||This article includes a list of references, but its sources remain unclear because it has insufficient inline citations. (September 2011)|
Mrkalj was born in the hamlet of Sjeničak in Kordun, at the time Military Frontier, Austrian Empire, now present-day Croatia. He attended high school in Zagreb, and graduated from Pest University with the degree of Humanitatis et Philosophiæ Doctor.
It was in 1805 in Pest that he began to devote himself to philological researches, inspired by the works of German philologist Johann Christoph Adelung and others who were working on language reforms. Mrkalj spoke fluent German, French, Greek and Hebrew. He is best known for attempting to reform the Serbian language before Vuk Stefanović Karadžić. In a publication titled Сало дебелога јера либо азбукопротрес / Fat of the Thick Yer, i.e. Alphabet Reshuffling (Buda, 1810), he proposed a simplification of the Serbian alphabet from forty-two to twenty-six letters. His contemporaries were poets and writers Lukijan Mušicki, Ivan Jugović, Sima Milutinović Sarajlija, Jeremija Gagić, Stevan Živković (Telemak), Pavle Solarić, and philologists Luka Milovanov Georgijević (1784–1828), Jernej Kopitar, Piotr Dubrovsky, and Johann Christoph Adelung. Mrkalj gave his support to Vuk and Kopitar during the Serbian Language Controversy, but retracted everything he wrote when he was threatened with defrocking.
His suggestion was considered radical and indeed blasphemous (since the original Cyrillic in use by the Serbian Orthodox Church at the time had allegedly been created by Cyril and Methodius), so Mrkalj received so much offensive criticism from the church hierarchy that he decided to be tonsured as a monk to prove his orthodoxy in 1811, but was so disappointed with the monastic life that he left the order in 1813. In 1817 he retracted his alphabet reform proposal in a publication titled: A Palinode (or Defense of the Thick Yer).
Among the first Illyrians (as the Serbs were called by the Austrians) Dositej Obradović is the first who in his writings replaced the dead old Slavonic literary language by the living dialect of the people. Sava Mrkalj echoed Dositej's demand for a simplified alphabet for secular writing. He was, in fact, the first to influence Vuk Stefanović Karadžić in forming a new standard for the Serbian literary language based on common use.
By far the most significant evidence of Mrkalj's suggested reform appeared in 1810 in a slim volume anticipating Vuk Karadžić's orthographic reform by urging the adoption of a phonemic alphabet in Cyrillic and by prompting the use of the jekavian norm. His pamphlet had been severely criticized by the hierarchy of the Serbian Orthodox Church because Mrkalj proposed to simplify the traditional Slavonic alphabet for secular use by eliminating letters that took up too much space, were duplicates and superfluous, or simply stood for sounds not in the Serbian language. The clergy charged that dropping such letters would cause the modern orthography to come into "collision" with the Slavonic. Other linguists and philologists, like Vuk Karadžić and Jernej Kopitar, immediately came to his support, citing Russian spellings that correspond to Russian speech and not Slavonic. Mrkalj suggested, as Dositej Obradović had done in the eighteenth century, that Serbs keep the orthography of the church language separate from the living language they would use in their new, contemporary literature.
Of all the orthgraphical reforms proposed by such well-known Serbian writers as Dositej Obradović, Sava Tekelija, Lukijan Mušicki, Atanasije Stojković, Pavle Solarić, Vuk Karadžić favoured Sava Mrkalj's system the best. The principle underlying Mrkalj's system was one sound—one letter, which meant that every sound should be represented by one letter, and that each distinctive sound of the spoken language should have a letter corresponding to it alone.
Besides his philological researches and writings, Mrkalj is also known as an accomplished poet. His earliest poem Odi, Kirilu Živokoviću (An Ode to Kiril Zhivkovich), dates from his university days in 1805; Jao! Jao! Jao tristo puta (Ouch! Ouch! Ouch Three Hundred Times), an anthology written in 1817; Sonet preslavnu Arhipastiru, a sonnet dedicated to Serbian poet Lukijan Mušicki who came into conflict with the hierarchy of the Serbian church over the language reforms proposed by Mrkalj and later by Vuk Karadžić; Starac (Old Man); and a sonnet to Jeleni Dijaković na novu godinu (1828). He also translated some works of Horace. In all fairness, no man after Dositej Obradović and before Vuk Karadžić did so much for the Serbian language under trying times and circmustances.
- Butler, Thomas J. (Winter, 1969) Jernej Kopitar's Role in the Serbian Language Controversy. The Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 13, No. 4. pp. 482
- Мала Енциклопедија Просвета - Општа Енциклопедија (М-Ш). Издавачко предузеће "Просвета", Београд 1959.
- Гојко Николиш: Сава Мркаљ - повијест о једном страдалнику, "Просвјета", Загреб 1980.
- Сава Мркаљ: Песме и списи, СКД Сава Мркаљ", Топуско, 1994. приредио Жарко Ружић.