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Reviewed by:
  • Jezik i nacionalizam
  • Keith Langston
Snježana Kordić . Jezik i nacionalizam. Zagreb: Durieux, 2010. 430 pp.

Snježana Kordić, a native of Osijek, Croatia, received her doctorate from the University of Zagreb in 1993. She then moved to Germany, where she has taught at a number of different universities. In addition to numerous articles and reviews, Kordić has published several books, including well-received works on the syntax of relative clauses (Kordić 1995, 1999) and on the syntax, semantics, and pragmatics of pronouns and other selected high-frequency words that combine lexical meaning with grammatical functions (2001, 2002). She is widely known in Croatia as the author of a long series of polemical texts that have appeared in the journals Republika and Književna republika since 2001, in which she sharply criticizes the work of various Croatian linguists and argues that, from the viewpoint of linguistic science, it is impossible to speak of a separate Croatian (standard) language. For Kordić, the only tenable position is that there is a single Serbo-Croatian language, with several standardized variants which differ from each other only in negligible, linguistically insignificant ways.

Her book Jezik i nacionalizam (Language and nationalism) is an extended effort to prove this point. Kordić examines the relationship between language and nation in a broader sense, but her main focus is on the sociolinguistic situation of the former Yugoslavia, and Croatia in particular. The book is divided into three main sections: "Linguistic purism," "A polycentric standard language," and "Nation, identity, culture, history." Kordić has extensively researched the scholarly literature on language and national identity and makes many valid points throughout. However, when she begins her book with a section on "Purism and Nazism" and directly compares Croatian linguists to Nazi German purists, it is immediately apparent that the work is unlikely to offer a dispassionate view of sociolinguistic issues in Croatia. The sharply polemical tone of her writings in Republika and Književna republika is evident throughout. For example: "They [Croatian purists] produce neologisms in an infantile fashion, and say that this activity of [End Page 327] theirs, which is otherwise characteristic of pre-schoolers, requires great knowledge" (25). She accuses linguists of lying when they claim that Bosnian, Croatian, Montenegrin, and Serbian are separate languages (120), states that some might think that it is not worthwhile to examine the assertions of Croatianists critically because they underestimate the mental abilities of the reader (136-37), and speaks of the "autism" or "autistic traits" of Croatian linguistics (165, 371). To be fair, Kordić has herself been subjected to harsh criticism in Croatia (the book under review here has provoked especially strong reactions, including a lawsuit brought against the Croatian Ministry of Culture for subsidizing its publication), and her objections to views propounded by some Croatian linguists are often legitimate. Nonetheless, the acerbity of some of her language makes an unprofessional impression.

Kordić defines purism as unnatural, undemocratic, and as having no basis in linguistics. She sees it as a completely negative phenomenon, something that is imposed by a small elite group on the rest of the language community. It is true, as she says, that purism typically has pejorative connotations among linguists and that notions of purity and of cleansing a language by eliminating undesirable elements have no objective basis. However, I would argue that Kordić's view of purism is too narrow and one-sided. Although purism is most often discussed in the context of standard languages, purism in some form is probably characteristic of all language communities. Even members of non-privileged groups may reject forms that are seen as "not belonging" to their particular varieties; the phenomenon of covert prestige is well documented. I think that prototypical examples of standard language purism at the national level are best understood in relationship to other types of language-management activities, which may take place on a smaller scale (see Spolsky 2009). As an activity that language users commonly engage in, purism can be considered natural, and it serves specific sociolinguistic functions, namely those of solidarity, separation, and prestige (Thomas 1991: 59). It is not inherently bad or good.

Kordić sees prescriptivism in the same light, as something that...


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