srpskohrvatski, hrvatskosrpski
српскохрватски, хрватскосрпски
Spoken in  Serbia
 Bosnia and Herzegovina
Region the Western Balkans
Ethnicity Serb, Croat, Bosniak, Montenegrin
Native speakers 16.3 million  (2001–2006)[1]
Language family
Standard forms
Standard Serbo-Croatian (defunct)
Štokavian (standard)
Writing system Latin alphabet (Gaj)
Cyrillic (Serbian)
Official status
Official language in  Bosnia and Herzegovina (as Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian)
 Croatia (as Croatian)
 Kosovo (as Serbian)[2]
 Montenegro (as Montenegrin)
 Serbia (as Serbian)
Regulated by

Council for Standard Croatian Language Norm

Board for Standardization of the Serbian Language
Language codes
ISO 639-1 sh (deprecated)
ISO 639-2 scr, scc (deprecated)
ISO 639-3 hbs – Macrolanguage
individual codes:
srp – Serbian
hrv – Croatian
bos – Bosnian
Linguasphere 53-AAA-g
Serbo croatian language2005.png
  Areas where Serbo-Croatian is spoken by a plurality of speakers (as of 2005).

Note: a Kosovo independence disputed, see 2008 Kosovo declaration of independence

Serbo-Croatian or Serbo-Croat, less commonly Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian (BCS),[3][4] is a South Slavic language with multiple standards and the primary language of Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro. Croats and Serbs differ in religion and have historically lived under different empires, and have adopted slightly different literary forms as the official languages of their respective republics. Since independence, Bosnian has likewise been established as an official standard in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Currently, there is a movement to create a Montenegrin language, separating it from Serbian. Thus Serbo-Croatian generally goes by the ethnic names Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, and Montenegrin.[5] All four standards are based on the same dialect, which had served as the official language of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, and later of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, from 1918 to 1991.

The basis of the modern standards was established in the late 19th century, when the Eastern Herzegovinian subdialect of the Štokavian dialect was selected as a unified literary language of the Serbian and Croatian peoples. Later Yugoslav standard Serbo-Croatian was based on both literary traditions, Serbian (unofficially called "Eastern") and Croatian (unofficially called "Western"), as these were never fully unified. The dissolution of Yugoslavia spelled the end of attempts at a unified standard, and social conceptions of the language separated on ethnic and political lines.



The term Serbo-Croatian was officially established with the joint Vienna Literary Agreement of 1850 while Serb and Croat lands were still part of the Ottoman and Habsburg Empires. Officially, the language was called variously Serbo-Croat, Croato-Serbian, Serbian and Croatian, Croatian and Serbian, Serbian or Croatian, Croatian or Serbian. From the end of the 1960s until the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, Serbs and Croats typically called the language "Serbian" or "Croatian", respectively, without implying a distinction between the two,[6] and indeed in newly independent Bosnia and Herzegovina, "Croatian", "Bosnian", and "Serbian" were considered to be three names of a single official language.[7] Today, use of the term "Serbo-Croatian" is controversial due to memories of Yugoslav politics and the variable meanings of the word language. It is still used for lack of succinct alternative, though alternate names have been used, such as Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian (BCS), which is often seen in political contexts such as the Hague War Crimes tribunal.


Throughout the history of the South Slavs, the vernacular, literary, and written languages of the various regions and ethnicities developed and diverged independently. Prior to the 19th century, these languages, self-referred to themselves as "Illyric", "Slavic", "Slavonian", "Bosnian", "Serbian" or "Croatian", were unstandardized despite the presence of an extensive vernacular literature developed in the different local dialects.

Đuro Daničić, Rječnik hrvatskoga ili srpskoga jezika (Croatian or Serbian Dictionary) 1882.

The term Serbo-Croatian was mentioned for the first time by Slovene philologist Jernej Kopitar in a letter from 1836, although it cannot be ruled out that he had become acquainted with the term by reading the Slovak philologist Pavel Jozef Šafárik's manuscript "Slovanské starožitnosti" printed 1837.[citation needed] In the mid 19th century, Serbian (led by self-taught writer and folklorist Vuk Stefanović Karadžić) and most Croatian writers and linguists (represented by the Illyrian movement and led by Ljudevit Gaj and Đuro Daničić), proposed the use of the most widespread Štokavian dialect as the base for their common standard language. Karadžić standardised the Serbian Cyrillic alphabet, and Gaj and Daničić standardized the Croatian Latin alphabet, on the basis of vernacular speech phonemes and the principle of phonological spelling. In 1850 Serbian and Croatian writers and linguists signed the Vienna Literary Agreement, declaring their intention to create a unified standard.[8] Thus a complex bi-variant language appeared, which the Serbs officially called "Serbo-Croatian" or "Serbian or Croatian" and the Croats "Croato-Serbian", or "Croatian or Serbian". Yet, in practice, the variants of the conceived common literary language served as different literary variants, chiefly differing in lexical inventory and stylistic devices. The common phrase describing this situation was that Serbo-Croatian or "Croatian or Serbian" was a unified language.

With unification of the first Kingdom of Yugoslavia – the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes – the approach of Karadžić and the Illyrians became official. The official language was called "Serbo-Croato-Slovene" until the very end of that kingdom. Because of the unitarian politics of King Aleksandar I Karađorđević, as of 1929, the "Yugoslavian language" was the official language of Yugoslavia, the country's name was changed, and all ethnic denominations were erased.[citation needed] On January 15, 1944, the Anti-Fascist Council of the People's Liberation of Yugoslavia (AVNOJ) declared Croatian, Serbian, Slovene, and Macedonian to be equal in the entire territory of Yugoslavia.[9] In 1945 the decision to recognize Croatian and Serbian as separate languages was reversed in favor of a single Serbo-Croatian or Croato-Serbian language.[9] In the Communist-dominated second Yugoslavia, ethnic issues eased to an extent, but the matter of language remained blurred and unresolved. In 1954, every major Serbian and Croatian writer, linguist and literary critic, backed by Matica srpska and Matica hrvatska signed the Novi Sad Agreement, which in its first article stated: "The national language of the Serbs, Croats, and Montenegrins is a single language. And thus, the literary language which has developed on its foundation in two major centers, Belgrade and Zagreb, is a unity with two dialects, Ijekavian and Ekavian."[10]

It was later argued that this act was less of an agreement than a political document signed under political pressure, as many writers later asserted (e.g. the signers of the 1967 Declaration on the Status and Name of the Croatian Literary Language, with prominent Croatian intellectuals such as Miroslav Krleža).[citation needed] The Novi Sad agreement became the basis of language politics in the second Yugoslavia; however, many Croats were uneasy, viewing the merging of languages as the attempted "Serbianisation" of their Croatian idiom with markedly Serbian words or phrases.[citation needed] Also, many Serbian idiomatic constructs replaced Croatian idiomatic constructs in media and politics in Bosnia and Herzegovina and, gradually, in the vernacular speech. Some viewed it as proof of Serbian hegemony in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and some as a "natural" process of language change.[citation needed]

After the ethnic tensions of the 1970s, and after the easing of political pressure in the 1990s and the democratisation of the Yugoslav political system, the policy of forced merging of these languages was finally allowed to end, and speakers could call their languages whatever they wanted.[citation needed] Croatians officially returned to using the name they had used for the language before the dissolution of Yugoslavia (officially, they had called it Croatian until the mid 1970s). The Serbs officially called it Serbo-Croatian until 1997, when the Matica srpska made the Dictionary of the Serbian language. Since then Serbs have called it Serbian, but unofficially. The Constitution of Serbia (1990–2006) called the official language Serbo-Croatian, while the Constitution of Montenegro (1993–2007) called it Serbian with ijekavian pronunciation.[11]

Present situation

Contemporary names

Ethno-political variants of Serbo-Croatian as of 2006.

Except during the period that extended roughly from the 1920s through the 1980s, people have not called the language Serbo-Croatian, but have tended to use their ethnic/national names.[citation needed]

For more information, see Differences between standard Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian.

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has specified different Universal Decimal Classification (UDC) numbers for Croatian (UDC 862, abbreviation hr) and Serbian (UDC 861, abbreviation sr), while the cover term Serbo-Croatian is used to refer to the combination of original signs (UDC 861/862, abbreviation sh). Furthermore, the ISO 639 standard designates the Bosnian language with the abbreviations bos and bs.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia considers what it calls BCS (Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian) to be the main language of all Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian defendants. The indictments, documents, and verdicts of the ICTY are not written with any regard for consistently following the grammatical prescriptions of any of the three standards – be they Serbian, Croatian, or Bosnian.

For utilitarian purposes, the Serbo-Croatian language is often called "Naš jezik" ("Our language") by native speakers. This politically correct term is frequently used to describe the Serbo-Croatian language by those who wish to avoid nationalistic and linguistic discussions.[citation needed]

Views of linguists in the former Yugoslavia

Serbian linguists

The majority of mainstream Serbian linguists consider Serbian and Croatian to be one language, that is called Serbo-Croatian (srpskohrvatski) or Croato-Serbian (hrvatskosrpski). A minority of Serbian linguists are of the opinion that Serbo-Croatian did exist, but has, in the meantime, dissolved. Before 1900 and also now, a minority agree that a "Serbo-Croatian" language has never existed and that this term designates a Croatian variant of the Serbian language.[12]

Croatian linguists

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 the language has never dissolved, since there was never a Serbo-Croatian standard language. A minority of Croatian linguists deny that the Croatian standard language is based on the Neoštokavian dialect. A more detailed discussion, incorporating arguments from the Croatian philology and contemporary linguistics, would be along the following lines:

Serbo-Croatian is a language
One still finds many references to Serbo-Croatian, and proponents of Serbo-Croatian who deny the existence of Croatian (as well as Serbian and Bosnian) as a separate standard language. The usual argument generally goes along the following lines:
  • Standard Croatian, Serbian and Bosnian are almost completely mutually intelligible, and the use of two alphabets that almost perfectly match each other (Latin and Cyrilic), thanks to Ljudevit Gaj and Vuk Karadžić. Nonetheless, beyond the "first 100" words, there are numerous small and large lexical differences presented in "Razlikovni rječnik srpskog i hrvatskog jezika" (Matica Hrvatska).[13] Croats exclusively use Latin script and Serbs equally use both Cyrillic and Latin. Although Cyrillic is taught in Bosnia, most Bosnians, especially non-Serbs (Bosniaks and Croats), favor Latin.
  • Typologically and structurally, these languages have virtually the same subequal grammar, i.e. morphology and syntax
  • The Serbo-Croatian language was "created" in the mid 19th century, and all subsequent attempts to dissolve its basic unity have not succeeded.
  • The affirmation of distinct Croatian, Serbian and Bosnian languages is politically motivated
  • According to phonology, morphology and syntax, these languages are essentially one language because they are based on the same, Štokavian dialect.
Serbo-Croatian is not a language
Similar arguments are made for other official standards which are nearly indistinguishable when spoken, such as Malaysian, and Indonesian (together called Malay), or Standard Hindi and Urdu (together called Hindustani or Hindi-Urdu). However, some argue that these arguments have flaws:
  • Phonology, morphology, and syntax are not the only dimensions of a language: other fields (semantics, pragmatics, stylistics, lexicology, etc.) give different theoretical linguistic descriptions and prescriptions for Croatian, Bosnian, and Serbian.[citation needed] A comparison is made to the closely related North Germanic languages (or dialects, if one prefers), though these are not fully mutually intelligible as the Serbo-Croatian standards are. A closer comparison may be General American and Received Pronunciation in English, which are closer to each other than the latter is to other dialects which are subsumed under "British English".
  • Since the Croatian language as recorded in Držić and Gundulić's works (16th and 17th centuries) is virtually the same as the contemporary standard Croatian (understandable archaisms apart), it is evident that the 19th century formal standardization was just the final touch in the process that, as far as the Croatian language is concerned, had lasted more than three centuries. The radical break with the past, characteristic of modern Serbian (whose vernacular was likely not as similar to Croatian as it is today), is a trait completely at variance with Croatian linguistic history. In short, formal standardization processes for Croatian and Serbian had coincided chronologically (and, one could add, ideologically), but they haven't produced a unified standard language. Gundulić did not write in "Serbo-Croatian", nor did August Šenoa. Marko Marulić and Marin Držić wrote in a sophisticated idiom of the Croatian language, some 300/350 years before the "Serbo-Croatian" ideology appeared. Marulić explicitly calls his Čakavian-written Judita as u uerish haruacchi slosena ("arranged in Croatian stanzas") in 1501, and Štokavian grammar and dictionary of Bartol Kašić written in 1604 unambiguously identifies ethnonyms Slavic and Illyrian with Croatian.

Politics often becomes a major part of linguistic debates in this area.

The topic of language with the writers from Dalmatia and Dubrovnik prior to the 19th century is somewhat blurred by the fact they by and large placed more emphasis on whether they were Slavic rather than Italian, given that Dalmatian city-states were then inhabited by those two main groups. There was less notable distinction being made between Croats and Serbs, and this, among other things, has been used as an argument to state that these people's literature is not solely Croatian heritage, thus undermining the argument that modern-day Croatian is based on Old Croatian.

However, the major part of intellectuals and writers from Dalmatia who used the Štokavian dialect and were of Catholic faith had explicitly expressed Croatian national affiliation[1], as far back as the mid 16th and 17th centuries, some three hundred years before the Serbo-Croatian ideology had appeared. Their loyalty was first and foremost to the Catholic Christendom, but when they professed ethnic identity, they called it "Slovin" and "Illyrian" (a sort of forerunner of Catholic baroque pan-Slavism) and Croat – these 30-odd writers in the span of ca. 350 years themselves never mentioned Serb ethnic affiliation any time. It should also be noted that, in the pre-national era, a Catholic religious orientation did not necessarily equate with Croat ethnic identity in Dalmatia. A Croatian follower of Vuk Karadžić, Ivan Broz, noted that the Serbian affiliation was as foreign as Macedonian and Greek appellation at this time. Vatroslav Jagić pointed out in 1864:

"As I have mentioned in the preface, history knows only two national names in these parts—Croatian and Serbian. As far as Dubrovnik is concerned, the Serbian name was never in use; on the contrary, the Croatian name was frequently used and gladly referred to"
"At the end of the 15th century [in Dubrovnik and Dalmatia], sermons and poems were exquisitely crafted in the Croatian language by those men whose names are widely renowned by deep learning and piety."

(From The History of the Croatian language, Zagreb, 1864.)

On the other hand, the opinion of Jagić from 1864 is argued not to have firm grounds. When Jagić says "Croatian" he refers to few cases of referring to the Dubrovnik vernacular as ilirski (Illyrian). This was a common name for all Slavic vernaculars in Dalmatian cities among the Roman inhabitants. In the meantime, other written monuments are found that mention srpski, lingua serviana (= Serbian), and also some that mention Croatian.[14] By far the most competent Serbian scientist on Dubrovnik language issue, Milan Rešetar, who was born in Dubrovnik himself, wrote behalf of language characteristics: "The one who thinks that Croatian and Serbian are two separate languages, must confess that Dubrovnik always (linguistically) used to be Serbian."[14]

On the third hand, the former medieval texts from Dubrovnik and Montenegro dating before 16th century were not true Štokavian nor Serbian, but mostly specific Yekavian-Čakavian that was nearer to actual Adriatic islanders in Croatia.[15]

Political connotations

Nationalists have rather conflicting views about the language(s). The nationalists among the Croats conflictingly claim either that they speak an entirely separate language from Serbs and Bosnians or that these two peoples have, due to the longer lexicographic tradition among Croats, somehow "borrowed" their standard languages from them.[citation needed] Bosniak nationalists claim that both Croats and Serbs have "appropriated" the Bosnian language, since Ljudevit Gaj and Vuk Karadžić preferred the Neoštokavian-Ijekavian dialect, widely spoken in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as the basis for language standardization, whereas the nationalists among the Serbs claim either that any divergence in the language is artificial, or claim that the Štokavian dialect is theirs and the Čakavian Croats'— in more extreme formulations Croats have "taken" or "stolen" their language from the Serbs.[citation needed]

Proponents of unity among Southern Slavs claim that there is a single language with normal dialectal variations. The term "Serbo-Croatian" (or synonyms) is not officially used in any of the successor countries of former Yugoslavia.

In Serbia, the Serbian language is the official one, while both Serbian and Croatian are official in the province of Vojvodina. A large Bosniak minority is present in the southwest region of Sandžak, but the "official recognition" of Bosnian language is moot.[16] Bosnian is an optional course in 1st and 2nd grade of the elementary school, while it is also in official use in the municipality of Novi Pazar.[17] However, its nomenclature is controversial, as there is incentive that it is referred to as "Bosniak" (bošnjački) rather than "Bosnian" (bosanski) (see Bosnian language for details).

Croatian is the official language of Croatia, while Serbian is also official in municipalities with significant Serb population.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, all three languages are recorded as official but in practice and media, mostly Bosnian and Serbian are applied. Therefore, confrontations have on occasion been absurd. The academic Muhamed Filipović in an interview to Slovenian television told of a local court in a Croatian district requesting a paid translator from Bosnian to Croatian before the trial could proceed.[citation needed]


The primary dialects are named after the most common question word what they use: Shtokavian uses the pronoun što or šta, Chakavian uses ča or ca, Kajkavian (kajkavski), kaj or kej. The Yugoslav standard language and all four contemporary standard languages are based on the Eastern Hercegovinian subdialect of Neo-Shtokavian, the other dialects not taught in schools or used by the state media. Often the Torlakian dialect is added to the list, though scholars nowadays usually classify it as a transitional dialect between Shtokavian and the Bulgaro-Macedonian (East South Slavic) dialect continuum.

Serbo-Croatian dialects prior to the 16th-century migrations
Modern distribution of dialects in Croatia
Shtokavian subdialects in 1988 (Pavle Ivić). Yellow is the widespread Eastern Herzegovinian subdialect that forms the basis of all national standards, though it is not spoken natively in any of the capital cities.

The Serbo-Croatian dialects differ not only in the question for they're named after, but also heavily in phonology, accentuation and intonation, case endings and tense system (morphology) and basic vocabulary. In the past, Chakavian and Kajkavian dialects were spoken on a much larger territory, but have subsequently been replaced by Štokavian during the period of migrations caused by Ottoman Turkish conquest of the Balkans in the 15th and the 16th century. These migrations caused the koinéisation of the Shtokavian dialects, that used to form the West Shtokavian (more closer and transitional towards the neighbouring Chakavian and Kajkavian dialects) and East Shtokavian (transitional towards the Torlakian and the whole Bulgaro-Macedonian area) dialect bundles, and their subsequent spread at the expense of Chakavian and Kajkavian. As a result, Štokavian now covers an area larger than all the other dialects combined, and continues to make its progress in the enclaves where subliterary dialects are still being spoken.[18]

The difference among the dialects can be illustrated on the example of Schleicher's fable. Diacritic signs are used to show the difference in accents and prosody, which are often quite significant, but which are not reflected in the usual orthography.

Neoštokavian Ijekavian/Ekavian
Óvca i kònji
Óvca koja níje ìmala vȕnē vȉd(j)ela je kònje na br(ij)égu. Jèdan je òd njīh vȗkao téška kȍla, drȕgī je nòsio vèliku vrȅću, a trȅćī je nòsio čòv(j)eka.
Óvca rȅče kònjima: «Sȑce me bòlī glȅdajūći čòv(j)eka kako jȁšē na kònju».
A kònji rȅkoše: «Slȕšāj, ȏvco, nȃs sȑca bòlē kada vȉdīmo da čòv(j)ek, gospòdār, rȃdī vȕnu od ovácā i prȁvī òd(j)eću zá se. I ȍndā óvca nȇmā vȉše vȕnē.
Čȗvši tō, óvca pȍb(j)eže ȕ polje.
Old Štokavian (Orubica, Posavina):
Óvca i kònji
Óvca kòjā nî ìmala vȕnē vȉdla kònje na brîgu. Jèdān od njȉjū vũkō tȇška kȍla, drȕgī nosȉjo vȅlikū vrȅću, a trȅćī nosȉjo čovȉka.
Óvca kȃza kȍnjima: «Svȅ me bolĩ kad glȅdām kako čòvik na kònju jȁšī».
A kònji kāzȁše: «Slȕšāj, ȏvco, nãs sȑca bolũ kad vȉdīmo da čòvik, gȁzda, prȁvī vȕnu od ovãc i prȁvī rȍbu zá se od njẽ. I ȍndā ōvcȁ néma vȉšē vȕnē.
Kad tȏ čȕ ōvcȁ, ȕteče ȕ polje.
Čakavian (Matulji near Rijeka):
Ovcȁ i konjı̏
Ovcȁ kȃ ni imȅla vȕni vȉdela je konjȉ na brȇge. Jedȃn je vȗkal tȇški vȏz, drȕgi je nosîl vȅlu vrȅt'u, a trȅt'i je nosîl čovȅka.
Ovcȁ je reklȁ konjȇn: «Sȑce me bolĩ dok glȅdan čovȅka kako jȁše na konjȅ».
A konjȉ su reklȉ: «Poslȕšaj, ovcȁ, nȃs sȑca bolẽ kad vȉdimo da čovȅk, gospodãr dȅla vȕnu od ovãc i dȅla rȍbu zȃ se. I ȍnda ovcȁ nĩma vȉše vȕni.
Kad je tȏ čȕla, ovcȁ je pobȅgla va pȍje.
Kajkavian (Marija Bistrica):
õfca i kȍjni
õfca tera nı̃je imȅ̩̏la vȕne vȉdla je kȍjne na briẽgu. Jȇn od nîh je vlẽ̩ke̩l tẽška kȍla, drȕgi je nȍsil vȅliku vrȅ̩ču, a trẽjti je nȍsil čovȅ̩ka.
õfca je rȇkla kȍjnem: «Sȑce me bolĩ kad vîdim čovȅka kak jȃše na kȍjnu».
A kȍjni su rȇkli: «Poslȕhni, õfca, nȃs sȑca bolĩju kad vîdime da čȍve̩k, gospodãr, dȇ̩la vȕnu ot õfci i dȇ̩la oblȅ̩ku zȃ se. I ȏnda õfca nȇma vȉše vȕne.
Kad je to čȗla, õfca je pobȇ̩gla f pȍlje.
English language
The Sheep and the Horses
[On a hill,] a sheep that had no wool saw horses, one of them pulling a heavy wagon, one carrying a big load, and one carrying a man quickly.
The sheep said to the horses: "My heart pains me, seeing a man driving horses".
The horses said: "Listen, sheep, our hearts pain us when we see this: a man, the master, makes the wool of the sheep into a warm garment for himself. And the sheep has no wool".
Having heard this, the sheep fled into the plain.

Division by jat reflex

The basic distinction among the 3 basic dialects and their respective speeches (sub-dialects) is in the long reflex of Common Slavic vowel jat, usually transcribed as */ě/: depending on the reflex the dialects are divided into Ikavian (with /i/ as a reflex of jat), Ekavian (with /e/ as a reflex of jat) and Ijekavian (with disyllabic /ije/ or diphthongal /ie/ as a reflex). The long and short jat is reflected as long or short */i/ and /e/ in Ikavian and Ekavian dialects, but Ijekavian dialects introduce ije/je alternation to retain a distinction.

Standard Croatian and Bosnian are based on the Ijekavian, whilst Serbian uses both Ekavian and Ijekavian forms (Ijekavian for Bosnian Serbs, Ekavian is used in the most of Serbia though). Influence of standard language throughout the state media and education has caused non-standard varieties to increasingly lose ground to the literary forms.

The jat reflection rules are not without exceptions, for example: when short jat is preceded by r, in most Ijekavian dialects it was reflect as /re/ or, occasionally, /ri/. Also, prefix prě- ("trans-, over-") when jat is long passed to pre- in eastern Ijekavian dialects and to prije- in western; in Ikavian, it also evolved into pre- or prije- due to potential ambiguity with pri- ("approach, come close to"). For verbs that had -ěti in their infinitive, the past participle ending -ěl evolved into -io in Ijekavian Neoštokavian.

The following are some examples:

English Predecessor Ekavian Ikavian Ijekavian Ijekavian formation
beautiful *lěp lep lip lijep long ěije
time *vrěme vreme vrime vrijeme
faith *věra vera vira vjera short ěje
crossing *prělaz prelaz prеlaz or
prеlaz or
pr + long ěprije
times *vrěmena vremena vrimena vremena r + short ěre
need *trěbati trebati tribat(i) trebati
heat *grějati grejati grijati grijati r + short ěri
saw *viděl video vidio vidio ělio
village *selo selo selo selo e in root, not ě


Kašić's 1604 grammar of the Čakavian dialect, Institutiones linguae Illyricae (Principles of the Illyrian Language)

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 almost merged into dative (the only difference is based on accent in some cases), and the other cases can be shown declining; namely:

  • For all nouns and adjectives, Instr. = Dat. = Loc. (at least orthographically) in the plural: ženama, ženama, ženama; očima, očima, očima; riječima, riječima, riječima.
  • There is an accentual difference between the Gen. sing. and Gen. plural of masculine and neuter nouns, which are otherwise homonyms (seljaka, seljaka) except that on occasion an "a" (which might or might not appear in the singular) is filled between the last letter of the root and the Gen. plural ending (kapitalizma, kapitalizama).
  • The old instrumental ending "ju" of the feminine consonant stems and in some cases the "a" of the genitive plural of certain other sorts of feminine nouns is fast yielding to "i": noći instead of noćju; borbi instead of boraba; and so forth.
  • Almost every Štokavian number is indeclinable, and numbers after prepositions have not been declined for a long time.

Like most Slavic languages, there are mostly three genders for nouns: masculine, feminine, and neuter, a distinction which is still present even in the plural (unlike Russian and, in part, the Čakavian dialect). They also have two numbers: singular and plural. However, some consider there to be three numbers (paucal or dual, too), since (still preserved in closely related Slovene) 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 used only in Štokavian writing, and the time sequence of the exact future is more commonly formed through an alternative construction.

In addition, like most Slavic languages, the Štokavian 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. 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 Štokavian tenses (namely, aorist and imperfect) favor a particular aspect (but they are rarer or absent in Čakavian and Kajkavian). Actually, aspects "compensate" for the relative lack of tenses, because aspect of the verb determines whether the act is completed or in progress in the referred time.

Writing systems

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

The oldest texts since 11th century are in Glagolitic, and the oldest preserved text written completely in the Latin alphabet is "Red i zakon sestara reda Svetog Dominika", from 1345. Arabic alphabet formerly was used by Bosnian Muslims; Greek writing recently is out of use there, and Arabic and Glagolitic persisted so far partly in religious liturgies.

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

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 diacritics, apparently borrowing much from Czech, but also from Polish, and inventing the unique digraphs "lj", "nj" and "dž".These diagraphs are represented as "ļ, ń and ǵ" respectively in the "Rječnik hrvatskog ili srpskog jezika", published by the former Yugoslav Academy of Sciences and Arts in Zagreb.[19] The latter diagraphs, however, are unused in the literary standard of the language. All in all, this makes Serbo-Croatian the only Slavic language to officially use both the Latin and Cyrillic scripts, albeit the Latin version is more commonly used.

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

Latin to Cyrillic

A a B b C c Č č Ć ć D d 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 Š š
Sample collation
Latin collation order   Cyrillic
Latin Cyrillic
Ina Ина Ина
Injekcija Инјекција
Inverzija Инверзија
Inje Иње

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 l and nj follows n, 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 providing a unique single letter for each sound.

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 as a replacement due to the lack of installed Serbo-Croat keyboard layouts.



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

Latin script Cyrillic script IPA Description English approximation
a а /a/ open central unrounded father
e е /ɛ/ open-mid front unrounded den
i и /i/ close front unrounded seek
o о /ɔ/ open-mid back rounded lord
u у /u/ closed back rounded pool

The vowels can be short or long, but the phonetic quality doesn't change depending on the length. In a word, vowels can be long in the stressed syllable and the syllables following it, never in the ones preceding it.


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

Latin script Cyrillic script IPA Description English approximation
r р /r/ alveolar trill rolled (vibrating) r as in carramba
v в /ʋ/ labiodental approximant roughly between vortex and war
j ј /j/ palatal approximant year
l л /l/ lateral alveolar approximant light
lj љ /ʎ/ palatal lateral approximant roughly battalion
m м /m/ bilabial nasal man
n н /n/ alveolar nasal not
nj њ /ɲ/ palatal nasal news or American canyon
f ф /f/ voiceless labiodental fricative five
s с /s/ voiceless alveolar fricative some
z з /z/ voiced alveolar fricative zero
š ш /ʃ/ voiceless postalveolar fricative sharp
ž ж /ʒ/ voiced postalveolar fricative television
h х /x/ voiceless velar fricative loch
c ц /ts/ voiceless alveolar affricate pots
џ /dʒ/ voiced postalveolar affricate roughly eject
č ч /tʃ/ voiceless postalveolar affricate roughly check
đ ђ /dʑ/ voiced alveolo-palatal affricate roughly Jews
ć ћ /tɕ/ voiceless alveolo-palatal affricate roughly choose
b б /b/ voiced bilabial plosive book
p п /p/ voiceless bilabial plosive top
d д /d/ voiced alveolar plosive dog
t т /t/ voiceless alveolar plosive it
g г /ɡ/ voiced velar plosive good
k к /k/ voiceless velar plosive duck

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; as well as to foreign words (Washington would be transcribed as VašinGton/ВашинГтон), personal names and when consonants are not inside of one syllable.

/r/ can be syllabic, playing the role of the syllable nucleus in certain words (occasionally, it can even have a long accent). For example, the tongue-twister navrh brda vrba mrda involves four words with syllabic /r/. A similar feature exists in Czech, Slovak, Macedonian and Serbian. Very rarely other sonorants can be syllabic, like /l/ (in bicikl), /ʎ/ (surname Štarklj), /n/ (unit njutn), as well as /m/ and /ɲ/ in slang.[citation needed]

Pitch accent

Apart from Slovene, Serbo-Croatian is the only Slavic language with a pitch accent (simple tone) system. This feature is present in some other Indo-European languages, such as Swedish, Norwegian, Limburgish, Spanish spoken in Chile and Colombia (to a lesser extent), and Ancient Greek. Standard Neoštokavian Serbo-Croatian, which is used a basis for standard Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian, has four "accents", which involve either a rising or falling tone on either long or short vowels, with optional post-tonic lengths:

Serbo-Croatian accent system
e [e] non-tonic short vowel
ē [eː] non-tonic long vowel
è [ě] short vowel with rising tone
é [ěː] long vowel with rising tone
ȅ [ê] short vowel with falling tone
ȇ [êː] long vowel with falling tone

The tone stressed vowels can be approximated in English with set vs setting? said in isolation for a short tonic e, or leave vs leaving? for a long tonic i, due to the prosody of final stressed syllables in English.

General accent rules in the standard language:

  1. Monosyllabic words may have only a falling tone (or no accent at all – enclitics);
  2. Falling tone may occur only on the first syllable of polysyllabic words;
  3. Accent can never occur on the last syllable of polysyllabic words.

There are no other rules for accent placement, thus the accent of every word must be learned individually; furthermore, in inflection, accent shifts are common, both in type and position (the so-called "mobile paradigms"). The second rule is not strictly obeyed, especially in borrowed words.

Comparative and historical linguistics offers some clues for memorising the accent position: If one compares many standard Serbo-Croatian words to e.g. cognate Russian words, the accent in the Serbo-Croatian word will be one syllable before the one in the Russian word, with the rising tone. Historically, the rising tone appeared when the place of the accent shifted to the preceding syllable (the so-called "Neoštokavian retraction"), but the quality of this new accent was different – its melody still "gravitated" towards the original syllable. Most Štokavian dialects (Neoštokavian) dialects underwent this shift, but Čakavian, Kajkavian and the Old Štokavian dialects did not.

Accent diacritics are not used in the ordinary orthography, but only in the linguistic or language-learning literature (e.g. dictionaries, orthography and grammar books). However, there are very few minimal pairs where an error in accent can lead to misunderstanding.


Serbo-Croatian orthography is supposed to be almost 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 a result of interaction between words:

  • bit će – pronounced biće (and only written separately in Croatian)
  • od toga – pronounced otoga (in many vernaculars)
  • iz čega – pronounced iščega (in many vernaculars)

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

  • postdiplomski (postgraduate) – pronounced pozdiplomski

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

  • predstava (show)
  • odšteta (damages)

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

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


The total number of persons who declared their native language as either 'Bosnian', 'Croatian', 'Serbian', 'Montenegrin', or 'Serbo-Croatian' in countries of the region 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). Serbian minorities are found the Republic of Macedonia and Romania. In Serbia, there is about 760,000 second-language speakers of Serbian, including Hungarians in Vojvodina and the 400,000 estimated Roma. Familiarity of Kosovo Albanians with Serbian in Kosovo varies depending on age and education, and exact numbers are not available..

Croatian is spoken by roughly 4.7 million including some 575,000 in Bosnia and Herzegovina. A small Croatian minority lives in Italy known as Molise Croats have somewhat preserved traces of the Croatian language. In Croatia, 170,000 mostly Italians and Hungarians use it as a second language.

Bosnian is spoken by 2.2 million people, chiefly Bosniaks, including about 220,000 in Serbia and Montenegro.

Notion of Montenegrin as a separate standard from Serbian is relatively recent. In the 2003 census, around 150,000 Montenegrins, of the country's 620,000, declared Montenegrin as their native language. That figure is likely to increase since, due to the country's independence and strong institutional backing of Montenegrin language.

Serbo-Croatian is also a second language of many Slovenians and Macedonians, especially those born during the time of Yugoslavia. According to the 2002 Census, Serbo-Croatian and its variants have the largest number of speakers of the minority languages in Slovenia.[20]

Outside of the Balkans, there are over 2 million native speakers of the language(s), especially in countries which are frequent targets of immigration, such as Australia, Austria, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Sweden and the United States.

Differences between the standards

See also


  1. ^ "Serbo-Croatian". Ethnologue. 
  2. ^ "Draft Constitution of the Republic of Kosovo" (PDF). Retrieved 2010-09-17. 
  3. ^ Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian
  4. ^ bosanski/hrvatski/srpski, Cyrillic script: српскохрватски или хрватскосрпски; бошњачки/хрватски/српски
  5. ^ "The same language [Croatian] is referred to by different names, Serbian (srpski), Serbo-Croat (in Croatia: hrvatsko-srpski), Bosnian (bosanski), based on political and ethnic grounds. [...] the names Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian are politically determined and refer to the same language with possible slight variations." (Brown 2006, p. 294.)
  6. ^ Brown 2006, p. 259.
  7. ^ "In 1993 the authorities in Sarajevo adopted a new language law (Sluzbeni list Republike Bosne i Hercegovine, 18/93): In the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Ijekavian standard literary language of the three constitutive nations is officially used, designated by one of the three terms: Bosnian, Serbian, Croatian." (Bugarski 2004, p. 142.)
  8. ^ Greenberg 2004, p. 24.
  9. ^ a b Greenberg 2004, p. 115.
  10. ^ Wachtel, Andrew (1998). Making a Nation, Breaking a Nation: Literature and Cultural Politics in Yugoslavia. Stanford University Press. p. 140. ISBN 0804731810. 
  11. ^ Ustav Crne Gore
  12. ^ Slovo o srpskom jeziku/Decree on the Serbian language
  13. ^ Vladimir Brodnjak: Razlikovni rječnik srpskog i hrvatskog jezika, Školske novine, Zagreb, 4th ed., 1998, 632 p., ISBN 953-160-145-3
  14. ^ a b Mladenovic. Kratka istorija srpskog književnog jezika. Beograd 2004, 67
  15. ^ S. Zekovic & B. Cimeša: Elementa montenegrina, Chrestomatia 1/90. CIP, Zagreb 1991
  16. ^ Official communique, 27 December 2004, Serbian Ministry of Education (Serbian)
  17. ^ Opštinski službeni glasnik opštine Novi PazarPDF (65.8 KiB), 30 April 2002, page 1
  18. ^ E.g., big coastal Croatian cities Rijeka and Split together with their hinterland become basically completely Štokavianised during the 20th century, formerly being Čakavian-speaking urban centres.
  19. ^ (Croatian) Gramatika hrvatskosrpskoga jezika, Group of Authors (Ivan Brabec, Mate Hraste and Sreten Živković), Zagreb, 1968.
  20. ^ "Raziskava Položaj in status pripadnikov narodov nekdanje Jugoslavije vRS.pdf" (in Slovene) (pdf). 


  • Brown, E. K.; Anderson, Anne (2006). Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics. Elsevier. ISBN 0080442994. 
  • Bugarski, Ranko; Hawkesworth, Celia (2004). Language in the Former Yugoslav Lands. Indiana University: Slavica Publishers. ISBN 0893572985. 
  • Greenberg, Robert David (2004). Language and Identity in the Balkans: Serbo-Croatian and Its Disintegration. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0199258155. 

Further reading

  • Banac, Ivo: Main Trends in the Croatian Language Question, Yale University Press, 1984
  • Branko Franolić, Mateo Zagar: A Historical Outline of Literary Croatian & The Glagolitic Heritage of Croatian Culture, Erasmus & CSYPN, London & Zagreb 2008 ISBN 978-953-6132-80-5
  • Franolić, Branko: A Historical Survey of Literary Croatian, Nouvelles éditions latines, Paris, 1984.
  • Franolić, Branko: Language Policy in Yugoslavia with special reference to Croatian, Paris, Nouvelles Editions Latines 1988
  • Ivić, Pavle: Die serbokroatischen Dialekte, the Hague, 1958
  • Matasović, Ranko (2008) (in Croatian), Poredbenopovijesna gramatika hrvatskoga jezika, Zagreb: Matica hrvatska, ISBN 978-953-150-840-7 
  • 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.
  • Zekovic, Sreten & Cimeša, Boro: Elementa montenegrina, Chrestomatia 1/90. CIP, Zagreb 1991

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