Serbo-Croatian language

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(Redirected from Serbo-Croatian)
(srpskohrvatski / српскохрватски
hrvatskosrpski / хрватскосрпски)
Spoken in: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro, and others
Region: The Balkans
Total speakers: 16 million (up to 21 million)
Ranking: 44 or lower
Genetic classification: Indo-European
Official status
Official language of: ---
Regulated by: ---
Language codes
ISO 639-1sh
ISO 639-2
See also: LanguageList of languages

Serbo-Croatian (srpskohrvatski or hrvatskosrpski) is a name for a language of the Western group of the South Slavic languages.

Serbo-Croatian was one of the official languages of Yugoslavia (the other two were Slovenian and Macedonian). It continues to be used under different names/standards in today's Serbia and Montenegro, Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, and is still reasonably well understood in FYR Macedonia and Slovenia. The language is also spoken by Serbian and Croatian minorities in Austria, Hungary, Albania, Italy, Romania and elsewhere.


The name controversy

The name Serbo-Croatian is a controversial issue due to history, politics, and the variable meaning of the word language.

Genetic linguistics point of view

From the genetic linguistics point of view, Serbo-Croatian grew out from Neo-Štokavian dialect and is/was considered one language with two generally mutually intelligible variants: "western" or Croatian (at the time, "Croato-Serbian") and "eastern" or Serbian (at the time, "Serbo-Croatian"). This point of view dominated from the 1870s to the 1960s. The use of national names for the variants did not accommodate the Bosnian Muslims, nor did the general preference towards "Serbo-Croatian" as opposed to "Croato-Serbian" accommodate the Croats.

Genetic linguistics is, generally speaking, concerned mainly with two basic traits: the origin of a language and mutual intelligibility between languages thus defined. So, according to these criteria, spoken (by the laity) Hindi and Urdu are one language, as are Bulgarian and Macedonian. Genetically, there is not one German language, but at least two: one of them (Plattdeutsch) is, genetically, one language with Dutch. English and Scots are in a rather similar position. Another example is the mutual intelligibility between speakers of Indonesian in Indonesia and Malay in Malaysia and Singapore, and Portuguese with Galician, etc. These criteria have dominated the thinking about South Slavic languages for the past 200 years.

Sociolinguistics point of view

The sociolinguistic situation is much more complex. Throughout the history of the South Slavs, the vernacular, literatures and written language of the regions and ethnicities developed independently and diverged to a point.

In the mid 19th century, both Serbian and Croatian writers and linguists decided to use the most widespread Štokavian dialect as a basis for their standard languages. Thus a bi-variant language appeared, which the Serbs officially called "Serbo-Croatian" and the Croats "Croatian and Serbian". The variants of a supposedly single language functioned in practice as different standard languages. The common phrase used to describe this unusual situation was that Serbo-Croatian/Croatian or Serbian is a unified but not a unitary language.

After the ethnic tensions in the 1970s and especially after the breakup of Yugoslavia and the ensuing war in the 1990s, most speakers decided to call their language either Serbian, Croatian or Bosnian.

Official names

Most native speakers do not call the language Serbo-Croatian. Rather,

  • Bosniaks in Bosnia and Herzegovina call their language Bosnian.
  • Croats in Croatia and in Bosnia and Herzegovina call their language Croatian.
  • In Montenegro, the language is officially called Serbian. There is a movement to change the name to Montenegrin, but this does not seem likely to happen in the near future.
  • Serbs in Serbia and Montenegro and in Bosnia and Herzegovina call their language Serbian.
The constitution of the Republic of Serbia from 1990 (before the breakup of Yugoslavia), which is still in force, specifies that the official language is Serbo-Croatian. However, outside some university courses, the language is called Serbian in all contexts. Proposals for the new constitution call the language Serbian.

For more information, see: Differences in official languages in Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia.

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has specified different Universal Decimal Classification (UDC) numbers for Croatian (UDC 862, acronym hr) and Serbian (UDC 861, acronym sr), while the "cover term" Serbo-Croatian is referenced as the combination of original signs, UDC 861/862, acronym sh. Furthermore, the ISO 639 standard specifies Bosnian language with acronyms bos and bs.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia considers what it calls BCS (Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian) to be the first language of all Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian defendants. The indictments, documents and verdicts of the ICTY are not written with a regard to consistent following of grammatical prescriptions — be they Serbian, Croatian, or Bosnian.

Views of the linguists

Opinions of linguists in former Yugoslavia diverge.

  • The majority of mainstream Serbian linguists still consider Serbo-Croatian to be one language with two variants. A minority of Serbian linguists are of the opinion that Serbo-Croatian did exist, but has, in the meantime, dissolved. A small minority agree that a "Serbo-Croatian" language has never existed and that this term designates a Croatian variant of the Serbian language.
  • The majority of Croatian linguists think that there was never anything like a unified Serbo-Croatian language, but two different standard languages that overlapped sometime in the course of history. Also, they claim that no language has ever dissolved, since there was no Serbo-Croatian standard language. A minority of Croatian linguists deny that the Croatian standard language is based on the neo-tokavian dialect.
  • The majority of Bosniak linguists consider that the Serbo-Croatian language still exists and that it is based on the Bosnian idiom. A minority of Bosniak linguists think that Croats and Serbs have, historically, "misappropriated" the Bosnian language for their political and cultural agenda.

Political connotations

Nationalists have rather conflicting views about the language(s). The nationalists among the Croats and Bosniaks claim that they speak entirely separate languages, whereas the nationalists among the Serbs claim that any divergence in the language is artificial, or claim that the Štokavian dialect is theirs and the Čakavian Croat. Proponents of unity among Southern Slavs claim that there is a single language with normal dialectal variations. Moderate people usually say that the issue of the language is exaggerated and that nomenclature is hardly important.

These arguments are political. However, the speed of communication today makes it unlikely that the languages of the Balkans will diverge naturally. This may make easier determining which changes are authentic and which are artificial.


Main article: Serbo-Croatian dialects

Template:IPA notice The primary dialects are named after the word for what. Čakavian (čakavski) uses the word ča; Kajkavian (kajkavski), kaj; and Štokavian (štokavski), što or šta. However, outside of this classification are Burgenland Croatian and Torlakian (torlački).

Furthermore, there are three ways of rendering the Proto-Slavic vowel jat. Čakavian mainly uses i, Kajkavian mainly uses e while the Štokavian dialect is broken down into a secondary subdivision based on whether ije or e is used.

Each of these primary and secondary dialectical units break down into subdialects and accents by region. In the past, it was not uncommon for individual villages to have some of their own words and phrases. However, throughout the twentieth century the various dialects have been strongly influenced by the Štokavian standards through mass media and public education, and much of the "local color" has been lost.

Although most linguists nowadays consider Štokavian, Čakavian, and Kajkavian as three dialects of one common language, there is a basis for considering the three as distinct tongues. However, since there are no clear-cut criteria for distinguishing a language from a dialect, and dialects are usually described in reference to standard languages, the notion of a diasystem is frequently used instead of Serbo-Croatian.

Rendering of yat

The Proto-Slavic vowel jat has changed over time and is now being rendered in three different ways:

  • In Ekavian (ekavski), jat has morphed into the vowel e.
  • in Ikavian (ikavski), the vowel i.
  • in Ijekavian or Jekavian (ijekavski or jekavski), the diphthong ije or je, depending on whether the vowel was long or short.

The following are some examples:

to needtrěbatitrebatitribatitrebati
to heatgrějatigrejatigrijatigrijati

The first two examples involve long vowels. For instance, the first e in vreme and the i in vrime are long, so the long diphthong ije is found in the Ijekavian form. In the third and fourth examples, the corresponding ekavian and ikavian vowels are short, so the short diphthong je is found in the Ijekavian form.


Serbo-Croatian is a highly inflected language. Traditional grammars list seven cases for nouns and adjectives: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, vocative, locative, and instrumental, reflecting the original seven cases of Proto-Slavic, and indeed older forms of Serbo-Croatian itself. However, in modern Štokavian the locative has merged into dative.

Like most Slavic languages, there are three genders for nouns: masculine, feminine, and neuter, a distinction which is still present even in the plural (unlike Russian). They also have two numbers: singular and plural. However, some consider there to be four numbers, since after two (dva, dvije/dve), three (tri) and four (četiri), and all numbers ending in them (e.g., twenty-two, ninety-three, one hundred four) the genitive singular is used, and after all other numbers five (pet) and up, the genitive plural is used. (The number one [jedan] is treated as an adjective.) Adjectives are placed in front of the noun they modify and must agree in both case and number with it.

There are seven tenses for verbs: past, present, future, exact future, aorist, imperfect, and plusquamperfect; and three moods: indicative, imperative, and conditional. However, the latter three tenses are typically only used in writing, and the time sequence of the exact future is more commonly formed through an alternative construction.

In addition, like most Slavic languages, the verb also has one of two aspects: perfective or imperfective. Most verbs come in pairs, with the perfective verb being created out of the imperfective by adding a prefix or making a stem change. This type of aspect is difficult to learn for most foreigners, including native English speakers, because it is both subtle and, at least among Indo-European languages, rare outside the Slavic branch. The imperfective aspect typically indicates that the action is unfinished, in progress, or repetitive; while the perfective aspect typically denotes that the action was completed, instantaneous, or of limited duration. Some tenses favor a particular aspect.

Writing systems

Through history, this language has been written in a number of writing systems:

The oldest preserved text written completely in the Latin alphabet is "Red i zakon sestara reda Svetog Dominika", from 1345.

Today, it is written in both the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets. Serbian and Bosnian use both alphabets, while Croatian uses only the Latin.

The Serbian Cyrillic alphabet was revised by Vuk Stefanović Karadžić in the 19th century.

The Croatian Latin alphabet (Gajica) followed suit shortly afterwards, when Ljudevit Gaj defined it as standard Latin with five extra letters that had diacritical marks, apparently borrowing much from Czech, but also from Polish, and inventing the uniquely Croatian digraphs "lj", "nj" and "dž".

In both cases, spelling is nearly phonetic and spellings in the two alphabets generally map to each other one-to-one:

Latin to Cyrillic

A a B b C c Č č Ć ć D d Dž dž Đ đ E e F f G g H h I i J j K k
А а Б б Ц ц Ч ч Ћ ћ Д д Џ  џ  Ђ ђ Е е Ф ф Г г Х х И и Ј ј К к 
L l Lj lj M m N n Nj nj O o P p R r S s Š š T t U u V v Z z Ž ž
Л л Љ  љ  М м Н н Њ  њ  О о П п Р р С с Ш ш Т т У у В в З з Ж ж

Cyrillic to Latin

А а Б б В в Г г Д д Ђ ђ Е е Ж ж З з И и Ј ј К к Л л Љ  љ  М м
A a B b V v G g D d Đ đ E e Ž ž Z z I i J j K k L l Lj lj M m
Н н Њ  њ  О о П п Р р С с Т т Ћ ћ У у Ф ф Х х Ц ц Ч ч Џ  џ  Ш ш
N n Nj nj O o P p R r S s T t Ć ć U u F f H h C c Č č Dž dž Š š
Sample collation

The digraphs Lj, Nj and represent distinct phonemes and are considered to be single letters. In crosswords, they are put into a single square, and in sorting, lj follows lz and nj follows nz, except in a few words where the individual letters are pronounced separately, for instance "nadživ(j)eti" (to outlive), which is composed of the prefix nad- and the verb živ(j)eti. The Cyrillic version avoids the ambiguity by using "надживети" rather than "наџивети".

Đ used to be commonly written as Dj on typewriters, but that practice led to too many ambiguities. It is also used on car license plates. Today Dj is often used again in place of Đ on the Internet.



The Serbo-Croatian vowel system is simple, with only five vowels. All vowels are monophthongs. The oral vowels are as follows:

Latin script IPA X-SAMPA Description English approximation
i [i] front closed unrounded seek
e [E] front half open unrounded ten
a [a] central open unrounded cut
u [u] back closed rounded boom
o [o] back half open rounded caught


The consonant system is more complicated, and its characteristic features are series of affricate and palatal consonants. As in English, voicedness is phonemic, but aspiration is not.

Latin script IPA X-SAMPA Description English approximation
b [b] voiced bilabial plosive abuse
c [ts] voiceless alveolar affricate pots
č [tS] voiceless postalveolar affricate chair
ć [ts\] voiceless alveolo-palatal affricate nature
d [d] voiced alveolar plosive dog
d [dZ] voiced postalveolar affricate jam
đ [dz\] voiced alveolo-palatal affricate schedule
f [f] voiceless labiodental fricative phase
g [g] voiced velar plosive god
h [h] voiceless glottal fricative hat
j [j] palatal approximant yes
k [k] voiceless velar plosive duck
l [l] lateral alveolar approximant lock
lj [L] palatal lateral approximant volume
m [m] bilabial nasal man
n [n] alveolar nasal not
nj [J] palatal nasal canyon
p [p] voiceless bilabial plosive top
r [r] alveolar trill rolled (vibrating) r as in carramba
s [s] voiceless alveolar fricative some
[S] voiceless postalveolar fricative sheer
t [t] voiceless alveolar plosive talk
v [v] voiced labiodental fricative vase
z [z] voiced alveolar fricative zero
[Z] voiced postalveolar fricative vision

In consonant clusters all consonants are either voiced or voiceless. All the consonants are voiced (if the last consonant is normally voiced) or voiceless (if the last consonant is normally voiceless). This rule does not apply to approximants a consonant cluster may contain voiced approximants and voiceless consonants.

R can be vocalic, playing the role of a vowel in certain words (occasionally, it can even have a long accent). For example, the tongue-twister na vrh brda vrba mrda involves four words with vocalic r. A similar feature exists in Slovenian and the West Slavic languages.


Apart from Slovenian, Serbo-Croatian is the only Slavic language with a pitch accent system. This feature is rare in Europe — the few other examples include Swedish and Ancient Greek. Serbo-Croatian has four types of accent; in addition, unstressed syllables may be short or long.

Serbo-Croatian stress system
Stress type Symbol (diacritic mark) English approximation
Short falling [ȁ] cut
Short rising [] cut up
Long falling [] leave
Long rising [] leaving
Long unstressed [ā] fifties

General stress rules in the standard language:

  • 1) Monosyllabic words may have only a falling stress (or no stress at all enclitics)
  • 2) Falling stress may occur only on the first syllable
  • 3) Stress can never occur on the last syllable of polysyllabic words

In practice, these rules are not strictly obeyed; for example, most speakers will pronounce paradajz and asistent instead of standard paradajz and asistent (rule 3). Stress differs across local dialects and even across idiolects; it is the primary distinguishing feature by which a trained ear recognizes the origin of a speaker (even without knowing about underlying stress theory). Luckily, there are not many minimal pairs where an error in accentuation can lead to misunderstanding.

There are no other rules of stress placement, thus the stress of every word must be learned individually; stress diacritics are never indicated outside of linguistic or learning literature. In general, stress leans towards the first syllable. Furthermore, in declension and conjugation, stress shifts are very frequent, both in type and position.


Serbo-Croatian orthography is supposed to be completely phonetic. Thus, every word is allegedly spelled exactly as it is pronounced. In practice, the writing system does not take into account allophones which occur as result of interaction between words:

  • bit će pronounced biće (and only written separately in Croatian)
  • od toga pronounced otoga, esp. in rapid speech
  • iz čega pronounced ičega

Also, there are some exceptions, mostly applied to foreign words and compounds, that favor morphological/etymological over phonetical spelling:

  • postdiplomski (postgraduate) pronounced pozdiplomski

One systemic exception is that the consonant clusters ds and d do not change into ts and t (although d tends to be unvoiced in normal speech in such clusters):

  • predstava (show)
  • odtampati (to print)

Only a few words are intentionally "misspelled", mostly in order to resolve ambiguity:

  • eststo (six hundred) pronounced esto (to avoid confusion with "esto" [sixth])
  • prstni (adj., finger) pronounced prsni (to avoid confusion with "prsni" [adj., chest])


According to data collected from various census bureaus and administrative agencies the total number of native Serbo-Croatian speakers in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia and Montenegro is about 16 million. Serbian is spoken by about 9 million mostly in Serbia (6.7m), Bosnia and Herzegovina (1.4m) and Montenegro. (0.4m). Croatian is spoken by roughly 4.7 million including by 575,000 in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Bosnian, the youngest member of the Serbo-Croatian family is spoken by 2.2 million including about 220,000 in Serbia and Montenegro. Moreover, 955,000 people speak Serbo-Croatian as a second language in those areas where it is official. In Croatia, 170,000 mostly Italians and Hungarians use it as a second language. In Bosnia and Herzegovina about 25,000 Roma use it as a second language. Serbia and Montenegro, however has 760,000 second language speakers of Serbian, they include Hungarians in Vojvodina and the 400,000 estimated Roma. It is not known how many Kosovar Albanians are familiar with Serbian. Outside of the Balkans, over 2 million speak it natively mostly in Australia, Austria, Canada, Germany, Sweden and the United States. In addition, the language is reasonably understood in Slovenia and Macedonia as they were Yugoslav republics.


  • Magner, Thomas F.: Zagreb Kajkavian dialect. Pennsylvania State University, 1966
  • Magner, Thomas F.: Introduction to the Croatian and Serbian Language (Revised ed.). Pennsylvania State University, 1991
  • Murray Despalatović, Elinor: Ljudevit Gaj and the Illyrian Movement. Columbia University Press, 1975.
  • Franolić, Branko: A Historical Survey of Literary Croatian, Nouvelles ditions latines, Paris, 1984.
  • Banac, Ivo: Main Trends in the Croatian Language Question, Yale University Press, 1984
  • Ivić, Pavle: Die serbokroatischen Dialekte, the Hague, 1958
  • Rešetar, Milan: Der Schtokawische Dialekt, Berlin, 1908

See also

External links


da:Serbo-kroatisk de:Serbokroatische Sprache fr:Serbo-croate li:Servokroatisch nl:Servokroatisch pl:Język serbsko-chorwacki sl:Srbohrvaščina sr:Српскохрватски језик fi:Serbokroatia sv:Serbokroatiska


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