The Cyrillic Alphabet As Political Act

So Laura, seriously. Why didn’t you start learning Cyrillic sooner?


should have bitten the bullet and taken a Serbian language class at a university as soon as we arrived in mid-2010. I should have committed to driving 30 minutes to one-hour each way (thanks to cluster-fuck bridge-construction traffic into Belgrade), rushing home to feed my infant, while playing with my toddler.

Hell, I should have even been able to get tons of studying done. What better moment than middle-of-the-night bottle feedings?


Mommy’s homework

True, so true. Because the best time to tackle a new, very difficult language, is when one is sleep-deprived, culture shocked, and juggling two little kids.

may have believed Cyrillic was “just a phase” …

The truth is, I resisted learning Cyrillic initially because I took the “dual-lettering” (words are often written in Cyrillic and Latin) in malls and stores to mean that Serbia was on its way to “European-ize” itself, as it attempts to join the E.U. [No, I’m not an idiot. It’s just that the complexities of Balkan history and culture were fairly limitednonexistent in terms of American social studies education. And Western media, exemplified by the “All Serbs are war criminals” stereotype.

So anyway, Cyrillic as a phase? Um, not so much.

Reality check: Cyrillic is the alphabet of the Serbian language. While the West may lump ethnicities together, creating “Serbo-Croatian” dictionaries, locals will tell you that there is no such thing as a language called Serbo-Croatian. [I have nothing against Croatians, heck I was raised Catholic!]

Serbian is a language distinct from Croatian. (Let’s be real here, they’re verysimilar). Several words are different, and dialects and accents vary. But. Thealphabet of Serbian is Cyrillic, and the alphabet of Croatian is Latin.

Rebel Serbs, really?

The difference in alphabet is not to be taken lightly.

In February, thousands of Croats rallied against a new law to display Cyrillic Signs in Vukovar, which is now a part of Croatia, but has a large ethnic Serb population. According to Reuters, Vukovar is “a town destroyed in the 1991-95 war with rebel Serbs.”


WARNING: I may be more nationalistic now than some Serbs. I may be a foreigner and truly have no beef against anyone because of their ethnicity, but I do have opinions … If you are 100% sure that the American media reporting of the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s was balanced and unbiased, skip this section, please. I wouldn’t want to risk inadvertantly un-washing-someone’s brain.

Another quote from the Reuters article that exemplifies the Western perspective on the Balkan conflict

… the easternmost town of Vukovar, which many Croats still see as a symbol of destruction and suffering brought on by the Serb rebellion against Croatia’s independence from Yugoslavia. [boldface is mine.]

To clarify … the above referenced “rebel Serbs,” and the “Serb rebellion” … these were Yugoslav citizens. If they carried a passport, it was for Yugoslavia. People of Serb ethnicity were fighting to keep Croatia from gaining independence from Yugoslavia.

Stop! Caveat Time: Yes, the Serbs “lost,” yes, there was bad behavior on both sides. (This happens in war.) History is written by the victors, saying who’s a “rebel” versus who was “justified” and a “freedom fighter.”

Imagine for a moment …


If Florida declared independence, who would YOU call “rebel”?

Cuban-Americans [insert your mixed American ethnicity of choice] in Florida decided they were fed up (they, too have their reasons) and declare a free and independent Florida. … Would it be appropriate to call U.S. soldiers and citizens who take up arms against those seceding–rebels?

Would we call the ones who are fighting to keep Florida in the U.S., rebels?

Before anyone starts flaming me in the comments Consider this: during the Civil War, the Confederate Army was the Rebel Army, because they were the ones seceding.

Remember the American Revolutionary War? Yep. In that case, our constitutional Founders were Revolutionaries. Those who were remained loyal to the British throne (for whatever reason, surely they had at least one) … were “loyalists,” because they tried to keep the American colonies from gaining freedom.

The rebels were those who wanted to break away.

Cyrillic Alphabet as Political Act

Back to the Balkans …

What happened in Vukovar is that the Social Democratic-led Croatian government sought to implement a law (yes a law that passed by a democratic process). The law allows for Cyrillic public signs in places where there is at least a 1/3 Serb population. A significant number of Croatians (approx 20,000 rallied) have a problem with it.

The Croatian government is attempting to soothe ethnic tensions. … Protesting a law intended to recognize ethnic diversity, a law that your own democratic government carried out? That’s bad juju.

There you have it: Cyrillic is a political act. Ethnic tensions die hard.

Now please excuse me while this quote-un-quote rebel expat (and proud American citizen) takes some time to study her Cyrillic.

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Vukovar protest image. Florida image from

Expat Confessional – I’m Barely Literate

Yoo-hoo! Over here! That’s me!  The barely literate American …

Last week in Expat Confessional–3 Ways I Suck at Driving in Serbia, I wrote about nearly hitting various pedestrians what a great driver I actually am. But there’s a fourth thing that impedes my ability to find my way around Belgrade, and that is … The Cyrillic Issue.

What, pray tell, is The Cyrillic Issue?

And why do you insist upon making up phrases for everything?


Sometimes it’s quaint that I can’t read Cyrillic, like when I first arrived in Serbia and wondered if


as in PEC-to-pah (which is how I pronounced it in my head) … meant, “fish.” Because the sign said, PECTOPAH with a picture of, you guessed it, a fish. Right.

Months later when my husband asked where I wanted to go for dinner, I said, “Pectopah, you know, that fish restaurant by the river.”

“What the hell is a Pectopah, Laura?” [In point of fact, there a hundred or more “fish restaurants by the river.” It’s hard being my spouse. Understatement of the year.]

And this is what I mean by The Cyrillic Issue. … Because P-E-C-T-O-P-A-H isRestoran, written in Cyrillic. Restoran means RESTAURANT.

Not a proud moment.

Finding my way (poorly) when half the signs are in Cyrillic

When I wrote of the perils of applying my American driving skills to Belgrade traffic, I didn’t even go into the Belgrade Street Sign clusterf**k.

“Old” street names are often in Cyrillic, and generally new (post-1990s messiness) signs use the Latin alphabet.

Additionally, streets have been renamed and renamed, again. After WWII, Tito called a bunch of stuff “Tito-grad,” and Tito-this and Tito-that. Then, after the break-up of Yugoslavia, streets were changed again, presumably to make Serbia appear less “communist dictatorship,” and more “socialist democracy.” Yes, there is a difference.

How you describe the location of something–including the street names used, depends upon how long you’ve lived here, and when and if you ever left.

Oh … you ask, What about google maps? It’s true, the Serbian counterpart, is a lifesaver, IF you can figure out which address to input. You might find “an address” that roughly resembles where you want to go in … written in Latin. When you get to driving there, you may find only Cyrillic street signs.

At these times, I feel as if I’m endeavoring to complete a crossword puzzle while blind-folded with two screaming kids demanding I put on a new movie.  I’m not even good a crossword puzzles.

Instead, people tend to rely on descriptions of where to go and how to get there, like when I needed to figure out how to take my daughter and her friend to gymnastics class:

Do you know such-and-such high school [insert unrecognizable name here]? Yes? Okay, well, the bank down the street from that high school is where you want to turn left.

Then go around behind it, yes, by the dumpsters. [Dumpsters are everywhere, they are not what one might call “distinct” landmarks.] That’s where you’ll find parking. Look for the sign that says “Gimnastika” and you should be fine from there.

Completely fine. Which is why, I made the other mom drive with me the first time. Because you only learn by actually paying attention to the road  doing.

And so, I’ve resigned to remedy my illiteracy. That’s not to say I’ll be able to read Cyrillic street signs fast enough while driving anytime soon. I will have to continue to rely on the Landmark Method, watching for the dark grey run-down building (among all the generally grey concrete buildings) and making a right.

At least I know now how to find a damn restaurant in this country.

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image from

Cyrillic Watch In Vukovar

Members of “Headquarters for defense of Croatian Vukovar” will organize watch guards at entrances in town of Vukovar to show their dissatisfaction with setting up of bilingual road signs – in Cyrillic and Latin script of town’s name, at the entrance to and exit from the town.

“We will stand on all entrances to town of Vukovar. We will not try to stop or attack anyone during the setting up of signs, and we will remain passive also if someone tries to take down or paint over the signs”, said president of the “Headquarter” Tomislav Josic.

“We will have people on those 7,8 town entrances and wait for the police to leave. When they leave, we will see whether to remove or paint over the signs”, warned the “Headquarter”.

“Vukovar lost the battle in 1991, but won the war. Perhaps we will lose another battle now, but we will definitely win the war” stated spokesman of “Headquarters for defense of Croatian Vukovar” Zdravko Komsic.

Year Of The Cyrillic Internet Domain .срб

Since last year, when the Cyrillic top-level Internet domain was put in use, there has been more than 6.000 Internet sites registered at this domain. There are more than 77.000 registered Latin alphabet domains, which means that the .срб domain reached almost 10 percent of that number in only ten months.

Those familiar with Internet methodology in Serbia think that the Cyrillic domains are most often used as a marketing effort, but also as a way to preserve the local alphabet.

The decision to implement the parallel top-level domain on local alphabet has so far been made by 23 countries , among which the biggest countries in the world which do not use the Latin alphabet (Russia, India, China), as well as many other Arab and Asian countries.