The Bilingual U.S. – Bosnian Burlington, VT

The Hungarians and Cubans who fled communist regimes were the first of a special class of immigrants who have had particular importance in our country over the past half-century: refugees. Since the enactment of the Refugee Act in 1980 the United States Refugee Resettlement Program has provided government assistance to refugees of “special humanitarian concern.”

For the small, homogeneous state of Vermont (which has a strong French-Canadian culture), the arrival of refugees through the Resettlement Program has created a diverse community, especially around its population center, Burlington. In the words of City Councilor Clarence Davis, “There are 27 languages spoken in Burlington, and Bosnians make up Burlington’s biggest immigrant community.”

The Bosnian language which has risen to a place of prominence in this small Northern New England community officially came into existence only about 20 years ago. In 1992 the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and the bloody war which followed prompted the mass exodus of refugees to Western Europe and North America. At the end of the war Bosnians found themselves independent for the first time since the 14th century.

Present-day Bosnia is surrounded by its former Yugoslavian compatriots- Croatia, Serbia, and Montenegro. Each of the four countries boasts a distinct language which is however mutually intelligible with the others. In fact the four languages are so close that until the breakup of Yugoslavia they were generically known as a single language- Serbo-Croatian.

The four South Slavic languages are an example of what linguist Heinz Kloss defined Ausbausprache– meaning that they have acquired independent language status as a result of having been developed from a common base. Norwegian, Swedish and Danish are another example of this phenomenon, which also known as “elaborated language.” Political factors are usually important in the formation of a situation of Ausbausprache. When Yugoslavia existed as a united country it was considered that one national language and various dialects were spoken; but now that they are independent we recognize four distinct languages.

There are some differences between Bosnian and its former Serbo-Croatian fellows- in fact the Balkans are home to a great deal of vocabulary and pronunciation variations. However the most interesting difference may be in the script; while in Croatia only Latin characters are used (Croatia: Hrvatska), and in Serbia Latin and Cyrillic characters are used alternatively (Serbia: Srbija, Србија), in Bosnia Arabic script was historically at least until the 1940’s (Bosnia: Bosna, Босна, البوسنة), a relic of the more than 400-year Ottoman rule of the Balkan nation. In fact, although the Arabic script might have fallen out of use, most ethnic Bosnians continue to practice Islam.

Religion was just one of the differences which contributed to the great tension between ethnicities in the former Yugoslavia, a tension which reached its tragic climax in a terrifying program of ethnic cleansing.

In 2011 Burlington’s main pedestrian thoroughfare, Church Street, became home to a commemoration to the most gruesome massacre of the Bosnian War, the genocide of more than 8,000 civilians in the city of Srebrenica in 1995, at war’s end. The creator of the memorial, Aida Sehovic, fled Bosnia with her family in 1992 and arrived in Vermont by way of Germany and Turkey in 1997. Her exhibit- which she has named Što Te Nema? (Why are you not here?)- has been shown not only in her new “hometown” but in Bosnia, New York City, The Hague, and Stockholm as well.

Many Bosnians like Sehovic now feel at home on the green shores of Lake Champlain. Bosnian Vermonters have a soccer club, FC Bosnia VT, offer their traditional foods to the greater public in various restaurants and markets such as the Euro Market, and have even organized a film festival, the Bosansko Vermontski Filmski Festival.

The Vermont Bosnian community is young and growing. Groups like The Bosnian Lilies focus on the youngest members; its objective is to “provide opportunities for Bosnian girls and boys, ages two to early teens, to come together, interact with each other, learn about their heritage, traditions, and native language, and above all maintain their native culture. Almost every child speaks ‘broken’ Bosnian and good English.” Far from the scene of the bloody Balkan wars, Burlington may offer the Bosnian language a place to blossom anew.

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