One Language, Two Alphabets

By wandering the streets of Serbia, one will quickly notice something very unique about the country: its use of two alphabets; both the Serbian Cyrillic script (ћирилица) and Serbian Latin alphabet (latinica), also known as Gaj’s Latin alphabet, are used to transcribe the variant of Serbian spoken in Serbia.  The technical term for a case in which two or more orthographic systems are used for one language is synchronic digraphia.  As a language whose literate members of the population are equally versed in both orthographic systems, Serbian is an essentially perfect and thus oft-cited example of this phenomenon.  However, why have two alphabets at all?  Furthermore, why is it the case that surveys have found that Serbians favour the Latin script, despite Serbian Cyrillic being the official alphabet of Serbia?


A brief overview of the historical events relating to the formation of the two alphabets may perhaps shed some light on a potential answer.  The current Serbian Cyrillic alphabet was an alphabet based on the Slavonic-Serbian script which had previously been in use.  It was developed in 1818 by the Serbian linguist Vuk Karadžić (1787-1864).  The Romanised version of the Serbian alphabet was devised in 1836 by the Croatian linguist Ljudevit Gaj (1809-1972); however it was not taught in schools until 1914.  Under the occupation of Austria-Hungary in World War I, the Serbian Cyrillic script was forbidden, and the use of the Latin alphabet promoted.  However, it was initially met with resistance.

During the 1950s, under Josip Broz Tito’s Yugoslavia, the attempt for a “spirit of unity” amongst the peoples resulted in written agreements which proclaimed both the Serbian Cyrillic and the Serbian Latin alphabets to be regarded as equal.  Thus an increasing number of speakers began to use the Latin alphabet.  The advent of computers accelerated the adoption of the Latin alphabet by the people, as early computers had poor support for the Cyrillic script.  Indeed, the use of the Latin alphabet became so widespread that attempts by some of Serbia’s politicians to reassert Serbian Cyrillic as the superior script in the 1990s were shunned by society as a sign of nationalism.midway

This chronology covers a period in which the world entered the digital era.  The superior practicality of the Latin alphabet compared to the Serbian Cyrillic alphabet perhaps constitutes another reason which could explain the preference of the Latin script by Serbians.  The Latin alphabet is more practical regarding computers and other devices utilising keyboards; no additional setup is required to begin typing in the Serbian Latin script using a keyboard with Latin letters.  This preference for the Latin script in technology manifests in the significant number of websites and tabloids which employ the use of the Serbian Latin alphabet.  Furthermore, in large cities such as Belgrade, the Serbian Latin alphabet is omnipresent as it is used on billboards, advertisements and even restaurant menus.

This superior presence of the Serbian Latin script, most noticeably in Belgrade and other cities, perhaps relates with the idea of globalisation.  After all, the languages spoken in industrialized western Europe all use the Latin alphabet.  Indeed it is perhaps this idea of globalisation and the fact that we live in a digital era which constitutes the most important reason for the preference of the Serbian Latin script.  For instance, speakers of western European languages will find the Serbian Latin script easier to adjust to; although the Serbian Cyrillic alphabet is, like the Serbian Latin script, a phonetic alphabet and arguably does not require much effort to learn, the Serbian Latin alphabet is far more familiar to speakers of western European languages.  This will undoubtedly aid in making Serbia more “tourist-friendly” as those from western European nations will encounter written material in a familiar as opposed to a foreign script.  Additionally, and perhaps even more significantly, the association of the Latin alphabet with western Europe, an area usually seen as modern, influential and powerful by those from eastern European countries, extends to the Serbian Latin alphabet.  The use of a similar alphabet with the industrialised western nations creates a link, albeit a rather superficial one, between Serbia and these countries, thus granting the Serbian Latin alphabet an image as a symbol of modernity and progress for the country.

This favouring of the Serbian Latin alphabet brings us back to the initial question of this post: why have two alphabets for one language?  Given the superior practicality of the

Serbian Latin alphabet in today’s global environment, it would seem logical to simply abandon the Serbian Cyrillic altogether; why complicate things by having two alphabets which are interchangeable?

galgolitic It seems that the primary reason for keeping the Serbian Cyrillic script relates to national identity and cultural heritage.  In some ways, the usage of Serbian Cyrillic seems to be merely symbolic, a symbol of Serbia’s heritage; the greater practicality of the Serbian Latin alphabet ensures that this script is essentially omnipresent, particularly in the larger cities.  Nevertheless, the symbolic association with the past of the Serbian Cyrillic alphabet perhaps constitutes the main motivation for the preservation and enables its survival.  The Serbian Cyrillic alphabet evokes feelings of patriotism, pride and even identity for some Serbians.  It is an alphabet based on the Cyrillic alphabet which had been in use in Serbia for more than 1000 years and which had once constituted the primary difference between the Serbian and Croatian variants of the language as well as the separation of the Catholic and Orthodox regions in the past.  The Serbian Cyrillic alphabet thus holds a significant cultural value which cannot be replicated by the Latin alphabet, regardless of how superior the latter is from a practical aspect in today’s society.

To conclude, today’s global climate favours the usage of the Serbian Latin script as an alphabet closely related to those alphabets used by the western superpowers.  However, the stipulation of the Serbian Cyrillic alphabet as the official alphabet of Serbia ensures its survival as a significant symbol of Serbia’s heritage.  Thus it seems that Serbia’s synchronic digraphia reflects Serbia as a nation keen to progress and contribute to today’s global environment while simultaneously preserving its cultural identity and heritage.

Helen Sou