The Sin of Being above Average
He spoke at least seven languages, ancient and modern. He had the highest grades at his philosophy and mathematics studies in Pest. He made an epochal shock in Serbian science and culture, with a book of only eighteen pages. Leaning upon Locke and Adelung, he elevated the hundred years old efforts of Venclović to the level of a language system and founded everything important later completed by Vuk Karadžić. It was difficult for his refined spirit and oversensitive nature to suffer three big breaks in his life. It is considered that he died at the age of fifty, in a Viennese ”mental institution”, but no one knows how or where his tomb is

By: Uroš Matić

The time of cultural excitements and war turmoil in Europe. Kant is publishing Criticism of Pure Reason, Goethe is writing Faustus, Schiller is publishing Die Räuber, Mozart is playing sonatas for Mary Antoinette, Beethoven is a pipe organ player in the palace chapel in Bonn. Austria is recovering from the Seven Years’ War, Napoleon is announcing a new European drama. In the East, in Serbia, Turkish oppression is accelerating the sprouting of the uprising in the hearts of people. At that time, exactly two hundred and thirty years ago, in the village of Lasinjski Sjeničak, Kordun, in a poor frontiersman family, in a house made of chestnut wattle, Sava Mrkalj was born, the first new age reformer of the Serbian alphabet and orthography.
Writer Đorđe Rajković thoroughly studied sources which were later (by World War II) completely destroyed and preserved information on Sava Mrkalj from oblivion. He says he was a weak and pale boy. He never played much with his friends; he liked solitude and contact with nature. As if he were looking for something big, at the same time bothered by the fact that he still couldn’t understand what. He was only ten when, while learning catechesis in school, asked himself for the first time: why aren’t the students asking for explanation for the incomprehensible words they had to learn by heart? What kind of letters are those anyway? Why doesn’t anyone in the village speak like that?
Such questions, simple and deep, and his difference from the environment he was growing up in, would later bring him both fame and suffering. He committed the ”sin of being above average”.


It isn’t certain when Sava completed the Clerical School in Plaško, because it was canceled and renewed several times. In his biographical and literary note on Mrkalj in the Javor magazine from 1877, based on the documents from the church archive in Plaško, Đorđe Rajković states that Mrkalj graduated as an excellent student already at the age of sixteen, in 1799. Most historians agree on this. Due to such a successful graduation, Sava moved to Gospić straight from the classroom and became teacher in the local Slavic-Serbian school. He worked very hard, but stayed there less than a year. Irregular salary, authorities which used to take students to military service, disrespect of certain students (some of them older than their teacher), influenced Mrkalj’s sensitive soul. He left.
We don’t know much about several years of his life after Gospić. There are no preserved data, only assumptions. In 1806, at the age of twenty-three, he earned the diploma of the Royal Academy of Zagreb, after passing public exams in logics, history of philosophy, mathematics, architecture, hydro-technology and metaphysics! He spoke German, French, Russian Church Slavonic, and was familiar with Greek, Latin and Hebrew! However, drastic social differences, the difficult position of the men from the borderline area among the purgers of Karlovac (which, according to Gojko Nikoliš, PhD, hadn’t changed even a hundred years later), as well as his wish for further education, made Sava Mrkalj move to Pest.
Much more important than his philosophy and mathematics studies, where he showed great knowledge and earned highest grades, was Sava’s friendship with Serbian intellectuals staying in Pest at the time: medical students Dimitrije Davidović and Dimitrije Frušić, who started Novine Serbske (Serbian Newspaper) in Vienna in 1813, Luka Milovanov Georgijević, law student, who, also in 1813, published the famous discussion Essay on Similar Words and Syllable Measuring. However, Sava’s biggest and most important friendship in Pest was with Vuk Karadžić, whom he met in a Serbian pastry shop in 1810. The ”ijekavian” dialect, same views of the issues of the alphabet, orthography and language, joint interest in Pavle Solarić and other linguists, poets and educators, soon brought them close together. Through that friendship, Sava soon crystallized and verified the ideas he had been carrying for so long, so already in September 1810, he published his famous work Fat of the Thick Yer i.e. Alphabet Reshuffling, which greatly influenced Vuk’s battle for Serbian literary language and orthography.


There were four types of literary languages at the time: Serbian Church Slavonic, folk, Russian Church Slavonic and Slavo-Serbian. The letters had no vocal basis. The dysfunctionality, disunity, arbitrariness and instability of the language as a system were a source of great difficulties. There had been earlier attempts to define and resolve those problems, but without any significant improvement. Even people such as Venclović, Orfelin, Tekelija, Dositej Obradović, Solarić, Došenović, Emanuil Janković, Atanasije Stojković, Lukijan Mušicki, couldn’t complete the puzzle and make a stable system ”at the service of Serbian people and its culture”.
Thus the booklet of Sava Mrkalj, although very humble in volume (only 18 pages), had such significance and such an echo among educated Serbs of the time. ”Sava found support and initiation in his predecessors for this big step. He wanted not only to educate his people, but to bring honor to them with this work and success”, notes a later commenter.
While writing Fat of the Thick Yer, Sava Mrkalj relied on the philosophical stands of John Locke and his empirical theory of knowledge, which significantly influenced the development of Enlightenment in Europe. He specifically emphasized the need for including the orthographic principles of Johann Christoph Adelung, German philologist and lexicographer. Adelung’s Schreib wie du sprichst is included in the principle of Mrkalj’s orthographic rule Write as you speak. Also clear was the influence of Gavril Stefanović Venclović, who was, already in early 18th century, proponent of creating a literary language on the basis of the folk speech.
Milorad Pavić emphasized that, by canceling twenty signs from the up to then alphabet, especially attacking the thick yer”, Mrkalj set new frames in Serbian linguistics, paved the way to Serbian romanticism and anticipated the future reforms of Vuk Karadžić.
Praises came from all sides, except from the church and metropolitan Stevan Stratimirović. He accused him of striking the national and Orthodox Christian independence of Serbs, breaking the bonds with Russia and making them closer to Catholicity by disrupting the connections with the ”traditional language”.


Only a year later, although at the height of his fame and after excellent critiques, Sava Mrkalj went to the monastery of Gomirje and became monk Julijan. Why? Again there is no reliable information, only assumptions.
We know that his scientific ambitions didn’t end with the publishing of Fat and the success he gained especially among philosophers. He indicated in that booklet that he must also write the Language Earthquake, i.e. the grammar. Where could he find better peace for such a thing than in a monastic cell or library? Lukijan Mušicki or Ruđer Bošković had already done it before...
The monastery, however, didn’t bring him peace, but new sources of suffering. The situation is far below the imagined and necessary. Lack of zeal, intrigues, even fights. Mrkalj, educated and dedicated, with the literary and scientific fame he had brought, was different and provoked envy of the unworthy ones. They accused him of starting incidents which had often happened before his arrival. ”They don’t let him withdraw to his cell, they starve him, some even physically assault him.” In the year of 1811, in December, Josif Rajačić, future Serbian patriarch, was appointed Archimandrite of Gomir, however that didn’t bring peace to Sava Mrkalj either. Doubtful complaints about him constantly arrived to bishop Mojsije Mioković who, finally, seemed to have no way out. After almost two years, Mrkalj left Gomirje, sad and distracted.
Then followed ”twelve years of starving and wandering at the edge of illness, desperately searching for paths of redemption”. He traveled a lot. Turkey, Bović, monasteries of St. George in Banat and Jazak in Fruška Gora, Vojnić, Karlovac, Dubrovnik, Šibenik, Zemun. Similar to Dositej or Vuk, he searched for new knowledge which would be of use to the people. He’s not just an adventurer, hungry for new experiences. He travels even when he is out of money. He walks, jumps into horse carts, sometimes eats only what he picks along the way. It’s no longer the man the Viennese palace used to speak about. Watching into the eyes of others, he sees himself as a ragamuffin and tramp, grown into beard, with cheeks withered from starvation. He sleeps in stables, parks, wherever he finds a place.
Then comes the terrible year.


Sava Tekelija writes: ”Then came the year of 1817, when famine was so terrible, that people minced corn cobs and made bread out of it, ate tree bark, especially those from Erdelj, who came so exhausted and starving, that they were falling dead in markets and streets.”
Mrkalj is still wandering. His psychological state is getting worse. He replies to Vuk Karadžić from Karlovci, on October 20, 1817, to his question about the novel of Milovan Vidaković: ”First, what I think about Ljubomir in Elysium? I think he is a degenerate of the Serbian literature.” Also in 1817, In his critique Resistance, he criticized Vidaković in a taunting and angry tone.
That year, he published the text ”Palinode or Apology of the Fat Yer” in Novine Serbske, where he mitigated and somewhat canceled his previous stands: ”We want to free our fat yer from undeserved attacks and persecutions. The poor thing suffered many times from those who, if we asked them what sin it had committed, couldn’t say a single thing.” Karadžić, Gregorije Geršić, Platon Atanacković and others criticized these stands, thoroughly contesting Sava’s ”new arguments”.
Why did Mrkalj change his stands? Did he want to improve his position in the church and survive? Or did he, as Luka Milovanov suspects, want to be satirical and bring things to an absurd, perhaps to send a message? The widely accepted thesis that, with this repentance, he wanted to soften metropolitan Stratimirović and ask him for permission to return to the monastery, seems disputable. In any case, he was rejected until his death.
The nature of Sava Mrkalj was oversensitive; it was easy for pain and suffering to get through to him. Having his soul tormented, he began reacting violently and short-temperedly. In 1822, he argued with a teacher in the street in Zemun. Another time, at the age of 42, after being asked by a drawing teacher to translate his birth certificate into Latin, he snapped and wounded the teacher with a knife. He was imprisoned and soon afterwards transferred to a ”mental institution” in Vienna, where he stayed until his death. Even then, although with the doctor’s recommendation, he wasn’t granted permission to return to the monastery.
Before Sava’s death, Vuk Karadžić visited him. We can only imagine how emotional the encounter must have been. Sava gave him a notebook with the poems he wrote, including his most beautiful poem ”Ah, ah, three hundred times ah”, which Milorad Pavić considers the manifest of pre-romanticism. It is one of the three poems of Sava Mrkalj that entered Serbian anthologies. Thus, it is amazing that one fourth of the entire opus of Sava Mrkalj as a poet is anthological (according to the opinion of Dušan Ivanić).
The certainty he felt before his death, expressed in this poem, that a man is a man’s greatest horror, remained hovering as a warning over his misfortunate life and his death. It is stated that he died at the age of fifty, a hundred and eighty years ago, but without information in the archives how or where his grave is.


Voices of Recognition
Sava Mrkalj wasn’t one of the unrecognized geniuses. The evaluation of Jernej Kopitar also proves it: ”There is more linguistic philosophy in these eighteen pages than in a fat grammar book.” Vuk Karadžić: ”The solution of Mr. Merkail is so true and so clear that any unbiased Serb with a common sense must approve it.” Aleksandar Mladenović: ”Sava Mrkalj was the one who, with his reform of the Cyrillic alphabet in 1810, cleared the ground and prepared practically everything necessary for Vuk to bring our alphabet to pure perfection.”


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