Montenegrin Vernacular at the End of the 20th Century as Portrayed in Two Plays by Ljubomir Đurković
Presentation at the 20th Biennial Conference on Balkan and South Slavic Linguistics, Literature and Folklore, 28 April 2016, Salt Lake City, Utah
Here’s what I wrote in my proposal:
Developing over centuries of migrating tribes, changing political affiliations, and foreign occupations, the languages spoken in the region of the former Yugoslavia are rich in borrowings, slang, and wordplay (Šipka 2000). The oral and written tradition of the region has a long and rich history of incorporating the vernacular; authors have been including “authentic” dialogue in their literary works for centuries (see, e.g., Petar Hektorović’s 1556 long poem featuring the dialog of two fishermen). South Slavic linguists have long used the literature of the region to trace linguistic influences, evolution, and variation (references to be provided).
I follow this tradition in my presentation, using two plays by Ljubomir Đurković (born 1952) to examine and trace changes in Montenegrin vernacular speech. Both plays are working-class family dramas set in Montenegro’s capital city, Podgorica (previously Titograd); the first takes place in 1979 and the second in 1999. As the playwright explained, “Quite a lot changed in the two decades between Otpad and Pisac, including the language to a certain extent. Still, the mentality of the characters and the brutality of the circumstances they endure remains essentially the same.” (Ljubomir Đurković, 14 May 2015, personal correspondence, my translation).
Two generations are portrayed in each play. In the earlier play, the older characters were born between 1924 and 1932 and the younger characters between 1953 and 1965. In the later play, the older characters are that same generation (that is, born between 1955 and 1962), and the younger characters were born in 1976 and 1979. Taken together, the two plays represent three consecutive generations, with the generation born in the 1950s and 1960s represented as youth in the first and in middle age in the second. The historical circumstances, societal mores, and political preoccupations of each generation are reflected in their speech patterns, from references to the patriarchal way of life and an almost complete absence of Americanisms in the earlier play to a westward orientation and easy incorporation of American slang by both generations in the later play.
The actual presentation is another story (and still a work in progress).
Presentation handout (includes works cited)
The plays: Pisac porodične istorija (The Family Historian, 1981) and Otpad (Refuse, 2002)
Pisac was written at the end of 1980; the action takes place in early fall 1979. Otpad was written in 2002; the action takes place in early spring 1999, just a few weeks into Operation Allied Force, the NATO aerial bombing campaign targeting sites in the republics of Serbia and Montenegro, what was then Yugoslavia.
Both plays are working-class family dramas set in Montenegro’s capital city, Podgorica (previously Titograd). Both plays also stand as social commentary. The playwright calls the first a “tragic farce” (tragična farsa) and the second “stuff and nonsense about fatherland and family” (otadžbinsko-porodične trice i kučine).
The family in the earlier play lives in the urban center, in housing cobbled together after WWII, essentially a slum, according to the author. The family in the later play lives in an apartment on the outskirts of town, in a city of apartment blocks built in the 1970s. The older building complexes have the feel of housing projects.
In Pisac, the older generation was born in the late 1920s/early 1930s. The kids in this play were born in the 50s and 1960s. The adults in Otpad are in this same generation, born in the mid-1950s and early 1960s, and the younger generation was born in the mid-to-late 1970s. Taken together, the two plays represent three consecutive generations, with the generation born in the 1950s and 1960s represented as youth in the first and in middle age in the second.
The historical circumstances, societal mores, and political preoccupations of each generation are reflected in their speech patterns, from references to the patriarchal way of life and an almost complete absence of Anglicisms in the earlier play to a westward orientation and easy incorporation of American slang and cultural references by both generations in the later play.
As the playwright explained, “Quite a lot changed in the two decades between Pisac and Otpad, including the language to a certain extent. Still, the mentality of the characters and the brutality of the circumstances they endure remains essentially the same.” (Ljubomir Đurković, 14 May 2015, personal correspondence, my translation).
The two plays are like core samples from different eras in the same location. The characters are from the same social strata, they earn their living the same way (smuggling and selling black-market goods), they are similar ages, with similar generational divides. In each play, at least one member of the family has been physically or emotionally scarred by a recent war, and in each the youngest son is faced with imminent conscription into the army.
Method: I translated Otpad, the later play, in 2002–2003 with the help of an intermediary relaying my questions to the playwright and his answers back to me. I translated a first draft of Pisac last year with the direct assistance of the playwright. (Both translations were commissions from theaters in Montenegro.) For this presentation, I reviewed the original plays and correspondence about the translations and created lists of examples from each play in the following categories: General speech characteristics; loan words or foreign words as words; words the author characterized as specific to Montenegro or Podgorica (usually in response to my questions when I could not find the word in any of my bilingual dictionaries); “old fashioned” expressions; wordplay; curses; and other interesting expressions, such as slang, sayings, and set phrases. I also noted cultural references, attitudes toward family elders, and expressed allegiances of certain characters.
Limitations: This presentation is more a summary of my findings than a sociolinguistic analysis. Granted, this is a very small sample, and fictional at that, but the playwright was shooting for authenticity, and he set each play in the recent past – so there is no chance that an anachronism from a later time could have slipped in. I was able to confirm most of his assertions regarding characteristic speech patterns of Montenegrin speakers and the etymology of specific words, and I believe that he is a reliable witness and accurate recorder of the language.
Summary of similarities and differences
In looking at the plays more closely, especially going back to Otpad (translated more than ten years ago), I found more similarities than I expected. Pronunciation and speech mannerisms are similar in the two plays – the “accent” is recognizable. The plays also have a number of localisms in common – words, expressions, idioms.
The main differences are in cultural references and loan words. The earlier play is practically devoid of foreign borrowings – by my count, five in the entire play. In the later play, the characters are comfortable with English, German, and Italian words and phrases, and incorporate them easily in conversation.
Other linguistic differences: It seems to me that localisms, “old fashioned” language, and creative cursing, although present in the later play, are on the decline.
Another difference (maybe more due to the preoccupations of the main characters) is in the social construct of the family: a change from a local patriarchal structure – family, clan, and tribe – to a more removed structure of nation, fatherland, religion, and government. (As Janko says in Otpad: “Država. Narod. Ti, ja, Andrej, vlast ova naša, pravoslavna i socijalistička.”) In the earlier play, one of the brothers in the older generation is writing the family history of the Milošić clan going back to the 1800s, and he is obsessed with the honor of the family name and determined that a female cousin not inherit the family medals and various perks that come with them, which should be passed down through the male line. In the later play there is only passing mention of the previous generation, and figures from history are more like legend than personal acquaintances. The obsession of the older brother in the later play is with the greater Serbian ideal – nationhood and the fatherland, the Othodox religion. (All the same, his obsession is mostly lip service – he harangues others about their lack of patriotism, but does nothing himself to further the cause.)
Similarities of speech
Adnan Čirgić, in Montenegrin Language in the Past and Present, lists sixteen common features that various 20th century studies of speech patterns have generally attributed to separate dialects in the Montenegrin region. [1, pp. 66–67] These were called (1) Eastern Herzegovinian and (2) Zeta-Sjenica or Zeta-South Sandžak. The common “most prominent of the features” include the following:
- the Ijekavian dialect;
- longer suffixes in the declension of pronouns and adjectives (for example, tije(h), tijem);
- Jekavian iotation (te > će, ce > će, de > đe, se > se, ze > že);
- dvje, svje, cvje > đe, še, će (for example, međed, šedok, Četko);
- frequent iotation of labials;
- a consonant system expanded to include the phonemes š and i;
- e +j > i (for example, cio, sijati), but in the active par- ticiple, forms such as: šeđeo, viđeo are also used;
- -st, -zd, -št, -žd > -s, -z, -š, -ž (for example, plas, groz, priš, daž)
- frequent use of -j < -đ, -ć (for example, goj, doj, moj);
- frequent use of infinitive without the final -i (for example, trčat, pričat);
- dative and locative cases mene, tebe, sebe;
- the enclitics ni and vi;
- active use of aorist and imperfect;
- the declension Pero – Pera – Peru…;
- a deviated relationship between cases of location and direction;
- use of the genitive case instead of locative with the preposition po (for example, po kuća).
 Čirgić, Adnan. 2011. Montenegrin Language Past and Present. Podgorica: Institute for Montenegrin Language and Literature and Matica crnogorska.
The speech patterns in the two plays contain many features from the above list, plus a few other characteristics described by the author as Montenegin-specific. The features in bold are illustrated in examples from the plays in my handout, and although I will not be discussing phonological characteristics, some of these will also be recognizable in the excerpts. I am mainly interested in usage at the word/lexical level.
For examples, please see my presentation handout (includes works cited), and come back later for a more complete draft of the presentation!