Vuk Stefanović Karadžić ( 1787 – 1864) was a Serbian philologist, , and . His major achievements include writing a Serbian grammar, reforming the language’s alphabet and orthography and compiling its first dictionary. Vuk’s collections of Serbian oral literature became famous across Europe, established the national stature of Serbian culture and led to his national canonicity as “father of the nation”.
Vuk was born in a poor peasant family in the West Serbian village of Trsić. Poor health and a natural interest in learning took him out of peasant life; he attended school in a nearby monastery. Vuk’s development was heavily influenced by the of 1804, which marked the first national movement against Ottoman rule.
Vuk, whose literacy was exceptional at that time, worked as a scribe and secretary for the major hajduk chiefs of the Serbian Uprising, an experience later recalled in his historical writings: “The first/second year of war against the Janissary renegades” (Prva/Druga godina vojevanja na dahije, 1828, 1834) and “Lives of the Serbian generals” (Žitije znatnih Srbalja, 1829, in which his account of the hajduk Veljko Petrović stands out, Žitije Hajduk-Veljka Petrovića). Vuk’s accounts were highly influential on Leopold ’s Die serbische Revolution (1828), which celebrated Serbian nation-building efforts. After the collapse of the insurrection in 1813, Vuk (who around 1810 had enrolled in the newly-opened , forerunner of the university there) followed its leaders into exile. However, he preferred Vienna over Russia, and there met the Slovenian philologist Jernej , whose guidance and support changed his life.
Kopitar, at this time a librarian in the Imperial Library and censor for non-German publications, introduced Vuk to a new philological interest in vernacular languages, epics and folktales, and sponsored his writings and publications in each of these fields. By 1814 Vuk had published the first Serbian grammar (Pismenica serbskoga jezika) and an anthology of Serbian-language folk songs (Mala prostonarodna slavenoserbska pjesnarica). Under Kopitar’s Herderian and Austro-Slavic influence, Vuk’s Serbian would rely on popular speech rather than the Russian-influenced Slavonic-Serbian standard of the time; in the preface to the last-mentioned collection, he vindicated the usage of “blind men’s songs” in the language of “shepherds and swineherds” with reference to the verses’ artless authenticity and his own burning patriotism, in line with ’s , to which Kopitar had introduced him.
Herder had already included in his 1778 anthology a specimen of South Slavic oral poetry: (as translated by ). Vuk’s collections were, thus, a second wave of European interest in the oral poetry from that region. His efforts met with the interest and support of Jacob , who also translated Vuk’s grammar as Kleine serbische Grammatik in 1815. Vuk finally met Grimm in 1823 and with Grimm’s recommendation travelled to to meet Goethe, who in turn urged Therese von (better knows as Talvj, her initials used as a pen name) to translate Vuk’s collections of folk poetry (Volkslieder der Serben, 1825-26). The vogue also reached France: Claude and Adam lectured on the topic at the Sorbonne and the Collège de France (1831-32 and 1841-42), and Prosper ’s counterfeit anthology La Guzla hoodwinked into translating its “original Illyrian poetry” for his collection of “Songs of the Western Slavs”. Meanwhile, Vuk himself published four volumes of Serbian folk songs (Srpske narodne pjesme) in (1823-33, later expanded and reissued in Vienna, 1841-62).
Vuk’s work, and his language reform proposals, met with a more mixed response among his fellow-Serbians. Vuk endorsed popular speech as the basis for linguistic standardization, rather than the Slavonic-Serbian used by the educated classes – an idiom influenced by the Russian teaching mission sent to Serbia by the Orthodox Synod, and endorsed by Serbia’s Orthodox clergy. Vuk’s critique of this usage broadened into literary criticism when he attacked the “prettified language” of Milovan ’s popular . This led to a long-lasting controversy between Vuk and the anti-reformist , notably with its founding member Jovan .
Vuk’s reformation of the Cyrillic alphabet took inspiration from Jan ’s alphabet reforms and aimed, following the principle laid down by Johann Christoph , to provide each phoneme with its own letter. Going by his own native (Eastern-Hercegovinian) dialect, he excluded Russian letters which had no spoken analogue and where necessary included new letters to represent sounds in popular speech.
All this found expression in Vuk’s Serbian dictionary (Srpski rjecnik, 1818), which contained 26,270 headwords and many references (in Serbian, German and Latin) to folk life. The second edition of 1852 went beyond the scope of a mere vocabulary and counted 47,000 headwords, giving a full lexical account of rural life in early-19th-century Serbia, with extensive descriptions of all its important elements.
Vuk’s constant financial worries meant that he was constantly in search of patronage, leading to a Russian visit in 1819. This gained him useful connections among various Slavic intellectuals and sympathizers, and a Russian state pension. Political friction continued to beset his publications, however: in 1821, censorship prevented the publication of his material for a history of Serbia, which were considered seditious. A third book of epic poetry met with the same fate. Financial issues and political intrigue dominated Vuk’s many visits to Serbia, ruled by following the success of the Second Uprising of 1815. Vuk’s initial favour with the regime soured, and relations were broken off when Vuk wrote a critical open “Letter to Miloš Obrenović” in 1832.
From 1834, Vuk collected poems and customs in Montenegro and Dalmatia; his history of Montenegro was published in German in 1837 as Montenegro und die Montenegriner. Around this time he became associated with the , which sought cultural solidarity between Serbs and Croats, and in 1850 he was a co-signatory of the proclaiming a common linguistic standard for Serbs (represented by Vuk and Ðuro ), Croats (represented by Dimitrija , Ivan , Ivan and others) and Slovenes (represented by Franc ). Vuk’s West-Serbian dialect was endorsed as a common standard, to be represented both by a Cyrilic-Serbian and a Roman-Croatian alphabet.
In 1847, Vuk’s language reforms were finally culturally endorsed as the first collections of poetry written in “rustic” Serbian, by the most influential Serbian poet of the Romantic generation, Branko ; this was followed by the publication, later that year, of “The mountain wreath” by Prince-Bishop Petar Petrović of Montenegro. Both were inspired by Serbian oral poetry and by popular poetic diction. Vuk’s language standard was officially institutionalized after his death (Vienna, 1864). His Serbian , sponsored by the and following the demotic idiom, was published in 1868; his remains were transferred to Belgrade in 1899.