There’s an old joke about a guy visiting Russia who goes hungry because he doesn’t realize that a pectopah is a place to get food. I never said it was a good joke. It’s not very funny, even if you know that PECTOPAH is the Russian word for ‘restaurant’ (the Cyrillic letters spell out ‘restoran’). As bilingual jokes go, it doesn’t even compare to the one about why Russians love the movie Jaws, or the old fave about the American couple catching a German guy peeing in the park. It is a joke, however. I promise. I bring it up because Serbia uses the Cyrillic alphabet as well, albeit with a few alterations, and yes, there are even pectopah’s to be seen around. What I found interesting in coming here was the lack of Cyrillic, often replaced by the Latin alphabet, giving signage a decidedly Croatian feel.
My friend, Hamilton T. Burberry, III (yes, faithful reader, it is indeed the very same Hamilton T. Burberry, III from my previous post about the importance of passports in Romania!), and I headed to Serbia of a Thursday and found ourselves in the northern town of Novi Sad. Novi Sad is itself the provincial capital of Vojvodina, an autonomous region in the north of Serbia. Why am I telling you all of this? Well, beside the fact that it’s plainly very interesting, I’m building up to something about alphabets. Those of you who have decided to continue reading despite the way that last sentence ended win the prize of…finding out more about alphabets.
I was struck, as Hamilton also was, by the predominance of Latin letters. Granted, it made a bit more sense for advertisements, what with international brands and a trend toward Western culture, but even shop signs were only in Cyrillic about half of the time. Frankly, I was disappointed, but then I had a thought. Vojvodina spent a good deal of time as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1699-1918), at a time when Serbia was still being ruled by the Ottomans. The Catholic Habsburg rulers used the Latin alphabet, and the Catholic church itself grew during this 200 year period of Austro-Hungarian rule. Mightn’t it be possible that this made Vojvodinians somewhat more predisposed to the Latin alphabet? So I says to Hamilton, I says, ‘Hamilton, I’ll bet that we’ll see more Cyrillic in Belgrade,’ and I explained my notion to him. Hamilton was of a similar mind. He says to me, he says, ‘Peter, I’ll bet you’re onto something.’ And we were right. Sort of.
Belgrade, which is no longer on fire, in case you were still waiting for my promised update (the rains did come back that evening, and whether they helped with the fire or not, I think they did a lot toward dissipating that awful smoke), did indeed have a lot more Cyrillic. It was everywhere, and we danced and reveled in its glory, until we realized that nearly everything was also transliterated (for this is the word they use for this process) into Latin letters. At least nearly everything that was necessary for orienting yourself and getting around. The mind-boggling experience of walking around Russia and being overwhelmed (unless you have a bit of saintly wisdom to guide you) was simply not ours that day.
The funny thing about this orthographic duality is that it leads to some interesting what-the-h? moments. You start reading a word, thinking it’s in one alphabet before you hit a letter that has no business being there and realize that it’s the other alphabet and you’ve analyzed the word completely wrong. Back to the beginning. This isn’t that big a deal when you’re not in a car whizzing through the streets of Belgrade and trying to figure out where the h you are (and just as an aside, if anyone from Belgrade city planning is reading this, could you, a) put up street signs on every street, not just every fifth or so, or according to general whim and fancy?, and b) consider writing them so that the letters aren’t tall and skinny and so scrunched together that it looks like you were trying to win an illegibility contest? Thanks, guys!). As it happened, whizzing through the streets of Belgrade is precisely what Hamilton and I were doing for a good portion of our day. While I was wondering what the number 3 was doing in the middle of a word, that ‘3’ was busy being a Cyrillic ‘z’ and waiting patiently for me to catch up. Meanwhile, we had long since passed the sign and were already heading into another street that was more than likely one-way into oncoming traffic. Oh yes, there will be a post about driving in Serbia!
Fast forward a couple of days and you’ll find me back in Vojvodina, this time in the smaller town of Subotica. In keeping with the whole ‘Austro-Hungarian Empire=less Cyrillic’ theme, I had hypothesized that in Subotica, which is very close to the present-day border with Hungary and has a substantial Hungarian minority, I would find even less Cyrillic. This was borne out, and doubly so. Not only did I find less Cyrillic, I discovered that one is more likely to see Latin letters alongside Hungarian (which always uses the Latin alphabet) than alongside Cyrillic (as best as I can figure it, this is because there is a lot of Croatian signage in Subotica as well, which is not so surprising given the Croatian minority and Subotica’s proximity to the Croatian border). Ho HO! In fact, I saw more English signage in Subotica than I saw Cyrillic, which made the entire venture all the more confusing but no less interesting. And Subotica, with its charming blend of cultures, will likely be the topic of my next post.
For now I’ll restate what we’ve learned from all of this. Serbia, although officially part of the Cyrillic realm, has plenty of Latin alphabet to go around, especially depending on where you travel. Nevertheless, if you’re going to Belgrade or points south, I do suggest you learn some Cyrillic. It will make your life much easier if you do. That said, if you opt not to, you’ll probably get by alright in the end. If not, call this number: ВЖЂ ДАБ ВГ ЗГЗ. I’ll do my best to help you out.
Update: Special thanks go out to Kris for keeping me in line. He reminded me that both Cyrillic AND Latin are official alphabets for Serbian. Nevertheless, it’s good to see Cyrillic is still alive and kicking in Serbia 🙂