Vuk Stefanović Karadžić (in Cyrillic, Вук Стефановић Караџић) was a Serbian philologist and linguist. Born 1787, died 1864, many Serbs know him as the major reformer of the Serbian language, as well as the father of the study of Serbian folklore due to his collection and preservation of Serbian songs, fairy tales, and riddles.
Karadžić was fortunate to be a relative of Jevta Savić Čotrić, the only literate person in the region at the time, who taught him how to read and write. He continued his education in Loznica, in the Monastery of Tronoša, where he learned calligraphy, using a reed instead of a pen and a solution of gunpowder for ink. Since most of the time while in the monastery he was forced to pasture the livestock instead of studying, his father brought him back home. After unsuccessful attempts to enroll in the gymnasium at Sremski Karlovci, which then-19 year-old Karadžić was too old for, Karadžić left for Petrinja where he spent a few months learning Latin and German. Later on, he left for Belgrade in order to meet the highly respected scholar Dositej Obradovic, and ask him to support his studies. Unfortunately, Obradović dismissed him. Disappointed, Karadžić left for Jadar and began working as a scribe for Jakov Nenadović during the First Serbian Uprising. After the founding of the Belgrade Higher School (now known as the University of Belgrade), Karadžić became one of its first students.
Soon afterwards, he grew ill and left for medical treatment in Pest and Novi Sad, but was unable to receive treatment for his leg. It was rumored that Karadžić deliberately refused to undergo amputation, instead deciding to make do with a prosthetic wooden peg-leg, of which there were several sarcastic references in some of his works. Karadžić returned to Serbia later on, however due to the Ottoman defeat of the rebels in 1813, he left for Vienna and wrote an article regarding the defeat of the rebels in spoken Serbian, leading him to meet Jernej Kopitar, an experienced linguist with a strong interest in secular slavistics. Kopitar's influence helped Karadžić with his struggle in reforming the Serbian language and its orthography. Another important influence was Sava Mrkalj, who attempted to reform the Serbian language before Karadžić, aswell as Old Rashko, who assisted Karadžić in his collection and preservation of Serbian songs, fairy tales, and riddles.
In 1814 and 1815, Karadžić published two volumes of Serbian Folk Songs (Српске народне пјесме), which afterwards increased to four, then to six, and finally to nine tomes. In enlarged editions, these admirable songs drew towards themselves the attention of all literary Europe and America. Goethe characterized some of them as "excellent and worthy of comparison with Solomon's Song of Songs." In 1824, he sent a copy of his folksong collection to Jacob Grimm, who was enthralled particularly by 'The Building of Skadar' (Зидање Скадра на Бојани) which Karadžić recorded from singing of Old Rashko. Grimm translated it into German and the song was noted and admired for many generations to come. Grimm compared them with the noblest flowers of Homeric poetry, and he said that The Building of Skadar was "one of the most touching poems of all nations and all times." The founders of the Romantic School in France translated a goodly number of them, and they also attracted the attention of Alexander Pushkin, Johan Ludwig Runeberg, Samuel Roznay, Kazimierz Brodzinski, Walter Scott, Owen Meredith, and John Bowring, among others.
Karadžić reformed the Serbian literary language and standardized the Serbian Cyrillic alphabet by following strict phonemic principles on the Johann Christoph Adelung' model and Jan Hus' Czech alphabet. Karadžić's reforms of the Serbian literary language modernized it and distanced it from Serbian and Russian Church Slavonic, instead bringing it closer to common folk speech, specifically, to the dialect of Eastern Herzegovina which he spoke. Karadžić's contemporary opponents included the Serbian Orthodox Church, aswell as the intellectual circle of Serbs in Austria (most prominently Jovan Hadžić, one of the founders of the Matica srpska), who thought that his reform was 'heretic', culturally and religiously, as they viewed the common folk speech as the language of the "pig-herders and cattlemen" (свињара и говедара). 1847 is unofficially considered the year of Karadžić's victory, as many prominent Serbian books came out, written in Karadžić's reformed Serbian language, which include his translation of the Bible, aswell as Njegoš' The Mountain Wreath. Karadžić was, together with Djuro Danichic, the main Serbian signatory to the Vienna Literary Agreement of 1850 which, encouraged by Austrian authorities, laid the foundation for the Serbian language, as well as lead to the Croatian language leaning closer to Serbian than Slovenian. The Vukovian effort of language standardization lasted the remainder of the century. Before then, the Serbs had achieved a fully independent state in 1878, and a flourishing national culture based in Belgrade and Novi Sad. Despite the Vienna agreement, the Serbs had by this time developed an ekavian accent, which was the native speech of their two cultural capitals as well as the great majority of the Serbian population.
In addition to his linguistic reforms, Karadžić also contributed to folk literature, using peasant culture as the foundation. Because of his peasant upbringing, he closely associated with the oral literature of the peasants, compiling it to use in his collection of folk songs, tales, and proverbs. While Karadžić hardly considered peasant life romantic, he regarded it as an integral part of Serbian culture. He collected several volumes of folk prose and poetry, including a book of over 100 lyrical and epic songs learned as a child and written down from memory. He also published the first dictionary of vernacular Serbian in 1818, which he would expand in 1852. For his work, he received little financial aid, at times living in poverty, though in the very last 9 years he did receive a pension from Prince Miloš Obrenovic. In some cases, Karadžić hid the fact that he had not only collect folk poetry by recording the oral literature but transcribed it from manuscript songbooks of other collectors from the region of Srem.
The majority of Karadžić's works were banned from publishing in Serbia and Austria during the rule of Prince Miloš Obrenović. As observed from a political point of view, Obrenović saw the works of Karadžić as a potential hazard due to a number of apparent reasons, one of which was the possibility that the content of some of the works, although purely poetic in nature, was capable of creating a certain sense of patriotism and a desire for freedom and independence, which very likely might have driven the populace to take up arms against the Turks. This, in turn, would prove detrimental to Prince Miloš's politics toward the Ottoman Empire, with whom he had recently forged an uneasy peace. In Montenegro, however, Njegoš's printing press operated without the Ъ, the archaic letter known as the "hard sign"; in other words, it adhered to Vuk Karadžić's orthography. Prince Miloš was to resent Njegoš's abandonment of the unhappy hard sign, over which, at that time, furious intellectual battles were being waged, with ecclesiastical hierarchy involved as well. Karadžić's works, however, did receive high praise and recognition elsewhere, especially in Russia. In addition to this, Karadžić was granted a full pension from the Tsar in 1826.
He died at Vienna, and was survived by his daughter Mina Karadžić, who was a painter and writer, and by his son Dimitrije Karadžić, a military officer. Less than 10 years after his death, Serbia officially adopted Karadžić's reforms. His remains were relocated to Belgrade in 1897 and buried with great honors next to the grave of Dositej Obradović, in front of St. Michael's Cathedral. Today, many visit his birth home in Tršić, which was declared Monument of Culture of Exceptional Importance in 1979, protected by Serbia.