On March 24, President Clinton told the nation that NATO would begin bombing “Koh-SOH-vah.” But 8 days later, at Norfolk Naval Station, he talked about the situation in “KOH-soh-voh.” Why is the president’s pronunciation so inconsistent?
As it turns out, Serbs and Albanians have different names for the province, with different Western pronunciations. Incredible as it sounds, Clinton’s choice of pronunciation may therefore represent a conscious political statement.
The Serbian name, Kosovo, is derived from the Slavic word for blackbird, kos. The province is so named because in 1389 the Serbs fought the Ottoman Turks in a place now known as kosovo polje, or “blackbird’s field.” The importance of this 600-year old battle to modern Serbia’s self-image can hardly be overstated. Serbs have long considered the province a cradle of Serbian statehood and spiritual life, and the name Kosovo expresses its centrality to the national psyche. In Serbian, the first syllable of each word is stressed and all vowels are pronounced clearly. Hence “KOH-soh-voh.”
In Albanian–an ancient language with different linguistic roots from Serbo-Croatian–Slavic place names are reinterpreted. In ordinary Albanian usage, the -ovo ending to Kosovo is translated to -ova and the second syllable is stressed. Thus, Albanians usually call the province “Koh-SOH-vah.”
Until recently, the international community used the Serbian spelling and pronunciation. But increased tensions in the Balkans, have politicized the word. Albanian nationalists started to use the Albanian pronunciation (Koh-SOH-vah) and spelling (“Kosova”) when writing or speaking in a foreign tongue.
When Clinton opts for the “Kosova” pronunciation, one might interpret this as a wink towards Kosovar independence. The Serb pronunciation, on the other hand, may signal the withdrawal of that support. But the president should not necessarily be blamed for waffling. After all, Slavic languages do not roll effortlessly off the American tongue. Besides, have you ever heard how the guy pronounces “Arkansas”?
Observers might want to adopt the studied neutrality of some experts. Scholars of the region have found a compromise solution. Rather than using the last vowel, they write “Kosov@.”
This item was written by Eve Gerber.
Explainer thanks Professor Victor A. Friedman, Chairman of the Department of Slavic Languages & Literature at the University of Chicago and Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures Ronelle Alexander of the University of California at Berkeley.