Serbian one that means the same.

Some, like Professor Tomic, who also heads Serbia's UNESCO committee, believes Serbia can continue to straddle both worlds, West and East, Latin and Cyrillic. Some of her colleagues at the university believe she should work to protect Cyrillic. Another professor once criticized her, saying it was inappropriate for a professor to sign her name with Latin characters. But Tomic dismisses such ideas as unrealistic. Her recent scholarly book – a cultural critique of globalization on communication – is published in Latin characters, and it's a Serbian best-seller.

Still, she does defend Cyrillic letters: "Serbian Cyrillic is very old, the most logical linguistic system in the world. It's absolutely fantastic, an absolutely fantastic script," she says. "But it's good for us to have the richness of both. When you're a small country, you need to preserve your heritage and reach out."

Teric agrees. While she worries about the fate of Cyrillic, she wouldn't abandon the Latin alphabet even if it were practical to do so: "I think it's wonderful that after all the political troubles, we can all still understand each other."

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...