Yvonne R. Lockwood (essay date 1971)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5497

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

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[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 write and went on to reform the written language, changing it from Church Slavonic to one based on popular Serbian. Having been raised in a peasant environment, Vuk had close association with oral literature in his early years. This peasant upbringing determined Vuk's attitude toward his collections of folksongs, tales, and proverbs. His attitude toward peasant culture, in general, differed greatly from that of the urban intellectual's of his day, whether the latter regarded peasant life and its manifestations as backward and crude or with romantic idealization. Vuk hardly considered peasant life romantic; it was simply a way of life and the only one he knew for many years. With a realistic outlook that is part of peasant culture, Vuk regarded oral literature as one of many expressions of the Serbian people.

Karadžić was born in 1787 during Turkish rule in the village of Tršić, Serbia, near the Bosnian border. His parents were well-to-do peasants from Hercegovina. They had already lost several children before he was born and, consequently, named him “Vuk” (wolf) as a preventive measure. It was believed that witches feared wolves and that the name would serve as a charm against them and the evil eye. Vuk remained with his parents throughout his childhood. His father wanted him to become a merchant. With the help of an uncle, Vuk taught himself to read and write. For a short time he attended school at a nearby monastery. However, during Turkish occupation, the monks had no time for teaching; instead, they and their students, including Vuk, farmed the land and tended stock. Vuk soon returned to his father's home.

Vuk's thirst for knowledge grew; he constantly sought help from people who knew more than he. Finally, at age seventeen, he received his father's permission to go to high school. However, the instructors determined that Vuk was already well educated and refused him admission. Then Vuk went to Croatia, at that time part of the Austrian Empire, and taught himself German and Latin. This was his first contact with western culture. Serbia had been cut off from western Europe for many years while under Turkish rule. As part of the Ottoman Empire and also a country predominantly Eastern Orthodox, Serbia had little contact with the West prior to the nineteenth century. Although it is not known who his associates were in Croatia, western influence was great enough that Vuk soon realized he was not meant to be a merchant.

After some time, Vuk returned to Serbia, settling in Beograd, where he associated with local intelligentsia. Utilizing their influence, he was able to enroll in school. He contracted a serious illness which left him a cripple, walking only with the use of a cane for the rest of his life.

Having been liberated in 1804, Serbia again fell to the Turks in 1813, after a short-lived period of independence. At this time Vuk fled to Vienna. This period was the most significant in his career; it was during this time that he began his lifework. He submitted an article for publication to the Austrian censor, Jernej Kopitar, a Slovenian by ethnic origin. Kopitar was impressed because Vuk had written the article in the vernacular language rather than the language used by many of his contemporaries, i.e., a language greatly affected by Church Slavic and Russian. Until then, this had seldom been attempted. Kopitar made a special effort to meet Vuk. He saw Vuk as a living source of Serbian contemporary language and history, and one of the rare intellectuals closely associated with oral literature and folk customs. Vuk, on the other hand, saw Kopitar as everything he himself was not—a great learned person and member of the intelligentsia. There was mutual respect and fondness, and a great friendship developed. Vuk had no plans for his future and, therefore, when Kopitar made suggestions, Vuk followed them. Vuk wrote about this period:

Kopitar recognized that I am a man of the folk and that I am different from all Serbs whom he had seen and met up to that time. … Little by little he convinced me to write down not only folksongs but a dictionary and grammar. … The first influence and beginning of my collection of folksongs and language reform came from Mr. Kopitar alone.1

In 1814 Vuk published his first work, Mala prostonarodna slaveno-srpska pesnarica, a collection of 100 lyrical and 6 epic songs which he had learned at home as a child and had written down from memory. Then, in order that readers could better understand the songs, he compiled a small grammar of the Serbian language, which he published in the same year. Thus, in a single year, from a single impetus, Vuk launched both aspects of his important career.

Stimulated by the success of his first publications, Vuk collected more folk songs in Srem, where many Serbs had gone to escape the Turks. In 1815 he returned to Vienna and published Srpske narodne pjesme, a volume containing 101 lyrical and 17 epic songs, his first publication based on collected materials rather than personal recollections. At first Vuk did not fully realize the impact of these collections on people such as Kopitar, Jacob Grimm, and Goethe. Kopitar himself translated the first volume for Goethe,2 and Grimm even learned Serbian in order to read the songs, some of which he also translated.3 When Vuk realized the enthusiasm with which his songs were received, he was inspired to do even more serious work. He became very conscious of writing down songs in the dialect sung, admitting that the language in his first two volumes was not “pure folk.”4 In one of his many letters to Kopitar from the field, Vuk wrote that the third collection would be printed in the language just as people spoke.5 By 1816 Vuk had broadened his interests and began to collect everything he heard associated with folk life and customs. He had no knowledge of what was being done in Europe at the time, but received guidance from Kopitar. In regard to proverbs, for example, Kopitar told him to seek only “pure” Serbian proverbs and to make explanatory notes.6 Kopitar's influence remained a strong force throughout Vuk's career. It was Kopitar who suggested that Vuk go on to collect other genres of oral literature, write an orthography of the Serbian language, compile a dictionary, and translate the Bible.7

In 1818 Vuk's dictionary, Rječnik, was published. Besides being the first dictionary of spoken Serbian, it was the beginning of his work in noting folk customs. Within its pages there are many descriptions of folk life, especially in the later revised edition, which makes it an indispensable reference book.

In 1818 Vuk married a simple, illiterate German-Austrian. The same year he went to Russia. In the course of the trip he met many scholars in literature and philology in both Poland and Russia. As a result of contacts he made, he was awarded an annual pension from the Russian government for translating he promised to do.

In 1820-21 Vuk spent time in Serbia collecting material. He returned to Vienna to publish the first volume of folktales and a third collection of songs. In 1821 he published the tales, Narodne srpske pripovijetke, but he was informed that the Austrians did not dare publish the folksongs. Apparently, Vuk's opponents had convinced the Austrian officials that with the songs in this third volume, Vuk was trying to provoke the Serbs into battle against the Turks. In so doing he would have helped the Greeks, who had just rebelled against their Turkish rulers.8 The Austrian police were also very suspicious of Vuk because of his close tie to Russia and the pension he received from the czar.9 As a result, Vuk went to Leipzig where he published the third volume of Srpske narodne pjesme in 1823. It was at this time he had his first opportunity to meet Goethe and visited Jacob Grimm, whom he had met earlier in Vienna. He was surprised and flattered that German scholars knew of him and his work.

In 1828 Vuk was called back to Beograd to help translate Napoleonic Laws from German to Serbian. Unfortunately, he made an enemy of the chief of police, who was able to use his power to obstruct Vuk's work in many ways. Moreover, Vuk was opposed by the hierarchy of the Serbian Orthodox Church, who interpreted his language reforms as acts against the Church. The powerful body of officials maintained that the only language was Church Slavonic and the folk used a degenerated form of it.10 Finally, in 1831, Vuk was expelled from Serbia. However, the attempts to stop Vuk's work were not successful until he was accused of being a Russian spy. Incongruously, at the same time he was accused of being an Austrian hireling working against Russia and Serbia.11 Much earlier his enemies had been suspicious of his close ties with Kopitar, an official of the Austrian government.12 Suspicion increased when Vuk's collections were published, and subsequently he was accused of trying to ridicule the Serbian people because the songs were presented in the “vulgar” vernacular. Vuk went to Zemun, then a part of Hungary, and tried to go to Austria, but in view of the charges against him, Austrian officials were cautious. During 1832 he was kept under constant police surveillance and not allowed to travel outside of Zemun.13 Finally he was granted permission to enter Austria. He returned to Vienna and in 1833 published the fourth volume of Srpske narodne pjesme.

In spite of opposition, Vuk did not cease his work; he continued to travel and collect wherever he could. During a visit to Montenegro he completed his collection of proverbs, Srpske narodne poslovice, published for him in 1836 by Peter Petrović Njegogs, Prince Bishop of Montenegro, against the orders of the Serbian Orthodox Church.

The opposition against Vuk gradually subsided until, in 1835, King Miloš of Serbia awarded him a pension for having been of great service to Serbia. In the period from 1837-45 Vuk traveled and collected extensively. He died in Vienna in 1864 leaving reams of unpublished material.

Vuk devoted the greater part of his life to collecting and compiling data. He spent months at a time away from his family traveling about or living in an area near his informants. He constantly worked on the collections. In many respects, his task was a thankless one. He was always penniless, barely having enough money to publish his collections in addition to feeding his family. Except for the recognition by a few scholars, his works encountered great criticism from his contemporaries. His field work, however, was a labor of love; in a letter to Kopitar he described collecting folksongs as his dearest work.14

Vuk was interested in the total picture of folk life and all its manifestations, every expression of material and nonmaterial culture. His main objective in the published collections of folksongs, tales, and proverbs was to present a form of vernacular language as a norm in order to create a Serbian literary language.15 Vuk said: “In folksongs there is the purity and sweetness of our language. When our literary people realize this they will not spoil and insult the purity of their folk and their language but will trouble themselves to learn it from folksongs.”16

He regarded oral literature as a diachronic portrayal of Serbian folk life as well as an example of great creative skill.17 In reference to his volumes of folksongs he wrote, “these books will grow in importance and value as the honest mirror of our pure folk language, folk thoughts and customs, folk spirit and life and folk history and will last as long as our people and language.”18 With regard to his collection of proverbs Vuk made a similar statement: “the readers will find examples of our pure folk language, folk philosophy or science and knowledge of life in the world. …”19 He was anxious to have his works translated into foreign languages. Convinced of their intrinsic beauty, Vuk wrote letters to friends asking them to translate his songs so the world could enjoy them. He was pleased when he heard that different people in France, England, and the United States were also interested and had translated songs. Vuk's incentive to work with Serbian oral literature was somewhat influenced by nationalism and Romanticism, although he remained realistic and stressed his primary aim of inducing language reform. This constructive aspect is important when considering Vuk's work. Although nationalism was the underlying incentive for language change, his sense of purpose distinguishes him from many of his contemporaries. It also shaped the nature of his work so that he has left a valuable folkloristic legacy, rather than the altered, unannotated versions of the Romantics.

Careful analysis and reading of Vuk's many published volumes of collections and articles reveals something about his focus, methodology, and theories. The most important collection he made is of lyrical and epic folksongs in four volumes entitled Srpske narodne pjesme. In volume 1 Vuk included many footnotes either explaining the meaning within a song or the custom associated with it. The locality in which the song was collected is noted; sometimes the notation is very general, stating only the republic, but at other times the village is also specified. Variants are also given. Vuk's introduction in this volume brings out many of his theories. In his chatty style, he discusses his ideas and defends his work. Volumes 2 and 3 have fewer explanatory texts, but in the introduction to volume 4, Vuk notes the origin of most of the songs in the entire series including biographical data on all informants, the songs received from each, and his criteria for evaluating songs and informants.

Another important work, Život i običaji naroda srpska, deals with folk life and customs. The incomplete manuscript was found among his possessions and published posthumously. It is a report of different customs, beliefs, and holiday celebrations in Serbia. Vuk, naturally, was not using modern methods of field workers today and, therefore, there is much one can say in criticism. For example, he described some games, never stating which sex participated, when the game was played, nor the particular areas of Serbia where he made his observations. However, no one before him had attempted such a task in Serbia. Where he got the idea is not apparent in the literature, but for its time the collection is unique.

The first publication of proverbs, Narodne srpske poslovice, came out in 1836. Vuk followed the advice of Kopitar; almost every entry has an explanatory note—often a rewording, sometimes an associated tale, or occasionally just a note of the area in which it was collected. As part of this publication Vuk did include lists of informants' names according to geographical area, but these are not correlated with the proverbs and were given only to acknowledge those who assisted him. With only a few exceptions, Vuk also followed Kopitar's advice about printing only “pure” Serbian proverbs. He included some Biblical expressions and a Slovak proverb and justified their inclusion by saying they were used by the people.20

Vuk was convinced about his own qualifications for collecting oral literature. He wrote:

In order to differentiate between … songs, one must know and understand songs well, and that is difficult for our contemporary literary people. … If our folksongs only originate from simple folk it is not possible to assume that each of our literary scholars, without any preparation in this field, can understand the songs. …21

He continued that he himself was born and raised in a home where an uncle and grandfather, both guslari,22 also lived and that every winter people from Hercegovina came to winter with them. It was during this time that he heard many songs. But he said, “For twenty years I have collected songs and still I find parts in them I do not understand.”

Vuk traveled much during his career, especially in Serbia, Dalmatia, Montenegro, and among the Serbian refugees in southern Hungary. He regarded the Balkans as a culture area which should be studied as a whole and regretted that he did not go also to Bosnia-Hercegovina, Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Albania.23 This attitude also distinguishes Vuk from those early collectors who, prompted primarily by nationalistic concerns, collected only from a single people, without regard for outside influence.

Vuk gathered his collections in two ways: he himself did the field work or he received them from others who collected for him. When Vuk went into the field it was not unusual for him to remain there for many months, thus anticipating the extended period of field work used by most modern folklorists. (But, unfortunately, not by most modern Yugoslav folklorists, who more commonly limit field work experiences to very short periods.) With a few exceptions, there is no mention of Vuk's field methodology. In the fourth volume of Srpske narodne pjesme,24 he wrote that the informant sang the song several times while he wrote as fast as possible. When Vuk had it down, the informant once again sang as Vuk checked his notes. Without modern recording equipment, this method was probably the most accurate possible. He encountered the same problems in the field that modern scholars do; people suspected that he asked for songs as a joke or to pass idle time and would tell him they did not know songs. When this happened, Vuk resorted to the ploy of using children because they lacked this self-consciousness. As the children sang, the elders corrected and scolded them for not singing properly; little by little the adults loosened up and sang.25

Vuk obviously recognized the importance of context. In an early letter to Kopitar he wrote that “proverbs are difficult to collect because one must wait until he hears one spoken.”26 He compared collecting proverbs with songs and folktales, stating explicitly that the methodology must be different. One can ask an informant for a song or tale, but for proverbs one can only listen carefully and wait until a proverb is used.27

This sketchy evidence indicates that Vuk was cautious and patient in his field methodology and also realized the importance of remaining in one area for extended periods of time.

Early in his career, Vuk established friendships with persons in Serbia and Srem who periodically sent him songs they had heard. In at least one case, such a friend turned over to him a substantial collection made prior to their meeting.28 Vuk not only contacted people personally, but also, in the introduction of the fourth volume of his folksong collection, he asked readers to send in songs, promising them acknowledgment in resulting publications. He received many songs in this manner, but he used only a small fraction of them. Of the 479 songs in the first three volumes of the second edition of Srpske narodne pjesme, Vuk stated that no more than 33 were collected by others.29

Vuk recognized the significance of variants and individual creation; the role of gifted singers was one of his main considerations from the very beginning. He wrote that a song varies according to the person singing. He continued: “The songs did not immediately become as they now are, but rather one presents it as he knows it and after him the next one does the same. From mouth to mouth it grows and is embellished and sometimes it is shortened and even spoiled.”30

Vuk made the distinction between “singer-creator” and “singer-carrier,” i.e., active and passive bearers.31 For example, his father, Stefan, did not concern himself with songs to any great degree, but he did know some. His grandfather, Joksim, and his son, Vuk's uncle Toma, on the other hand, knew many songs and Vuk knew them to compose new songs about recent historical events. When one knows fifty different songs, he said, it is easy to compose more new songs.32 With this statement he forecast the important work of Albert B. Lord on epic song creation.33

Vuk also made a distinction between good and bad singers. While there were numerous singers who knew many songs, it was difficult to find one who knew them well and clearly (dobro i jasno). One of his best informants was Tešan Podrugović. Vuk wrote that he had never met anyone who knew as much as he.34 Podrugović played the gusle well, but because he could not sing he recited the texts. Vuk felt that such informants are best because they are careful and give thought to the order of sequence. Each of Podrugović's songs was judged good, “because he understood and felt the songs and thought about what he said.” Podrugović was Vuk's example of a good singer.

A bad singer, according to Vuk, often sings without giving any thought to what he sings. Vuk thought every folksong was “pretty and good” (lijepa i dobra), but it was important to have a good singer who knew the song. Vuk continued this discussion by comparing good and bad songs and singers.35 A bad singer poorly remembers a song and spoils it. On the other hand, a good singer makes a choice either to improve a bad song or to forget it if it is not worth repeating. Vuk's reference, then, to “good” and “bad” singers seems to refer more to whether the singer was a good or bad informant than unprofessional value judgments.

In stating how a song should be judged, Vuk makes it clear that historical fact should not be sought in folksongs, but the narration should make “common sense.”36 As an example, he cites some of the epics from the Marko Kraljević cycle in which there is a rifle motif. Vuk points to the absurdity of this since there were no guns during Marko's time. However, Vuk was not fully aware of the ways in which oral literature is dynamic. Although he realized that songs change from one informant to another, he did not perceive the element of change through time.

The classification Vuk gave his folksongs and tales is still used by modern Yugoslav scholars. In his first publication of folksongs in 1814, Vuk stated, “all songs which are not ten syllables and cannot be sung to the gusle are called women's (ženske) songs by the simple Serbians.”37 Elsewhere he said that most of the songs in the collection were sung in a feminine voice, but that a few were songs sung in a masculine voice accompanied by gusle.38 Grimm distributed an announcement about the second part of this collection in 1815 stating that among the songs called “ženske” by Vuk, some seemed to fit the description for the German heldenlieder. Vuk, henceforth, divided his songs into two categories: ženske and junačke (heroic), the latter being the Serbian equivalent of heldenlieder.39 In the introduction of volume 1 of Srpske narodne pjesme he applied this classification.40 He defined heroic songs as sung by men with gusle, performed especially for others, the words being more important than music. Ženske songs were defined as songs sung usually by duets but sometimes by a single singer. They were performed by women, girls, and men, especially young, unmarried men, and the music was more important than the song texts.

In his classification of folktales Vuk uses the terms muške (men's) and ženske.41 He likens ženske to Märchen, saying the tales are full of fantasy and impossible situations. On the other hand, muške tales have no fantasy; all that is related is possible.

Both these classifications are very general. Vuk realized this and said that there were many songs and tales which did not fit either category.42 However, he did not discuss new definitions.

Vuk said that proverbs could be divided into two main groups: those repeated the same way as heard and those which vary.43 However, he did not use this classification in his proverb collection. Instead, he listed the proverbs alphabetically.

Vuk's classifications and definitions are not wholly accurate. Despite his intermittent contact with Kopitar and Jacob Grimm, Vuk was well out of the mainstream of ideas and had little theoretic basis on which to work. However, one encounters in the literature frequent examples of Vuk's abilities as a professional folklorist. In one discussion, Vuk questioned whether folksongs which do not fit standard meter are actually “errors” of the informant as some foreign scholars believed.44 Although he did not attempt to answer the question, his awareness of the situation displayed considerable insight. In another instance, Vuk questioned an informant about the meaning of a sword with eyes, which appears in an epic.45 Vuk assumed the reference to be to jewels, however he also recorded the folk interpretation. Examples of this kind point out that Vuk was not an ordinary nineteenth-century collector and compiler of oral tradition.

The most discussed and criticized aspect of Vuk's work is his policy of correcting and editing his material. As previously mentioned, Vuk was greatly harassed by his contemporaries and accused of purposely ridiculing the Serbian people because he did not correct the songs he collected. Vuk defended his use of the folk language by stating, “these are not my ideas; it is the truth told the way it really is.”46 In the same article he answers one of his chief enemies, who had asked why in one song he did not correct a word to conform to the official Serbian. Vuk stated he did not want to spoil the speech, because that was how the folk spoke. Elsewhere Vuk singles out the grammatical errors in a particular folksong.47 He said that the people of that area use gross deformities in their speech, but he published the song that way regardless.

All this would imply that Vuk did not alter his texts but published them just as he collected them. But, unfortunately, this was not the case. Ljubomir Stojanović pointed out that Vuk's corrections are most obvious when comparing the same songs published in the first and later editions.48 In later editions there are noticeable changes: (1) more corrections in language than Vuk admits to; (2) the text is fuller; (3) a change in word order, substituting one word for another and addition of exclamations, all made to make verses smoother; (4) a change from one dialect to another. This latter point was also discussed by S. Matić.49

Vuk's process of selection eliminated some need for alterations. He stated that when an incident is commonly related in folksongs and there are a large number of good songs, it is foolish to publish the bad ones.50 This idea appears over and over in his letters and articles. However, it should be clarified that he apparently collected everything he heard and selected only for publishing. It is suspected that modern scholars do the same thing, even if advocating differently.

Vuk published a collection of folktales which are closer to the source than others published at that period, but he also gave them the stamp of his personal style. According to Maja Bošković-Stulli, Vuk cleaned up elementary written formulas, and he used new words and constructed compound sentences from the simple ones used by the informant.51

The contradiction between what Vuk said and what he actually did to oral literature is difficult to resolve. The constant harassment he was under may have weakened his ideals. One should also keep in mind that Vuk's greater concern was language and establishing a standard literary language based on the vernacular. The changes he made in the language were relatively minute in comparison to how others would have corrected it. It is only in the context of his own time and intentions that his work can rightfully be judged.

Vuk's impact on subsequent scholarship, up to and including the present day, has been phenomenal. He was the primary impetus to folklore collecting in the Balkans. He was followed by a great number of other collectors, but with little improvement over his methodology. Some recent publications of proverbs, for example, contain merely page after page of proverbs without the contextual information that Vuk thought necessary. Subsequent collections of Serbian folksongs do no more than supplement Vuk's work; his collection remains the basic and most complete source. In Croatia, stimulated by Vuk's activity in Serbia, an equally valuable collection of Croatian folksongs was compiled (the Matica Hrvatska collection). Modern day scholars continue to study his collections; even present-day guslari utilize Vuk's collections to learn epic songs. The number of articles that exist about Vuk's work in folklore alone is unbelievably large. A journal, Kovčežić Prilozi i Gradja o Dositeji i Vuku, is published on his work. After his death, the Serbian government received all unpublished notes and manuscripts, and from 1891-1902 his entire collection was published in nine volumes.52 In 1964, the centennial of his death, the Yugoslav government began to republish his entire works under the title Sabrana Dela Vuka Karadžića. This new series contains valuable supplementary studies on Vuk's works by leading modern Yugoslav scholars.

Vuk Stefanović Karadžić remains an inspiration for modern Yugoslav scholars; his collections still provide material for modern folkloristics. Perhaps the most significant aspect of Vuk's importance as a folklorist is that, although all of his limitations were imposed by the historical milieu in which he worked, his contributions have far transcended time and place.53


  1. “Pravi uzrok i početak skupljana našijeh narodnijeh pjesama” (The Real Cause and Beginning of the Collection of Our Folksongs), reprinted in O književnosti i književnicima, ed. Dušanka Perović (Beograd, 1964), 14-15.

  2. Ilija Kecmanović, Vuk-Njegoš-Svetozar Marković (Sarajevo, 1949), 45.

  3. D. H. Low, trans., The Ballads of Marko Kraljević (Cambridge, 1922), p. xiv.

  4. Kecmanović, 44-45.

  5. Pisma (Letters), ed. Dž. Gavela (Beograd, 1947), 21.

  6. Miloslav Pantić, “Vuk Stefanović Karadžić i naše narodne poslovice” (Vuk Stefanović Karadžić and Our Popular Proverbs), in Srpske narodne poslovice (Sabrana Dela Vuka Karadžića) (Beograd, 1965), 579.

  7. Pisma, 7, 15.

  8. Pisma, 73.

  9. Pisma, 135.

  10. Vuk Stefanović Karadžić, “Prosta i istinita istorija” (A Simple and True History), reprinted in O književnosti i književnicima, ed. Dušanka Perović (Beograd, 1964), 106-7.

  11. Pisma, 152-54.

  12. Kecmanović, 12.

  13. Pisma, 133, 154.

  14. Vukovska prepiska 1 (Vuk's Correspondence) (Beograd, 1907), 362.

  15. Maja Bošković-Stulli, “O narodnoj priči i njezinu autenticnom izrazu” (About the Folktale and Its Authentic Wording), Slovenski Etnograf 13 (1959): 110.

  16. “Pravi uzrok i početak skupljana našijeh narodnijeh pjesama,” 19.

  17. Kecmanović, 42-43.

  18. “Objavlejenije na prvu, drugu i treću knjigu narodnih pesama bečkoga izdanja” (An Explanation to the First, Second, and Third Volume of Folksongs of the Vienna Edition), reprinted in O srpskog narodnoj poeziji (Beograd, 1964), 170.

  19. Srpske narodne poslovice (Sabrana Dela Vuka Karadžića 9), ed. Miloslav Pantić (reprint; Beograd, 1965), 357.

  20. Pantić, 579.

  21. Srpske narodne pjesme, 4 (reprint; Beograd, 1953), p. xxx.

  22. Singers of epic songs, so called because they accompany themselves on the gusle, a bowed, one-string instrument.

  23. Kecmanović, 47.

  24. P. xiv.

  25. 4, p. xvi.

  26. Pisma, 146.

  27. Pantić, 578.

  28. Pisma, 13.

  29. Kecmanović, 43.

  30. Srpske narodne pjesme, 1, p. xxvii.

  31. Ibid., 4, pp. xxiii-xxiv.

  32. Ibid., 1, p. xviii.

  33. Singer of Tales (Cambridge, 1960).

  34. Srpske narodne pjesme, 4 pp. x-xi.

  35. Ibid., 4, pp. xxvii-xxix.

  36. Ibid., 4, pp. xxviii-xxix.

  37. “Napomene u prvoj knjizi pjecnarice, 1814” (Comments in the First Book of Songs, 1814), reprinted in O srpskoj narodnoj poeziji (Beograd, 1964), 46.

  38. “Predgovor prvoj knjizi pjecnarice, 1814” (Introduction to the First Book of Songs, 1814), reprinted in O srpskoj narodnoj poeziji (Beograd, 1964), 44.

  39. N. Banašević, “Ranija i novija nauka i vukovi pogledi na narodnu epiku” (Earlier and Newer Science and Vuk's Views on the Folk Epic), Prilozi za književnost, jezik, istoriju i folklor 30, s.v. 3-4 (1964): 174.

  40. P. xvi.

  41. Vojislav Čurić, “Predgovor” (Introduction), Antologija narodnih pripovedaka, ed. Živan Milosavac (Beograd, 1960), 8.

  42. Ibid.

  43. Srpske narodne poslovice, 46.

  44. “Povodom ‘opita sličnorečnosti’ Luke Milovanova Georgijevića” (On Examination of the Poetic Composition of Luka Milovanov Georgijević), reprinted in O književnosti i književnicima, ed. Dušanka Perović (Beograd, 1964), 33-42.

  45. Srpske narodne pjesme, 2, p. 106.

  46. “Pravi uzrok i početak skupljana našijeh narodnijeh pjesama,” 20.

  47. “Napomene uz pjesme bečkog izdanja” (Comments to the Songs of the Vienna Edition), reprinted in O srpskoj narodnoj poeziji (Beograd, 1964), 225.

  48. Ljubomir Stojanović, Život i rad Vuka Stefanovića Karadžića (The Life and Work of Vuk Stefanović Karadžić) (Beograd-Zemun, 1924), 105-8.

  49. “Vukov odnos prema ekavskim pesmama narodnim” (Vuk's Relation to Ekavian Folksongs), Naš Jezik 9, s.v. 3-4 (1958): 93-101.

  50. Srpske narodne pjesme, 4, pp. xxix-xxx.

  51. Pp. 111-15.

  52. Kecmanović, 45.

  53. After this article was already in press, there appeared a new and relevant study on Vuk, The Life and Times of Vuk Stefanović Karadžić by Duncan Wilson (Oxford, 1970). It is the first full biography in English. Particularly important for folklorists are the translations of Vuk's writings in which he stated his views on traditions and collecting and a discussion of his relationship to other collectors of oral literature.

Albert B. Lord (essay date 1974)

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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 number of heroic figures who shine as beacon lights at the beginning of a renewed and intensified literary activity which continues to the present day. In Serbia, Vuk Stefanović Karadžić (1787-1864) is the first of the group not only in age but also in date of published work. Karadžić's Mala prostonarodna slaveno-serbska pesnarica (Little Slaveno-Serbian Songbook for the Common Folk) appeared in Vienna in 1814, a year after the second great writer in this pantheon, Petar II Petrović Njegoš (1813-1851) was born in Montenegro. Njegoš's first poems came out in 1834, a year before the manifesto of the Illyrians was published in Zagreb under the title Danicza Horvatzka, Slavonzka y Dalmatinzka (The Croatian, Slavonian, and Dalmation Day-Star). Its leading light, Ljudevit Gaj (1809-1872), was slightly older than Njegoš, and the oldest of the Illyrian group which included three other authors worthy of notice with him: Stanko Vraz (1810-1851), a Slovene who moved to Croatia, Ivan Mazuranić (1818-1890), and Petar Preradović (1818-1872). The leading Slovenian poet, France Prešeren (1800-1840), was younger than Vuk but older than all the other writers mentioned. He began to write poetry in 1824, the same year in which the youngest of the authors considered in this article, Branko Radičević (1824-1853), was born in Serbia. Branko's first poems appeared in 1843.

The most intense activity of our writers covers only a few decades. The thirties and forties of the last century were the most productive, although Vuk and Prešeren were working very successfully during the twenties and Vuk was still publishing in the fifties. It is a curious fact that four of the eight figures we are considering died of tuberculosis between 1849 and 1853, Prešeren first in Slovenia in 1849, followed by Vraz and Njegoš in 1851, and Radičević two years later. Vuk Karadžić died at the age of seventy-seven in 1864. The Illyrians Gaj and Preradović both died in 1872, but Gaj's main contributions were made in the thirties and forties, and Preradović alone was active throughout the sixties. The last of the eight, the Illyrian Mažuranić, lived until 1890, thus being, next to Vuk, the longest lived of the group, spanning most of the nineteenth century, but the majority of his literary work belongs to the thirties and forties. After that, he went into public life and wrote very little indeed during the ensuing years. We have thus briefly set the chronological parameters for the interweaving of the appearances in time of the Serbian and Slovenian poets and their early works and the beginning of the Illyrian Movement, which was identified with national revival as well as pan-Slavism in Croatia.


The very significant accomplishments of these giants fall into several categories. The first problem that required solution was the need for a literary language and a reformed orthography. In Serbia Vuk Karadžić led such a movement. In the same year (1814) in which his first songbook was published, there appeared his Pismenica serbskoga iezika (Grammar of the Serbian Language), which saw a second edition as Srpska gramatika (Serbian Grammar) in 1818, together with, that same year, the first edition of his Srpski rječnik (Serbian Dictionary). He entered into controversy with those who advocated the artificial Slaveno-Serbian language favored by the church. He himself was on the side of the language as spoken by the majority of the people, the living language written as spoken, and in an orthography in which each sound was expressed by a single letter and vice versa. Vuk's publishing of the oral literature of the Serbs, their songs and stories, also played a large role in the establishing of a literary language. By mid-century Vuk and his followers had carried the day and Serbia had a literary language suitable to the needs of a vital literature. It had already produced great works.

In Croatia the movement toward language and orthographic reform was begun by Ljudevit Gaj. We have already noted the appearance in 1835 of the Danica hrvatska. The literary language of Croatia at this period tended to be German, or Latin. It is symptomatic that Gaj's first work in 1826 was a translation into German of a Latin manuscript of 1799-1800 Die Schlösser bei Krapina (The Castles in Krapina) and that his first original work in prose was a short story in German “Kowotschka, der Räuberhauptmann” (“Kowotschka, the Robber Chieftain”). His first book in Croatian (1830) was significantly Kratka osnova horvatsko-slavenskoga pravopisanja (Short Fundamentals of Croato-Slavic Orthography). Others of the Illyrians had begun their literary careers writing in German, such as Petar Preradović, whose sonnets to his homeland written in Milan in 1843 were in German and entitled “An mein Vaterland.” But already the following year he published his famous Croatian poem “Zora puca, bit će dana” (“The Dawn Breaks, It Will Be Day”) in the journal Zora Dalmatinska (Dalmatian Dawn) which had just been started. By the middle of the nineteenth century the Croats also had a viable literary language and orthography. It is remarkable that the literary language chosen by Vuk and by the writers of the Illyrian Movement in Zagreb was neither the dialect of Zagreb nor that of Belgrade but that of the oral literature in Herzegovina.

The language problem in Slovenia concerned the Slavic tongue itself, as was in part the case also in Croatia, as we have seen. Slovenian was disappearing under the dominion of German which was the language that the Slovenian intelligentsia both read and wrote. France Prešeren and his close friend Matija Čop worked tirelessly to extend the use of Slovenian in literature as well as in speech, and to increase the scope of that language that it might be a proper vehicle for the best of literary productions. Their efforts were centered around the journal, or almanach, Kranjska čbelica (The Beehive of Kranj), begun in 1830. No small credit for their success is due to the poems of Presěren himself, living proof that they were of the literary quality of the Slovenian language. (For more on the literary languages of Yugoslavia see Professor Butler's article in this volume).


A second category of activity which was undertaken in the period under consideration was the collecting and publishing of oral literature, or folk verse and prose. Here too Vuk Karadžić led the way from 1814 onward and the four volumes of folk songs that appeared before his death were to become the classical collection not merely for Serbia but for a wider circle as well. The story of how Vuk was led to his collecting is a long and complex one, starting with a few songs given to Alberto Fortis, an Italian natural scientist, towards the end of the eighteenth century, whose book which incidentally contained them was translated into German. They eventually came to the attention of Herder and Goethe, and one of them, the famous Moslem woman's song, or ballad of the wife of Hasanaga, was translated into German by Goethe. When Vuk arrived in Vienna, he was befriended by the Slovenian Slavist Jernej Kopitar, who was in touch with the Herder group. Kopitar persuaded Vuk to write his grammar and work on a dictionary and also to put down in writing some of the folk songs. From this influence came the first little volume in 1814 of which I have spoken earlier. A second volume, this time written down from others not merely from Vuk's own memory, followed in 1815, and the major volumes later to form the classical collection began to appear in 1823. They contained lyric and ritual songs, ballads and epics, ranging from the so-called mythological songs to songs of more recent history in Montenegro and in Serbia. There were songs of Kosovo, the battle in 1389 in which Car Lazar as well as the Sultan Murat were killed and the way opened for Turkish invasion. Songs of the hero Marko Kraljević are well represented, and there are many hajduk songs. Of special interest to Vuk himself was a group of songs, written down chiefly from Filip Visnjić, which dealt with events in the abortive uprising of the Serbs under Karadjordje against the Turks. In Serbia itself others were to follow Vuk, including his contemporary Vuk Vrčević and later in the same century such figures as Bogoljub Petranović. Njegoš also collected epic songs in Montenegro, as did his romantic tutor Sima Milutinović Sarajlija, from whom Njegoš also acquired a taste for cosmic imagery. The intent of all those, especially in the last century, who made these collections was to set down the history of Serbia or Montenegro as it was reflected in the epic. Many of them also composed poems of their own in the style of the folk epic.

Collecting in Croatia came somewhat later, but in 1850 Bosanski Prijatelj (The Bosnian Friend), under the editorship of I. F. Jukić Banjalučanin, published a number of folk epics, and Luka Marjanović in 1864 brought forth a book of poems. In 1879 the Matica Dalmatinska Society published a Narodna pjesmarica (Popular Songbook). The year before that Valtazar Bogišić of Cavtat, the lovely town south of Dubrovnik on the Dalmatian coast, collected poems that he had found in earlier manuscripts and brought them together into a volume. Thus the way was prepared for the series of volumes of collected songs from the archives of the Matica Hrvatska in Zagreb, the first volume of which appeared in 1896.

Although Moslem epics had been collected as early as the first quarter of the eighteenth century, that group was not published until as recently as 1925 by Gerhard Gesemann. Kosta Hörmann's collection of Moslem songs came out in 1889, and the great Marjanović collection from northern Bosnia appeared in 1898 in volumes III and IV of the Matica Hrvatska series.

The popular poetry, especially the Vuk collection, had an important impact on Croatian, Serbian, and Montenegrin literature. It was widely imitated, and its form was influential in shaping the style of literary poetry, both narrative and lyric, throughout the century and even later. Some of its subjects—Kosova, Marko Kraljević, the hajduks, the songs of the Serbian uprising, for example—were taken up by literary narrative poets and by the dramatists, especially Jovan Sterija Popović and, in the sixties, Laza Kostić. The Illyrian Petar Preradović used their themes, as did many others down to the present day. Finally the great poet Njegoš made rich use of them in his masterpiece Gorski Vijenac (The Mountain Wreath).

There is another activity of Vuk Karadžić that deserves mention here, namely his ethnographic and historical writings. The Serbian uprising in which he had been personally involved fascinated him, and he wrote, among other things, biographies of some of its leaders. He also published admirable ethnographic descriptions of the Boka Kotorska and of Montenegro in which he caught the spirit of those regions.


A third category of writing, surely the most significant, was purely literary. The poetic genres blossomed in Montenegro with Njegoš, in Serbia with Branko Radičević, in Croatia with the Illyrians, Ivan Mazuranić, Petar Preradović, and Stanko Vraz, and in Slovenia with France Prešeren. As was the case earlier in Dalmatia at the time of the Renaissance (1500-1650), so in the national revival in the nineteenth century, poetry was the main, almost the sole literary vehicle.

The earliest of the poets of this group is France Prešeren in Slovenia (1800-1849). His poems were of great importance in forming the literary language as well as in providing a model for others to follow. Born in a small town, Vrba, educated in Vienna, he returned to his homeland finally, to a modest law practice in Kranj, and to writing. He had a great lyric gift; the shorter forms, such as sonnet and ballad, were most congenial to him, although he did write one epic, “Krst pri Savici” (“Conversion at the Savica”), of about five hundred lines. An unhappy love affair motivated a famous “Sonnet Wreath” published in 1834, of fifteen sonnets, the last of which consists of the first lines of each of the preceding sonnets, which then form an acrostic of the name of his beloved, Primicovi Julija. In addition the last line of each sonnet becomes the first of the following. There is much more than unrequited love in these sonnets. Some of the sonnets speak of the history of the Slovenes, and Prešeren, while lamenting his country's unhappy past, is filled with hope for the future.

“Krst pri Savici” appeared two years later (1836). Not only had his love for Julija been futile, but his best friend and close associate Matija Čop (1797-1835) had been drowned while swimming in the Sava, and Prešeren's sorrows were doubled. Yet during this period, he wrote the epic. Its introduction relates the capture of the fortress Ajdovski Grad by the Christians under Knez Valjhun. Of the pagan defenders only their leader Črtomir remained alive after the battle. The second and longer part of the poem tells first of Črtomir's love for the daughter of the guardian of the temple of the goddess Ziva on the island in Lake Bled, and then it goes on to describe Črtomir after the battle of the first part standing by the waterfall of the Savica. He is approached by a priest and his beloved Bogomila, who has become a Christian. Together they persuade Črtomir also to be converted, and he kneels with the priest beside the Savica. Once again Prešeren had sought solace from his personal griefs in the history of his land, for whose future he had great hope.

Contemporary with Prešeren in years of writing, if in age thirteen years younger, was the Montenegrin Prince-Bishop Petar II Petrović Njegoš. A fine, if somewhat prolix, account of his life and works was written by Milovan Djilas a few years ago, Njegoš, Poet, Prince, Bishop (New York, 1966). Djilas describes admirably the scene in which the young Petar takes over, in typical tribal setting, the office of Prince and Bishop of Montenegro, acclaimed by the leaders of the several Montenegrin tribes. Njegoš was well read and well travelled. He had been to Russia for the sake of his tiny country, and we have a moving account by Ljubomir Nenadović of his encounter with Njegoš in Naples, where he had gone, as elsewhere, for some relief from tuberculosis. Njegoš is in many ways the most remarkable of this group of rather extraordinary writers.

He was preeminently a narrative and dramatic poet, although within his historical stories lyric moments are not lacking. Serbian lyricism came into its own with Branko Radičević (1824-1853), whose poems appear first in 1847, the same year as Njegoš's major work, Gorski Vijenac (The Mountain Wreath). Njegoš's poetry is solidly based on the folk epic, which he himself had collected and imitated. He wanted to present the history of Montenegro in that manner and his earliest works, such as the “Svobodijada” in 1834, did just that. In 1845 Njegoš's Srpsko ogledalo (Serbian Mirror) appeared, his own collection of the folk epic of Montenegro with some additions. But The Mountain Wreath is his most arresting work, a poetic drama written around an historical event of the latter part of the eighteenth century, the killing of the Moslemized Montenegrins by their Christian brothers under Prince-Bishop Danilo, the central figure in the drama. It opens with a monologue by Danilo in which he debates with himself the steps that his people are about to take. The drama ends with the gathering of his men after the massacre. The contents of the poem-drama are varied, but through it all one sees the ethos of Montenegro depicted by a sensitive philosopher-poet. The men gather about their leader, some with tales of incidents at home that had delayed them. One returns from Venice with an account of the confusion and corruption of that city. They have a final meeting with the Moslem leaders, one of whom gives a lyrical description of Stambol. The men sleep on Mount Lovčen and the next morning recount their dreams. Many elements of Montenegrin folklore are used tellingly by Njegoš. And from time to time, in the fashion of Greek tragedy, a Chorus comments. The Kosova legend and the deeds of its hero Miloš Obilić play a large role in the thinking of the actors. It is an extraordinary poem.

More surprising perhaps than Gorski Vijenac is a philosophical epic entitled Luca mikrokozma (The Ray of the Microcosm). With elements of both Dante and Milton clearly in its background, together with Balkan dualistic thought, the narrative tells of the flight of the soul into the heavens. The influence of his tutor Milutinović in celestial imagery is strong in it. We would not have expected from the warrior prince-bishop, who was ever defending Montenegro from the Turks, the depth of religious philosophy that Njegoš displays in these two works.

Njegoš's last work was another poetic drama, perhaps somewhat more unified than Gorski Vijenac. It deals with the impact in Montenegro of the arrival of an imposter pretending to be fugitive Russian Czar Peter III. Lažni car Šćepan Mali (The False Czar Stephen the Little) presents also a dramatic and moving picture of the Montenegrin heroic milieu and legendary heroism in times of stress, but it does not reach the heights of Gorski Vijenac.

The account of Vuk and Njegoš and their times would not be complete without a word about one of Serbia's most beloved poets, Branko Radičević. Like Vuk, he went to Vienna, where he came to know many of Vuk's friends and became a staunch supporter of Vuk's language and orthographic ideas. Branko's erotic lyrics shocked many with their frankness, but the intensity of his lyricism and the grace of his language marked his poetry with distinction. His satirical narrative poem “Put” (“The Journey”) took its author on an imaginary journey on Pegasus over parts of Serbia. In it are hidden references to the literary controversies of his day that were seething in the circles of writers and scholars. The battle for reformed orthography is set forth in amusing and imaginative fashion, and the satire is scathing. Byronic also are his romantic epics, such as “Hajdukov grob” (“The Hajduk's grave”) which is a model of the genre, depicting the last stand of a hajduk and his beloved, pursued by the Turks and finally cornered on the verge of a cliff, whence they leap together to their deaths. This period in Serbia would have been much less colorful without Branko's poetic genius.

Lyric, narrative, and dramatic poetry were also cultivated at this time in Croatia by the group which called itself the Illyrians. We have spoken of their beginning with Ljudevit Gaj and the Danica hrvatska in 1835. The most outstanding figure in their circle was Ivan Mažuranić, who wrote topical poetry about the Illyrians, but whose two main works were remarkably different one from the other. He was born on the coast in Novi Vinodolski and early became an enthusiast for the Dubrovnik renaissance poetry. He became so well versed in it that he was able to write in seventeenth-century Dubrovnik style his own version of the two cantos in Gundulić's epic “Osman” that Gundulić had left unfinished at the time of his death. The intriguing thing about the missing cantos is that they are not at the end of the epic but in the middle of it. Gundulić had left some of the romantic threads of his complex story unresolved and Mažuranić's attempt to tie them together became the standard one, though he was not alone in trying to solve the mystery. Mažuranić's most famous poem, however, was quite different and, some think, alien to both his love for the Dubrovnik past and his involvement in the Croatian literary scene, for it is concerned with an event in Gacko in Herzegovina. Be that as it may, Smrt Smailaga Čengića (The Death of Smailaga Čengić) shows the fine lyric and narrative talent of its author, particularly the former. Mažuranić's depiction of the heroic band that gathers to assassinate Smailaga for his brutal treatment of the raya when he attempts to extort tribute from them is reminiscent of Njegoš, but his use of several meters, his effective employment of literary figures of speech, and the sonority of his verse mark the lyric poet. The scene in which the priest gathers the band about him and gives them courage on the eve of the ambush is one of the finest in the poetry of this period.

The Illyrians advocated not only national revival and language reform but also pan-Slavism, especially, but not exclusively by any means, for the Balkan Slavs. They tried to convince the Serbs and Slovenes to join them in this endeavor, but both groups felt that they already had their own national literatures by this time in the works of Vuk and Prešeren especially, and were loath to accede to the wishes of the Illyrians. One Slovene was an exception. This was the poet and man of letters Stanko Vraz. He had begun writing in German and in his native Slovenian, but under the influence of the Illyrians he moved to Croatia and turned to writing in the Croatian literary language which was just being formed. His gift also was lyric. One of the most significant contributions that Vraz made, however, to the whole movement was the establishing of a new literary journal Kolo in 1842. The quality of this new periodical was far above that of Gaj's Danica hrvatska. It included articles on other Slavic literatures and reports on the latest writings in them. It was one of the most important vehicles for the best in Illyrian writing.

The poetic work of the last of our group, another Illyrian, Petar Preradović, was not only lyric and narrative but also dramatic. He was an army officer, and his first verses were in German. He joined the Illyrian movement under the influence of Ivan Kukuljević Saksinski, and the first Croatian poem, already mentioned above, “Zora puca, bit cé dana” (“The Dawn is Breaking, It Will be Day”) was a personal manifesto as well as a regional one. Famous among his poems are “Putnik” (“The Traveller”), telling of one wandering in a foreign land, and “Djed i unuk” (“Grandfather and Grandson”), which breathes the romantic spirit of times when men saw the folk epic and the one-stringed gusle as symbols of the heroic and the heritage of the past. Philosophic epic is represented in his longer poems “Prvi ljudi” (“The First Men”) and “Prvenci” (“The First Ones”), but more significant are his two poetic dramas, “Marko Kraljević” and “Vladimir i Kosara.” The latter is a dramatic presentation of a tale told in the Ljetopis Popa dukljanina of the twelfth century, a story of love and intrigue and tragic betrayal and vengeance, that became a favorite in nineteenth-century drama by others as well as Preradović. “Marko Kraljević” is a complicated play about the coming of Marko to save his people when they are oppressed, one of the aspects of his legend that later writers found attractive. Preradović was thus a versatile poet and his contribution to the Illyrian movement and to Croatian poetry in general was a distinguished and lasting one.

With the efforts of these remarkable men of the early and mid-nineteenth century the modern literature of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes had its very distinguished beginnings. Many of their poems are still vital and moving for they set forth human sorrows, longings, and triumphs against odds in a living and vibrant language and with true mastery of poetic art.

Svetozar Koljević (essay date 1980)

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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 village customs in much later times. Medieval Christian Serbia, however, gave a much stronger imprint to the whole tradition of the epic art: its history provided some of the major later themes and motifs, its monastic literature left the heritage of several major legal and moral concepts as well as a few skeletons of much older Eastern legends, its frescoes kept in vivid memory the outward appearance of the medieval feudal lords, their gowns, rings, and pitchers. During the Turkish conquests and the dissolution of this medieval world in the fifteenth century, the feudal professional singers cultivated their distinctive ‘Serbian manner’ in their retreat in Hungary at least until the middle of the sixteenth century. The same ‘manner’ was absorbed into the much more popular and plebeian forms of epic singing in the Christian urban setting of some prosperous cities along the Adriatic coast. It was in this environment that the old feudal bugarštice were written down as they were dying from the end of the fifteenth to the end of the eighteenth century. Their debris left a rich bequest of themes and motifs, stock phrases, formulas and formulaic expressions, stylistic and narrative devices to the flourishing tradition of decasyllabic village singing.

On the other hand, the irrefutable early sixteenth-century evidence makes it clear that the epic songs about the Battle of Kosovo (1389) were widely cultivated among the Christian population in the central Balkan area spreading from old medieval Serbia to Herzegovina and Bosnia, all the way to the western Turkish frontier with Croatia. For obvious political and cultural reasons these popular village songs could not be recorded, but this area, particularly the region of Herzegovina and Montenegro, is generally assumed to be the cradle of decasyllabic village singing. The earliest collection of these songs—which an unknown German wrote down, probably in or near the military camps along the northern Balkan Christian frontier in Slavonia—dates from about 1720 and its linguistic features as well as some of its subjects reflect the long travels of the epic voice through many regions, from old medieval Serbia and the Adriatic coast, to Herzegovina, Bosnia, and Croatia. This evidence also shows that many Croatian and Moslem singers must have contributed a great deal to the oral epic diction in Serbo-Croat, but as their respective cultures were dominated by urban centres which provided different modes for cultural expression, it was only among the Serbs that oral epic singing absorbed for a long time most of the available artistic national talent. The central function which epic singing had in Serbian village life and the enormous pressure of historical circumstance, particularly on some of the greatest singers, explain perhaps how the debris of the ‘high’ monastic medieval culture could come so fully alive in the ‘low’ social setting of the later epic songs. The shape and the ornamentation of some humble products of nineteenth-century village craftsmen mirror clearly what actually happened. Their chairs and flasks, for instance, often embody in an impressively simplified design their grand medieval ancestors. Thus the finely-wrought and yet sturdy village chair of Berane (Ethnographical Museum, Belgrade) reflects the medieval design of such lofty objects as the throne in the fifteenth-century Church of the Ascension in Leskovec near Ohrid. (See Pl. 5.) And the crude specimen of a popular nineteenth-century flask (Ethnographical Museum, Belgrade) was obviously inspired in its form by medieval pitchers—such as the fifteenth-century one in the Museum of Applied Art in Belgrade, or the earlier one which Moses holds on a fourteenth-century fresco painting in the monastery of Dečani.1

The most extensive and valuable body of decasyllabic oral epics, which were collected by V. S. Karadžić, represents a similar kind of achievement. But these epics also bear the social and historical imprint of the First and the Second Serbian Uprisings, ‘the first of the great nationalist movements of the nineteenth century’.2 And it is, of course, significant that the geography of the oral epic song in its golden age shows that the greatest poems come from the areas in which epic singing was most intensely and widely cultivated. ‘At the present time’, claims Karadžić writing in 1823,

heroic songs are most widespread and most lively in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in Montenegro and in the hilly southern regions of Serbia. In these regions even today there is a gusle in every house, and particularly in the shepherds' summer huts in the mountains. And it is difficult to find a man who does not know how to play the gusle, and many women and girls know it too. In the lower regions of Serbia (along the Sava and the Danube), the gusle are more rare in people's houses, but I still think that in every village (particularly on the left bank of the Morava) one could be found.3

On the northern banks of the Sava and the Danube, in Srem, Bačka, and Banat, which were more prosperous and had been for a long time under the Austrian and Hungarian rule, only blind men had the gusle and sang oral epic songs. Apparently, ‘other people were ashamed to hang blind men's gusle in their houses’.4 And it is this distribution which explains, in Karadžić's opinion, the difference in the poetic achievement in various areas:

the epic poems in Srem, Bačka, and Banat are worse sung than in Serbia, in Serbia along the Sava and the Danube they are worse sung than further inland, especially in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In the same way, as we move westwards from Srem through Slavonia to Croatia and Dalmatia, heroic songs are more and more cultivated by the people.5

This geographical picture shows that heroic songs were most widespread and best sung in the heart of the central mountain ranges in Herzegovina, Bosnia, Montenegro, and Serbia, as well as along the military frontiers of Slavonia, Croatia, and Venetian Dalmatia.

This agrees with the general directions of the major Balkan migrations from the fourteenth to the nineteenth century—the migrations which were so extensive that in this period ‘almost all the population in the area from the Canyon of Veles on the river Vardar (Macedonia) to the Mountain of Zagreb (Zagrebačka gora, Croatia) changed its abode’.6 (See Map 4.) Hundreds of thousands of people were moved by force from Serbia all over the Turkish Empire during the fifteenth century: during the single decade after the fall of Constantinople (1453) over three hundred thousand Serbs were displaced in this way.7 During this heavy depopulation of Serbia in the fifteenth century the bulk of the refugees moved along the central Dinaric mountains to the regions which, a little later, supplied most of the Serbian migrants moving to the areas of the Slavonian, Croatian, and Dalmatian frontiers. The second wave of Serbian migrations during the great Turco-Austrian wars in the seventeenth century left dozens of villages completely uninhabited and many towns with only a handful of people in them. Austrian reports on the demographic situation in Serbia from the beginning of the eighteenth century show that the number of deserted settlements exceeded that of inhabited ones: at this time there were probably only about one hundred thousand people in the whole of Serbia (four to five per square kilometre).8

These migrations supplied a vast army for the Hungarian, Austrian, and Venetian military frontiers. The nineteenth century, however, marked the beginning of vast movements in the opposite direction: the extent of the repopulation of liberated Serbia is reflected in the fact that in the area of the river Morava and the river Drina about eighty per cent of the total population at the beginning of the twentieth century had come from somewhere else.9 The linguistic and thematic impact of these migrations on the art of oral epic singing can hardly be overestimated: it explains why this art had to be not only ‘anachronistic’ but also ‘anatopistic’ from the moment when the first two complete songs were written down in the middle of the sixteenth century.10

For the singer and the song followed these main historical streams, and not only their social status but also the range of their voice was affected. The pre-Christian Slav singers in the Balkans seem to have been ordinary people sharing in a popular entertainment, but in the early Christian times they were already known as professionals in Hungary and among some other nations. In the monastic literature of feudal times there are references to ‘the devilish songs’ of common people,11 to the lascivious ‘harmful songs of youthful desires’, to the collective epic singing about themes of public importance, to the various forms of royal and feudal entertainment by professional singers.12 The evidence of strong epic traditions, absorbing hagiographical legends and apocryphal material, in the patrician setting of Bar is also significant.13 However, the whole world of medieval feudal song—performed by foreign and native jongleurs, by various types of medieval entertainers, singers, actors and drummers, by wandering scholars (‘dijaci’) and composers of popular religious songs (‘začinjavci’)—was mainly absorbed either into the literary or into the oral culture in the sixteenth century.14 The new type of popular epic singer was a different man in a different social setting.

To begin with, he might have been just any peasant, farmer or fisherman, in any rural area under the Turkish rule, or in any village or city on the Christian side of Turco-Christian frontiers. More specifically, he was often an outlaw, a border raider, a soldier, a gifted articulate man often from a distinguished village family in a patriarchal community, a slightly bohemian or artistic ‘misfit’, a village ‘character’, a self-made merchant, a clever shepherd, a blind man or woman making a living by his art. However, the popular image of the guslar as a blind visionary is exaggerated, even if it is a true description of Filip Višnjić, the most popular and perhaps the only true professional among Karadžić's best singers. But how did the personality, the biography, and the social setting of the greatest singers affect their art? There is sufficient evidence about some of the greatest of the nineteenth-century singers to suggest in outline some answers to this question.

Karadžić's family history is in itself significant. The family of the great collector came originally from Herzegovina, the heart and cradle of Serbo-Croat decasyllabic heroic songs. They lived at Tršić, near Loznica, in the hills of north-western Serbia, where the neighbouring monastery provided not only the initial education for the greatest Serbian man of letters, but also ammunition for the Serbian rebels and fighters against the Turks. And it is not surprising that Karadžić himself, one of the few literate laymen in his country, served as a clerk in the rebels' army during the First Serbian Uprising. When this Uprising was crushed in 1813, Karadžić crossed the river Sava and emigrated, with tens of thousands of his compatriots, to Austrian territory. It was here—near the monastery of Šišatovac—that he recorded many of his songs. And it was from his father that he wrote down the few fragments of Kosovo poems, perhaps among the finest in the language, and certainly central in the general epic landscape of the whole tradition.15 His father was a pious and serious farmer—perhaps not too serious to indulge in epic song-making, but certainly serious enough not to admit to the indulgence. Karadžić—who made it clear on many occasions that poems were improvised rather than memorized16—seems to have believed his father when he told him that he was not responsible for the songs, because they were, in fact, old grandfather's responsibility.17 There was also an uncle in the family who was capable of making up heroic songs as soon as the occasion arose—for instance, four or five days after Smail-bey Begzadić was killed.18 This song is not a particularly significant achievement, but it is a clear and adequate description of a contemporary event of public importance. There are no jarring notes in it and this suggests a correspondence between the whole of the traditional epic diction (its formulas, its stylistic and narrative devices, its basic moral concepts) and the popular response to history as well as the way in which it was immediately understood and interpreted.

This situation will soon change, but it can be most clearly demonstrated in the life and work of Filip Višnjić, Karadžić's most popular singer. He was a man who carefully collected first-hand information from the Serbian rebels about the battles in which they fought and which became the subjects of his songs.19 At the same time, however, he was a man ‘who could move his audience to tears’.20 This can be explained, in so far as such things can be explained, by his command of the epic language and by his imaginative gifts, but it might also have something to do with his own personal experience of history. He was born in Bosnia, ‘on the other side of the river Drina’,21 and it was in his native part of the country, in the vicinity of Bijeljina, that he came to witness some of the common forms of Turkish terror. When he was twenty, blind after smallpox from the age of eight, a group of Turks raped one of the women in his uncle's household, where he lived after the death of his father. In revenge the family killed a Turk and ‘hanged another one on a plum tree by his horse's halter’.22 As a result all the members of the family were tortured and most of them killed. What survived this punishment was the story of his heroic uncle Marko, the head of this large farming household, who ‘sang through the town of Zvornik as he was going to the gallows’.23 Homeless Filip, a very gifted young man, travelled for years and lived on his voice. He sang to the Christian rayah in many Bosnian villages and to the crowds on popular feast days at the monasteries. But he also cultivated a special repertoire for ‘the great Turks’ whom he entertained when his travels took him to towns.24 During the First Serbian Uprising his native region was sometimes a major battlefield: in 1809, for instance, the Serbian rebels crossed the river Drina and, under the command of Stojan Čupić and Luko Lazarević, who were to become great heroes in Filip's songs,25 besieged Bijeljina and fought some severe battles in this region. When they were forced to retreat, Filip joined them. Stojan Čupić, who had risen from the position of a servant to that of a great captain of the rebels' army, gave Filip a white horse for his song ‘The Battle of Salaš’. The song described one of the major battles in 1806 and Stojan Čupić is presented in it as a man of immense courage and equal sensitivity for the social position and suffering of his peasants.26 During 1810—after Višnjić's retreat to Serbia—his song kept up the spirit of the twelve hundred rebels, besieged in Loznica and exposed to Turkish fire and poisoned water supply. They waited for twelve days for the relief which was led by Karadorde himself, the chief commander of the Serbian armies. After the Serbian victory Višnjić's song moved Karadorde who, ‘a man of few words’, came to talk to him.27 After the Uprising was crushed in 1813, Višnjić crossed the river Sava and came to live in Srem. He had a hut in a farmer's courtyard and some stools for the villagers who would come to listen to him during the winter. In summer he travelled round the villages in the whole area and wherever he came he was well-received and richly rewarded for his songs. The peasants in his own village Grk remembered him for a long time; when he died in 1834, they carved a gusle on his oak cross.

The nature of Višnjić's achievement becomes clearer in the light of his personal and historical fate. It is the fate of a blind seer who experienced some of the most atrocious forms of Turkish terror in his young days and found himself at the heart of one of the greatest historical national upheavals. But it is also the fate of a persevering and widely travelled craftsman who learned his art in the large central areas of oral epic singing where he mastered its full range. For Višnjić sings about Stefan Nemanja, St Sava, Marko Kraljević, the outlaws and the border raiders and, above all, about the greatest captains and the common soldiery of the First Serbian Uprising. Moreover, he also sings about Sultan Murad, the Great Dahijas, many Turkish and Moslem heroes, their mothers and wives—often at considerable length and sometimes with a vocabulary which reflects his appreciation of their human involvement in tragic history. This is why his dramatic sense of history, his intense feeling for concrete detail, his visionary image of the whole landscape and his imaginative response to the human impact of gory realities are so impressive.

His blindness explains why in his songs St Sava claims that his father Stefan Nemanja spent his treasure not only building churches and monasteries but also, among other things, ‘giving alms to the crippled and to the blind’28—a detail not to be found in blind Stepanija's version of this poem who did not respond so quickly to the occasion of interweaving a moving personal element into a traditional epic tale.29 And this ability is not mirrored only in Višnjić's long list of monasteries which Nemanja built, including many Bosnian ones which Nemanja did not build but which Višnjić, a widely travelled singer, knew. It is even more clearly demonstrated in Marko Kraljević's bequest of his treasure—part of which is again to be given ‘to the crippled and to the blind’:

‘Let the blind walk the roads of the world
And let them sing of Marko in their songs’.(30)

Besides, as blind professional singers were much more dependent on their public performances, often at the monasteries on great festivals, and as they were generally much more influenced by hagiographical literature, it may be also Višnjić's blindness which accounts partly for his outstanding sense of the miraculous—sometimes according to the epic standard, but often quite exceptional in its frequency and in the importance of its epic function. Thus, for instance, the ominous dream at the beginning of ‘St Sava and Hasan Pasha’ is a standard epic narrative device, but the melting of the Pasha's sword when he tries to slash the relics of St Sava, the fire which burns his tents, the Pasha's blinding and the crippling of his arms and legs, his wailing for mercy, the abbot's prayer and the miraculous healing of the Pasha are much more in keeping with the song's distinctly hagiographical tenor which is usually characteristic of blind singers.31 Some of the miraculous elements in the story about the death of Marko Kraljević—particularly the appearance of the vila and her prophecy of Marko's death—are also according to the epic standard. But the ominous stumbling and weeping of Marko's horse, the evocation of ancient beliefs in the miraculous properties of water, Marko's reflection in a well which forebodes his death—these give the whole tale a visionary colouring which is not common in the songs about Marko.32 And the heavenly omens in ‘The Beginning of the Revolt Against the Dahijas’ as well as the stars, ‘trapped’ in a dish of water which mirrors the headless bodies of the Turkish rulers, are certainly quite unique in a story about a contemporary historical subject.33

But in Višnjić's poems the visionary and the miraculous—and in this he is different from many other blind singers—often illuminate the historical and the immediate which are given with exceptional factual accuracy. For Višnjić is above all the singer of contemporary history and his descriptions of the beginning of the Serbian revolt and many of the historical battles—at Čokešina (1804), near Salaš (1806), in the field of Mišar (1806), at Loznica (1810)—are not only broadly true to historical facts but also distinguished by a lively sense of many particular details. The shortage of ammunition in ‘The Battle of Čokešina’ and the subsequent use of guns as clubs, the bleating sheep and the lowing cattle which are driven away from their homeland in ‘The Battle of Salaš’ and many other of Višnjić's great scenes are unique both in their physical precision and their imaginative sense of the Serbian soil and history.34 Moreover, Višnjić's sense of realistic detail ranges from the heroic and the tragic to the genuinely comic and humorous. Such are the moments when Ilija Birčanin frightens the powerful Dahija out of his wits as he throws at him the bag with the tax-money which he had collected, when the cowardly Captain Ćurčija explains that he cannot afford to fight a stronger enemy because he is not like a willow-tree, once cut, to sprout again, when Bey Ljubović challenges Bajo Pivljanin to a duel and threatens, if the challenge is refused, that he will send his enemy raw wool and a distaff to make a shirt and a pair of pants for himself.35 Similarly, we well may ask why it is that the hands of the great Serbian captain Anto Bogićević tremble so that he cannot write a message requesting help for besieged Loznica. Is he so frightened of the Turks, or is he illiterate and frightened of paper—or perhaps just an old man with trembling hands?36

The interplay of such vivid realistic elements with the invocations of Kosovo itself, with the visionary and miraculous illuminations of history suggest an almost medieval imaginative genius flourishing in the setting of much later times. Višnjić's ability to merge such diverse and often anachronistic elements into a unified vision of his tales make him an exemplary epic singer. In short, his ‘darkened sun’ is as much a heavenly omen as it is the result of the fog of gunpowder in Mačva and this is perhaps why he succeeded—to paraphrase his favourite image—in ‘tying the red flame into the skies’.37 And last but not least, it was perhaps his singing to ‘the great Turks’ in Bosnia that enabled him to master their moral and psychological idiom and push the frontiers of the epic drama so far as to include the great and humane Turkish characters, like Sultan Murad and Old Fočo, within the scope of his vision.38 In short, the maturity of his epic voice—that of a young blind boy, a victim of Turkish terror, a professional singer and craftsman, an entertainer of the Serbian rebels and an elderly exiled man—was not unearned.

A different but equally significant historical and biographical pattern is reflected in the life of Tešan Podrugović, the greatest of Karadžić's poets—for he did not sing but used to ‘speak’ his poems. He was born in the village of Kazanci in Herzegovina and he also travelled quite extensively, at first making his living as a trader. He was a huge man—as big as a man and a half (po drugog čoveka); hence Podrugović instead of Gavrilović which was in fact his original family name.39 His courage equalled his stature: as a young man he was unperturbed when a group of Turks tried to rape one of the girls in his household and everyone ran away. He killed one of the Turks and drove away the others, so that at the age of about twenty-five he had to leave his home and take to the woods. As an outlaw he made a name for himself; when the Serbian Uprising broke out he crossed the river Drina and joined the rebels. He distinguished himself in the battles near the river Drina, but when his captain did him an injustice, he left the Serbian army so that he should not have to kill his superior. Before the defeat of Serbian rebels in 1813 he crossed the river Sava and came to live in Srem in utter poverty.40 Karadžić found him making his living by cutting reeds and selling them in towns—a reticent and serious man, with a strange sense of humour, ‘scowling’ as he told his often funny stories.41

‘He was clever and, for an outlaw, an honest man’;42 and it was at this time, when Podrugović was about forty, that Karadžić recorded twenty-two poems from him. ‘I have never found anyone who knew the poems as well as he did. Each of his poems was a good one, because he—particularly as he did not sing but spoke his poems—understood and felt them, and he thought about what he said.’43 He had a large repertoire and knew, in Karadžić's opinion, at least another hundred poems apart from the recorded ones; moreover, Karadžić claims that if Podrugović were ‘to hear the worst poem, after a few days he would speak it beautifully and in proper order which was characteristic of his other songs, or he would not remember it at all, and he would say that it was silly, not worth remembering or telling.’44 However, Karadžić's recording of Podrugović's songs in the monastery of Šišatovac in Srem was suddenly interrupted. About Easter time in 1815 the news came that the second round of fighting against the Turks in Serbia had just started; it was, Karadžić tells us, ‘as if a hundred thorns had got under his skin’.45 And it was with great effort that Karadžić kept him for a few more days to write down some more of his poems before Podrugović left for Serbia to ‘fight the Turks again’.46 Obviously, he had more important business on hand than the most enlightened man in Serbia of his time could understand.

However, in the summer of the same year, he left the Serbian army again, went to Bosnia, killed a bey and became an outlaw. A little later he tried to get back to Serbia, but on his way he quarrelled with some Turks in an inn. He killed a few of them and, himself wounded, tried to escape. However, the Turks caught up with him and as he had no ammunition, he defended himself by throwing stones as he retreated up the mountain. With two more wounds he managed to escape, but they went bad and he had to return to a village in which he died a few days later.47

Podrugović's courage and suffering, his physical stature and his irascible temper, his grand sense of personal, family, and national honour, his love of funny stories defying his experience of history suggest the characteristic figure of a great outlaw who becomes a fighter for national independence at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Besides, his personal fate and character also explain his imaginative attachment to certain themes. His sense of patriarchal loyalties—which turned him into an outlaw at the age of twenty-five—is clearly mirrored, for instance, in the poems in which the ideals of family village life dominate the heroic feudal scene. Thus in ‘Dušan's Wedding’ Miloš Voinović, the historical military commander who represented the emperor in his dealings with Dubrovnik, is turned into a shepherd who rides a horse covered by a bearskin and defends his imperial uncle in spite of the latter's credulity and slanderous insults. His outstanding stature, cunning and courage, and above all his skill in outwitting his enemies and making fools of them are clearly the reflections of Podrugović's own personality. A sense of patriarchal values also dominates his great song about the Battle of Kosovo in which Tsaritsa Milica obtains Tsar Lazar's blessing to have one of her brothers stay with her, but each of them feels in duty bound to die in the battle. Similarly, when a Turkish girl helps the wounded King Vukašin and accepts him as her brother-in-God but is betrayed by her own brother, Marko Kraljević will kill the treacherous brother when he offers King Vukašin's sword for sale (‘Marko Kraljević Knows His Father's Sword’).

However, Podrugović's greatest heroes—like Miloš Voinović who can jump over three horses with three fiery swords on them, or Marko Kraljević who plays by throwing his mace into the clouds and catching it again—are not only men of uncommon physical strength. They also illustrate Podrugović's unique sense of realistic comedy which often takes place within the framework of exalted heroic ideals. Thus Karadžić's claim that Podrugović liked to tell funny stories with a scowl defines the comic tenor of “Marko Kraljević and Ljutica Bogdan” in which two hot-headed Serbian heroes come to blows and frighten each other so much that their final reconciliation reflects above all their desire never to meet again.48 An equally rich and often much more complex sense of comedy pervades, as we have seen, Podrugović's greatest songs about Marko Kraljević: “The Wedding of Marko Kraljević”, “Marko Kraljević Knows His Father's Sword”, “Marko Kraljević and the Daughter of the Arab King”, “Marko Kraljević and Musa Kesedžij”, “Marko Kraljević and Demo of the Mountain”. For it was in the traditional songs about Marko Kraljević and his exploits that Podrugović found the richest scope for the expression of his own genius—the genius of great comic dignity, of a hot-headed, irascible and clumsy, but also exalted sense of personal and communal honour. And, finally, it is also significant that this great outlaw has left us several of the classic lines about ‘the bad craft’ of outlawry,49 about the ‘bitterness’ of the outlaws' fate, about the skill and courage of the man

Fit to overtake and run away
And stand his ground in terrible places …
Who fears no one but God Himself.(50)

To sum up, Karadžić's greatest epic poet, who knew that fighting was more important than singing, created the heroes who have to face—and use—the tricks and treacheries of history and Realpolitik to defend the dignity of human life on this earth.

The links between the singer's personal fate, his interest in particular themes of the epic heritage and his ability to make them live as poetry can also be discerned in the four outstanding songs—running to almost three thousand lines—which Karadžić recorded from Old Milija (Starac Milija). The honorary title of ‘starac’ was not the privilege of ‘just any elderly man’, but of ‘the wise man and the sage who knew the tradition’, who was held in high esteem, next to the village chief.51 This suggests that Karadžić's recording of Old Milija's songs took place when a wise and, as we shall see, tough man was breaking under the burden of old age, personal misfortunes and drink. For Old Milija was also, like Podrugović, born in old Herzegovina, in the vicinity of Kolašin (now in Montenegro) and, like Podrugović, he was also involved in a fight against ‘some Turks’, which forced him to leave his native area.52 Unlike Podrugović, however, he was not twenty at the time, but at least in his fifties. This is not the age when a farmer would easily leave his land; and there is no doubt that some great trouble must have driven Old Milija to escape to Serbia.53 When Karadžić met him in 1822 in Kragujevac, the souvenirs of this trouble were still vivid: ‘all his head was scarred with cuts’, Karadžić tells us.54 Besides, Karadžić had great difficulty getting in touch with the gifted, decrepit singer: the efforts of the head of the Serbian administration in the district of Požega were not sufficient to secure his presence. So in the autumn of 1822, when Karadžić came to Serbia on the invitation of its ruler Prince Miloš Obrenović, the illiterate Prince himself gave strict orders to his head clerk ‘to have Milija brought alive or dead’55 and make special arrangements for normal work on Milija's farm in his absence. When Old Milija turned up, he was so weak with old age and his wounds that he was unable, and unwilling, to sing without ‘slivovits’. As soon as the drink was brought, he would pour it all into his own flask and disregarding the custom of offering it to other people present, he would start sipping and singing. People in the audience often teased him about this and asked him what the ‘slivovits’ was like. ‘He used to answer, shuddering and frowning: “Awful, my son, so bad, it couldn't be worse; Heaven forbid that you should drink it!”’56 The recording itself did not go smoothly: Milija was unable to sing his songs with the required pauses. So he drawled out his phrases as best he could and Karadžić wrote as fast as he could, and this had to be repeated several times for each song. Four songs took more than fifteen days to write down. Finally, one of the loitering local louts—‘such as can be found in many courts, worrying only about how to turn everything into a joke’57—persuaded Milija that all his harvest would go to the dogs if he went on wasting his time with such an irresponsible and mad fellow as Karadžić who cared, obviously, only for songs.58 Milija soon disappeared—having collected his fee from the Prince's office—in the utmost secrecy. When Karadžić enquired about him again a year later, he was already dead.59

Milija's personal misfortune which struck him in old age and drove him away from home is mirrored in all his poems in the imagery of ravaged homes when the heroes are far away or terrible miseries which befall them on their long journeys. In “Banović Strahinja”—running into eight hundred and ten lines, probably the greatest single epic poem in the language—the hero's home is devastated, his mother and his love are captured, while he feasts far away with his in-laws. This provides not only the moving force of the narrative, but also the most important inner link of Ban's sympathy with a noble-minded old Turkish dervish, a solo drinker like Milija himself.60 For the two enemies understand each other much better than any of their friends: the old dervish had been humanely treated as Ban's prisoner a long time ago and he touches Ban to the quick when he tells him his story of his return to his ravaged home in which elder had come to grow in the doorposts. In “The Wedding of Maksim Crnojević”—one of the outstanding poems in the epic tradition, running to 1,226 lines61—the hero is disfigured with smallpox while his father is far away in Venice, looking for a bride for him. The universal catastrophe—the quarrel and the slaughter of the wedding party with far-reaching historical consequences—also occurs on their journey, far away from home. The long journey which takes Marko Kraljević, Miloš Obilić, and Winged Relja of Pazar to Captain Leka's castle results in the tragic maiming and blinding of the prospective bride who insults her great Serbian suitors (“Captain Leka's Sister”).62 And in ‘Captain Gavran and Limo’—with its magnificent image of the loot equally divided among the living and the dead outlaws—there is also a very long journey which takes the Montenegrin fighters to north-western Bosnia and the frontier area near the town of Bihać.63 Long journeys are not, of course, uncommon in the epic tradition, but no other singer makes them a source of personal tragedies in all his poems. It is in this sense that Milija's songs embody a vivid awareness of his own personal tragedy as well as a wider concept of patriarchal village culture, the assumption that being far away from home is one of the main sources of misfortune and misery in human life.

Karadžić's description makes it clear that Old Milija tried to extinguish his sense of misfortune and misery in drinking, just as the old Turkish dervish does in “Banović Strahinja”. Besides, Milija's representation of Marko Kraljević, a notorious drinker in the songs of many other singers, is outstanding, not perhaps because Milija's Marko drinks a whole ‘tub’ of wine and gives one to his horse, but because this enormous amount of wine makes the horse red up to his ears and Marko only to his eyes!64 And when the wedding party in ‘The Wedding of Maksim Crnojević’ comes to the sea, everyone does what he likes best:

Every drunkard tips up his flask.(65)

The number of drunkards suggested shows that a common element in the tradition must have been exceptionally near to the singer's heart.

Finally, the poetic genius of the unfortunate old drunkard saw everything on a magnificent scale. His Strahinić Ban is not only richly dressed like so many other epic heroes: the rosy colour of his clothes surpasses that of the sun, their redness is redder than water—presumably at sunset.66 In “Captain Leka's Sister” Marko Kraljević appears all in gold and his horse is covered in lynx fur;67 Miloo Obilić has ‘three storeys’ of rich clothes on him;68 the Winged Relja of Pazar makes both of them look shabby by his appearance.69 The gold shirt which the mother-in-law gives to the prospective bridegroom in “The Wedding of Maksim Crnojević” has a serpent's head under the throat with a precious stone so brilliant that the groom will need no candle when he takes his bride to their bedroom.70 Moreover, the cruelties of Milija's heroes and heroines are on the same scale: no other epic heroine ever dared insult the three great Serbian dukes as Captain Leko's sister did, no other epic hero was as generous as Strahinić Ban who spared the life of his unfaithful love. This is why it has sometimes been claimed—not perhaps with any reliability and certainly with little sense of what Old Milija's art is about—that the behaviour of his heroes and heroines suggests a certain decline of patriarchal moral norms in actual life, characteristic of Milija's times and perhaps of his own personal experience.71 Be that as it may, in Milija's songs we are faced with a tragic range and intensity which endorse the broken moral patterns and reveal an outstandingly generous and perceptive poetic mind.

Far less is known about Karadžić's other singers. But it is worth noting that Old Raško—the singer of several of the best poems with motifs from Serbian medieval history, such as the splendid, if highly controversial ‘Building of Skadar’ and the universally acknowledged ‘Uroš and the Mrljavčevići’—was also born in Kolašin, in old Herzegovina, and came to Serbia at the beginning of the First Serbian Uprising.72 Stojan the Outlaw—the singer of ‘The Wedding of King Vukašin’, one of the greatest poems with medieval heroes—was also born in Herzegovina. But when he came to Serbia and gave up outlawry, he ran into trouble for having killed an old woman who, he believed, was a witch who had ‘eaten’ his child.73 His idea of women and witches may go some way towards explaining his interest in such characters as the faithless Vidosava, the villain in the story of ‘The Wedding of King Vukašin’ and one of the greatest ‘bitches’ in the Serbo-Croat epic tradition.74 It is also noteworthy that the greatest of Karadžić's Montenegrin singers Duro Milutinović, the singer of the two best poems from this area, ‘Perović Batrić’ and ‘The Piperi and Tahir Pasha’, was a blind man who brought a letter from the Montenegrin Prince Bishop to Karadorde in 1809 and stayed in Serbia.75

To sum up, the existing evidence about Karadžić's greatest singers—and it is evidence recorded by an outstandingly shrewd and objective observer, whose sober judgement is illustrated by everything he wrote, including his historical writings, his great dictionary and grammar—seems to point not only to the basic routes of the Serbian migrations but also to a very lively interplay of the oral epic traditions with the personal involvement of the singers in the burning issues of contemporary history. But if this is a major part of the picture there is also another vast and important area which tells a completely different story and which is not usually fully recognized. It is the area of the great epic songs of blind, pious old women who did not move about and were sometimes linked with particular monasteries. Their greatest achievements are to be found in the songs about medieval feudal times and their sense of the distant past seems to be stronger and sometimes more accurate than that of other singers. So, for instance, ‘Momir the Foundling’—a great song originating perhaps from a bugarštica which derived its story from Byzantine sources and, ultimately, from 1001 Nights—was recorded from ‘blind Živana who sat in Zemun’.76 Two more songs about Marko Kraljević—one of them being ‘Marko Kraljević and Alil-aga’, one of the finest in Karadžić's collection—were written down from the same singer.77 Blind Jeca who, apparently, also ‘sat’ in Zemun was the singer of ‘The Death of Duke Prijezda’, deservedly one of the best-known poems in the language, the greatest example of a tragic feudal drama in the Serbo-Croat oral epic tradition.78 One of the very few songs about the Battle of Kosovo in Karadžić's collection, ‘Tsaritsa Milica and Duke Vladeta’, was written down from blind Stepanija of whom we know only that she was born in Jadar in Serbia.79 Karadžić also notes that he received a variant of this song—‘almost the same as this one’—from another source.80 What ‘almost the same’ exactly means is difficult to say—but does it suggest a higher degree of memorizing than we usually find in the tradition? And last but not least Lukijan Mušicki, a learned versifier and the abbot of the monastery of Šišatovac in Srem, recorded—or had someone record for him—from a blind woman in the neighbouring village of Grgurevci some of the finest poems about feudal times in Karadžić's collection: ‘The Downfall of the Serbian Empire’, ‘The Kosovo Girl’ and ‘Marko Kraljević Abolishes the Wedding Tax’.81 ‘The Kosovo Girl’ is one of the finest songs in the tradition and it is astoundingly accurate in historical detail—the communion of the Serbian army on the eve of the battle, and the representation of the silver gilt rings, feudal gowns with monograms and circular ornaments, the scarves woven with gold threads and given in token of betrothal. S. Radojčić—one of the most distinguished Serbian art historians—has checked these details against the evidence of contemporary Byzantine military tracts, Serbian monastic literature and medieval fresco painting. This has led him to claim that their survival can only be explained by the assumption that the poem was memorized by generations of singers and repeated ‘like Paternoster—with or without understanding—but accurately, line by line’.82

Of course, this need not have been the case. But even if generations of singers memorized only stock phrases, formulas, and clusters of formulas hardly ever running beyond a few lines, even if they learned only how to handle some specific narrative and stylistic structures, this does not imply merely the command of a poetic language. This language itself was a way of memorizing history, many of its physical details, actual events and social concepts. At the same time this language was not being mastered in the abstract, but within narrative structures which were a way of responding to history and interpreting its significance. These narrative structures were open to change and adaptation, they could absorb new concepts and new material; and it was in a dramatic interplay of the past and the present, the imaginative interplay of anachronistic and anatopistic features, that the singers created their greatest achievements. For the oral epic singing at its best was both a way of coming to terms with history and a means of getting out of it. This is why its ultimate significance cannot be grasped in the analysis either of the technique of its composition or of the diverse historical sources of its social concepts, motifs, and themes. For a song about fighting is not the same thing as fighting or even as the recording of an actual response to it. Similarly, songs about great defeats, vassalage, outlawry, or rebellions attempt to grasp in language not only their historical but also their moral significance. They interpret the actual in terms of what it means as a challenge to the human spirit and to the whole tradition of oral poetic language in which it expresses itself. This is why the way in which diverse stylistic and narrative devices, the whole anachronistic heritage of the historical material embedded in the nature of the oral epic convention itself, has to be the object of inquiry: what sense—if any—does the Serbo-Croat oral epic language at its best make of what it remembers of several centuries of the Balkan history?


  1. See V. Han, ‘Putevima narodne tradicije od srednjovekovnih fresaka do folklornih originala’, Zbornik Svetozara Radojčića, Filozofski fakultet, Belgrade, 1969, pp. 391-8.

  2. D. Wilson, The Life and Times of Vuk Stefanović Karadžić 1787-1864, p. 28.

  3. ‘Predgovor’, Karadžić, i, p. 529.

  4. Ibid., pp. 529-30.

  5. Ibid.

  6. Enciklopedija Jugoslavije, vii, p. 506.

  7. See ibid.

  8. See ibid.

  9. See ibid., pp. 506-7.

  10. See above pp. 49-58.

  11. See V. Latković, ‘O pevačima srpskohrvatskih narodnih epskih pesama do kraja xviii veka’, Prilozi za književnost, jezik, istoriju i folklor, xx (1954), p. 188.

  12. See above pp. 12-15.

  13. See above pp. 16-19.

  14. See V. Latković, op. cit., pp. 191-2.

  15. See above pp. 160-1, 164-7.

  16. See below p. 322.

  17. Karadžić refers to his father as ‘a pious and earnest man who cared little for songs except in so far as he memorized them, almost accidentally, from his father Joksim and his brother Toma, who not only knew many songs and were glad to sing and tell them, but also made up songs themselves’ (‘Predgovor’, Karadžić, iv, p. 374).

  18. See ibid., pp. 374-5.

  19. ‘Višnjić told Lukijan Mušicki how he began his songs about the Uprising. He asked the fighters, he said, as they were coming back from the battlefield: “who was their commander”, where they fought, “who was killed, who they fought against”. This is to say—he collected his material. The singer did not tell Mušicki how he turned the dry details into poetry. He himself was not aware of the secret.’ V. Nedić, ‘Filip Višnjić’, Narodna književnost, p. 331.

  20. L. Ranke, A History of Servia and the Servian Revolution, London, 1847, p. 76. See also below pp. 322-3.

  21. V. S. Karadžić, ‘Predgovor’, Karadžić, iv, p. 365.

  22. V. Nedić, ‘Filip Višnjić’, Narodna književnost, p. 324.

  23. Ibid.

  24. Ibid.

  25. Both these heroes figure in the famous ‘Battle of Loznica’ (Karadžić, iv, No. 33) and ‘Luko Lazarević and Pejzo’ (Karadžić, iv, No. 34). Stojan Čupić also figures in ‘Čupić's Boast’ (‘Hvala Čupićeva’, Karadžić, iv, No. 36) and in ‘The Battle of Salaš’ (Karadžić, iv, No. 28).

  26. See above pp. 286-7 and below pp. 340-1.

  27. V. Nedić, ‘Filip Višnjić’, Narodna književnost, p. 325.

  28. ‘Dijeleći kljastu i slijepu’, ‘Sveti Savo’, Karadžić, ii, No. 24, l. 42.

  29. See above pp. 142-3.

  30. ‘(Treći ćemer) kljastu i slijepu, / Nek slijepi po svijetu hode, / Nek pjevaju i spominju Marka’. ‘Smrt Marka Kraljevića’, Karadžić, ii, No. 74, ll. 110-12.

  31. See ‘St Sava and Hasan Pasha’ (‘Sveti Savo i Hasan-paša’), Karadžić, iii, No. 14. For the miraculous element in the songs of blind singers see above pp. 107-9 and, particularly, pp. 161-2.

  32. See ‘The Death of Marko Kraljević’, Karadžić, ii, No. 74, ll. 12-14, 49-66.

  33. See ‘The Beginning of the Revolt Against the Dahijas’, Karadžić, iv, No. 24, ll. 1-68.

  34. See above pp. 280-95 and below pp. 340-2.

  35. See ‘Bajo Pivljanin and Bey Ljubović’ (‘Bajo Pivljanin i beg Ljubović’), Karadžić, iii, No. 70, ll. 14-19.

  36. See ‘The Battle of Loznica’, Karadžić, iv, No. 33, ll. 291-2.

  37. See above p. 267.

  38. See above pp. 292-4.

  39. See V. S. Karadžić, ‘Predgovor’, Karadžić, iv, p. 364.

  40. See V. Nedić, ‘Tešan Podrugović’, Narodna književnost, pp. 344-6.

  41. See ‘Predgovor’, Karadžić, iv, p. 364.

  42. Ibid.

  43. Ibid., pp. 364-5.

  44. ‘Predgovor’, Karadžić, iv, p. 378.

  45. Ibid., p. 364.

  46. Ibid.

  47. See V. Nedić, ‘Tešan Podrugović’, Narodna književnost, p. 346.

  48. See ‘Marko Kraljević i Ljutica Bogdan’, Karadžić, ii, No. 39, ll. 12-37, 113-16.

  49. See above p. 246.

  50. See note 10, p. 246.

  51. M. Lutovac, ‘Ibarski Kolašin’, Srpski etnografski zbornik, lxvii (1954), p. 114.

  52. ‘Predgovor’, Karadžić, iv, p. 366.

  53. Lj. Zuković suggests that Old Milija was, if not a ‘real outlaw’, at least ‘an outlaw of the Montenegrin type, i.e. from time to time he joined an outlaw company and when the danger was over, he returned home’ (‘Vukov pjevač starac Milija’, Putevi, xi [1965], p. 604). Zuković's argument rests partly on the interpretation of Karadžić's note that Old Milija ‘escaped to’ (‘dobežao’), not just ‘came’ or ‘moved’ to Serbia.

  54. ‘Predgovor’, Karadžić, iv, p. 367.

  55. See ibid.

  56. Ibid.

  57. Ibid.

  58. See ibid.

  59. See ibid., pp. 367-8.

  60. See above p. 136.

  61. ‘Ženidba Maksima Crnojevića’, Karadžić, ii, No. 89.

  62. ‘Sestra Leke kapetana’, Karadžić, ii, No. 40.

  63. See above p. 240-2.

  64. See ‘Sestra Leke kapetana’, Karadžić, ii, No. 40, ll. 56-63.

  65. ‘Ko l' bekrija, naginje čuturom’, Karadžić, ii, No. 89, l. 594.

  66. ‘The cloth was redder than the water, / The cloth was pinker than the sun’ (‘Što od vode čoha crvenija, / A od sunca čoha rumenija’), ‘Banović Strahinja’, Karadžić, ii, No. 44, ll. 24-5.

  67. See ‘Sestra Leke kapetana’, Karadžić, ii, No. 40, l. 54.

  68. ‘Tri kata haljina’, ibid., l. 144.

  69. See ibid., ll. 187-92.

  70. See ‘Ženidba Maksima Crnojevića’, Karadžić, ii, No. 89, ll. 791-8.

  71. See P. Bakotić, ‘Starac Milija’, Školski vjesnik, xii (1962), No. 8, p. 26.

  72. See ‘Predgovor’, Karadžić, iv, p. 368. For the discussion of ‘Uroš and the Mrljavčevići’ and ‘The Building of Skadar’ see above pp. 138-41, 147-151.

  73. See above p. 127 and particularly note 10 on that page.

  74. See above pp. 128-31. There is also an example of a treacherous wife in Stojan the Outlaw's song ‘Vuk Jerinić and Zukan the Ensign’: Hajka, Zukan's ‘faithful love’, takes hold of a broken sword and helps Zukan's enemy to slaughter her husband (see ‘Vuk Jerinić i Zukan barjaktar’, Karadžić, iii, No. 54, ll. 209-17).

  75. See ‘Predgovor’, Karadžić, iv, p. 369.

  76. Ibid., p. 370. See also above pp. 115-17.

  77. See above pp. 199-201. The other song which Karadžić recorded from blind Živana is ‘Marko Kraljević and the Twelve Arabs’ (‘Marko Kraljević i 12 Arapa’, Karadžić, ii, No. 63).

  78. See above pp. 89-91 and below pp. 337-8.

  79. See ‘Predgovor’, Karadžić, iv, p. 372. See also above pp. 170-1.

  80. ‘Predgovor’, Karadžić, iv, p. 372.

  81. See above pp. 161-2, 171-2, 203-4.

  82. S. Radojčić, ‘Kosovka djevojka’, Uzori i dela starih srpskih umetnika, p. 239.

Pavle Ivić (essay date 1982)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3314

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 Bible); and he suggested to him fundamental views on the literary language, the alphabet and orthography.

Vuk accepted Kopitar's views (Kopitar 1857: passim) that every nation ought to use its own language in literature, that the field of use of the Church Slavonic language among the Serbs should be restricted to the Church, that the mixture of language types such as that practiced by the slaveno-srpski writers of the time was impermissible, and that the task of the grammarian is not to prescribe language, but merely to describe it. In the same way, Vuk accepted and implemented the phonemic principle in the alphabet and orthography, which Kopitar had summarized in the formula, “No sound may have more than one sign, and no sign more than one sound” (in 1813; Kopitar 1857: p. 249). Kopitar's ideas about language bear witness to his lucidity and to his adoption of the most positive ideas of the age, while the program of Vuk's work indicates Kopitar's ability to select what was essential, which made it possible for Vuk not to waste his energy on minor matters but to concentrate on issues in which his efforts would bear the most significant fruit.

In the early period of Vuk's activity, along with the above viewpoints which were undoubtedly well-founded, several other, more specific and partly less justified attitudes appeared, also linked in a way with Kopitar.

Vuk wrote in Ijekavian, although the vast majority of Serbian writers of the time used the Ekavian dialect. Vuk did this because he preferred his native dialect and because it was easier for him to write in this way, but he found his arguments for doing so in Kopitar, who had often toyed in his writings with the idea that all dialects should attain the rank of literary languages, as was once the case in ancient Greece (e.g., Kopitar 1857: pp. 278, 307, 349). This Romantic dreaming, to which Vuk gave an apodictic formulation (Karadžić 1894: I, 157), in no way suited the needs of a modern literary language in the process of formation. The Greek model was an anachronism in an age when the main medium of culture was the printed word, which demands a broad market for books, and when literary languages were functionally much more polyvalent than in Greece before the generalizing of the Koine. Had Vuk, by some miracle, implemented Kopitar's vision for the Serbs, it would have brought the Serbian literary language into a state of regional division, harmful both culturally and politically, and Vuk would not have been remembered for his accomplishments in forming the standard language but for the harm which he caused to its formation. As for Vuk's insistence on the Ijekavian dialect, it is no simple matter to determine the extent to which it helped and the extent to which it harmed the Serbian nation and its culture. If Ijekavian, under Vuk's influence, could have been generally accepted, it would have been of great value because it would have secured greater unity of the literary language for the Serbs in different regions. History has shown, however, that this was not possible, and it is difficult and inappropriate to guess what might have happened if Vuk had accepted Ekavian. Nevertheless, it is clear that his Ijekavian harmed his own struggle most of all. Of everything which he proposed, Ijekavian was the least acceptable to the majority of Serbian intellectuals (and in general to the majority of Serbs) and later turned into one of the most frequently mentioned and most successful arguments of his antagonists.

In the earlier phases of his work, Vuk frequently stressed that “we must take grammar from shepherds and plowmen” (e.g., Karadžić 1894: I, 159), because only the language of simple rural folk is unspoiled, while people in towns speak badly and authors from an urban environment write in a language full of mistakes. In this case, too, Vuk, born in the countryside and brilliantly aware of his native speech, chose what was closer to him and easier for him, at the same time discrediting what his antagonists, advocates of the “cultivated” language, were proud of. In this too, Vuk relied on Kopitar, who often had pointed out that Slovene was spoken well only in the countryside, whereas the language of town-dwellers, and especially the language used in books, was debased by the influence of German. Vuk applied a similar view to the conditions of the Serbs and gave the problem the sharpened aspect of a social clash. We can guess that he had had painful experience with the arrogance of certain members of the “upper class” in the Vojvodina, who saw in him an uneducated peasant boy. Psychologically, the conversion of his weakness into a virtue and of his opponents' advantage into a drawback is understandable. This move might also have looked like a skillful tactical maneuver, but it did not prove to be so: it distanced the Serbian intellectuals from Vuk and was frequently castigated and ridiculed. It was rightly claimed that the language of a modern culture cannot be based on the possibilities of expression of those who lack that culture, and that the literary languages of all advanced nations are founded on the speech of the educated circles of society.

Kopitar counted the Catholic speakers of Štokavian, e.g., the Slavonian Šokac population and the Dalmatian writer Andrija Kačić-Miošić, among the Serbs, on the basis of linguistic criteria. In the age of Romantic enthusiasm for ethnicity, language was considered practically the only determinant of nationality, and Kopitar was well aware of the linguistic proximity of all speakers of Štokavian and of the differences which marked them off from Čakavian and Kajkavian speakers (the latter, again on the basis of language, he considered Slovenes). Vuk's acceptance of this opinion was to have serious consequences later on: it aroused strong resistance in the Croats, who saw in Vuk's claim to the Štokavian Catholics an aggressive nationalist attitude and stressed quite rightly that that population did not consider itself Serbian. The discord which ensued did harm to the relations between the two peoples.

Kopitar is responsible for one more move of Vuk's, which, in all fairness, affects only a detail, but one which played a great historical role. Kopitar early began to be carried away by the dream of a common alphabet for all Slavs and a synthesis of the cyrillic and latin alphabets. He even suggested to the Germans that they should include a few cyrillic letters in their alphabet (Kopitar 1857: 243-256). We should be so much the less surprised, then, that in his review of Vuk's first grammar he expressed the idea that the Serbian alphabet should be supplemented with the letter j (Kopitar 1857: p. 313). Vuk accepted his advice, thereby giving his opponents an argument which served them perhaps better than any other. The Serbian public in any case suspected that Kopitar, a loyal Catholic trusted by the Viennese Court, wished to separate the Serbs from the Orthodox tradition, using Vuk as a means. This suspicion was cherished and fanned by the high-ranking Orthodox clergy, who were in the forefront of the resistance to Vuk's reforms, mainly because they wanted to preserve the influence of the Church in culture and to defend the link between the Serbs and Russia, which was seen as the protector of Orthodoxy. The Serbian public was oversensitive because of the frequent attempts of the Austrian authorities to subject the Serbs to the Catholic Church. Thus, the latin yod (j) looked like a tool by which Kopitar wished to separate the Serbs from their Orthodox Russian brethren. For this reason, the yod became the main subject of attacks on Vuk's alphabet and the main obstacle to its adoption. This alphabet would certainly have been accepted more easily and rapidly if Vuk had used the letter i or ŭ instead of yod. These two letters had already been used in the Serbian cyrillic alphabet, but Vuk had exiled both from the alphabet, only to introduce the sign j unnecessarily.

The ultimate fate of Vuk's five controversial ideas mentioned here was not the same for all. Vuk clung faithfully only to the use of yod; there is no sign that he ever thought of deviating in this detail. In connection with Ijekavian, he went through a period of hesitation about 1830, when he was living in Serbia, probably as a result of feeling the extent to which Ekavian predominated in the ruling circles of the new state. But on his return to Vienna, again separated from the Serbian environment, he returned to his native Ijekavian dialect. As for the three other points, Vuk later revised his stand.

Vuk at first deviated from the opinion that all the speakers of Štokavian were Serbs, but he later returned to this claim. Evidently under Kopitar's influence, Vuk in his first grammar of 1814 divided the Serbian language into three dialects, one of which he defined as “Slavonian.” This is in fact the Ikavian dialect spoken by a Catholic (and Moslem) population, and not a Serbian one. In 1817 and 1818, however, he had already changed this classification, not mentioning the Slavonian dialect. Much has been written on Vuk's possible motives for leaving it out (e.g., Rešetar 1907: 2-3; Belić 1948: 109-111; Ivić 1971: p. 270). But one point has not been emphasized to date: Kopitar himself had arrived at the realization of the linguistic unity of the Serbs and Croats. He expressed this for the first time in 1822, and more fully in 1836 (Lencek 1976: 46-47). It can be supposed, however, that even before 1822 he had begun to think about this: it had seemed to him unjustified to consider the dialect of a Catholic population Serbian if Serbian and Croatian were one language. Nevertheless, in 1849, when Kopitar was no longer alive, Vuk returned to the opinion that all speakers of Štokavian were Serbs, at the same time determining only Čakavian speakers as real Croats. Here too Vuk was not original, but followed the opinion of the most outstanding expert in Slavic languages of the time, Fran Miklošič, who, to the end of his life, distinguished between the “Serbian” language (i.e., the Štokavian dialect) and the “Croatian” language (i.e., Čakavian). Clearly, with the advantage of hindsight, Miklošič and Karadžić were wrong, as indeed Kopitar himself was once. Respectfully but polemically, the Zagreb philologist Bogoslav Šulek replied to Vuk in 1856. In his rejoinder of 1861, Vuk changed his original opinion considerably, admitting that there could be Croats among the Catholic Štokavian speakers, and allowing that the confession of a particular faith might play a role as one criterion for national determination.

The ideas that the language of an uneducated rural population might form the model for the literary language and that dialectal pluralism could exist in the literary language were never explicitly corrected by Vuk. He supported them eloquently at the beginning, and later silently, abandoning them unnoticed at the end.

It was in 1821 that Vuk first demanded a selective attitude from writers toward the dialects of the simple people: “If writers have any power in language, I think that it consists in this, that in grammatical matters which are undecided among ordinary people, they choose what is correct.” This is Vuk's first mention of grammatical correctness as a concept independent of the dialectal authenticity of a linguistic form.

We have very few statements by Vuk on the literary language or at least very few new attitudes dating from the 1820s and the first half of the 1830s. This was the period of Vuk's hardest work and intellectual maturing. Expanding his knowledge and experience, he gradually outgrew his intellectual dependence on Kopitar. In lively contact with the processes of formation of the Serbian literary language, he had the opportunity to better understand the phenomena of the literary language and the needs of Serbian society in that sphere. He certainly reflected on the reaction of the Serbian public to his writings; he was too wise not to become concerned about why not even his friends approved of him in some matters.

In 1836 Vuk introduced into his language the writing of the letter h in words of Slavic origin (until then he had written h only in international loanwords and in foreign names). Vuk made this change only when he had made sure that the consonant h was pronounced in the living dialects of Dubrovnik, Boka Kotorska, and Montenegro. This was the first time he had applied his new idea of the literary language as a selective combination of the features of various dialects. Such an approach is in conflict with his earlier viewpoint that writers should use authentic folk dialects. Nevertheless, Vuk remained loyal to his principle that nothing must enter the literary language which does not exist at least somewhere in folk dialects (it is understood that this principle does not refer to vocabulary, although Vuk did not stress this point specifically). The distance between this and Vuk's former concepts of the literary language is best illustrated by his claim of 1836 that if there is something “more beautiful and correct” in Boka Kotorska than that which is spoken elsewhere, “it should be taken into the general Serbian language,” although there were no more than thirty thousand inhabitants of that region. On the other hand, Vuk in 1836 repeated the idea that every writer ought to use his own dialect. But this, as the context shows, was only his defense of his own practice of writing in Ijekavian: he was not prepared to renounce his native dialect nor was he able to impose it on Ekavian speakers; therefore he allowed dialectal pluralism in literature (reduced in reality to the difference between two types of reflex for the vowel ě). Vuk failed to notice here that his new vision of the literary language as a selection of features from various dialects excluded the freedom of writing in any actual dialect. Besides, in Vuk's 1836 formulation, his liberal attitude toward dialects was accompanied by a considerable restriction: writers were to use their own dialects for the time being, until the public became well acquainted with the features of the dialects, and then a general literary language would be formed itself with time, according to the rules by which literary languages were formed in other nations too.

In 1839, Vuk introduced further changes into his literary language, the most important of which was the writing of tje and dje instead of će and ðe in cases where dental plosives were followed by short ě. Vuk found support for this too in the dialect of Dubrovnik; as early as 1822 he had mentioned that this feature was present in Sarajevo and other Bosnian towns. He accompanied his innovation with the explanation that this was “the urban, gentlemanly (gospodski) variety” of the Ijekavian dialect. This was a break with his theory of peasant dialect as the model for the literary language. The whole course of the discussion until then had shown that this attitude was untenable in principle, and Vuk reached out to urban dialects outside the Vojvodina, as soon as he had the opportunity, as models to which the literary language should conform. (It should not be forgotten that the towns of the Vojvodina were the main strongholds of his antagonists and that in order to discredit them he had often stressed that people made more language mistakes in the Vojvodina, particularly in the towns, than anywhere else, and that the writers in those places erred the most.) His altered attitude toward rural speech is also typified by the passage dated 1839 in which Vuk instructs his opponent Svetić to first “study the spoken language” (Vuk's italics)—thus the spoken, not the rural language—if he wishes to write well.

An analysis of the changes which Vuk introduced into his language in 1836 and 1839 (Ivić 1966) shows that his interventions were directed toward archaizing the literary language to a certain extent, bringing it closer to the other Slavic literary languages, increasing the measure of grammatical consistency in the language and, as we already pointed out, giving it a base in certain urban dialects. The same criteria can be discerned even in the long lists of “corrupt” forms spoken by “the vulgar,” which were rejected by Vuk in 1845. That year, Vuk also introduced the concept of “general correctness,” but he did not define it. The context shows, however, that the above-mentioned criteria stand behind this concept, especially loyalty to older forms and inner grammatical correctness—both elements considered relevant even today in issues of accepting linguistic phenomena into literary languages.

Vuk's translation of the New Testament in 1847 brought a clarification of his attitudes to vocabulary. In his foreword he gave lists of words which he had used in the translation, although they were not used in the vernacular. He included 86 Church Slavonic words and 84 words which he himself had made up in the spirit of the folk language. Vuk showed by this very clearly that he understood that the vocabulary of a folk language is not sufficient to supply the needs of a literary language.

In conclusion, we can contend that Vuk, remaining firm in his fundamental point of view that the popular language should be the basis of the literary, corrected his view in the following ways: (1) he abandoned the idea that rural dialects are better than urban as a model for a literary language; (2) the Romantic liberal attitude toward dialectal pluralism in literature was replaced by a conscious striving toward linguistic unity, not on the basis of a single local dialect but a selection of the features of various dialects, executed according to sociolinguistic and internal linguistic criteria. (Indeed, Vuk more or less tolerated the coexistence of the Ekavian and Ijekavian varieties in the literary language until the end of his life, but this was evidently a historical inevitability.)

In both cases, Vuk was on the right road. His attitude toward the Serbian literary language was sober and responsible. He was right in deviating from Kopitar's advice in some matters. Although Kopitar's knowledge of linguistics was far greater than Vuk's, Vuk better understood what a literary language is. This was natural. Owing to historical circumstances, and perhaps because of his personal characteristics, Vuk was in a different position from Kopitar: not of dreaming about the literary language of his people but of creating and nurturing it. Vuk had all the traits of a fighter capable of winning and putting his ideas into practice. This means that he was not only a visionary but also a realist.

Works Cited

Belić, Aleksandar 1948. Vukova borba za narodni i književni jezik. Beograd: Prosveta.

Ivić, Pavle 1966. Dva aspekta Vukovog dela. Vukov Zbornik, Beograd: Srpska akademija nauka i umetnosti, Posebna izdanja t. 400, 63-71.

Ivić, Pavle 1971. Srpski narod i njegov jezik. Beograd: Srpska književna zadruga, kolo LXIV, knjiga 429.

Karadžić, Vuk 1894-1896. Skupljeni gramatički i polemički spisi Vuka Stef. Karadžića. Beograd: Državno izdanje. I, 1894. II/1, 1894. II/2, 1895. III/1, 1896, III/2, 1896.

Kopitar, Barth. 1857. Kleinere Schriften. Erster Theil. Wien: Friedrich Beck's Universitätsbuchhandlung.

Lencek, Rado 1976. A Few Remarks for the History of the Term “Serbo-croatian” Language, Zbornik za filologijui lingvistiku XIX/1, 45-53.

Pogačnik, Jože 1973. Kopitarjeva zamisel o kulturnozgodovinskem razvoju pri južnih Slovanih. Referati za VII medunarodni kongres slavista u Varšavi. Novi Sad: Filozofski fakultet u Novom Sadu, 121-139.

Thomas Butler (essay date 1982)

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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 of folklore it is usually in connection with his encouragement and support of the activities of Vuk Karadžić (1787-1864), the foremost collector and publisher of Serbo-Croatian folksongs, as well as the reformer of the Serbo-Croatian literary language.

Scholars have tended to regard Kopitar's strong support for Vuk's folklore activities within the framework of a larger interest, namely, the establishment of a new Serbian literary language based on the spoken language of the peasantry. The responsibility for this distorted focus on the Slovene's contributions to the folklore field must, at least in part, be laid at the door of Kopitar himself, for on many an occasion, in reviews and articles, he pointed to the high aesthetic quality and expressive language of the folksongs as proof of the superiority of Vuk's new literary language over the “macaronic language” (mixed Serbian and Russian Slavonic) of his opponents. The following paper will attempt to offer a more accurate picture of Kopitar as a folklorist by examining his development in this field as a separate phenomenon, without reference (as much as this is possible) to any of his other interests in the area of slavica.

Jernej Kopitar had outstanding assets for a South Slavic folklorist. First, he was a true man of the people; the son of peasants, he grew up on a farm and spoke only Slovene for the first nine years of his life. In his autobiographical sketch, written in 1839 and included in his Kleinere Schriften, Kopitar tells us that he knew “not a syllable of German” when he left his native village of Repnje and went to Ljubljana to attend the gymnasium.1 Kopitar knew the rural Slavic agricultural milieu in a way no city dweller ever could; he understood Slavic folk ways because he had lived them, and throughout his scholarly career he maintained an interest not only in the folksongs but in the folk customs as well. He also never lost his instinct for what was authentic folklore and what was false.

Kopitar's work as the secretary to Baron Sigismund Zois, from 1799 to 1808, certainly contributed to his development as a scholar. While living in Zois' house he played an active role in the efforts of a Zois-led group to revive the Slovene literary language on the basis of Adelung's principles, which stressed the spoken language as the ultimate arbiter of correct usage (“schreib wie du sprichst”).2 During this period Zois and his brother gleaned hundreds of words in the fields of botany and mineralogy from among the country folk; and the poet Valentin Vodnik, who was preparing a German-Slovene dictionary, copied down Slovene folksongs as well.3 Although Kopitar's Selbstbiographie offers no information on the subject, it does seem possible that young Jernej made folksong-collecting forays into his own native region during this period. This would have been a natural thing for him to do, not only in competition with Vodnik, but also in sympathy with the romantic enthusiasm for everything “folk” then prevailing in Europe.

Kopitar's classical education, plus his natural facility in learning foreign languages, also contributed to his development as a folklorist. Not only was he able to read the Homeric epic poems in the original Greek, but he was also able to read Macpherson's Ossian and the modern Greek folksongs as well. Perhaps the single most important “event” in the Slovene's development as a folklorist was his reading of Goethe's translation of the “Hasanaginica,” published in Herder's Volkslieder in 1778. A poetic jewel in its own right, Goethe's “Klaggesang von der edlen Frauen des Asan Aga” made such a deep impression on Kopitar that he referred to it in his Slovene Grammar (1808)4 and continued to refer to it in his writings on Serbo-Croatian folklore in subsequent years. In an age when all of Europe was awakening to the value of its folklore, this exquisite Moslem ballad was like a single Slavic nugget that continually enticed the young scholar with the thought that somewhere in the Balkans there was a “mother lode” of folksongs which would prove that the Slavic bards were the equal, if not the superiors, of their Germanic and Celtic counterparts. And not only were Kopitar, Zois, and Vodnik interested in Slavic folksongs, but the Patriarch of Slavic linguistics himself, Josef Dobrovský, wrote to Kopitar from Prague (in answer to an earlier letter), enquiring about the existence of South Slavic folksongs and folk ways.5

When Kopitar moved to Vienna in 1809, he asked his newfound Serbian and Croatian friends whether they knew any songs like the “Hasanaginica” or the poems in Kačić-Miošić's Razgovor ugodni.6 In a letter to Dobrovský from Vienna in 1809, the Slovene writes, “First of all, I asked my new Serbian friends about the Serbian folksongs, such as those about Kraljević Marko, etc.”7 In that letter he also included a pair of Croatian folksongs he had taken down from a Croatian border guard. During the early years in Vienna he began to study Serbo-Croatian seriously, making a chart of the differences between “Serbian” and his native tongue. (About this same time he became convinced that there was no essential difference between Serbian and Croatian.8) In 1810, at the wedding in Vienna of his former student Bonazza (Zois' nephew), Kopitar met the Croatian Bishop Maximilian Vrhovac. He asked Vrhovac's help in finding the Croatian folk treasure, and he eventually persuaded the Bishop to send out a circular letter to all his parish priests asking them to write down words, folk expressions, folksongs, and customs, and ordering them to keep a notebook of all old Slavic books and manuscripts in their parishes.9 But this attempt was largely unsuccessful, and Vrhovac sent the Slovene few songs.

Kopitar then decided to try the Serbs. On 24 June 1811 he wrote the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Austria, Bishop Stefan Stratimirović, asking for the name of a Serb with whom he could correspond regarding serbica.10 Stratimirović put him in touch with the archimandrite Lukijan Mušicki, who was a lover of folklore and a poet as well. In a letter to Mušicki in 1811 Kopitar mentioned Goethe's translation of the “Hasanaginica” and comments on the song's “depth of feeling.” He also discussed the puzzling (for non-Moslems) question of Hasan Aga's wife's refusal to visit her wounded husband in his tent (“a ljubovca od stida nije mogla”). And in this same letter he also continued his quest for authentic examples of folksongs: “If only a better Kačić would turn up among the Illyrians, one who would collect the most beautiful songs of every type, then the Serbs and Croats would have a treasure like perhaps no one else!”11 Kopitar's hopes for maintaining a scholarly correspondence with Mušicki were largely unsatisfied, the Serb being a poor correspondent.

In his early review articles too, Kopitar referred to the need for a skilled collector of South Slavic folklore. In an article entitled “Slavische Sprachkunde,” published in the Vienna periodical Annalen für Literatur und Kunst (II, 1811, 52-68), while reviewing a new Croatian grammar, he suddenly stops and exclaims: “One more time! The Croats have such beautiful folksongs that Goethe and Herder translated several of them in the collections of their immortal works. Can no one be found who will collect them in a more critical and more complete way than did Kačić?”12 In the same article Kopitar also cites the first lines of four folksongs from a Jesuit songbook, included with a Croatian evangelium first published in 1619.13 The Jesuit gave the first lines of the peasant songs to show the airs to which he wanted church hymns sung (“Poszejal szem basulek, poszejal szem, draga ljuba,” “Igralo kolo široko,” etc.). Kopitar asks: “Does anyone know whether these four folksongs have been preserved among the people?”14 Later scholars, including Vatroslav Jagić, followed the Slovene scholar's lead, using the old church hymnals as sources for the history of Slavic song.15

Kopitar's persistent search for a qualified collector of South Slavic folklore was finally crowned with success when he met Vuk Karadžić in 1813. A refugee from the recently suppressed Serbian uprising against the Ottoman Empire (more precisely, against some renegade local rulers called the dahije), Vuk had written a pamphlet in which he discussed the causes for the failure of the Serbian ustanak. Since Kopitar was by now the Censor for all Slavic books in the Austrian lands, Vuk's manuscript came into his hands for approval. In Vuk's own words: “This manuscript of mine came into the hands of Mr. Kopitar, as Censor, and when he recognized from it … that I was a man of the people, and that I was different from all the Serbs he had seen and known … he came to my place to see me.”16 Now we do not know precisely what it was in Vuk's pamphlet that drove Kopitar to seek him out, but it was most likely Vuk's language, which would have been closer to spoken Serbo-Croatian than the language of Kopitar's Serbian friends Davidović and Frušić (the editors of the new Serbian newspaper in Vienna, Novine Serbske), and certainly purer than the written language of Dositej Obradović, whose works the Slovene had already reviewed.17 It is also possible that in his pamphlet Vuk quoted some lines from the Serbian epic poems about the uprising. Whatever the cause of his initial interest, Kopitar quickly ascertained that Vuk knew Serbian folksongs and that he had access to other Serbs who knew songs, and so the Censor soon convinced him to begin preparation of a small book.

Vuk's first book of songs, Mala prostonarodnja slaveno-serbska pjesnarica, was published in Vienna in 1814. That same year the German folklorist Jakob Grimm came to the Austrian capital as a member of the Hesse-Cassel delegation to the Vienna Congress. It was Kopitar who met Grimm and told him of Vuk's songbook and persuaded the German to study Serbo-Croatian so that he might be able to read the songs in the original. Grimm wrote a review of the Pjesnarica for the Wiener allgemeine Literaturzeitung in 1815, at Kopitar's suggestion.18 In his review Grimm disclaimed his own competence to judge the purity of the Pjesnarica's language (to which Kopitar commented, in a footnote: “It is highly correct!”), but instead he analyzed the meter and the imagery of the songs, comparing them to German folk verse. Grimm's thoughtful review was the first scholarly critique of Serbo-Croatian folklore.

In persuading a scholar of the German's caliber to review Vuk's Pjesnarica, Jernej Kopitar not only enhanced the prestige of the songs among educated Serbs and Germans, but what is even more important he managed through Jakob Grimm to establish South Slavic folklore collecting on a scholarly basis from the very start. Grimm's concern for purity (authenticity) of language, his request for details concerning the singers, the music of the songs, and the circumstances of their recording—all these essential elements helped shape the framework within which future South Slavic folklore collecting would be carried out. Grimm also sent Vuk (via Kopitar) a circular on the proper method for collecting folklore, one which he had recently printed for use throughout the German-speaking lands.19 The German folklorist's influence on Slavic folklore collecting was not confined to the South Slavic area alone, however; Max Vasmer has shown that Grimm also had a strong influence on nineteenth-century Russian folklorists, including Hil'ferding, Afanasyev, and Snegiryov.20 It does not seem an overstatement then to say that Jernej Kopitar's enthusiasm for Slavic folklore, which led him to seek out Jakob Grimm and persuade him to study Slavic languages and folklore, had a profound effect on the collection and preservation of folklore in the Slavic world.

Vuk's second book of songs, Srpske narodne pjesme (1815), was reviewed by Kopitar himself anonymously, since the book was dedicated to him.21 The reviewer begins by stating that this book contains the first and only examples of pure Serbo-Croatian published to date. He shows the breadth of his Balkan interests, as he compares the Serbian songs to the modern Greek: “Only the peasants and the hajduk poets, who can neither read nor write, express themselves in pure Greek, as here in pure Serbian.” The reviewer compliments his protegé for reproducing the songs exactly as they were sung, reflecting for example the dialect differences between Bačka and Hercegovina. He also compliments Vuk for giving the music for some of the songs (here Vuk was helped by the Polish composer Mirecki), and for giving biographical details about the singers.

Kopitar showed his classical background in his review, as he compared the singer Filip Višnjić's “Početak bune protiv Dahije,” a song about the beginning of the Serbian uprising in 1804, with Homer's Iliad: “It is twice as long as Homer's catalog of ships in the Iliad!” the excited Slovene exclaimed. In this review and elsewhere he began to refer to the Serbian epic poets as “Homeriden,” and in 1819 he wrote the German scholar F. Wolf, author of Prolegomena ad Homerum (1795), to advise him that a study of the Serbo-Croatian epic songs would be a useful approach to understanding the composition of the Homeric epics themselves.22 This insight anticipated the direction of later scholars such as Murko, Parry, and Lord.

Having established through Vuk the existence of a rich store of Balkan Slavic song, and having promoted the publication of two books of these songs, Jernej Kopitar began to concern himself with their poetic translation into German. He hoped that such a translation might convince European scholars and literati of the wealth and beauty of Slavic folklore. In reviewing Vuk's second songbook, the Vienna Censor had asked whether “some Goethe might also transplant these magnificent flowers onto the German Parnassus.” Kopitar did not mention that he himself had already translated into German 107 songs from Vuk's Pjesnarica, and had sent them to Goethe with a “Vorbericht” in which he advised the great poet that Vuk Karadžić, the collector and publisher of these songs, was a refugee from Serbia, and that it was only after he had seen Herder's Volkslieder and Goethe's translation of the “Hasanaginica” that he was persuaded to write down the songs.23 The Slovene, who signed himself simply “Kop.,” without giving any further clue to his identity, probably hoped that the renowned poet would rework his simple prose translations into a poetic German. This Goethe did not do, but he did keep the translations, and they did serve a useful purpose later, as we shall see.

Kopitar also tried to get his friend Jakob Grimm to do a poetic translation of the songs. He hounded Grimm to no avail, since the German folklorist did not believe it possible to translate poetry successfully. (On the other hand, Grimm did translate two songs for Goethe's journal Über die Kunst und Alterthum, and he is also believed to have translated the nineteen Serbo-Croatian songs in F. Förster's Sängerfahrt [1818], although this has been the subject of some dispute, some scholars preferring to ascribe the latter translations to Kopitar.)24 Kopitar even tried to persuade Mušicki to do a German version of the Pjesnarica, but this attempt also failed.25

But as was the case with his years-long quest for a collector of the songs, Kopitar's search for a translator was eventually successful. A Fräulein Theresa Albertine Louisa von Jakob, later known to the literary world by her acronym Talvj, inspired by Grimm's review of Vuk's 1823 (Leipzig) edition of the folksongs, as well as by Goethe's connection with the Serbo-Croatian lore, sent Goethe her own translations of a few of Vuk's songs. Goethe accepted the translations for publication in his journal and suggested that she do a full book of songs. He sent her Kopitar's 107 translations to help her on her way.26 Now Talvj is said to have known both Russian and Church Slavonic, languages which she learned during the course of several years spent in Russia with her schoolteacher father.27 Yet she did not know Serbo-Croatian, and so she wrote Kopitar on 23 May 1824, seeking the Slovene linguist's aid:

Your Excellency may pardon the boldness with which I, a complete stranger, propose a correspondence of which I have a very definite need. The impossibility to find here … advice on the Serbian language and … the lack of tools … all of this gives me the courage; and the actual part which your Excellency played in furthering Vuk's own undertaking gives me the hope that you will not refuse to give your kind attention to my translations.28

An examination of Talvj's correspondence with the Vienna Censor in the period 1824-1826, and a comparison of her translations with the 107 translations first sent to Goethe by “Kop.,” will show that she was closely dependent on both Kopitar and Vuk in the preparation of her two-volume Volkslieder der Serben (Halle, 1825-1826). She nagged Kopitar and Vuk to send her more German prose translations of the folksongs, and she also borrowed heavily from the German translations published by the Slovene in Hormayr's Archiv.29 But even while imploring their advice and guidance, she also complained bitterly when Kopitar did not allow her “muse” sufficient freedom. She preferred freer and more Germanized translations, at least in the beginning of her translating activity, while the Slovene, like Grimm, wanted a close and nearly literal rendition. Although Kopitar refused to allow her to mention his name in the foreword to her book, denying her translation of the protection of his “scholarly authority” (her words), she did manage to acknowledge his role in a later edition of the book, which appeared several years after the scholar's death.30

Kopitar's efforts to gain Serbo-Croatian folklore a European audience were further enhanced by the publication of English and French editions of the songs, based on Talvj's German translations. John Bowring (Servian Popular Poetry [London, 1827]) had been in correspondence with Kopitar and had received two volumes of the songs in the original Serbo-Croatian. But this was hardly necessary, because he simply pirated Talvj's work, barely acknowledging his debt to her. Elise Voiart (Chants populaires des Serviens recueillis par Wuk Stephanowitsch et traduits d'après Talvj, I-II [Paris, 1834]) freely acknowledged her debt to Talvj, as the title of her book indicates.

The Talvj, Bowring, and Voiart editions of the Serbo-Croatian folksongs represented the culmination of the Slovene scholar's efforts in the folklore field, and the fulfillment of a task he had pursued over the course of some twenty years: to find the missing mother lode of South Slavic lore; to have it published in the original; and then to have the songs translated so that they might reach the broadest possible audience. It is true that he had a simultaneous interest in the establishment of a new Serbo-Croatian literary language based on the spoken language of the peasantry, but this was a separate goal; and while the two interests were inevitably intertwined at times (the beauty of the songs serving as a justification for the new literary language), still it would be an injustice to Jernej Kopitar not to view his folklore activities independently, as a pioneering effort which influenced not only the scholarly level at which South Slavic songs were collected and studied, but which also affected (through Grimm) the level of folklore scholarship in Russia as well.


  1. Jernej Kopitar, “Selbstbiographie,” in Kleinere Schriften, I (cited hereafter as KS), ed. Franz Miklosich (Vienna, 1857), p. 3. Note that the German form of Kopitar's given name, Bartholomäus, appears on his writings.

  2. Johann C. Adelung, Deutsche Sprachlehre zum Gebrauche der Schulen in den könig. preuss. Länden (Berlin, 1781), p. 577.

  3. Nestor M. Petrovskij, Pervye gody dejatel'nosti V. Kopitara (Kazan', 1906), p. 29.

  4. Bartholomäus Kopitar, Grammatik der slavischen Sprache in Krain, Kärnten und Steyermark (Laibach, 1808).

  5. Dobrovský wrote Kopitar in 1809: “Gibt es erweislich alte Volkslieder? Sind sie 4 oder 8-sylbig? … Wer hat sich in Liedern (oder der Poesie) vor andern, früh oder spät ausgezeichnet? Gibt es Fabeln oder Räthsel? Gibt es gedruckte Sammlungen von Sprichwörtern?” In Pis'ma Dobrovskogo i Kopitara v povremennom porjadke, ed. Vatroslav Jagič, Sbornik ORJaS AN, 39 (St. Petersburg, 1885), p. 28.

  6. Kačić-Miošić (1704-1760) published the first edition of his Razgovor ugodni naroda slovinskoga (A Pleasant Discourse about the Slavic People) in Venice in 1756. Kačić enlivened his history of the Slavs with poems about famous battles and leaders. Most of these poems are of his own composition, and although they have a folk style they also have elements such as rhyme which distinguish them from the true oral epic. For a while Kopitar believed, as did others, that Kačić had taken these songs from the folk bards. In a review of Dobrovský's Slovanka he said of Kačić's Razgovor: “… worin viele serbische Heldenlieder vorkommen und der daher unter allen mit lateinischen Buchstaben gedruckten Büchern allein auch von Orthodoxen Serben gelesen wird.” (In Wiener allgemeine Literaturzeitung [hereafter WALZ] II (1814); KS, p. 287.) In a letter to Vuk, dated 27 May 1814, he urged the Serb to republish Kačić's songs but in a Serbian text: “Die Krainer schreiben mir: Es gehört die Beharlichkeit eines Vuk dazu, um aus der schlechten und fehlervollen Orthographie des Kacsich den serbischen Text herzustellen. … Kein Volk wird dann so schöne Volkslieder aufzuweisen haben, als das Serbische.” (Vukova prepiska [ed. Ljub. Stojanović] I, p. 134.) Vuk stalled Kopitar by pointing out that since Serbs had already read Kačić in latin letters he doubted they would buy the same book again in cyrillic. (Vukova prepiska, I, p. 136.) But within nine months Kopitar figured out that Kačić's songs were not authentic folk songs, but his own. On 21 March 1815 he wrote to Vuk: “Eben sehe ich, dass Kačić nicht gesammelt, sondern sie alles selbst gemacht hat, und zwar im serbischen Metro, aber dazu noch gereimt. (Vukova prepiska, I, 143-44.) And just three days later he wrote Dobrovský: “Video Cacichium plerasque ipsum fecisse, modis quidem serbicis, sed tamen a se … factas etc.” (Pis'ma Dobrovskogo i Kopitara, op. cit., p. 401.)

  7. Ibid., 35-36.

  8. On 1 February 1810 he wrote Dobrovský: “Kroatischer und Serbischer Dialekt sind synonyma.” (Pis'ma Dobrovskogo i Kopitara, op. cit., p. 87.)

  9. Bishop Vrhovac's circular letter of 26 June 1813 is cited by Matthias Murko in his Deutsche Einflüsse auf die Anfänge der böhmischen Romantik (Graz, 1897), p. 10. Murko quotes Vrhovac's circular: “Omnes cuiusvis generis cantilenas croaticas aut slavonicas cum adnotatione, quantum constaret, quando, et a quo … opportune colligat et haec omnia ad me successive transmittat.” The full circular was first published in Danica ilirska in 1837 (no. 24). It was later republished in Kolo, IX, 43-46.

  10. Novye pis'ma Dobrovskogo, Kopitara, i drugix jugozapadnyx slavjan, ed. Vatroslav Jagič, Sbornik ORJaS AN, 62 (St. Petersburg, 1897), 779-80.

  11. Ibid., p. 786.

  12. KS, p. 46.

  13. Szveti Evangeliumi, koteremi szveta czirkva katholiczka szlovenszko-horvaczka sivée (Czeska Ternava, 1694), 12th edition.

  14. KS, p. 47.

  15. See Vatroslav Jagić's article “Gradja za slovensku narodnu poeziju,” in Rad JAZU, XXXVIII (1876), 33-137.

  16. Quoted from Vuk's article “Pravi uzrok i početak skupljanja našijeh narodnijeh pjesama,” republished in Vuk Karadžić, Skupljeni gramatički i polemički spisi, III, ed. L. L. Djordjević (Belgrade, 1896), p. 66.

  17. Kopitar wrote several early articles designed to bring the works of Dositej Obradović to the attention of the Austrian reading public. He translated “Bruchstücke” from Obradović's autobiography, Život i priključenija, including the “letter to Haralampije” (Dositej's manifesto on the new Serbian literary language); he also published a “Vollständiger Auszug” from the same work, and wrote a eulogy to the Serbian “Anacharsis” after Obradović's death. All three Kopitar pieces are reprinted in KS, 49-56, 79-94, and 113-120.

  18. Jakob Grimm's review of the Pjesnarica in WALZ in 1815 was republished in his Kleinere Schriften, IV, 427-36 (1869 edition). In his very thoughtful review Grimm touches upon the connection between a scarcity of written culture and a rich and vital folklore: “Unter allen slawischen Völkerstämmen sind diese Serben mit ihrer sanften, überaus singbaren Sprache, zum voraus begabt mit Lied, Gesang, und Sage, und es scheint, als ob der gütige Himmel ihnen ihre Bücherlosigkeit durch einen Haussegen von Volkspoesie stets habe ersetzen wollen”; op. cit., p. 436.

  19. Jakob Grimm, “Circular wegen Aufsammlung der Volkspoesie” (Vienna, 1815).

  20. Max Vasmer, in Bausteine zur Geschichte der deutsch-slavischen geistigen Beziehungen, I (Berlin, 1939), writes concerning Grimm's influence on the Russian folklorists: “Was die Sammlung Hilferdings (Onežskije byliny) besonders wertvoll macht, ist die genaue Beachtung der Eigenart der einzelnen Liedersänger und die treue Beibehaltung der sprachlichen Form. Beides hatte Grimm in seinen Besprechungen von Vuks Serbischen Liedern gefordert”; op. cit., p. xxxi.

  21. Kopitar's review appeared in WALZ in 1816, 314-33. It is also in his KS, 347-69.

  22. Max Vasmer, op. cit., p. xxxix, quotes Kopitar's letter to F. A. Wolf, dated 26 March 1819: “Nirgends gibt es noch heute zu Tage treffendere Pendants zu Ihren Homeriden, als in Serbien und Bosnien.”

  23. Jevto Milović, Übertragungen slavischer Volkslieder aus Goethes Briefnachlass (Veröffentlichungen des Slavischen Instituts an der Fried.-Wilhelms-Universität Berlin, 28) (Leipzig, 1939), p. viii.

  24. The “neunzehn serbische Lieder” in Förster's Die Sängerfahrt: Eine Neujahrsgabe für Freunde der Dichtkunst und Malerei (Berlin, 1818), are included both in the collected works of Jakob Grimm (KS, IV [1869], 455-67) and of Jernej Kopitar (Jerneja Kopitarja Spisov II del, 1 knjiga [Ljubljana, 1944]). Rajko Nahtigal, editor of the latter volume, gives a long discussion (72-75) of the dispute over the authorship of the nineteen translations in Förster's book.

  25. Vuk wrote to Mušicki, relaying to him Kopitar's suggestion that the archimandrite should translate the poems “for the honor of the Serbian nation and language.” Novye pis'ma, p. 798.

  26. The Kopitar-Goethe-Talvj connection is discussed by Jevto Milović (op. cit., p. xi).

  27. For information on Talvj's life see Irma E. Voigt, Life and Works of Mrs. Theresa Robinson (Talvj) (Chicago, 1913).

  28. See Jevto Milović, Talvjs erste Übertragungen für Goethe und ihre Briefe an Kopitar (Vëroffentlichungen des Slavischen Instituts an der Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Berlin, 33) (Leigzig, 1941), p. 36.

  29. Kopitar published his translation of Višnjić's “Početak bune protiv Dahije,” (“Der Aufstand der Serbier gegen die Dahijen”), in Hormayer's Archiv für Geographie, Historie, Staats- und Kriegskunst, in January 1818 (republished in Jerneja Kopitarja Spisov II del, knj. 1, 28-45); in March of that same year he published three more translations of epic songs from the Serbian uprising: “O bitki srbskoj s Turcima na Salašu”; “O bitki srbskoj s Turcima na Mišarskom polju,” and “O smrti Mehe Orukčžića” (republished in ibid, knj. 1, 45-72). Kopitar's translations are accompanied by interesting notes which show that he was not a mere dilettante but a scholar who had studied the cultural background of these songs as well. For example, in one note he reminds the reader that the Bosnian Turks are not real Turks, but Serbs who profess the Koran: “they seldom know any Turkish, but just Serbian” (ibid., p. 67). Kopitar also sprinkles his commentary with references to the ancient Greek epics; for example, in a note to “O smrti Mehe Orukčžića,” where the singer hails the land of Pozerje, home of the hero Miloš Stojčevič, the Slovene writes: “Wir enthalten uns hier aller Parallelen mit der dankbaren altgriechischen Sitte, auch den Geburtsort des Helden zu preisen; sie ist in der Natur der Sache gegründet” (ibid., p. 71).

  30. In the introduction to the third edition of her Volkslieder der Serben (Leipzig, 1853), published nine years after Kopitar's death, Talvj wrote: “Ich würde nicht den Muth gehabt haben, meine Versuche dem Publikum zu übergeben, wenn nicht der ausgezeichnete slavische Gelehrte Kopitar aus Liebe zur Sache übernommen hätte, mein Manuscript durchzusehen” (op. cit., I, p. xxxviii).

Benjamin Stolz (essay date 1982)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5800

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 anyone who approaches the topic runs the risk of mere repetition, with slight reinterpretation, or of loose speculation and reckless theorizing. Still, the contribution of Jernej Kopitar and Vuk Karadžić to the rise of the modern Serbian literary language retains its fascination, for it is surely one of the most dramatic stories of individual intervention in the history of any literary language, Slavic or non-Slavic. The roles of Kopitar and Vuk deserve reexamination, for the impact of their collaboration can now be more accurately and dispassionately measured. Recent research, the increasing availability of published source materials connected with Vuk's career, and the evolution of the Serbian (and Serbo-Croatian) literary language in the two hundred years since the birth of Kopitar have placed all of us in a relatively favorable position.

Both men rose from South Slavic peasant origins, but beyond that their backgrounds diverged sharply: Kopitar, a learned Slovene Catholic with a classical education, was one of the greatest Slavists of his era; Karadžić, an Orthodox Serb who was to become his brilliant protégé in Vienna, had only a sporadic formal education and had functioned as a scribe and civil servant in unlettered rebel Serbia prior to the collapse of the first Uprising in 1813. Kopitar's romantic attitude toward vernacular language and folklore and his particularly strong interest in Serbian are evident in his correspondence as well as his publications, much of it dating from before his meeting with Vuk. It is clear that Kopitar owed a great deal to his European contemporaries and precursors: Herder, Grimm, Dobrovský, Schlözer, and Adelung. He cites Schlözer in support of his notion that truly vernacular-based literary languages are a prerequisite for culture among the emerging nations: “Culture does not begin among the peoples until they write in their own languages.”1

Earlier, in his Slovene grammar Kopitar had mused along Herderian lines on the history of the Slavs. “One can think what the same religion, the same literary language—and why not also [living] under a single leader, a Slavic Vladimir (‘World-ruler’)—might have done even earlier for this gigantic nation?” He goes on to list a number of disadvantages suffered by the Slavic peoples: (1) the Great Schism, with the resultant split of Christianity into Eastern and Western churches; (2) the introduction of the Latin rite in those Slavic lands under the Western church, preventing the use of the Slavic tongues for liturgical purposes; (3) the subjugation of the Slavs (whom he describes as “peaceful farmers who in their innocence had forgotten to think ahead about war”) by Magyars, Turks, Mongols, and Germans—with the result that “on the throne and in all state functions the language of the foreign conquerors rules, while the poor native language is banished to the huts of the conquered, who are declared bondsmen.”2 The situation, Kopitar tells us in a footnote, obtains for all the Slavs, except for the Russians, among whom the language of the folk is also the state language. A long discussion of orthographic problems ensues, with reference also to the difficulties engendered by the two alphabets, roman and cyrillic. Chaos reigns in the use of the roman alphabet in the West, including those Slavic languages where it is employed. “Only [let there be] an intelligent and strong leader and this anarchy too will vanish.”3

Kopitar, despite certain misconceptions, had a keen awareness of the linguistic situation among the Serbs and Croats. He credited Dositej Obradović with being the first Serbian vernacular writer, and knew his works intimately; and as Censor for Slavic books in the Austrian Empire, he read and reviewed the works of later Serbian writers, criticising and praising them according to their mastery of the written vernacular. Kopitar's “Patriotische Phantasien eines Slaven,” published in 1810, encapsulates his views on a number of important language issues three years prior to his meeting with Vuk. Dositej Obradović, among others, had noticed the close similarity of the West Balkan Slavic dialects; Kopitar echoed this, pointing out that while the Serbs as yet had neither a grammar nor dictionary of the vernacular language, “those of the Catholic Slaveno-Serbs [i.e., speakers of the three ‘Illyrian’ dialects—Ragusan, Bosnian, and Slavonian] are also usable here.”4 Vuk Karadžić was a Serbian nationalist and populist with an essentially rationalist outlook acquired through reading the works of Dositej Obradović. Vuk (like Kopitar) shared Dositej's conception of language, not religion, as the primary determinant of nationality. In meeting Kopitar, Vuk was drawn into the orbit of German Romanticism and became convinced of the need for a radical language reform among the Serbs—and one that would unite them with their Roman Catholic brothers. Ambitiously espousing Kopitar's program, he immediately undertook in turn the collection of verbal folklore and the compiling of a grammar and dictionary of the vernacular language.

A number of earlier researchers agree on the crucial role Kopitar played as Vuk's mentor. In essence, they say with varying degrees of emphasis what Aleksandar Belić wrote: “Jernej Kopitar made Vuk Karadžić the man that he was. All the ideas which Vuk set forth on the necessity of introducing the vernacular (narodni jezik) were also Kopitar's or were derived from his ideas. Vuk's reform was the work of the two of them, in which the primary initiative and the fundamental idea, and the whole plan, were given by Kopitar.”5 The Slovene Matija Murko had earlier expressed much the same thing: “Kopitar so to speak created the whole Vuk Karadžić …”;6 and elsewhere Murko called Kopitar “the man who found, taught, led, and supported Vuk Karadžić.”7 Rajko Nahtigal, the leading Slovene linguist of his day, wrote: “Without Kopitar, his help, support, and instruction, there would not have been the great reform work … by his genius student Vuk Stefanović Karadžić.”8 Vatroslav Jagić, whose critical judgment of Kopitar's career was both severe and humane, considered the collaboration with Vuk in the period up to the publication of Vuk's Rječnik (1818) to be Kopitar's most significant achievement, standing above all his polemics and critiques.9 Quite naturally it is possible to find observers who would prefer to deemphasize Kopitar's role. N. Banašević, while admitting the importance of Kopitar in “the crystallization of Vuk's aspirations,”10 disputes the notion that without him Vuk would have amounted to nothing. S. Nazečić11 interprets Kopitar's guidance as an important but not overriding factor, arguing on the basis of letters and documents that Vuk in addition to his native intelligence had the experience, knowledge, and ambition that prepared him to accomplish the projects which he tackled in such swift succession after his arrival in Vienna.

Obviously there is a danger in viewing Vuk's journey to Vienna as a kind of linguistic Hegira, or in treating Kopitar and Vuk as if they were central characters in G. B. Shaw's “Pygmalion”—or Cyril and Methodius. The reality is never as simple as it is made to seem in textbooks. Nevertheless, even a cursory reading of Kopitar's and Vuk's relevant works, as well as their extensive correspondence, offers convincing evidence of the enormous part played by Kopitar in Vuk's emergence as a man of letters and language reformer. And at the same time it confirms Vuk's inherent strength and talent. To ask whether Vuk in fact followed the course set by Kopitar or whether and to what extent Vuk's own goals were achieved poses a different set of questions altogether. Ultimately, as we shall see, Kopitar's indirect role as a liaison between Vuk and the leading European scholars, intellectuals, and literati was to prove every bit as important as his direct influence upon him.

On many occasions public and private, Vuk himself credited Kopitar with launching his career. Sreznevskij asked Vuk how he became a man of letters. “Oh,” he said, “Here's what I think: Without this wooden leg, and without my good wife, and without the noble Kopitar, I wouldn't have been a književnik; and it also helped that I loved to travel. … But the main reason I became a književnik will always be Kopitar. In that regard I owe him, if not everything, then much, very much.”12

Vuk's private correspondence with Kopitar is replete with gratitude for Kopitar's continuing guidance. In one of his earliest letters to Vuk, Kopitar spurs him on (Vienna, 21 March 1815): “Are you going ahead with collecting for the Song Book? … With the Song Book as well as with the Grammar you are on the only true path. … Look for everything on Kraljević Marko. Also, about the Grammar (which I haven't been able to read through yet), collect for the second, third, etc., editions; it will go through twenty more, and even after our death will be called Vuk's Grammar.13 Vuk responds (Novi Sad, 18/30 March 1815) after answering about collecting folk songs: “I'm thinking about the grammar too, and have noted down some small points, and some of the learned Serbs have urged me to attend to it again; but that will be hard for me to undertake except at your place in Vienna, for without you neither the grammar nor the song book would ever see the light of day.”14

Vuk's conscious effort to satisfy his mentor's taste for vernacular Serbian is apparent in a letter written a year later from Šišatovac (10 March 1816):

This is the third year since I became acquainted with you. Since that time I have begun to go back and to get closer to the folk speech, and I still haven't come to the right place. The second part of the song book is purer than the first, and the grammar; but the third part of the grammar and the Serbian dictionary will be written and printed just exactly the way the people speak. It's a difficult thing when something gets twisted into a man's head from childhood!”15

And a week later Vuk, still in Šišatovac, writes joyfully (17 March 1816):

Last night I received your letter and the review of the song book. Lucky Serbs, to have such a friend and admirer of their language and literature! But as for myself I can say nothing! … The dictionary will already be done in ten days (that is, all the words will be put in order); then I'll leave it here and go to Serbia especially on account of the dialects; from Serbia I intend to return (if the Serbs don't kill me) in July, and then I'll come to Vienna so that we can print it (the dictionary); without you nothing can be.”16

Kopitar, in a letter to Jakob Grimm of 23 May 1829, expresses his high esteem for the young Leopold von Ranke, who had just finished his Die serbische Revolution with Vuk as his informant; Kopitar is careful to reaffirm Grimm's leading role as Vuk's intellectual sponsor in Germany: “He [Ranke] will make his fortune, and soon, and a brilliant one. Moreover, the Serbs also owe him such a real debt of gratitude. But you are and remain our first patron.”17 Demonstrating his constant solicitude for Vuk, Kopitar keeps Grimm informed of Vuk's activities. In letters of 1832 Kopitar discusses Vuk's difficulties in getting his translation of the New Testament published. Even Kopitar cannot help in Vienna, so strong is the opposition of the Serbian church:

Catholic police believe a schismatic monk more than an otherwise irreproachable Catholic Censor! But it is really so, and the situation here can't be helped. …18 Here is Vuk's answer. See if you can't help him (and me) somehow get the New Testament into print; for Turkish Serbs, since the Christian Macaronians [Kopitar refers here to the Serbian Church authorities who favor the Russian Church Slavonic and slaveno-srpski traditions of the Vojvodina] … are still too strong.19

On the death of the formidable Metropolitan Stratimirović, in October 1836, Kopitar again writes to Grimm:

The Serbian Metropolitan Stratimirović has died at the age of seventy-nine, after having the day before hospitably entertained Prince Miloš! … He slandered me and even the good Vuk quite unscrupulously to Austria as a Russoman, to Russia as a Uniatoman!20

The details of Kopitar's background and world view relevant to his influence upon Vuk can scarcely be hinted at in a paper of this length. Although much of the story of their collaboration has been told elsewhere, a great deal of research remains, for example, to properly illuminate the nuances of their mutual relationship, which was obviously productive and unusually altruistic. For the sake of brevity, therefore, it seems appropriate merely to list Kopitar's chief contributions to Vuk's emergence as a language reformer: (1) The Herderian notion that the language of folklore could serve as a model for a vernacular-based Serbian literary language; (2) the conviction that a radical reform of the Serbian alphabet and orthography was needed; (3) the notion that the language of the existing Serbian writing tradition was “macaronic,” “Russo-Slavo-Serbian jargon”—a bastardized form of Russian Church Slavonic, eighteenth-century Russian, and Serbian—and therefore not a true descendant of Old Serbian; (4) a practical program to overcome the existing deficiencies—published collections of folk songs, a grammar, and above all, a dictionary of vernacular Serbian.

Kopitar's collaboration with Vuk on the dictionary (published in 1818) was no doubt his most important scholarly contribution to Vuk's success. His help in Vuk's translation of the New Testament might also be mentioned, but although the manuscript was ready in the 1820s, its publication was suppressed until 1847. The ultimate success of Vuk's efforts, however, resulted not so much from any theoretical indoctrination, scholarly training, or direct aid Kopitar provided but rather indirectly from the latter's effectiveness as an agent for Vuk and his work among the leading scholars of the day, and especially the Germans. Vuk was fighting against tremendous odds and powerfully entrenched opponents. Kopitar correctly understood that for Vuk to succeed in his revolutionary task he would need the prestige and legitimacy of European recognition. He and Vuk may not, however, have realized how many years would pass before this recognition took effect in Serbia and how oblique and in certain ways mixed the results would be. In any case Vuk sensed that time was on his side, and that Serbian youth would be the key to the installation of his vernacular-based language as the literary norm.

Only a decade after his fateful meeting with Kopitar, Vuk Karadžić was famous throughout Europe, was a member of academic and learned societies, and held an honorary Doctor of Philosophy degree. Kopitar did not engineer these honors for Vuk, but his connections helped make them possible. Shortly after Vuk's arrival in Vienna and his discovery by Kopitar, Vuk had made the acquaintance, through Kopitar, of the likes of Jakob Grimm, Wilhelm von Humboldt, and Friedrich Schlegel, who had come to the Congress of Vienna with German diplomats. (Grimm would subsequently write laudatory reviews of Book III of Vuk's folk songs and the dictionary as well as an introduction to the German translation of Vuk's grammar, which he not only extensively edited, but for which he even found a publisher.) In 1819, after the publication of his folk songs, his grammar, and his dictionary had brought him European renown, Vuk traveled to Russia. Stopping on the way in Cracow he was granted membership in the Towarzystwo naukowe krakowskie. In Moscow he was made a member of the Moskovskoe obščestvo ljubitelej russkoj slovesnosti, and at St. Petersburg won a gold medal from the Russian Academy for his dictionary. Among the luminaries whom he met in Russia were Karamzin and N. P. Rumjancev. During his visit to Germany (March 1823-March 1824) Vuk saw Grimm again, met Vater in Halle, received an honorary doctorate at Jena, and was accorded a reception by Goethe himself. A short list of foreign scholars, writers, poets, and statesmen (besides those mentioned earlier) whom Vuk met in Vienna, on his travels, or corresponded with, includes Dobrovský, Šafárik, Hanka, Palacký, Wieland, Ranke, Talvj, Šiškov, Vostokov, Griboedov, Gnedič, Polevoj, Köppen, Žukovskij, Sreznevskij, Nadeždin, and Pogodin. Janeff's claim that without Grimm and Goethe, Vuk would have amounted to “only a small episode in the history of Serbdom”21 is of course tendentious and inflated, but the importance of such contacts is not to be underestimated.

Leopold von Ranke is an interesting case in point. The brilliant young German historian came to Vienna in 1827 with the purpose of studying the recently acquired Venetian archives. Kopitar introduced him to Vuk, and from their acquaintance sprang von Ranke's Die serbische Revolution. Written on the basis of the author's detailed conversations with Vuk and access to his papers, it is often considered their joint work. First published in Hamburg in 1829, this famous history of the Serbian uprisings was to go through numerous printings and two revised editions during von Ranke's lifetime, and was translated into Serbian, Russian, and English. Its huge impact upon European knowledge of Serbia and the Balkans is generally recognized. As Vladimir Stojančević puts it in his introduction to a recent Serbian translation, “Die serbische Revolution had the same significance for the political understanding of the ‘Serbian question’ in European politics as Vuk's collections of songs had for the knowledge of the culture of the Serbian people in the world.”22

Vuk looked to Russia as well as Western Europe for support in his struggle to gain acceptance in his native Serbia, and was well aware of the importance of scholarly connections, east and west, as a means of promoting his own works (in the original and in translation) as well as those of associates well disposed to his cause. In 1825 Vuk writes to V. G. Anastas'evič (1775-1845, a Russian bibliographer and translator) announcing that he is forwarding a copy of his Serbian grammar “edited in German by the famous German philologist and grammarian Jakob Grimm.”23 In the same year he asks P. I. Köppen whether Talvj has sent him a copy of her translations of his folk songs, Volkslieder der Serben; in letters of 1826 and 1829 Vuk informs Köppen that he has sent copies of Šafárik's Geschichte der slavischen Sprache und Literatur (“which I received from the author for forwarding to you”) and Ranke's Die serbische Revolution.24

In fact Vuk, who frequently proclaimed his desire to turn Serbia into an educated European country (even offering to teach Prince Miloš to read and write!), was at pains to use not only Western Europe but also Russia as models. Vuk's Prvi srpski bukvar, published in Vienna in 1827, has a special foreword for Russians explaining the phonetic values of the various letters in his new orthography. And while holding up the European example of high literacy, he is quick to point out that the Russians had given up the traditional names of the letters a century before as a hindrance to the mastery of reading:

Let us not take as a model peoples of other faiths and races, but the Russians, who are of one faith and race with us. A hundred years ago, when they separated their language and alphabet from the church language and alphabet, they recognized that the names of our letters were difficult, too difficult, for learning to read; therefore even then in their schools in place of az, buki, vjedi … they began to teach a, be, ve25

His long and friendly association and correspondence with I. I. Sreznevskij attests to the success of his “Russian” strategy. By the 1840s Vuk's efforts had begun to make real headway among the Serbs. Sreznevskij writes in July 1842, “… I am sincerely delighted that the Serbian government has begun, as it ought, to appreciate your merits … ; with time, God grant, they will take the path you have laid out and will cease to be ridiculous in the eyes of people who understand the importance of nationality, national education, and literature.”26

In 1847 Vuk expressed his amazement to the Russian historian V. I. Grigorovič at the favorable notice his own work had received: “Really! Have you read in Part IV of the Srpski ljetopis of last year, ‘Neke čerte iz” pověstnice našeg” pověstnice našeg” kn'ižestv’? I never hoped that something like this would be said in this Ljetopis during my lifetime.”27 What Vuk referred to was a wide-ranging article by the editor of the journal, Jovan Subotić, in which Vuk is described as a successor to Dositej Obradović, and in which nearly all aspects of Vuk's work—including his orthography—are singled out for praise. Serbian folk songs, writes Subotić, are not just Volkslieder but Nationlieder, and stand closer to the poetry of the ancient Greeks than does the poetry of any educated European nation. The Serbs, he claims, appreciated their songs long before Goethe dreamed of the Hasanaginica, and before Talvj was even born. When they were published by Vuk in Serbian,

And when after that learned Europe exclaimed not only about the inherent value, but about the form of communication, the language in which the songs were sung, then our learned men also saw that it was possible to write in the vernacular (narodni jezik) in such a way that it pleased Europe. Now it was useless to say that books could not be written in the vernacular; and if a teacher was found who said that, then the student couldn't believe him, for on the opposite side stood much greater authority. … Dositej introduced the vernacular into books, and Vuk showed us which vernacular it was; Dositej showed us that we should write books in the vernacular, and Vuk showed us how we should write. … At the beginning Vuk exaggerated in his language, and under the guise of the vernacular took everything that was common. But this was on the one hand natural, for what reform at the beginning hasn't gone to the opposite extreme, and on the other hand necessary: for if something was to be gained, everything had to be sought. But still that served a good purpose in that it immediately became clear what was not needed and what was. And he himself has long since drawn his compass more narrowly, and on the other hand has broadened the territory of the vernacular. Now Hercegovina is not the Serbian Paris, but Hercegovina is everywhere Serbian is spoken—that is, all the lands in which Serbs live and speak Serbian seem suitable for his attention.28

The year 1847 has often been cited to mark Vuk's triumph, the final victory of his vernacular-based literary language among the Serbs. Four major works were published in that year which supposedly enshrined Vuk's language as the norm: Njegoš's Gorski vijenac; Radičević's Pjesme; Vuk's translation of the New Testament; and Daničić's Rat za srpski jezik i pravopis. But is the language of these works sufficiently uniform, or close enough to Vuk's previous writings, and especially to his normative works, to be called Vukovian? With the exception of Daničić's, the answer is no, as modern linguistic research has conclusively shown. Njegoš's poetic language was original, idiosyncratic, and contained numerous regional as well as Russian and Church Slavonic elements. Radičević, a disciple of Vuk's, nevertheless composed his poetry in a vernacular which bore significant traces of his native dialect. Vuk's New Testament displays a language which had evolved in many ways and which looked far different from the raw West Serbian vernacular of his 1818 dictionary. Nevertheless, the publication of these works, like the favorable reaction toward Vuk's reform by Jovan Subotić, indicates that by the late 1840's the balance had begun to tip decisively among the Serbs toward acceptance of a vernacular-based literary language which, if not identical to Vuk's in orthography or phonology, or even lexicon, was far closer to the Vukovian norm than to the various slaveno-srpski models of the fading Vojvodina tradition. Despite the efforts of Duro Daničić, Vuk's jekavian reflex (even in its somewhat moderated last stage) never took root in the Belgradecentered Serbian literary language; and although Vuk's radical orthography was grudgingly permitted for use in state editions in 1860, it was not officially adopted for public education until 1868. Kopitar died in 1844, and Vuk twenty years later. Vuk lived to see a vernacular-based language installed as the literary language. But was it really his language, or was Vuk himself part of a resurgent vernacular tradition? I believe the latter is correct, but I also believe that Kopitar and Vuk hastened the evolution of the Serbian literary language in the direction it ultimately took. Vuk, who in Skerlić's words “gave Serbian nationalism a West Serbian character,”29 was aided as much by the European recognition he gained through Kopitar as by any other factor.

What led to the abandonment of the slaveno-srpski tradition of the Prečani, the educated transriparian Serbs of Hungary, and to the acceptance of a vernacular-based literary language? Although there was a hiatus in written literary activity during the Ottoman occupation followed by a revival under strong Russian influence in the Vojvodina, there existed among the Serbs an unbroken vernacular tradition which was manifested in non-literary and literary genres and in written as well as oral modes of expression. Outside Serbia, Gavril Venclović's poetic works, written in the early eighteenth century but only recently published, reveal a mastery of vernacular Serbian; and Dositej Obradović's literary production in the late eighteenth century, if it does bear the mark of a learned Russian influence, nevertheless represents the strongest pre-Vukovian model of the vernacular literary tradition. These are not isolated examples. Both before and during Vuk's career as a language reformer there were Serbs who wrote in the vernacular with varying degrees of success, a fact which Kopitar and Vuk both acknowledged. Moreover, Vuk himself had written in the vernacular during the Uprisings, thus following a Serbian usage for administrative and diplomatic correspondence that was at least seven hundred years old. This indigenous vernacular tradition, combined with the massive illiteracy that prevailed among the population of Serbia proper, formed a barrier to the spread of the Russian-influenced slaveno-srpski tradition of the Hungarian Serbs—and a powerful support for a language reform along Vukovian lines.

The historical preconditions for the success—such as it was—of Vuk's reform were two in number. The first was the resurgence under Miloš Obrenović of Belgrade as the administrative center of the semi-autonomous pašaluk after the second Uprising and of the autonomous Principality of Serbia in 1833; with a restored “national capital” there occurred a concomitant shift of cultural power southward from Budapest and Novi Sad. The second was the exposure of the next generation of Serbian youth to European universities, where they were introduced not only to Romanticism, nationalism, and democratic ideas, but also to the prestige and legitimacy of Vuk's vernacular-based literary language, which it had won through his published works in the original and in translation, and to the recognition also accorded the heroic Serbs, for example, in von Ranke's Die serbische Revolution.

Ljubomir Nenadović (1826-1895) is a striking example of this transitional generation in new Serbia, the first generation of European-educated urban intellectuals centered in Belgrade. The son of Prota Matija Nenadović, a prominent figure in rebel Serbia, he was born in the same north Serbian ekavian village (Brankovina) and attended school there and in Valjevo and then in Belgrade, where he studied for five years at the gymnasium and lycée. In 1844, at the age of eighteen, he began his years as a wandering scholar and writer. Early in his first year abroad Ljubomir writes from Prague to his former classmates at the Belgrade lycée. Evoking the muses to compose two poems which express greetings to his friends and homesickness for Belgrade, Nenadović describes a few of the wonders of Prague. Significantly, the only person he mentions in the letter is Pavel Šafárik, “who is truly among the best of men, and whom I recommend to you as comrades that you respect him.”30 Safárik, the noted Slovak philologist and ethnographer, had long taught at Novi Sad before moving to Prague, and knew the South Slavic world intimately; he and Vuk had first met at Varadin in 1820 and had enjoyed a cordial and mutually supportive professional relationship ever since.31

After a year at Prague, Nenadović moved on to the universities of Berlin, Heidelberg, and Paris. Though he never took a final examination at any of these institutions, he seems to have pursued his studies with some interest, reading Czech and Serbian folk poetry (Vuk's collection), Branko Radičević, the Dubrovnik poets, philosophy, religious history, and Slavic philology (he translated Mickewicz). Without a diploma he returned to Belgrade from revolutionary Paris in 1848 and became a professor at the gymnasium. In 1850 he founded the journal Šumadinka and plunged into the publishing of a great quantity of material, including his father's strongly vernacular memoirs, and numerous translations.

Ljubomir Nenadović is best remembered for his mastery of the vernacular language and for his effortless, unselfconscious prose style. While Nenadović's orthography was traditional, he shared with his Serbian contemporaries the ekavian reflex and the lack of /h/. Otherwise he is basically Vukovian in his lexicon (despite an occasional borrowing) and grammar, but his syntax gives a more modern impression than Vuk's. As Miodrag Popović writes:

Nenadović's letters from abroad (putopisi) signaled a new era in Serbian literature. The links between living speech and the writer's word are even somewhat more obvious than in Vuk's work. Both writers, that is, have the same vernacular (narodni govor) as their point of departure; but Vuk's written style is more studied, more polished, heavier, while Nenadović's is more spontaneous, closer to the reader. Vuk, with his prose on the Serbian Uprising and his translation of the New Testament, introduces the vernacular (narodni jezik) into literature as early as the 1820s, but it took Nenadović to make the urban reader fond of literary prose in the vernacular. … Vuk writes, Nenadović talks (priča); Vuk is closer to the village, Nenadović to the city, Vuk's work is a monument to the Serbian language, while Nenadović is the beginning of the urban era in the development of the vernacular literary language (narodni književni jezik).32

Quoting Ljubomir Nenadović himself from his Pisma iz Nemačke:

The same is true of human reason and writing. … You should just let the pen go along the paper; line after line will come by themselves. Writing is like yarn, it comes from the brain like a thread from the skein; not every skein need be silk, it can be made of nettles as well. Words are bricks, and style is architecture; not every building need be symmetrical, not every piece of writing need have a system. To write: that is the same as having a conversation with yourself. When you write, you do nothing more than photograph your thoughts. Not all photographs have to be beautiful.33

It has been observed that it is not the normative grammarians who establish and consolidate literary languages, but good writers. The works of Ljubomir Nenadović and other popular writers of the new Serbia established once and for all the post-Vukovian norm which was to culminate in the distinctly modern “Belgrade style” of the early twentieth century and the extensively elaborated, constantly evolving Serbian literary language of the present day. How these same writers might have written had Vuk never met Kopitar is an entirely different question, the answers to which can only be guessed at. Clearly, however, without the sponsorship of European scholars and intellectuals, the intervention of Vuk Karadžić would never have won European prestige and legitimacy, and the language of the second generation of modern Serbian writers, even if essentially vernacular in its base, would have been markedly different in lexicon, phonology, morphology, syntax, and especially orthography. And finally, without the international acclaim achieved by Vuk with Kopitar's guidance, it is debatable whether modern Serbian and Croatian would have developed in tandem, with the result that we can speak today of a Serbo-Croatian literary language and not just Serbo-Croatian dialects.


  1. Rajko Nahtigal, ed., Jerneja Kopitarja spisov, II del, 1 knjiga (Ljubljana: Akademija znanosti in umetnosti, 1944), p. 6; translations into English are mine (B.A.S.) throughout the present article.

  2. Bartholomäus Kopitar, Grammatik der slavischen Sprache in Krain, Kärnten und Steyermark (Laibach/Ljubljana, 1808), p. xvii.

  3. Kopitar, p. xxvi.

  4. Bartholomäus Kopitar, Kleinere Schriften, ed. Franz Miklosich (Vienna, 1857), p. 67.

  5. Aleksandar Belić, Vukova borba za narodni i književni jezik: rasprave i predavanja (Belgrade: Prosveta, 1948), p. 198.

  6. Matija Murko, Izbrano delo, ed. Anton Slodnjak (Ljubljana, 1962), p. 277.

  7. Matyáš (Matija) Murko, Rozpravy z oboru slovanské filologie, Práce Slovanského ústavu v Praze, svazek IV, ed. Jiří Horák (Prague, 1937), 27-28.

  8. Nahtigal, p. xiii.

  9. Vatroslav Jagič, ed., Enciklopedija slavjanskoj filologii, 1 (St. Petersburg, 1910), p. 196.

  10. Nikola Banaševic, “Kako je Vuk postao književnik,” Kovčežić: prilozi i grada o Dositeju i Vuku, 1 (1958), 44-45, 54.

  11. Salko Nazečić, “Vukova staza,” Izraz: časopis za književnu i umjetničku kritiku, 6 (1964), 628, 629.

  12. Izmail I. Sreznevskij, “Vuk Stefanović Karadžić. Biografska i bibliografska skice,” trans. Miloš M. Moskovljević, Srpski književni glasnik, 52 (1937), 388, 390.

  13. Ljubomir Stojanović, ed., Vukova prepiska, 1 (Belgrade, 1907), p. 143.

  14. Stojanović, 144-45.

  15. Stojanović, 156-57.

  16. Stojanović, 159-60.

  17. Max Vasmer, ed., B. Kopitars Briefwechsel mit Jakob Grimm, Abhandlungen der Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Philosophisch-historische Klasse, 7 (1937), 62-63.

  18. Vasmer, p. 92.

  19. Vasmer, p. 94.

  20. Vasmer, 160-61.

  21. Janko Janeff, Südosteuropa und der deutsche Geist (Berlin: Fritsch Verlag, 1943), p. 132.

  22. Leopold Ranke, Srpska revolucija, trans. Ognjan Radović (Belgrade: Srpska književna zadruga, 1965), p. 9.

  23. S. A. Vinogradov, E. P. Naumov, and G. P. Čekanova, “Iz perepiski Vuka Karadžiča s russkimi učënymi,” Slavjanskoe istočnikovedenie (Moscow: Nauka, 1965), p. 189.

  24. Vinogradov et al, 187, 189, 195.

  25. Vuk Stefanović Karadžić, Prvi srpski bukvar (Vienna, 1827, repr. Belgrade, 1978), p. 2.

  26. P. T. Gromov, ed., “Perepiska V. S. Karadžiča s I. I. Sreznevskim,” Razvitie kapitalizma i nacional'nye dviženija v slavjanskix stranax (Moscow: Nauka, 1970), p. 328.

  27. Vinogradov et al, p. 200.

  28. Jovan Subotić, “Neke čerte iz” pověstnice serbskog” Kn'ižestva,” Serbskij lětopis”, vol. 75, part 4 (1846), 104-124, esp. 118, 121-23.

  29. Jovan Skerlić, Istorija nove srpske književnosti (Belgrade, 1914), p. 274.

  30. Savo Andrić, “Pismo Ljubomira Nenadovića iz Praga 1844 godine,” Zbornik Istorijskog muzeja Srbije, 8-9 (1972), 119-25.

  31. Ljubomir Stojanović, Život i rad Vuka Stefanovića Karadžića (Belgrade, 1924), 187, 287, 291-92.

  32. Miodrag Popović, Istorija srpske književnosti: Romantizam, II (Belgrade: Nolit, 1972), p. 269.

  33. Ljubomir P. Nenadović, Pisma iz Nemačke (Belgrade: Srpska književna zadruga, 1922), p. 10.

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

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4863

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, around the time of the collapse of the first Serbian insurrection against the Turks.

Vuk Stefanović Karadžić was born in 1787 in the village of Tršić in Western Serbia, the son of a Serbian peasant. A sickly child, he was given the name Vuk (Wolf), supposedly to ward off evil spirits. As a youth he became involved in the service of the hajduk1 rebels against the Turks and later in the first insurrection. Later he attended briefly the famous high school at Sremski Karlovci and then studied for a time at the new velika škola (later university) in Karadjordje's Belgrade. But he soon left Belgrade and, after an illness that left him crippled for life, went to Vienna in 1810. It was here that he met Jernej Kopitar, a Slovene scholar of some distinction who was then living in Vienna, where he occupied the post of official censor for Slavic literatures.

Kopitar was only three years older than Vuk but much more intellectually sophisticated, and he soon assumed the role of mentor. Both in his official capacity and as a result of his absorption of Herder's ideas of the importance of “popular”—as opposed to literary—cultures as the legitimate expression of national character, Kopitar was committed to the support of the language and culture of the Slavic peasants in the Balkan lands. It was his belief, and the policy of his government, that the encouragement of the Slavic populations of the empire in their nationalist aspirations would protect them from Russian influence even as it would commit them to the protection of the Habsburgs. Kopitar, who read an essay written in the vernacular Serbian by Vuk, recognized in the younger man the ideal advocate for that vernacular.2

Kopitar proposed a three-part program for the young scholar: the establishment of a vernacular grammar, the writing of a dictionary, and—most important for our purposes—the collection of the oral songs of the people, for he had become aware that Vuk remembered many of them.3 Certainly Kopitar was right, for with his encouragement and assistance, Vuk would first produce a grammar of the vernacular Serbian language in 1815 and a Serbian dictionary three years later. In these works he reduced the complex Slavo-Serbian alphabet from forty characters to thirty, following the then radical principle of the elimination of all unpronounced letters. These works, both of which were of crucial importance to South Slavic linguistics, letters, and history, and neither of which Vuk could have completed without Kopitar, attracted the hostility of the Orthodox Church fathers, who, although recognizing the importance of a vernacular literary language, saw Vuk's radical reforms as attempts that played into the hands of the Austrians and Catholics by turning Serbian loyalties away from Russia, her religion, and her language.4

As the imperial authorities perhaps also recognized, Vuk's commitment to the vernacular was radically subversive. For in a sense what Vuk had undertaken was a redefinition of South Slavic nationalism—or indeed of the Serbian nation itself. No longer was that nation, or people (the two words are one in Serbian, ever since Vuk, in his 1818 dictionary, offered one word, narod, to bear both meanings), defined by a shared Orthodox Christian faith and the literary tradition that faith had generated. For the nation Vuk reified in his grammar and dictionary, and later in his collections of songs, was much more broadly based, the great raja5 of the Balkans, oppressed and on the edge of rebellion, a potential for disorder in Ottoman lands, yet attracting only occasional support from Vienna. It was the language spoken by that raja that Vuk privileged by establishing its textuality. And it would be the poetry of that language that Vuk would offer to give legitimacy to the language itself.

Thus, in a sense Vuk redefined the South Slav nationality. He provided it with a realistic and viable identity, which would survive the censorship of his collections in Vienna, the early years of Obrenović rule,6 and Vuk's own exile from Belgrade after 1832. In his years of exile, the 1830s and 1840s, he traveled in Croatia, Dalmatia, and Montenegro, came to know the peoples of those lands, and attempted to minimize their linguistic differences from the Serbs. Then—after the Obrenovićs themselves were exiled to Vienna in 1842—he received the financial support of Miloš's son and successor, Prince Mihailo. Vuk would also be supported by the “Illyrian” movement centered in Zagreb, which would demand more independence for all the empire's Slavs. Thus Vuk was an honored figure at the Pan-Slav Congress in Prague in 1848.

After that year of revolution Vuk's assumptions, and his Serbian language, were taken up by a new generation, the generation of the United Serbian Youth movement, which throughout the second half of the nineteenth century rejected the traditional culture of the Serbs in Austria and south Hungary and turned to that of the people in the Balkan homeland.

Duncan Wilson has pointed out that there are two aspects of Vuk's importance, that of the radical reformer and that of the conservative—the conservator of the heritage of oral singing in the Balkans. He has observed that while Vuk's countrymen often overemphasize the first, it is the second that has received the attention of foreign scholars. Certainly, it is the latter aspect that is the more important for our purposes; Vuk was responsible for the collection of the oral poetry that was to become the foundation of the literary culture of the South Slavs. But it was also that work which, by providing the exotic and romantically heroic flavor fashionable in literary circles of the time, attracted the attention of Europe's leading writers, generated translations—and fakery—in English, French, German, Russian, and Polish and, more importantly, helped bring Serbia and the Balkans to the European consciousness.

Even before he had undertaken his grammar, just after the crushing of the first insurrection in 1813 and the flight of yet more refugees into the Srem (the Austrian lands between the Danube and the Sava whose population was then composed mostly of South Slavs), Vuk had also begun to gather from his own memory and from the recitals of relatives and other Serbian exiles a collection of Serbian oral poems, mostly lyrics. He published his first collection, Mala prostonarodnja slaveno-serbska pjesnarica (A Simple Little Slaveno-Serbian Songbook) in 1814.

Vuk then moved into the Srem and prepared a second collection, where he met the guslari and guslare (for there were women singers), who would serve him as sources: Tešan Podrugović, a Bosnian Serb freedom fighter of prodigious size and memory; Filip Višnjić, a blind guslar; and “the blind Živana,” an old woman who would give him “The Kosovo Maiden” and other songs. The songs Vuk heard from these singers were the basis for a second collection, Narodna srbska pjesnarica (A Serbian Book of Folk Songs), published in Vienna in 1815, in which the first of the “heroic” songs, the long narrative histories in deseterac, the ten-beat line of the peasant songs, especially songs of the Battle of Kosovo, of Marko Kraljević, and of the insurrection appeared.

In his work of collecting, Vuk received the encouragement of Lukijan Mušicki, then archimandrite of the monastery at Šišatovac in Srem, who had taught at Sremski Karlovci during Vuk's years in the school there. But it was Vuk's friend Kopitar who showed the collection to the renowned German scholar, Jakob Grimm, then attached to the German diplomatic delegation in Vienna. It was through Grimm that Vuk would meet Goethe and that his collections would establish the fame of Serbian poetry throughout Europe.

Vuk also journeyed east into the Banat to collect more songs from other refugee guslars and hajduks. It was these singers who can be seen as the authors of the songs, for they never sang from texts; their songs were memorial reconstructions set out in deseterci. It is not clear what is meant by “knowing” a song—whether to “know” a song was simply to have the ability to correctly set forth a narrative line and the skill to set it forth in one's own lines, or whether to “know” described an act of memorization of prescribed linguistic structures, or whether the true meaning lay somewhere between these extremes. It is clear, however, that to a great or lesser extent, each singing was a compositional and not purely a recitational act, for each singer sang the songs differently (indeed Vuk himself often collected many versions of a single song). So in a certain sense, regardless of the “age” of the songs, what Vuk was collecting were early nineteenth-century folk songs, all of which, after having been passed on from generation to generation, had passed through the minds and memories of their singers and had been reformed according to their tastes or experience and in the vocabulary of their own cultures.

Vuk's two most important singers had been encountered in Šišatovac as early as 1815. The first—the first singer Vuk heard as an adult—was Tešan Podrugović, a huge man of about forty years who as a youth in Bosnia killed a Turk who had raped a girl in his family. He fled to become a hajduk, then joined the first insurrection under Karadjordje. He fought bravely, but quarreled with his commanding officer and left the army to cross the Danube into the Austrian Srem after the Turks recaptured Serbia. He made a living there as a gatherer of reeds. Vuk made his acquaintance through Obrad, Lukijan Mušicki's cousin, shortly before Easter of 1815, a week after the beginning of the second insurrection under Miloš Obrenović. Vuk was barely able to restrain him from a return to the fighting, and he soon departed to join the other rebels. However, in the summer he left the army again, killed a bey,7 and again became an outlaw in Bosnia. There he got into a fight in an inn, where he was beaten by some Turks and died shortly thereafter. Podrugović recited (he did not sing) his songs to Vuk, many of them very funny, with a straight face, never smiling. He knew hundreds; Vuk had a sense that many remained unsung. He collected twenty-two songs from Podrugović, notably comic songs and hajduk songs, of the experience that he knew so well. Vuk called Podrugović “the first and the best” of his singers.8

Shortly after Podrugović had departed with his unsung songs, Vuk met his second singer, a successful guslar (the only professional singer Vuk would encounter) named Filip Višnjić. Višnjić, who had been born in Bosnia in the vicinity of Bijeljina and had been blinded by smallpox at eight, had fled after his father died, members of the family were tortured and killed, and his uncle Marko was hanged for killing a Turk who had raped a member of the family. Višnjić became a professional singer, singing both to Turks and Christians, and traveled as far south as Skadar, then came to Serbia in 1804, found himself in the midst of the battles of the first insurrection, crossed into the Srem in 1810, and settled in the village of Grk. There he was well received and well paid for his singing. Vuk met him when Višnjić was about fifty years old, well-off and successful as a guslar who regularly performed in public. He was perhaps Vuk's most popular singer and was remembered by the villagers for years afterward. When Višnjić died in Grk in 1834 he was buried with a gusle carved on his cross.9

Višnjić was extremely capable as a singer. His songs—notably songs of the first insurrection—were worked with new formulas, perhaps the most accomplished of the songs collected by Vuk. Vuk transcribed from him a total of nearly forty songs—over ten thousand lines all together. It was this transcription that formed the nucleus of what was to be Vuk's extensive and monumental collection, Narodne srpske pjesme, published in Leipzig between 1823 and 1833, the so-called Leipzig edition.

There would be other singers. There was “the blind Jeca,” a woman singer whom Vuk met in Zemun and who sang “The Death of Duke Prijezda” for him;10 there was “the blind Stepanija,” who gave him both a version of “The Building of Skadar” and “Tsaritsa Milica and Duke Vladeta.” There was an unnamed blind woman from the village of Grgurevci from whom Vuk took three of the finest of the Kosovo songs, “The Fall of the Serbian Empire,” “The Death of the Mother of the Jugovićes,” and “The Kosovo Maiden.”11 Indeed, it is strange to discover how many of the historical songs, and many of them among the finest, were sung by blind and presumably illiterate women singers, whose access to their material must have been either mnemonic or purely imaginative.

There were other great male singers as well: “Old Milija,” whose “Banović Strahinja,” perhaps the single greatest of the poems, reflected the tragedies of his own life; “Old Raško” (in the patriarchal culture of Vuk's Serbia the attribution of “old” was honorific and not merely descriptive), the singer of several of the medieval songs: Stojan the Outlaw, who, in prison in Serbia for having killed a woman who (he said) “ate” his child, in 1820 gave Vuk the magnificent “The Wedding of King Vukašin”;12 and several others. These were the true authors of the heroic songs; in the final analysis Vuk was really only their editor and collector.

The fruits of Vuk's work as a collector of the oral songs came between 1823 and 1833 in the now famous and greatly expanded Leipzig edition. For in spite of his recognition abroad Vuk had difficulties at home. The Office of the Censor in Vienna, probably provoked by the Orthodox clergy in Austria, denied permission for Vuk's Narodna srbska pjesnarica, so it was in Leipzig that the book appeared. In this edition were many new songs that Vuk had more recently collected. And with its four volumes Vuk established the arrangement of the poems that was to become the basic pattern of all subsequent editions. Volume 1 (1824) presented the Ženske pjesme or Women's Songs, the lyric poems, usually not in deseterci, short, mythic narratives, many of pre-Christian origins, and the round dances. The second volume (1823)13 was identified by Vuk as the Pjesme junačke najstarije, or the Oldest Heroic Songs, the narrative and historical songs in deseterac that—because they made no mention of firearms—Vuk regarded as the oldest. The third volume (1823), Pjesme junačke srednjijeh vremena (Heroic Songs of the Middle Period), consisted mainly of hajduk narrative songs and other songs set during the years of the Turkish occupation. A decade later there appeared Volume 4, Pjesme junačke novijih vremena o vojevanju za slobodu (Heroic Songs of the Recent Times of the War for Freedom), where were collected the songs of the Montenegrin and Serbian insurrections.

After the Leipzig edition Vuk, with the uncertain patronage of Prince Mihailo Obrenović, then exiled to Vienna, traveled south, to Montenegro and its Bay of Kotor, to Dubrovnik and Lika on the Dalmatian coast, places he had not visited before, known for their oral songs. His search there for other guslari, for new poems, and for variants of poems he had already heard was in preparation for what would be a definitive “Viennese” edition of the collection—some 1,045 poems—entitled Srpske narodne pjesme and published again in four volumes, in 1841, 1845, 1846, and 1862.14

There have been many subsequent editions of the songs—a somewhat bowdlerized edition by Ljubomir Stojanović in 1891-1901 (it was reprinted between the world wars); an annotated edition by Djurić, Matić, Banašević, and Latković in 1953-1954; Nedić's edition of the Viennese edition in 1969; and an edition with the “objectionable” poems separated in a volume not publicly sold, in 1973-1974.15 For the Serbs, Srpske narodne pjesme constitutes the “classic anthology” (in the Confucian sense) of Serbian oral poetry.

Vuk Karadžić was neither the first nor the last to collect or to transcribe the oral songs of the Balkans. As Koljević tells us, there are references to the singing of the South Slavs throughout the seventeenth century. But much earlier, as early as the twelfth century, at least one hagiography and several of the Dukljanin's chronicles may have been based on oral narrative songs. There is a transcription of a fragment of a Slavic oral song, transcribed by Ruggiero Pazienza, a court poet of the Queen of Naples, in the village of Gioia del Colle in southern Italy in 1497; it is extant in the fifth volume of an eight-volume courtly epic, Lo Balzino, the manuscript of which is presently located in the City Library in Perugia.16

Around 1555 a bugarštica, a heroic song conducted in the “long line” of fourteen to sixteen syllables and associated with a courtly tradition of oral performance, entitled “Marko Kraljević and his Brother Andrijaš,” was transcribed on the island of Hvar, then the richest Venetian community in Dalmatia. In 1568 Petar Hektorović, a nobleman from the same island, published in Venice a poem written in the long line of the bugarštica, a fisherman's eclogue (then popular in Italy), which contained transcriptions of several of the oral songs sung by his fishermen companions on a fishing expedition. And many other bugarštice—recounting the collapse of the Serbian Empire at the end of the fourteenth century and the events of the subsequent Turkish occupation—were transmitted and published in the towns along the Adriatic Sea and elsewhere in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—by Nikola Ohmučević, a merchant, later by the poet Ivan Gundulić, by Djuro Matijašević, a cleric (all citizens of Dubrovnik), and by others living in or around Kotor in the Bay of Kotor, another major Venetian colony and a city long important to Serbs, and elsewhere.

These bugarštice were poems that exemplified the degeneration of an older poetic form prevalent in feudal court poetry and then surviving as a form of popular entertainment in various cities and towns along the Adriatic coast. No longer feudal poetry, the bugarštice had become urban poems, essentially bourgeois in their assumptions. They described banquets and toasts, concerned themselves with the appropriateness of manners and clothing, showed familiarity with money, and demonstrated an awareness of a greater world and its political realities. But the bugarštice still contained elements—motifs, stylistic devices, even stock phrases and formulaic patterns, which belonged to their courtly predecessors and may originally have been mnemonic in function.

However, it was not the bugarštice but the deseteračke pesme (deseterci), the songs conducted in ten-syllable lines, being sung at the time in the patriarchal peasant villages of the Serbian, Bosnian, and Montenegrin uplands, even in Croatia, that were Vuk's concern. The deseterci were products of a different culture, not urban but peasant, not bourgeois but patriarchal, and as such they told their stories in a different vernacular—less sophisticated, perhaps, more metaphorical and less accurately realistic in representations of things like money and banquets and fine clothes. But their shorter line gave for a certain economy of epithet, and the narrative moved more cleanly. The motifs and patterns and phrasings surviving in the bugarštice were tightened and simplified in the deseterci. Also, the heroes of the deseterci seemed to live in a less ordered world, a world of violence and uncertainty, of pragmatic values and compromise, the world of the uplands, not in the more ordered world of the songs sung on the civilized coast.17

The deseterac line is dominantly trochaic, end-stopped, and unrhymed (occasionally internal rhyme is employed). Most important, each line is divided into two parts by a strong caesura, which always occurs after the fourth syllable. This line has a rhythm known to every Serb. It is so familiar, and so charged with association, that—like those written in the bugarštica—the poems themselves are identified by their special metrical norm.

The deseterci were also transcribed and translated.18 The earliest extant transcriptions of the deseterci songs were set down in Perast (then an aristocratic Venetian community in the Bay of Kotor on the Adriatic) around the end of the seventeenth century, and appeared beside bugarštice. Then, around 1720, songs sung by Slav soldiers near Vienna were transcribed—very imperfectly—in a manuscript in which 217 lyrics and epics were collected; this manuscript, the “Erlangen manuscript,” was discovered in 1913 in the Erlangen University library and is of great value if one wishes to consider the changes brought about when the presumably courtly songs, having passed to the uses of a bourgeois merchant society, then fell into the hands of Slavic peasants and outlaws under the domination of a foreign power.

Later in the century, in 1774, an Italian traveler and scholar, Alberto Fortis, who had taken an interest in the Italian translations of MacPherson's Ossian, traveled to the Dalmatian islands and there translated into Italian two songs, one of which is today known as the Hasanaginica or “The Wife of Hasan Aga.” They were then translated by Goethe into German and appeared in Herder's Volkslieder (1778, 1779), which generated the first enthusiasm among newly romanticized European readers. Walter Scott made an English version (“The Wife of Hasan Aga”) of the Hasanaginica from the German.19 Madame de Stael declared herself “ravie”; Prosper Mérimée produced a fraudulent French version of a heroic song; and Pushkin followed Mérimée. But by this time Vuk had begun his collection, which coincided with the first insurrection. And then, as we have said, his Narodna srbska pjesnarica caught the attention of Jakob Grimm, then Europe's greatest comparatist.20

Grimm and his brother translated nineteen of Vuk's songs for Forster's Sängerfahrt in 1818. Then the daughter of a German university professor from Halle, Fräulein Theresa Albertina Luisa von Jacob, an enthusiastic disciple of Goethe, with his encouragement translated slightly less than half of Vuk's first collection into German (using her initials “Talvj” as her nom de plume), beginning in the 1820s. Talvj was the first to translate Vuk's transmissions of the Serbian songs into a major European language.21 Again there was a spate of retranslation. The first into English seems to have been that of John Gibson Lockhart, Scott's biographer, in an anonymous and privately printed collection of 1826 entitled Translations from the Servian Minstrelsy: to Which are Added Some Specimens of Anglo-Norman Romances (Lockhart, the editor of the Quarterly Review, acknowledged his role as retranslator in that journal in 1845).22 But by far more important is Sir John Bowring's Servian Popular Poetry of 1827; in it appear English versions of some 107 “songs and ballads,” translations made, presumably, from Talvj's German versions but with reference to Vuk's Serbian texts.23

So it was Vuk Karadžić who shaped—for his own European literary world, but, more importantly, for many Serbs—a new sense of nationality. He did this in a collection of songs in a language that he had also made it possible to read (through his grammar and dictionary) and that would serve as the vernacular of a newly forming literary tradition. If the importance of such an undertaking had been recognized even before its achievement by others, it was Vuk to whom we owe that achievement. There is no person in the cultural history of the Balkans whose work is more entirely beneficent than Vuk. Had its history been different, had Vuk's definition of nationality ultimately obtained, the history of the Balkan people of our own time might well have been more benign than that brought to them by other visions.


  1. Outlaw brigands living in bands in the highlands of the Balkans, some of whom may have been politically motivated to rebellion against Turkish rule.

  2. Much of the biographical information in this section is taken from Duncan Wilson's remarkable biography, The Life and Times of Vuk Stefanović Karadžić: 1787-1864 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), and from George Rapall Noyes and Leonard Bacon, eds. and trans., Heroic Ballads of Servia (Boston: Sherman, French, 1913). Antun Barac's A History of Yugoslav Literature (Belgrade: Committee for Foreign Cultural Relations, 1955, and Ann Arbor: Michigan Slavic Publications, 1973), and, of course, Svetozar Koljević's authoritative work on the epics in English, The Epic in the Making (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), subsequently cited as “Koljević,” have been of inestimable critical value.

  3. Duncan Wilson, The Life and Times of Vuk Stefanović Karadžić, 2-3; subsequently cited as “Wilson.”

  4. See Wilson, 2.

  5. The raja were the Christian peasantry of the Balkans under the Ottoman Empire.

  6. The second modern Serbian dynasty, established by the leader of the second insurrection, Miloš Obrenović, who ruled from 1815 to 1839 and from 1858 to 1860. The first dynasty began with Karadjordje.

  7. A “bey” (beg) is a Turkish district governor.

  8. See Wilson, 106-8; Karadžić's introduction to the Leipzig edition, vols. 1 and 4; and Koljević, 311-14 et passim.

  9. See Wilson, 110-11, and Koljević, 306-10 et passim; see also Karadžić's introduction to volume 4 of the Leipzig edition.

  10. See Koljević, 89-90.

  11. See Koljević, 319.

  12. See Koljević, 127.

  13. The second and third volumes were published in 1823 before the first, in 1824.

  14. Koljević, 345. V. Nedić reproduced this edition, correcting only misprints, in Srpske narodne pjesme, Belgrade: Prosveta, 1969.

    Throughout his life—or at least until he received the support of Prince Mihailo—Vuk suffered from lack of money, so he did not confine his literary activities to his collections but collaborated with Leopold von Ranke on a history of contemporary Serbia (which contained accounts of the insurrections) in 1828 and a first description of Serbia's now famous monasteries in 1821. Moreover, also on Kopitar's advice, he undertook a translation of the New Testament into vernacular Serbian.

  15. Ljubomir Stojanović, ed., Srpske narodne pjesme, by Vuk St. Karadžić, 9 vols. (Belgrade, 1891-1901); Vojislav Djurić, Svetozar Matić, Nikola Banašević, Vido Latković, eds., Srpske narodne pjesme, by Vuk St. Karadžić, 4 vols. (Belgrade, 1953-1954); Vladan Nedić, ed., Srpske narodne pjesme 4 vols. (Belgrade: Prosveta, 1969), and Srpske narodne pjesme iz neobjavljenih rukopisa Vuka Stef. Karadžića (Serbian Folk Poems from the Unpublished Manuscripts of Vuk Stefanović Karadžić) 4 vols. (Belgrade, 1973-1974).

  16. See Koljević, 11-28. We are much indebted to Koljević for the following discussion.

  17. Koljević discusses the bugarštice in his chapter entitled “The Grand Stammer”; see Koljević, 31-68. The bugarštice are presented in English translation in an anthology by John S. Miletich entitled The Bugarštice: A Bilingual Anthology of the Earliest Extant South Slavic Folk Narrative Song (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1990).

  18. Translators of the deseterci have over the years remained undecided whether to reproduce the line itself or to suggest its cultural resonance. Over the nearly two hundred years during which English translators have attempted the deseterac, very few have agreed upon an appropriate metrical procedure. Some English translators have sought the nearest English equivalent in associative force; they have generally translated into heroic couplet or blank verse, sometimes into ballad stanza. Still others, fearing that the deseterac would prove a metrical form too rigidly invariable for the English ear, especially when in translation it must be unaccompanied by the counterrhythms established by the gusle, sought complex and variable solutions. The most recent English translations of the heroic songs, the distinguished translations by Anne Pennington and Peter Levi collected in Marko the Prince: Serbo-Croat Heroic Songs (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1984), make no attempt to establish a metrical equivalent for the deseterac.

    The strong caesura has remained a problem for the English translator as well (albeit less so than for translators into other languages). Some leave it unmarked; some space so as to render two half-lines as in Anglo-Saxon; some, especially translators who have recently attempted the deseterac itself, have divided the ten syllables into two half-lines organically defined and have broken the lines syntactically, or at breath pauses.

    In our own translations we have attempted to conform closely to the syllabic and caesural conventions of the deseterac and have at the same time attempted to reduce its monotony, a monotony relieved in the performance of the Serbian poems by conducting the translations in a meter that, especially in the second half-lines, is a highly variable iambic (more natural to the English ear). And we have attempted to conform to a “plain” style, that of the guslars.

  19. For a discussion of Walter Scott's translation see D. H. Low, “The First Link Between English and Serbo-Croat Literature,” Slavonic Review 3 (1924): 362-69.

  20. See Koljević's introduction to Pennington and Levi's Marko the Prince, xiii-xvii. See also Dragutin Subotić, Yugoslav Popular Ballads: Their Origin and Development (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1932), 165ff.

  21. See Subotić, Ballads 165ff., and his “Serbian Popular Poetry in English Literature,” Slavonic Review 5 (March 1927): 628-46.

  22. See Subotić, Ballads 243-44.

  23. See Subotić, Ballads 225-43.

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