Language, identity and culture

Contemporary Transformations of Local Language Communities and Cultural Diversity (grant no. 196-1962766-2743), PI: Anita Sujoldžić

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Global development of facilities for intercommunication brings technological, economic and cultural change to traditionally isolated communities all over the world. In this new context, standard cultural reproduction, like the reproduction of local languages and dialects, is an endangered activity. On the Croatian Adriatic islands, where the expansion of tourism during the last decades has increased the impact of global issues on the local scale, these changes have taken place in interaction with the pressure of the standard Croatian language. As local vernaculars and dialects have been the central markers of cultural identity on these islands, the current language transformations that lead to language homogenisation deeply affect the culture itself.

The overall objective of this study is to contribute theoretically and empirically to the current body of knowledge and understandings of the politics of cultural and linguistic diversity in contemporary Croatia. We try to answer the following crucial questions: is current transformation in the investigated area of Dalmatian islands a result of the processes of assimilation and integration? is it still possible to find traces of traditional values in some of these local communities? in which phase then is this process of transformation? is it definitely irretrievable or are there perhaps some obstacles on the way to the complete standardisation and homogenisation of the Croatian language and culture? what are the positive outcomes of this process? and what are its negative outcomes? is it possible to stop it? and in what ways does it affect the construction of cultural identity and the psychological sense of well-being of local communities?
We used an interdisciplinary approach which sees local languages and dialects as manifestations of sociocultural practices, constantly in a process of change and transformation. Thus, as people interact through language they engage in the process of re-constructing their own identities. Our methodology included a micro-analysis of communication practices, a macro-analysis of ideological processes, quantitative and qualitative analyses of language structures, analysis of language stereotypes, and ethnographic fieldwork, including participant observation. In the period 2008-2009, qualitative in-depth interviews with over 100 inhabitants of the island of Korčula were carried out. In addition to this, a survey on language attitudes was carried out in October 2008 among more than 500 students of the island’s three high schools (in Korčula, Blato and Vela Luka).

School book comparing Croatian dialects to the standard language
A recipe written in the Korčula Island dialect and in the standard language
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Research on language attitudes

The empirical research carried out in high schools on the island of Korcula was focused on the effect of the symbolic function of the standard language and other urban varieties on the vitality of local idioms as markers of local cultural identity. The questionnaire included questions about their sense of belonging, domains of language use, and experience of a local milieu. Also, their attitudes toward local and regional varieties,  regional urbanolect of Split,  the urbanolect of the Croatian capital Zagreb, and the Standard variety of Croatian were researched by means of a matched-guise technique, the most widely used method for indirect measuring of language attitudes.

As in a number of similar studies, the Standard variety was unsurprisingly perceived as the most ‘grammatical’ one, but also as the most ‘pleasing to the ear’. The Standard variety stimulus speaker was rated the most educated one and interestingly, as the only one the majority of respondents considered suitable to work as a TV/radio announcer. A high 30% said they would like to speak like that speaker. The second-best rated speech was the urbanolect of Split. Even though this speaker was considered somewhat less educated, ‘grammatically correct’, and desirable as a TV/radio announcer, she scored highest on social attractiveness. Interestingly enough, there were no significant differences in the evaluation of local varieties, but the students expectedly recognized their local varieties much better than other, particularly urban (non-local), stimulus varieties.

The standard Croatian language is clearly perceived as a symbol of national imaginary, it embodies an access to social mobility, knowledge and power. The preference of young people whose attitudes towards local languages could be seen as an adaptive response to the changing economical and political environment in their communities can be seen as their wish to participate in the mainstream economic and social life, not just of their local communities, but of the state in which they live and of the wider community. However, the results also indicate that local and regional identifications on the island are equally important as national.  In spite of the perceived prestige of the standard language in education and dominant power relations, the majority of young people on the island experience their local idiom as a strong symbol of group solidarity and local identity which distinguishes themselves from newcomers or other communities.

Local identification processes

The analysis of the interviews with islanders confirms the existence of multiple, nested identities (sublocal → local → regional→ national → European) and their situational and dynamic character. These nested identities are not necessarily hierarchical but often mutually compatible, i.e. the identities of the higher order (e.g. regional) comprise the identities of the lower order (e.g. local), or vice versa. These identities have been historically formed in relation to different significant Others – villages, towns or mainland. The basic dichotomy important for the local island identity is the dichotomy between the island and the mainland. It is best reflected in mutually given labels: Vlaji /Vlasi (for the inhabitants of the mainland) – Boduli (for islanders). The second important dichotomy is that between “indigenous” people (in settlements founded on the island during the first Slavic migrations between the 6th and 8th century AD) and “immigrants” (who came to the island in 17th century). Since the 17th century immigrants spoke (and still speak) the Štokavian dialect, as opposed to the Čakavian dialect spoken on the island, and since they have kept their way of speech, it is no wonder that they are still perceived as the “Other” on the island. The “new immigrants” on the island are various and numerous: newcomers from other parts of Croatia, from other countries (mostly from Bosnia and Herzegovina) or residential tourists (Croatian or foreign).

At the same time, the inhabitants of the seemingly close and similar island villages, divided only by several kilometers, in fact have very differentiated local identifications, marked primarily by small linguistic differences imperceptible for non-islanders. The majority of the interlocutors mention how they fear that they will lose local features (especially local speech (i.e. local languages) and the specific local way of life in general), as a result of the globalization processes. However, precisely the above mentioned differentiated local identities, most often reported in the form of competition and antagonisms between particular settlements on the island (urban-rural, new-old)¸ add to the preservation of the local features, at least in a symbolic way.

Below is a table with a list of mutual nicknames for the inhabitants of each village and of the town of Korčula. It has to be stressed that certain nicknames are widely used and familiar (Bonkulovići, Blaska mulad, Vilani, Crnomiri etc.), while others were mentioned by only one individual, which can indicate either that this particular nickname was once used, but is now out of widespread use, or that it was used only in a certain geographic area. As it can be seen these nicknames range from mildly humorous to derogatory. They are all expressed in local language varieties and they reveal various social attitudes and perceptions which provide an important statement of social demarcation and mutual historical relationships between the inhabitants of particular villages.

SettlementNicknameMeaning of the nickname
KorčulaBonkulovićibig-bottoms (gourmands)
RačišćePrkotiprrr: sound donkeys make
ŽrnovoKuneji, Vilani, Maškiconeys, peasants, cats
LumbardaPizdejicry-babies (?)
PupnatPeking, PuknaćaniBeijing
SmokvicaGundeji, Bahanigreen stinkbugs, pigs
ČaraCrnomiri, VrićariCrnomiri: family name of
historic characters,
Vrićari: people with bags
BlatoBlaćuši, KapotariKapotari: people with (fine) coats
Vela LukaBla’ska mulad, MojeBlato’s bastards,
mine (i.e. “belonging to me”)
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Transmission of cultural heritage – the Carnival in Lumbarda

The organization of the Carnival in Lumbarda is in the hands of the Carnival Society. They are in charge of all the activities concerning the Carnival – making the puppet (Krnoval), organizing children’s masked dances (Dječje redute) that are held every Sunday during the Carnival period, organizing the procession, performing the trial (and writing all the verses for this funny performance) and the burning of the puppet. During Carnival time this society fictionally takes over the authority in Lumbarda and Lumbarda becomes The Republic of Lumbarda. Since the Carnival society is particularly interested in recruiting younger generations to participate in the custom, all the activities are organized together with elementary school teachers and children from Lumbarda. This way it is possible to recruit pupils with more theatrical talent to participate in the custom and the final performance (the trial).  This is how the present leader of the procession – who does most of the talking during all the carnival events – was “discovered” and “raised”. Today, there is a group of children still attending elementary school who follow all the most important events during the Carnival in order to learn how it is done and to be able to continue the custom.  On Shrove Tuesday the “Krnoval puppet” was exposed in the most frequented place in Lumbarda, where all the inhabitants can see him and judge the quality of his making, as well as the originality of the idea. The core group of the Carnival Society (including a few children, who are taught that way) visit the mayor’s office and symbolically take the authority into their hands. After that they go to see the carnival puppet in Korčula town (in order to be able to compare it to their own puppet – the rivalry between the town of Korčula and Lumbarda village can be perceived here, as well). All these events happen in the morning, but the procession starts in the afternoon. Today the procession is motorized, in fact there are three trucks going – the first one with the carnival puppet and the core group of the carnival society, the second one with the musicians, and the third one is reserved for the school children who can participate in that way in the whole procession. The procession is followed by motorists and some cars as well. The task of the procession group is to visit all the hamlets of the village. In each hamlet there is a welcome table with local carnival cakes (fritule) and wine and other drinks. The musicians played for a while and some people danced as well, but not for long because the procession had to finish their task before dark. It is important to note, that after the visit to the first hamlet, a fourth truck full of “Gypsies” appeared and joined the procession. The main organizers explained to the researchers that this was a private truck, and that the people on board were members of several newcomer families who join the procession every year. They are always accepted to join the procession. This is an interesting way of joining the local community on the symbolical level, and yet preserving the individual spirit of these newcomers. 

After the procession, the trial takes place at the local community centre. The accusation is read – the verses written by members of the Carnival Society expose all the bad things that happened during the past year and especially all the bad things that the local and national authorities did or the good things that they didn’t do. After the puppet is, surprisingly, found guilty for all these bad things, he is sentenced to death and his will is read. This is also a funny moment for the audience – because now individuals from Lumbarda are mocked for something they did during the past year that made the whole village mock him/her. Since in the past some people didn’t like what was said publicly about them (and since this could cause problems for the person reading the will), nowadays personal names are not mentioned, although the description of the event is quite detailed and the audience can easily guess at whom the mocking is directed (but one can understand the verses only if she/he is a member of the local community). It is important to add that some individuals want to be mentioned “in the will” and that they even remind the organizers not to forget them this year. This shows how the Carnival has a strong cohesive role in the life of the Lumbarda community. At the end of the trial the puppet is burned on the sward in front of the community centre and everybody goes to the local restaurant where a dance is organized, as the final event of this year’s Carnival. The preparations for the next one can start! (See more images of the Carnival in Lumbarda in the Multimedia archive.)

A young Carnival participant (Lumbarda, Korčula Island, 2009)

Burning of the Krnoval puppet: the climax of the Lumbarda Carnival on Korčula Island (2009)