To my knowledge, there is only one language that succeeds in reducing a complex chain of concepts to one four-letter word. The word is inat; the language is Serbian.
Serbs themselves will sometimes engage in extended discussions when trying to define the idea of inat. Probably the least wordy English version of the word is “deliberately cutting off your nose to spite your face,” although a more elegant definition I have seen is “defiance for the sake of defiance rather than to achieve a long-term goal.”
A national characteristic?
But reflections about this word and its meaning assumed a more earnest nature during the fearful wars that ravaged the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s and which I covered as the then Central Europe correspondent for the BBC World Service. Inat is specifically associated with Serbs, and is often qualified as srpski or Serbian inat, meaning that it is largely (although not wholly) absent from the Croatian or Bosnian variants of the language that used to be called Serbo-Croat.
Some have advanced the idea that in their more recent history Serbs internalized inat as part of their intrinsic character, and that this partly explains the aggressive response of Serbs in asserting their dominance in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo when the Croats, Bosniaks and Albanians there sought independence from the former Yugoslavia or from Serbia. They argued that inat developed into a national cultural trait during the early years of the 19th century, when the fabled hajduk class of peasant warriors challenged the might of Ottoman Turkish power, resulting in Serbia’s becoming the first Balkan country to succeed in winning its independence.
Inat was also cited as an explanation of why many Serbs were apparently unconcerned by the widespread condemnation of their Yugoslav People’s Army and of Serbian paramilitary formations beyond the borders of Serbia proper. Similarly, when Belgraders defied NATO’s mass bombing of the Serbian capital in 1999 during the Kosovo war by running a five-kilometer race as devices exploded around them and roasting kebabs on the street during a terrifying air raid, this, too, was ascribed to inat.
A common response among Serbs was to concede that inat was indeed an essential part of their culture, and that, yes, in consequence they would defy anyone who attempted to trample on their hard-won national rights. However, some argued that this was precisely the reaction that Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic sought to provoke as a way of cranking up populist hysteria and further legitimizing his undemocratic rule; in other words, that the ruling elite was consciously using language and cultural perception as an instrument of political control.
Or Ottoman heritage?
For speakers of Russian, Polish or even Croatian (which is in most respects identical to Serbian), Serbian (along with Bosniak, Macedonian and Bulgarian) is a Slavic language that contains a striking number of Turkish words, part of the Ottoman heritage in the region. This usually applies to words for everyday objects such as “socks” (čarape) and “money” (para); to words that describe relationships, such as “enemy” (dušman) or neighbor (komšiluk); to all manner of culinary terms (with the predictable exception of the pork dishes so central to Serbian life); and to military and pugilistic terms, such as “cannon” (top), “fight” (kavga) or “massacre” (zulum) but also, importantly, to abstract concepts such as inat.
In Turkish, inat means “persistence,” but, as with many Turkisms in Serbian, the loan word has changed quite significantly over the years. In general, Serbs are contemptuous of Turkish influence, not to mention of the fact that Turkey’s state religion is Islam. But, paradoxically, they revel in their Ottoman cultural heritage.
In contrast to the custom in Greece, for example, Serbs persist in calling their strong coffee turska kafa, and, unlike their counterparts in neighboring Croatia, Serb linguists and politicians have never tried to eliminate loan words by creating indigenous neologisms. (Croatia’s late nationalist president, Franjo Tudjman, was obsessed with this, abolishing a word like helikopter, for example, in favor of zrakomlat, which literally means “air basher.”) That idea was in part designed to distance Croatian still further from Serbian. To that end, some Croat linguists have tried to argue that their language is more sophisticated, but one should never forget that the two languages are entirely mutually intelligible and to the outsider sound like almost exactly the same tongue.
Many of the conversations about language in the former Yugoslavia are extremely good-humored, but the inat debate has underlined how language can quickly become a highly sensitive political issue in times of uncertainty and conflict.