hidden europe 13

A land of many tongues: Vojvodina

by Nicky Gardner


The Vojvodina region of northern Serbia is one of the most culturally complex regions of Europe. We investigate the patchwork quilt of peoples and languages that make up Vojvodina - an area the size of Wales with no less than six official languages.

When Samuel Johnson wittily observed that "language is the dress of thought", it is possible that he hadn't reckoned with the Vojvodina region of Serbia. For this small area of the northern Balkans - already described in our preceding feature - has a prolific variety of languages spoken within a relatively compact area. If Johnson is to be believed, then this must be one of the most thoughtful parts of Europe.

The cultural mosaic of Vojvodina is sometimes difficult for outsiders to fathom. Six official languages with daily or weekly newspapers in all of them, and a long tradition of multilingual education suggest that Vojvodina is something quite extraordinary. Beyond the six official languages (Serbian, Hungarian, Rusyn, Slovak, Romanian and Croatian) a handful of other tongues crop up in isolated villages. But multicultural Vojvodina is not always a place full of happy interactions between its constituent communities. Drive through the region to discover how specific villages are often home to just one language group - many of whose members might well be hard pushed to have any sensible conversation with speakers of another language living in the next village down the road.

Take Srpski Itebej, an out of the way community just a couple of kilometres from the Romanian border. As the village name proclaims, the inhabitants are mainly Serbian. But the adjacent village, shown on most maps as Novi Itebej is predominantly Hungarian. In 2005, the inhabitants of Novi Itebej secured permission from the local district council for the road signs at the entrance to their village to be rendered also in Hungarian, using the version of the village name preferred by its Hungarian inhabitants: Magyarittabé. During the weeks that followed, the signs were repeatedly defaced.

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