South Slavic languages

South Slavic languages
South Slavic
Eastern Europe
Linguistic classification: Indo-European
Eastern South Slavic
Western South Slavic
ISO 639-5: zls
Slavic europe.svg
  Countries where a South Slavic language is the national language

The South Slavic languages comprise one of three branches of the Slavic languages. There are approximately 30 million speakers, mainly in the Balkans. These are separated geographically from speakers of the other two Slavic branches (West and East) by a belt of German, Hungarian and Romanian speakers. The first South Slavic language to be written (the first Slavic language) was the dialect spoken in Thessalonica, now called Old Church Slavonic, in the ninth century AD. It is retained as a liturgical language in some South Slavic Orthodox churches in the form of various local Church Slavonic traditions.



The South Slavic languages constitute a dialect continuum. Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, and Montenegrin constitute a single dialect within this continuum.[1]

  • Eastern Section
    • Macedonian – (ISO 639-1 code: mk; ISO 639-2(B) code: mac; ISO 639-2(T) code: mkd; SIL code: mkd; Linguasphere: 53-AAA-ha)
    • Bulgarian – (ISO 639-1 code: bg; ISO 639-2 code: bul; SIL code: bul; Linguasphere: 53-AAA-hb)
    • Old Church Slavonic (extinct) – (ISO 639-1 code: cu; ISO 639-2 code: chu; SIL code: chu; Linguasphere: 53-AAA-a)
  • Western Section
    • Slovene (ISO 639-1 code: sl; ISO 639-2 code: slv; SIL code: slv; Linguasphere: 53-AAA-f)
    • Serbo-Croatian (ISO 639-1 code: sh; ISO 639-2/3 code: hsb; SIL code: scr; Linguasphere: 53-AAA-g).
      There are four national standard languages based on the Shtokavian dialect of Serbo-Croatian:
      • Serbian (ISO 639-1 code: sr; ISO 639-2/3 code: srp; SIL code: srp)
      • Croatian (ISO 639-1 code: hr; ISO 639-2/3 code: hrv; SIL code: hrv)
      • Bosnian (ISO 639-1 code: bs; ISO 639-2/3 code: bos; SIL code: bos)
      • Montenegrin (not completely standardized, but official in Montenegro, with published standard orthography)
      • Bunjevac (used in some media in Serbia)

Linguistic prehistory

Map of Europe indicating where Slavic languages are spoken
Slavic languages in Europe

The Slavic languages are part of the Balto-Slavic group, which belongs to the Indo-European language family. The South Slavic languages have been considered a genetic node in Slavic studies: defined by a set of phonological, morphological and lexical innovations (isoglosses) which separate it from the Western and Eastern Slavic groups. That view, however, has been challenged in recent decades (see below).

Some innovations encompassing all South Slavic languages are shared with the Eastern Slavic group, but not the Western Slavic. These include:[2]

  1. Consistent application of Slavic second palatalization before Proto-Slavic */v/
  2. Loss of */d/ and */t/ before Proto-Slavic */l/
  3. Merger of Proto-Slavic */ś/ (resulting from the second and third palatalization) with */s/

This is illustrated in the following table:

South Slavic West Slavic East Slavic
Late Proto-Slavic reconstruction Late Proto-Slavic meaning Old Church Slavonic Slovenian Serbo-Croatian Bulgarian Macedonian Czech Slovak Polish Belarusian Russian Ukrainian
*gvězda star звѣзда zvezda zvijezda
звезда ѕвезда hvězda hviezda gwiazda звезда звізда
*květъ flower, bloom цвѣтъ cvet cvijet
цвете цвет květ kvet kwiat кветка цвет квітка
*ordlo plough рало ralo ralo,
рало рало rádlo radlo radło рало рало рало

Several isoglosses have been identified which are thought to represent exclusive common innovations in the South Slavic language group. They are prevalently phonological in character, whereas morphological and syntactical isoglosses are much fewer in number.Sussex & Cubberly (2006:43–44) list the following phonological isoglosses:

  1. Merger of yers into schwa-like sound, which became /a/ in Serbo-Croatian, or split according to the retained hard/soft quality of the preceding consonant into /o e/ (Macedonian), or /ə e/ (Bulgarian)
  2. Proto-Slavic */ę/ > /e/
  3. Proto-Slavic */y/ > /i/, merging with the reflex of Proto-Slavic */i/
  4. Proto-Slavic syllabic liquids */r̥/ and */l̥/ were retained, but */l̥/ was subsequently lost in all the daughter languages with different outputs (> /u/ in Serbo-Croatian, > vowel+/l̥/ or /l̥/+vowel in Slovenian, Bulgarian and Macedonian), and */r̥/ became [ər/rə] in Bulgarian. This development was identical to the loss of yer after a liquid consonant.
  5. Hardening of palatals and dental affricates; e.g. š' > š, č' > č, c' > c.
  6. Proto-Slavic */tl/, */dl/ > /l/
  7. South Slavic form of liquid metathesis (CoRC > CRaC, CoLC > CLaC etc.)

Most of these are not exclusive in character, however, and are shared with some languages of the Eastern and Western Slavic language groups (in particular, Central Slovakian dialects). On that basis, Matasović (2008) argues that South Slavic exists strictly as a geographical grouping, not forming a true genetic clade; in other words, there was never a proto-South Slavic language or a period in which all South Slavic dialects exhibited an exclusive set of extensive phonological, morphological or lexical changes (isoglosses) peculiar to them. Furthermore, Matasovć argues, there was never a period of cultural or political unity in which Proto-South-Slavic could have existed during which Common South Slavic innovations could have occurred. Several South-Slavic-only lexical and morphological patterns which have been proposed have been postulated to represent common Slavic archaisms, or are shared with some Slovakian or Ukrainian dialects.[citation needed]

The South Slavic dialects form a dialectal continuum stretching from today's southern Austria to southeast Bulgaria. On the level of dialectology, they are divided into Western South Slavic (Slovenian and Serbo-Croatian dialects) and Eastern South Slavic (Bulgaro-Macedonian dialects); these represent separate migrations into the Balkans and were once separated by intervening Hungarian, Romanian, and Albanian populations; as these populations were assimilated, Eastern and Western South Slavic fused with Torlakian as a transitional dialect[citation needed]. On the other hand, national liberation from the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires, followed by formation of nation-states in the 19th and 20th centuries, led to the development and codification of national standard languages. This process largely ended by the end of 20th century after the breakup of Yugoslavia, with only the Montenegrin issue left to be resolved. Three of these standards (Slovenian, Bulgarian, and Macedonian) are based on distinct dialects; the other three (Croatian, Serbian, and Bosnian) are based on a single dialect, the result of a language unification project during the 1850s. Thus, in most cases national and ethnic borders do not coincide with dialectal boundaries.

Note: Due to the differing political status of languages/dialects and different historical contexts, the classifications are arbitrary to some degree.

Dialectal classification

  • South Slavic languages
    • Eastern
    • Transitional
      • Torlakian dialect[3]
        • Prizren-South Morava subdialect (Ekavian): Serbia, Kosovo, and Macedonia
        • Svrljig-Zaplanje subdialect (Ekavian): Serbia
        • Timok-Lužica subdialect (Ekavian): Serbia and Bulgaria
        • Belogradčik subdialect (Ekavian): Bulgaria
    • Western
      • Štokavian dialect
        • Šumadija-Vojvodina subdialect (Ekavian): Serbia
        • Kosovo-Resava subdialect (Ekavian): Serbia and Kosovo
          • Smederevo-Vršac lect (Kosovo-Resava) (Ekavian): Serbia
        • Zeta-Sandžak subdialect: Montenegro (Podgorica) and Serbia
        • Herzegovina subdialect: Bosnia and Herzegovina (Goražde), Serbia (Užice), Montenegro, and Croatia (Dubrovnik) (Standard Croatian, Serbian, and Bosnian)
        • Ijekavian subdialect (East Bosnian): Croatia (Hrvatska Kostajnica) and Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina (Kiseljak), Bosnijak Tuzla
        • Ikavian subdialect: Croatia (Sinj) and Croats in Tomislavgrad (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
          • Bunjevac dialect: Bunjevci and Croats in Subotica (Serbia)
        • Slavonia dialect (Slavonski Brod)
      • Čakavian dialect
        • Burgenland Croatian: Austria and Hungary
        • Buzet subdialect: Croatia
        • Western Čakavian subdialect: Croatia
        • Southwestern Istrian subdialect: Croatia
        • Northern Čakavian subdialect: Croatia
        • Southern Čakavian subdialect: Croatia
        • Lastovo subdialect: Croatia
      • Kajkavian dialect
        • Zagorje-Međimurje subdialect: Croatia
        • Križevci-Podravina subdialect: Croatia
        • Turopolje-Posavina subdialect: Croatia
        • Prigorski subdialect: Croatia
        • Donja Sutla subdialect: Croatia
        • Goranski subdialect: Croatia
      • Littoral Slovene: Primorsko; west Slovenia and Adriatic
      • Rovte Slovene: Rovtarsko; between Littoral and Carniolan
      • Upper and Lower Carniolan: Gorenjsko and Dolenjsko; central; basis of Standard Slovenian
      • Styrian: Štajersko; eastern Slovenia
      • Pannonian or Prekmurian: Panonsko; far eastern Slovenia
      • Carinthian: Koroško; far north and northwest Slovenia
      • Resian:Rozajansko; Italy, west of Carinthian
Open, illustrated Prekmurian New Testament from the 18th century
Prekmurian Lutheran New Testament in the 18th-century Nouvi Zákon

Eastern group of South Slavic languages

Bulgarian dialects

  • Eastern Bulgarian dialects
  • Western Bulgarian dialects (includes Torlakian dialect)

Macedonian dialects

  • Southeast Macedonian dialects
  • North Macedonian (Torlakian dialect)

Transitional South Slavic languages

Torlakian dialect

Another dialect, Torlakian (torlački), is spoken in southern and eastern Serbia, northern Macedonia and western Bulgaria; it is considered transitional between the Central and Eastern groups of South Slavic languages. Torlakian is thought to fit into the Balkan sprachbund, an area of linguistic convergence caused by long-term contact rather than genetic relation.

Western group of South Slavic languages


Each of these primary and secondary dialectal units breaks down into subdialects and accentological isoglosses by region. In the past (and currently, in isolated areas), it was not uncommon for individual villages to have their own words and phrases. However, during the 20th century the local dialects have been influenced by Štokavian standards through mass media and public education and much "local speech" has been lost (primarily in areas with larger populations). With the breakup of Yugoslavia, a rise in national awareness has caused individuals to modify their speech according to newly-established standard-language guidelines. The wars have caused large migrations, changing the ethnic (and dialectal) picture of some areas—especially in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but also in central Croatia and Serbia (Vojvodina in particular). In some areas, it is unclear whether location or ethnicity is the dominant factor in the dialect of the speaker. Because of this the speech patterns of some communities and regions are in a state of flux, and it is difficult to determine which dialects will die out entirely. Further research over the next few decades will be necessary to determine the changes made in the dialectical distribution of this language group.

Relationships among languages and dialects

The table below illustrates relationships among the languages and dialects of the western group of South Slavic languages:

Dialect Sub-Dialect Bulgarian Macedonian Serbian Montenegrin Bosnian Croatian Slovene
Torlakian x x x
Štokavian KosovoResava x
ŠumadijaVojvodina x
Zeta-South Sandžak x x x
Eastern Herzgovinian x x x x
Eastern Bosnian x x
Western Ikavian x x
Slavonian x
Čakavian x
Kajkavian x x

Štokavian dialect

The eastern Herzegovinian dialect is the basis of standard Bosnian, Croatian, Montenegrin and Serbian.

Molise Croatian

The Molise Croatian (or Molise Slavic) dialect is spoken in three villages of the Italian region of Molise by the descendants of South Slavs who migrated from the eastern Adriatic coast during the 15th century. Because this group left the rest of their people so long ago, their diaspora language is distinct from the standard language and influenced by Italian. However, their dialect retains archaic features lost by all other Štokavian dialects after the 15th century, making it a useful research tool.

Čakavian dialects

Chakavian (Čakavian) is spoken in the western, central, and southern parts of Croatia—mainly in Istria, the Kvarner Gulf, Dalmatia and inland Croatia (Gacka and Pokupje, for example). Čakavian renders proto-Slavic yat as i or sometimes e (rarely as (i)je), or mixed (Ekavian-Ikavian). Many dialects of Čakavian preserved significant number of Dalmatian words, but also have many loanwords from Venetian, Italian, Greek and other Mediterranean languages.

Example: Ča je, je, tako je vavik bilo, ča će bit, će bit, a nekako će već bit!

Burgenland Croatian

This dialect is spoken primarily in the federal state of Burgenland in Austria and nearby areas in Vienna, Slovakia, and Hungary by descendants of Croats who migrated there during the 16th century. This dialect (or family of dialects) differs from standard Croatian, since it has been heavily influenced by German and Hungarian. It has properties of all three major dialectal groups in Croatia, since the migrants did not all come from the same area. The linguistic standard is based on a Čakavian dialect, and (like all Čakavian dialects) is characterized by very conservative grammatical structures: for example, it preserves case endings lost in the Štokavian base of standard Croatian. At most, 100,000 people speak Burgenland Croatian and almost all are bilingual in German. Its future is uncertain, but there is movement to preserve it. It has official status in six districts of Burgenland, and is used in some schools in Burgenland and neighboring western parts of Hungary.

Kajkavian dialect

Kajkavian is mostly spoken in northern and northwest Croatia, including one-third[dubious ] of the country near the Hungarian and Slovenian borders—chiefly around the towns of Zagreb, Varaždin, Čakovec, Koprivnica, Petrinja, Delnice and so on. It renders yat primarily as /e/ (rarely as diphthongal i.e.). This pronounciation differs from that of the Ekavian dialects; many Kajkavian dialects distinguish a closed e—nearly ae (from yat)—and an open e (from the original e). It lacks several palatals (ć, lj, nj, dž) found in the Shtokavian dialect, and has some loanwords from the nearby Slovene dialects and German (chiefly in towns).

Example: Kak je, tak je; tak je navek bilo, kak bu tak bu, a bu vre nekak kak bu!

Slovene dialects


Eastern-Western division

In broad terms, the Eastern dialects of South Slavic (Bulgarian and Macedonian) differ most from the Western dialects in the following ways:

  • The Eastern dialects have almost completely lost their noun declensions, and have become entirely analytic.[4]
  • The Eastern dialects have developed definite-article suffixes similar to the other languages in the Balkan Sprachbund.[5]
  • The Eastern dialects have lost the infinitive; thus, the first-person singular is considered the main part of a verb. Sentences which would require an infinitive in other languages are constructed through a clause (in Bulgarian, искам да ходя (iskam da hodya), "I want to go" (literally, "I want that I go").

Apart from these three main areas there are several smaller, significant differences:

  • The Western dialects have three genders in both singular and plural (Slovenian has dual—see below), while the Eastern dialects only have them in the singular—for example, Serbian on (he), ona (she), ono (it), oni (they, masc), one (they, fem), ona (they, neut); the Bulgarian te (they) covers the entire plural.
  • Inheriting a generalization of another demonstrative as a base form for the third-person pronoun which already occurred in late proto-Slavic, standard literary Bulgarian (like Old Church Slavonic) does not use the Slavic "on-/ov-" as base forms like on, ona, ono, oni (he, she, it, they), and ovaj, ovde (this, here), but uses "to-/t-"based pronouns like toy, tya, to, te, and tozi, tuk (it only retains onzi – "that" and its derivatives). Western Bulgarian dialects and Macedonian have "ov-/on-" pronouns, and sometimes use them interchangeably.
  • All dialects of Serbo-Croatian contain the concept of "any" – e.g. Serbian neko "someone"; niko "no one"; iko "anyone". All others lack the last, and make do with some- or no- constructions instead.[6]

Divisions within Western dialects

  • While Serbian, Bosnian and Croatian Shtokavian dialects have basically the same grammar, its usage is very diverse. While all three languages are relatively highly inflected, the further east one goes the more likely it is that analytic forms are used – if not spoken, at least in the written language. A very basic example is:
    • Croatian – hoću ići – "I want – to go"
    • Serbian – hoću da idem – "I want – that – I go"
  • Slovenian has retained the proto-Slavic dual number (which means that it has nine personal pronouns in the third person) for both nouns and verbs. For example:
    • nouns: volk (wolf) → volkova (two wolves) → volkovi (some wolves)
    • verbs: hodim (I walk) → hodiva (the two of us walk) → hodimo (we walk)

Divisions within Eastern dialects

  • In Macedonian, the perfect is largely based on the verb "to have" (as in other Balkan languages like Greek and Albanian, and in English), as opposed to the verb "to be", which is used as the auxiliary in all other Slavic languages (see also Macedonian verbs):
    • Macedonian – imam videno – I have seen (imam – "to have")
    • Bulgarian – vidyal sum – I have seen (sum – "to be")

Writing systems

Languages to the west of Serbia use the Roman alphabet, while those to the east and south use Cyrillic. Serbian officially uses the Cyrillic script, though commonly it is the Roman alphabet which is in greater use. Most newspapers are written in Cyrillic, while most magazines are in Roman script; books written by Serbian authors are written in Cyrillic, while books translated from foreign authors are usually in Roman script. On television, writing as part of a television programme is usually in Cyrillic, while advertisements are usually in Roman script. The division is partly based on religion – Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria and Macedonia (which use Cyrillic) are Orthodox countries, while Croatia and Slovenia (which use Roman script) are Catholic[7] The Bosnian language, used by the Muslim Bosniaks, also uses the Roman script. The Glagolitic alphabet was also used in the Middle Ages (most notably in Bulgaria and Croatia), but gradually disappeared.


  1. ^ Roland Sussex (2006). The Slavic languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 43–44. ISBN 9780521223157. 
  2. ^ Cited after Matasović (2008:59, 143)
  3. ^ Torlakian can be treated as the part of both the Eastern South Slavic group and the Western. Speakers generally identify as ethnic Serbs, Bulgarians and Macedonians depending on their country of origin. Most Torlakian dialects are spoken in Serbia, and thus considered Serbian.
  4. ^ Note that some remnants of cases do still exist in Bulgarian – see here.
  5. ^ In Macedonian, these are especially well-developed, also taking on a role similar to demonstrative pronouns:
    • Bulgarian : stol – "chair" → stolat – "the chair"
    • Macedonian : stol – "chair" → stolot – "the chair" → stolov – "this chair here" → stolon – "that chair there". As well as these, Macedonian also has a separate set of demonstratives: ovoj stol – "this chair"; onoj stol – "that chair".
  6. ^ In Bulgarian, more complex constructions such as "koyto i da bilo" ("whoever it may be" ≈ "anyone") can be used if the distinction is necessary.
  7. ^ This distinction is true for the whole Slavic world: the Orthodox Russia, Ukraine and Belarus also use Cyrillic, as does Rusyn (Eastern Orthodox/Eastern Catholic), while the Catholic Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia use Roman script, as does Sorbian. Romania and Moldova, which are not Slavic but are Orthodox, also used Cyrillic until 1860 and 1989, respectively, and it is still used in Transdnistria.

See also

  • Differences in official languages in Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia
  • Yat


External links

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