Zagreb’s Dialect Has Officially Became a Language and the Importance of Knowing What ‘What’ to Say in Zagreb

On January 12th, the International Standards Organization made a lot of local language aficionados happy. Kajkavski, a dialect used in Zagreb and northern Croatia had officially been recognized as a world language. It also made a lot of the same people somewhat angry. It was classified as a historical language with literary works created between 15th and 19th century, and a few in 20th. In other words – dead.

Kajkavska Renesansa (Kaikavian Renaissance), the NGO that lobbied for the dialect to become a language, might have asked ‘kaj’ when they saw their language was a dead one. One of the main reasons for lobbying was, according to Mario Jembrih, the senior member of the NGO, to make kajkavski one of the official languages on Wikipedia.

But we might be getting ahead of ourselves here. Croatia, with its 4.5 million people, has three major dialects and all of them can be summed up in the way people say ‘what’. There’s Štokavski, Čakavski and Kajkavski, named after words ‘što’, ‘ča’ and ‘kaj’, all meaning ‘what’.

The standard language is based on Štokavski, mostly used in eastern parts of continental Croatia (anyone trying to learn Croatian (good luck!) learns a variant of that one). Čakavski is a dialect used in the southern, coastal parts of the country. Kajkavski, as stated before, resides in the north (we’re trying so hard not to use any Game of Thrones references here (Dubrovnik aka King’s Landing, talks a variant of štokavski, albeit being on the south. Dubrovnik was always doing its own thing). The dialects are so different that if any two hardcore speakers found themselves talking to each other, they would not understand most of what the other one is saying.

So back to our dead language. Kajkavska Renesansa is a reactionary NGO from Međimurje region, trying to praise the status of Kajkavski in modern and pop culture. Their plight is somewhat reasonable, as Kajkavski has been almost completely removed from the mainstream media, unless it’s used as a comic relief or if a voice over is needed for a hillbilly character in an animated film. Each dialect has its stereotypes, and for Kajkavski, mostly derogatory stereotypes are shown in the entertainment industry. Calling it a dead language doesn’t help their cause.

Croatia, with its 4.5 million people, has three major dialects and all of them can be summed up in the way people say ‘what’. There’s Štokavski, Čakavski and Kajkavski, named after words ‘što’, ‘ča’ and ‘kaj’, all meaning ‘what’.

Zagreb’s elderly natives are also very sensitive about their dialect these days. The mythos is this: Zagreb has always been known as a welcoming city. Those who came to it embraced it wholeheartedly, its culture, its language, its history, becoming an indispensable part of it, and Zagreb embraced them back.

Zagreb had, what locals called, the Vienna school of Mannerism and the language was always soft-spoken, even when cursing. Even today, you’ll almost never hear a native yell across the street. Our brains, due to the dialect, and the way language manifests itself trough culture (and vice versa), are just not wired for speaking abruptly loud.

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The nineties saw a huge influx of rural migrants from the east and south, many of whom used dubious connections to get ahead in the city. These migrants were different. People who moved to Zagreb before looked at it with awe adopted the culture and contributed to it. These migrants had no intention of adopting, their crude mannerisms and dialects worn as badges of honor, a way of recognition among their peers. They were ‘the New Money’, and their dialects have poisoned the very fabric of Zagreb.

This, of course, is a mythos of an old generation who lived in a financial, cultural and moral capital of a centralized communist state, and their approach is as elitist as much as the mannerisms of the first generation rural migrants that had little contact with high culture were crude.

Zagreb had exponentially grown in the last few decades, and has seen a growth in a population mostly due to first and second generation migrants, now an overwhelmingly large percentage of citizens living in it. A language is a living thing, always changing, always being influenced by other languages, people and cultures, and no one talks the way people talked a century ago.

Still, kaj and its lingual mannerisms persists in the language of Zagreb’s natives, changed from the one older generations used. Each part of Croatia is proud of their dialect and a tourist who hits that sweet tone of a proper ‘what’  is going to have a much better time with the locals. So when in Zagreb, say ‘kaj,’ you’ll go far.

As for the news that our dialect is a language, but a dead one, we’ll take it as a cautionary tale we’ll speak of in our lively dialect. Wanting to be more represented and fighting stereotypes are noble causes in a democratic society but don’t try to set in stone what is fluid by nature. It just might end up being dead.