Mladić Arrested at the Slavonic Crossroads

Posted on 26 May 2011


Mladić called "Rat on Earth" in Serbian graffiti

Ratko Mladić’s name was splashed across the straplines of 24-hour news channels today after the former Bosnian Serb army chief was detained in an area of northern Serbia.

The arrest was made in the town of Lazarevo – in the autonomous Vojvodina province, a veritable linguistic spaghetti junction.

Few places in Europe act as such a crossroads of languages.

The area’s six official languages means it is The Autonomous Province of Vojvodina six times over:

  • Аутономна Покрајина Војводина
  • Autonomna Pokrajina Vojvodina
  • Vajdaság Autonóm Tartomány
  • Autonómna Pokrajina Vojvodina
  • Provincia Autonomă Voivodina
  • Автономна Покраїна Войводина

Can you identify the different languages? It’s: Serbian, Croatian, Hungarian, Slovak, Romanian and Rusyn.

You’ll notice that the first two are the same, except for the alphabets. The languages of the Balkans could take up quite a few posts – save to say that one Yugoslavian language with ‘dialects’ gave birth to a new raft of official state languages as it split up (Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian) – and then split further (adding Montenegrin – although note there is no ‘Kosovan’ – just Kosovar Albanian).

The language that really interests me is the last one: Rusyn. You might not have heard of it. And whether or not it’s a language at all – rather than a dialect (and, lord, that’d be a big tangent) is very much a moot point for Slavicists.

There are two dialects: Carpathian – spoken around the borderlands of Slovakia, Poland, Hungary and Ukraine, and Pannonian – spoken in Vojvodina.

And although it looks and sounds a lot like Ukrainian, the only place Pannonian Rusyn is officially recognised is in this province in northern Serbia.

I remember studying it at university: there was debate as to whether it fits into the Western, Eastern of Southern group of Slavonic languages. Could it be classified as the fourth illusive member of the Eastern linguistic bloc, joining Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian?

"I was a Rusyn" (Rusyn). "Don't make such a big deal out of it, pops, I used to be one, too." (Slovak)

The problem is that Carpathian Rusyn is closer to Russian and Ukrainian and could probably be classified as Eastern, but Pannonian Rusyn is a real mix – it’s similar to Slovak (a West Slavonic language), but takes its phonetics and vocab from Ukrainian (East Slavonic) – and then geographically it’s in an area dominated by South Slavonic languages – the languages of the former Yugoslav republics, Bulgarian and Macedonia.

Unless we’re talking about making two new languages – or leaving one as a dialect, then Rusyn as a whole is a slippery character, as you can’t assign it to any of those language groups with confidence: it straddles a number of countries but isn’t officially recognised by any of them as an official language for the country, and it straddles all the different Slavonic language groups.

Further west from where Mladić was arrested, over towards Croatia, is the village of Ruski Krstur – population: a little over 5,000.

Ruski Krstur is seen as where Pannonian Rusyn’s true heart lies – a significant proportion of its villagers speak Rusyn (although a number of the population have moved to the Canadian town of North Battleford).

The local radio there broadcasts some shows in Rusyn – but it accounts for less 4% of their output.

As Rusyn is very much at the crossroads of the Slavonic languages, with no other language in the group bringing together so many different features, it is sometimes known as the Slavonic Esperanto.

But where that sounds quite futuristic, it would seem that Rusyn is seen – even by its speakers – as a thing of the past, destined to die out as no one takes it particularly seriously.

But while Rusyn’s future hangs in the balance, Ratko Mladić’s future seems a little more certain.