To better understand what might sometimes seem obsession or unreasonable sensitivity when it comes to language in Croatia, one should know that here, more than elsewhere, language is a crucial component of national identity; it was the armour that protected a tiny nation situated at a crossroads against all attempts made by its neighbours to swallow it by trying to impose (at one time or another) the Italian, Hungarian, German (Austrian) or Serbian language and culture.
A tip: When you’re in Croatia, in the unlikely event that you feel short of a stimulating topic of conversation, just innocently ask whether Croatian and Serbian are the same language.
Most Croats are perplexed by the fact that many foreigners fail to appreciate the obvious fact that, as the Finns speak Finnish, the Croats speak Croatian, and they are irritated by visitors who continue to call the language so sacred to Croats by the name (Serbo-Croatian) that was forced upon them during the time of the failed union of Southern Slavs. Yet, unlike in France, there is no fine for disrespecting the sanctity of language, nor is a language exam a prerequisite for acquiring citizenship, as there is in neighbouring Slovenia.
Beware of using the argument that Croats and Serbs need no interpreter to be able to communicate! You’ll then be asked to try to convince a Norwegian to call his or her mother tongue Danish, Danish-Norwegian (despite the Bokmål/Nynorsk saga) or – heaven forbid – Swedish. Others will bring up the case of the British and Americans, two nations separated by the same language.
Linguistics apart, it’s actually rather simple: multiply the well-known differences between British and American English by five (the Croatian purist will claim by ten, at least!!) and imagine that the Americans keep trying to stick to the Cyrillic script, and you’ll begin to get a good idea of the differences between the Croatian and Serbian languages.
A tip: Whether you are in their home, or in the relaxed atmosphere of a domjenak (a kind of reception held outside the home, the Croatian version of a somewhat casual cocktail party, except that there is normally more to snack on than at similar events in Anglo-Saxon lands), you’ll be sure to capture the heart of your hosts if you almost casually remark that you are fully aware that Latin was the official language of the Croatian parliament until 1847.
In any case, for a better understanding of the local language sensitivities it is useful to know that a complete official document in the Croatian language, in a local script (glagoljica), referring to the Croatian king Zvonimir, was carved in stone as early as 1100. Also, the first dictionary of the Croatian language was compiled already at the end of 16th century by F. Vrančić. Croatian grammar was first written down, and a Bible translation made by Bartol Kašić as early as the beginning of the 17th century!
That the Vatican gave special permission for Holy Mass to be celebrated in the Slavic language and not in Latin in some parts of Croatia, an exception that the Croats are so proud of, is proof of the Vatican’s respect for Croatia’s role as “antemurale Christianitatis” (Bastion of Christianity). Mind you, this was before ideas about the benefits of interactions between different cultures became fashionable.
In reality, most Croats are at least bilingual: they speak the local vernacular (čakavski, kajkavski or ikavski) at home, and only later in school acquire the language used in public life, newspapers and television.
Local dialects, ideally not easily acquired by outsiders, have become very fashionable lately. The inhabitants of a tiny village will happily point out that people from the nearby village on the same tiny island will never fully master their special vocabulary (often corrupted Italian words).
The form of address varies from the strictly formal and polite form (equivalent to the French “vous” or the German “Sie”) used in the north, especially among the older generation, to an almost instant and informal, familiar form of address (equivalent to the French “tu” or German “Du”) and using only the first name in the south, and among the young.
The communist party cadre zealously ensured that greetings such as “Servus” and “Ljubim ruke” (I kiss your hand!), representing the values of the rotten bourgeois society, quickly disappeared from the streets of cities such as Zagreb and Osijek after WWII.