An Illustrated History of Slavic Misery: Vuk Karadžić

Posted on July 18, 2013


Serbian money is quite interesting to the outsider. Well, I guess all foreign money always will be, especially that weird plastic stuff that Australia has. Serbian money is fun for the people you find on the notes themselves. The 100 dinar note, with Nikola Tesla thoughtfully staring out, is the one most people talk about, but I always had a soft spot for the 10 dinar myself. The handsome fellow on the 10 dinar note is a young Vuk Karadžić, a name that will illicit vacant stares to anyone who has no interest in Serbia and its history. It’s easy to say however, that Vuk was one of the propellers that moved Serbia into the modern world, ahead of its Slavic brethren.

Born near Loznica, Western Serbia, in 1787, Vuk Karadžić would grow into the father of the study of Serbian folklore. His story is a gripping one from the get go. His family had a particularly low infant survival rate, so he was named ‘Vuk’ (Serbian for ‘wolf’) in an attempt to ward off any witches or whatever would come to get him. This was fairly common practice back in t’day, and I suppose it worked a charm with this wolf. His luck continued, as it turns out he was related to the only literate person in the entire region, who in turn taught him to read and to write. He spent a lot of his early time at the Monastery Tronaša, and it is at this point that I’m reminded that monastery is a strangely hard word to type.  His education would prove to be one of many false starts, but he eventually became one of the first students at Belgrade Higher School.

His first volume of Serbian folk songs was published in 1814, and would be followed by eight more. He would continue collecting songs well into the 1830s, where he went to Kotor (Montenegro) to recover from a bout of illness and subsequently met another Vuk, Vuk Vrčević- Vrčević would go on to be one of his most loyal collaborators. At this time however, Karadžić’s work was banned throughout Serbia, at the decision of its ruler, Miloš Obrenović. There were many reasons for this, the main one being that there was an uneasy peace between Obrenović and the Ottomans at the time, and it was felt that Karadžić’s work was potentially politically hazardous. Serbs had been under Turkish rule for a fair whack by this point, and whispers of independence were bubbling under the surface. Probably fairly, ol’ Miloš thought that the inspirational olde timer songs that Karadžić was publishing would stir up further national pride, and the recently ended Serbian uprising against the Turks would be revisited with terrible consequences. Out of that uprising Serbia had won an uneasy independent peace, and it couldn’t be risked.

Even so, Karadžić set about reforming the Serbian language. He established that Serbian has 30 distinct sounds, and six of these had no Cyrillic letter equivalent. He introduced new letters and discarded some of the obsolete ones. He made a concise effort to distance modern Serbian from its church Slavonic predecessor, and to bring it closer to common folk speech. Karadžić closely associated with the oral literature of peasants, mostly because of his own upbringing. To his credit, he didn’t romanticize the peasantry, far from it. He did however regard it as vital to Serbian culture. In his reformation of the language, Vuk Karadžić made the official language from the words of the people.

His first modern Serbian dictionary was published in 1818. He himself lived in poverty throughout the majority of his life. His work was viciously opposed by the Church and many other writers, due to its almost heretical nature. As he slipped into old age he would finally receive a pension, but he certainly did not benefit from his work during his peak years. Despite this opposition, his modern Serbian language was adopted by the government in 1868, four years after his death. He died in Vienna at the age of 76. How he managed to get to that age is a mystery to me, as his life was plagued with illness and injury. He had a wooden leg for much of his life, due to complications when young and a refusal to amputate the thing. 76! Not bad.

Karadžić’s work coincided with a new dawn in Serbian political consciousness. Revolt against the Ottomans had begun in the early 19th century, and as he was publishing the songs of lore independence was being won. It is difficult to say what role both played on each other, mostly because its 2013 and times have changed, but there we go. From what I read he also had some fairly extreme views on the odd bits and pieces. Still, the guy reformed the language, published the first dictionary, collected the songs of the people and had a pretty awesome moustache. Not so bad really.