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National Romanticism: The Formation of National Movements

Balazs Trencsenyi
Michal Kopecek

Chapter II. Spirit of the Nation: Customs, Language, Religion

Little Slavo-Serbian song book of the common people

Vuk Stefanović Karadžić
Traduction de Krištof Bodri

Texte intégral

1Title: Mala prostonarodna slaveno-serbska pjesnarica (Little Slavo-Serbian song book of the common people)

2Originally published: Vienna, Johan Schnirer, 1814

3Language: ‘Slavo-Serbian,’ an artificial literary language of the eighteenth century, resulting from the fusion of Church Slavonic and the vernacular spoken by Serbian merchants in Vojvodina and in the Ottoman Empire

4The excerpts used are from the modern edition: Sabrana dela Vuka Karadžića, vol. I (Belgrade: Prosveta, 1965), pp. 40–44.

About the author

5Vuk Stefanović Karadžić [1787, Tršić (Western Serbia) – 1864, Vienna]: linguist and language reformer. He was born into a peasant family. Karadžić learnt the first elements of reading and writing from his cousin, Jefta Savić, a merchant from Tršić and the only literate person in his village. He spent some time in the neighboring Tronoša monastery, but his family discontinued his monastic education and he was forced to continue learning on his own. He took part in the First Serbian Uprising (1804–1813), serving as a scribe in the staff of the military commander Karađorđe. After the failure of the Uprising he fled to Vienna where he met the prominent Slovenian intellectual Jernej Kopitar (1780–1844), one of the founders of Slavic philology and an erudite mediator between the German romantic Volkskunde and the Slav cultural revivalists. Under Kopitar’s inspiration and guidance, Karadžić started collecting folk songs and began to develop ideas about the relations between nationality and culture. While in Vienna, he published a Serbian grammar (1814) and dictionary (1818), which laid the groundwork for the eventual codification of a unified Serbo-Croatian literary language. Within the same period, in 1814 and 1815, he published two collections of (oral) folk songs, which caused a sensation in European intellectual circles and were translated into several languages. After failing to establish good relations with prince Miloš Obrenović, the first ruler of the autonomous Serbian Principality (r. 1817–1839, 1858–1860), who banned the publication of Karadžić’s writings in Serbia in the 1820s, Karadžić went to Germany. There he introduced South-Slavic folk songs to Johann Wolfgang Goethe and Jakob Grimm and collaborated with the German historian Leopold von Ranke on his Die Serbische Revolution, by means of which the European public became acquainted with Serbian history. He was the first to introduce a number of Slavic languages to comparative linguistics, and his folklorist oeuvre spurred similar collecting work by early Bulgarian ethnologists like Dimitar Marinov and Stefan Verkovich. Vuk Karadžić died in Vienna in 1864. In 1897 his remains were transferred to Belgrade, where he was reburied next to Dositej Obradović.

6Main works: Pismenica Serbskago jezika, po govoru prostoga naroda napisana [Serbian grammar, written according to the speech of the common people] (1814); Mala prostonarodna slaveno-serbska pjesnarica [Little Slavo-Serbian song book of the common people] (1814); Srpski rječnik [Serbian vocabulary] (1818, 1852); Novi Zavet [Translation of the New Testament] (1847); Život i običaji naroda srpskog [Life and customs of the Serbian people] (left unfinished and published after his death).


7The ‘Little Slavo-Serbian song book’ is the first collection of folk poems published by Vuk Stefanović Karadžić; it accompanied his linguistic reforms, which aimed at turning the vernacular into a literary language—simplifying its orthography and giving it a phonetic character (with one sound corresponding to each character). In the socio-political realm, his work significantly contributed to the forming of the Serbian national project and, albeit non-programmatically, to the Yugoslav one (Karadžić based his reform of the literary standard on a dialect spoken in Herzegovina called Štokavian, which was understood by most Serbs and Croats). The publication of this book represents the first step in a long-lasting struggle that Karadžić conducted in order to affirm the place of Serbian folk culture within the nineteenth-century European process of the ‘discovery of nations.’ From 1834 to 1841 he traveled around various South Slavic lands—Croatia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, and Montenegro—collecting poems, recording beliefs and traditions and documenting popular customs. He returned periodically to Serbia, but due to constant disagreements with the absolutist Prince Miloš Obrenović he never settled there.

8The search for folk poetry and customs and their later codification into national culture was initially set in motion by Karadžić’s attempt to confirm the value and richness of the vernacular language against the dominant “artificial” Slavo-Serbian (slavenoserbski) idiom cultivated by the church and the merchants. In Karadžić’s times, when Serbia was fighting for emancipation from the Ottoman Empire, verses that evoked the Serbian national heritage, especially its historical and legendary heroes, represented a literal foundation for defining linguistic/cultural and later also political boundaries. In this sense, while his work was rooted in the Slavic philological school of Kopitar, Karadžić moved beyond Kopitar’s Enlightenment project of Slavic cultural emancipation intertwined with supra-national patriotism. Instead, he turned to the use of the ethnographical references to devise and legitimize a political entity based on ethno-cultural markers.

9As the boundaries of the new, autonomous Serbian state were not coterminous with an ‘ethnographic’ vision of Serbian territory, a more encompassing imaginary framework of Serbianness was established in literature, by codifying national life, customs and poetry. The introduction to the book explicitly draws the connection between the folk culture, represented by language, customs, customary law, national heroes and sacred places (monasteries), and the political process of nation-building. The latter was largely based on discovering and codifying the ‘spirit of the nation’ that Karadžić called, influenced by his German-oriented education and inspiration, “Nationalism” (Национализмус). Karadžić’s work became influential in the broader European context as well: the ‘Song book’ features as one of the most important texts in the ‘discovery of the nation’ in Europe between 1760 and 1848. It inspired a huge number of translations (into English by John Bowring, into Swedish by Johan Runeberg, and into Russian by Alexander Pushkin), and catalyzed a European fashion of Serbian epic poetry, to be emulated by other cultural elites launching their own projects of nation-building. By virtue of this major contribution he was widely recognized as the key figure of the Serbian romantic tradition, exerting also an enormous impact on the European romantic discovery of the poetic force of archaic folk culture.



11[…] Now, if someone were to ask me: “Well, where are the Serbs mostly located nowadays? Which Serbs have kept most of their patriotism? And where is the purest Serbian spoken?”—I would reply as follows:

12The core of the Serbian people and the purest speech can nowadays be found between the rivers Drina and Morava; particularly when one gets a little further away from the rivers Sava and Danube, for instance, in the regions of Kragujevac, Karanovac, Rudnik, Užice, Kruševac and above Novi Pazar, across Herzegovina proper. As soon as one crosses the River Drina, from Mačva into Bosnia, many people, having received Turkish law, have merged more with the Turks and use more Turkish words. The same situation exists on the other side of the River Morava, when one passes Resava. In the region of Požarevac, towards Timok, people have become mixed with the Vlachs. But in the above-mentioned places and in Resava, Serbian folk are still like the Serbs of old, and our beautiful old Serbian names can still be heard among them. […]

13Such and similar thoughts and considerations gave me the incentive to bring to light this Song Book of the common people. There is not a single song included here the soul of which was invented, enriched by reading books, or created according to the rules of versification. These are all the properties of him, whose heart sang them in his simplicity and innocence without any embellishing and according to nature. Although I am not a singer, I learned these songs when, before twelve years—in the luckiest way of being among mortals—I lived tending sheep and goat.

14[…] So if I was able to hear so many songs in my place of birth (the village of Tršić in Jadar) and memorize them without any conscious effort, anyone who would apply himself, of course, could collect a huge bookful, just like some Russian poets. I publish these songs; others will perhaps make an effort and collect similar ones in Srem, others still in Bačka, then in Banat, in Slavonia, in Croatia, in Dalmatia, and if Fate allows, in Serbia, Bosnia, Herzegovina and Montenegro as well. Then someone will come along, someone whom God has blessed with the gift of song-writing, who will perchance be able to understand its rules in Latin or German. He will then gather all those collections and review them, adding some songs of his own written according to his taste and the customs of his kin. Thus he will gather all those small collections into one large piece.

15I hope that my small collection of songs will be pleasing to each Serb who nurtures patriotic feelings [nacionalizmus] towards his people, and if there happens to be one who will curse me, so be it, it would not come as a surprise to me. It is comfort enough to me that I am publishing this with good intentions and out of a passionate love for the Serbian people and that there will be Serbs who, recognizing this, will approve.

16Criticism, from which nothing in this world escapes, will undoubtedly not pass over this song collection of mine either. As far as the songs are concerned, some ignorant Serb woman or a woman from Sarajevo might criticize me for them; but I hope that they too will forgive me if they find something which was, in their opinion, altered or omitted, for I, as I have already said, am no singer. Furthermore, having in mind how long I have been listening to these songs, I could easily have forgotten my own name. As regards language and orthography, anyone can criticize me as much as they like: I wrote the songs down the way I heard them sung, and besides I could not decide whom to believe, for not only are there no two who would agree or write songs down in the same way, but also no one person writes things down consistently, but one way today and another way tomorrow. And this is how it will always be until our learned men (especially those whose duty requires it) reach an agreement, and together compile a Serbian Grammar Book and a Dictionary. And then shame upon those who cannot or will not abide by those. Until such time each person shall write as well as he knows how, as he wishes, and that is how everybody shall criticize him; for neither the one nor the other has any other rules and thus both could be right, for each man thinks that the best and correct way to do anything is the one he believes to be such.

17Here, apart from tender songs and songs of love, which are sung in a female voice, we have some, particularly at the end, which are sung in a well-known Serbian masculine voice accompanied by the gusle and which contain depictions of certain events. I could have added more such songs here, but I fear this might be too much as it is, and that some fashionable Serb would say “What has come over this man to publish such stupid songs?” And I think these songs preserved and still preserve in the common people the Serbian past and name.—


Krištof Bodri (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2007

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