Vuk Stefanović Karadžić Essay - Critical Essays

Karadžić, Vuk Stefanović


Vuk Stefanović Karadžić 1787-1864

(Also referred to as Vuk Stefanović, Vuk Karadžić, and Vuk) Serbian folklorist and language reformer.

Karadžić's contributions to Serbian culture stem from his interest in developing a national literature and language that would reflect and preserve the language, songs, and stories of Serbia's peasantry. His career is defined by two main areas of scholarship: the collection of Serbian folklore and the reform of Serbian language. Karadžić edited and published numerous collections of folksongs, folklore, and customs, as well as a Serbian grammar and dictionary. Because of his extensive documentation of the folk culture and the vernacular language of the Serbian people, Karadžić is affectionately known by his first name, Vuk, in his native country.

Biographical Information

Karadžić was born on November 6, 1787, in Tršić, Serbia, then under Turkish rule, in a village not far from Belgrade. His parents, Stefan and Jegda Joksimovic, were peasant farmers whose five previous children had all died in infancy. They named their sixth child Vuk, or wolf, to protect him from death. Little is known about Karadžić's early childhood except that he taught himself to read and write and briefly attended school at the monastery of Tronosa. His most valuable education came from living at home where he learned the folk customs, rituals, and songs that would inform his early writings. In 1804, a Serb uprising against the Turks resulted in a period of Serbian liberation that lasted until 1813. During this time Karadžić went to Austria where he attended school, learned German and Latin, and was exposed to Western culture. In 1808, Karadžić began to suffer from pain in his legs, feet, and hands; an undiagnosed illness affecting his left leg forced him to walk with a crutch for the rest of his life.

In 1813, when the Turks again conquered Serbia, Karadžić fled to Vienna. It was shortly after his move to Austria that Karadžić attracted the attention of Jernej Kopitar, an Austrian censor, by submitting an article written in the Serbian popular language. Kopitar became Karadžić's friend, advisor, and supporter; not only did he praise and publicize Karadžić's work but he also suggested directions for future scholarship. In 1814, Karadžić published his first collection of folksongs and a grammar to help readers understand his materials. Based on the positive response to these two works, Karadžić published another volume of folksongs the following year. In 1818 Karadžić traveled to Russia to seek intellectual and financial support for his research and writings, and then returned to Serbia to gather additional material for the second and third volumes of an enlarged, four-volume collection of folksongs. In 1823, Karadžić visited Jacob Grimm, who had written a positive review of the third volume of the folksongs, and who introduced him to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Between 1828 and 1832, Karadžić worked for Prince Milos Obrenovic, who had led a successful overthrow of the Turks in 1815. Karadžić's duties included teaching French to Obrenovic's sons, translating Napoleonic Laws into Serbian, and writing Serbian history. Karadžić's work for Obrenovic, and by extension for Serbia, ended in 1832 when Karadžić's alphabet and folksongs were condemned by the Orthodox Church as subversive and vulgar. The opposition to his work failed to discourage Karadžić, however, and in 1833 when he was permitted to re-enter Austria, he published the fourth volume of his expanded folksong collection in violation of the Church's ban. By 1835, much of the opposition to his work had subsided, and Karadžić was awarded a pension for service to his country. The pension and the official recognition that accompanied it enabled Karadžić to travel, collect material, and revise his earlier collections of Serbian folklore, culture, and history. Karadžić died in Vienna in 1864.

Major Works

Karadžić's interest in folk life and folklore developed from his own upbringing as the son of peasant-farmers, as did his development of a Serbian language based on the vernacular. His work can be categorized into two overlapping areas: language reform and collections of folk material. Karadžić wrote Pismenica serbskoga iezika (Grammar of the Serbian People) in 1814. He substantially revised the handbook by 1818, the same year he published his Srpski rječnik (Serbian Dictionary), the first dictionary of spoken Serbian. Karadžić's work focused on the language of the peasantry, the people with whom he identified, as opposed to the more formal language of Church Slavic tempered with Russian. His first two collections of Serbian folklore, Mala prostonarodnja slaveno-serbska pjesnarica (A Simple Little Slaveno-Serbian Songbook), and Narodna srbska pjesnarica (A Serbian Book of Folksongs), were published in 1814 and 1815 respectively. These oral narratives, recorded from immigrants living in Srem, rather than written from memory, were Karadžić's first foray into the collection and publication of folklore and established the focus of his scholarship; from that point on, he began to travel extensively and collect material in a more methodological fashion. Karadžić's primary research resulted in an expanded and considerably different collection of these two early works. This new collection was published in four volumes between 1823 and 1833: Zenske pjesme (1824; Women's Songs); Pjesme junačke najstarije (1823; Oldest Heroic Songs); Pjesme junačke srednjijeh vremena (1823; Heroic Songs of the Middle Period); and Pjesme junačke novijih vremena o vojevanju za slobodu (1833; Heroic Songs of Recent Times of the War for Freedom). Publication of the first volume, Women's Songs, was delayed because the Austrian government feared Karadžić's writing would encourage hatred of the Turks and sedition against the Turkish government. Thus volumes two and three preceded the first volume by one year. Another folk collection, Srpske narodne poslovice (Proverbs), followed in 1836. Karadžić's two areas of research yielded a vivid picture of Serbian life and customs and his work helped to define a Serbian national literature and literary culture.

Critical Reception

Karadžić is considered a major force both in the development of Serbian language and in the collection of Serbian folklore. These two areas—linguistic and folkloristic—are the focus of the majority of scholarship on Karadžić. Early folklorists, notably Jacob Grimm, praised Karadžić's collections and commitment to his country's folk culture. Their reaction has informed most of the contemporary scholarship on Karadžić. Many critics, including Yvonne R. Lockwood, Albert B. Lord, Nikola R. Pribić (see further reading), and Pavel Ivić, concentrate on Karadžić's importance in the development of Serbian, Yugoslavian, and Balkan folklore studies. Some folklorists focus on the role of Karadžić's informants and the oral tradition, as does Svetozar Koljević (see further reading). Other scholars are interested in Karadžić's work with linguistics and language reform. Included in this category are such critics as Thomas Butler and Benjamin Stolz who assert the importance of the relationship between Karadžić and Jernej Kopitar in the development of Karadžić's Grammar of the Serbian People and Serbian Dictionary. Duncan Wilson (see further reading) has produced a comprehensive English-language study that provides an examination of Karadžić in the context of the history and politics of Serbia and its neighbors. Together these works reassert the importance of Karadžić's contributions to Serbian culture.

Principal Works

*Mala prostonarodnja slaveno-serbska pjesnarica [A Simple Little Slaveno-Serbian Songbook] (songs) 1814

Pismenica serbskoga iezika [Grammar of the Serbian People] (handbook) 1814

Narodna srbska pjesnarica [A Serbian Book of Folksongs] (songs) 1815

Srpski rječnik [Serbian Dictionary] (dictionary) 1818

Pjesme junačke najstarije [Oldest Heroic Songs] 2nd vol. (songs) 1823

Pjesme junačke srednjijeh vremena [Heroic Songs of the Middle Period] 3rd vol. (songs) 1823

Zenske pjesme [Women's Songs] 1st vol. (songs) 1824

Pjesme junačke novijih vremena o vojevanju za slobodu [Heroic Songs of Recent Times of the War for Freedom] 4th vol. (songs) 1833

Srpske narodne poslovice [Proverbs] (folklore) 1836

*Spelling for Karadžić's Serbian titles may vary in the critical works, depending upon the author's transliteration.

†Karadžić collected and published his expanded folksongs in four volumes. The first volume was published after volumes two and three.


Yvonne R. Lockwood (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: Lockwood, Yvonne R. “Vuk Stefanović Karadžić: Pioneer and Continuing Inspiration of Yugoslav Folkloristics.” Western Folklore 30, no. 1 (January 1971): 19-32.

[In the following essay, Lockwood considers Karadžić's impact on Serbian culture, and notes his continuing influence on the study of folklore.]

Vuk Stefanović Karadžić did more to revolutionize Serbian culture than any other individual before or since. His two greatest contributions—language reform and collections of folk literature—with their very foundation in peasant culture, had great impact on all Serbian culture. From an illiterate peasant background, Vuk taught himself to read and...

(The entire section is 5497 words.)

Albert B. Lord (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: Lord, Albert B. “The Nineteenth-Century Revival of National Literatures: Karadžić, Njegoš, Radičević, the Illyrians, and Prešeren.” Review of National Literatures: The Multinational Literature of Yugoslavia 5, no. 1 (spring 1974): 101-11.

[In the following essay, Lord traces the chronological development of national literatures in Serbia, Slovenia, and Croatia during the nineteenth century, examining Karadžić's contributions as a leader in orthography and the collection of narratives.]

Although the roots of modern literature in Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, and Slovenia go much further back, the early and mid-nineteenth century saw the emergence of a...

(The entire section is 4032 words.)

Svetozar Koljević (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Koljević, Svetozar. “The Singer and the Song.” In The Epic in the Making, pp. 299-321. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.

[In the following essay, Koljević focuses on the singers of Karadžić's collected oral epics and popular songs.]

The general picture of chronology, geography and achievement of Serbo-Croat oral epics seems to be fairly clear in its main outlines. The first Slav singers in the Balkans used their cithers as disguise in espionage near Constantinople in the seventh century and they gave their name to the professional practitioners of this art in the Hungarian language. But their pagan world survived only sporadically in some of the...

(The entire section is 8603 words.)

Pavle Ivić (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Ivić, Pavle. “Kopitar and the Evolution of Vuk Karadžić's Views on the Serbian Literary Language.” In Papers in Slavic Philology 2: To Honor Jernej Kopitar 1780-1980, edited by Rado L. Lencek and Henry R. Cooper, Jr., pp. 99-107. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1982.

[In the following essay, Ivić explores Jernej Kopitar's considerable influence on Karadžić's work.]

The extent of Jernej Kopitar's contributions to the work of Vuk Karadžić is reflected in three facts: he persuaded Vuk to begin writing systematically; he defined the main points of Vuk's program of work (publishing folk poetry, a grammar, a dictionary, and a translation of the Holy...

(The entire section is 3314 words.)

Thomas Butler (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Butler, Thomas. “Jernej Kopitar and South Slavic Folklore.” In Papers in Slavic Philology 2: To Honor Jernej Kopitar 1780-1980, edited by Rado L. Lencek and Henry R. Cooper, Jr., pp. 109-21. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1982.

[In the following essay, Butler examines Jernej Kopitar's support of Karadžić and the importance of both to South Slavic folklore studies.]

Jernej Kopitar's role in promoting the collection and popularization of South Slavic folklore, as well as the establishment of a scientific basis for its investigation, has never been adequately examined nor sufficiently appreciated. When the Slovene's name is mentioned within the context...

(The entire section is 4659 words.)

Benjamin Stolz (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Stolz, Benjamin. “Kopitar and Vuk: An Assessment of Their Roles in the Rise of the New Serbian Literary Language.” In Papers in Slavic Philology 2: To Honor Jernej Kopitar 1780-1980, edited by Rado L. Lencek and Henry R. Cooper, Jr., pp. 151-67. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1982.

[In the following essay, Stolz considers Jernej Kopitar's support of Karadžić and asserts that their collaborative effort developed a Serbian literary language.]

The scholarly literature on Jernej (Bartholomäus) Kopitar and Vuk Karadžić is so voluminous—and so much has been added already on this subject by competent investigators right here at this conference—that...

(The entire section is 5800 words.)

Milne Holton and Vasa D. Mihailovich (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Holton, Milne, and Vasa D. Mihailovich. “Introduction: Vuk Stafanovic Karadžić and Songs of the Serbian People.” In Songs of the Serbian People: From the Collections of Vuk Karadžić, pp. 1-12. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Holton and Mihailovich provide an overview of Karadžić's work, with an emphasis on his collection of oral folksongs.]

The oral poems translated herein are taken from a single work of collection undertaken by one man, Vuk Stefanović Karadžić (1787-1864), a scholar and linguist living in the city of Vienna in the early years of the nineteenth century. He began his work in 1813,...

(The entire section is 4863 words.)

Further Reading


Wilson, Duncan. The Life and Times of Vuk Stefanović Karadžić 1787-1864: Literacy, Literature, and National Independence in Serbia. London: Oxford University Press, 1970, 415 p.

The only book-length biography of Karadžić in English. This cultural biography offers an examination of Karadžić's work in social and historical context, and provides English translations of Karadžić's correspondence.


Cooper, Jr., Henry R. “Kopitar and the Beginning of Bulgarian Studies.” In Papers in Slavic Philology 2, edited by Rado L. Leneck and Henry R. Cooper, Jr. pp. 55-64. Ann Arbor: University of...

(The entire section is 250 words.)