Serbian language

Serbian language
српски srpski
Pronunciation [sr̩̂pskiː]
Spoken in See below under "Official status" in Central and in immigrant communities in Western Europe, as well as Northern America
Region Central Europe, Southeastern Europe
Native speakers 9–10 million[1]  (2006)
Language family
Shtokavian (standard)
Writing system Serbian Cyrillic alphabet
Gaj's Latin alphabet
Official status
Official language in  Serbia
 Bosnia and Herzegovina
Recognised minority language in  Croatia
 Greece (in Mount Athos)
 Czech Republic[7]
Regulated by Board for Standardization of the Serbian Language
Language codes
ISO 639-1 sr
ISO 639-2 srp
ISO 639-3 srp
Linguasphere part of 53-AAA-g
Map of Serbian language - official or recognized.PNG
  Countries where Serbian is an official language.
  Countries where it is recognized as a minority language (also in Czechia and Slovakia).

Serbian (Serbian Cyrillic: српски , Latin: srpski, pronounced [sr̩̂p.skiː]) is a form of Serbo-Croatian,[9][10][11] a South Slavic language, spoken by Serbs[12] in Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Croatia and neighbouring countries.[13]

The dialect of Serbian serving as the basis for the main literary and standard language is Shtokavian, also the basis for standard Croatian, Bosnian, and Montenegrin.[14] In particular, Serbian is standardized around Šumadija-Vojvodina and Eastern Herzegovinian subdialects of Shtokavian. The other principal dialect, Torlakian, is spoken in southeast Serbia, and it is disputed as to whether it is a Serbian dialect or transitional to Macedonian and Bulgarian.

Serbian is the only European language with active digraphia, using both Cyrillic and Latin alphabets.[15] The Serbian Cyrillic alphabet was devised in 1814 by Serbian linguist Vuk Karadžić, who created the alphabet on phonemic principles. The Latin alphabet was designed by Croatian linguist Ljudevit Gaj in 1830 and is used by the other standard forms of Serbo-Croatian.



Middle Ages

Prince Rastko Nemanjić (1174–1235), the youngest son of Grand Prince Stefan Nemanja, later left royal life and took monastic vows under the name Sava. During Sava's time as monk in Mount Athos, he wrote the Karyes Typicon, which was implicitly the first codification of the Serbian language.

The second reform was during the rule of Despot Stefan Lazarević, of which Serbian ortography was known as Resava school.


Before 1400, most Serbian vernaculars had two accents, both with fall intonation—the short one and the long one. That is why they are called "old accents". By 1500, the old accents moved by one syllable towards the beginning of the word, changing their quality to rising accents. For instance, junâk (hero) became jùnāk. The old accents logically remained only when they were on first syllable. Not all dialects had this evolution; those who had it are called neo-shtokavian. The dispersal center was in eastern Herzegovina. Since the 16th century people had been emigrating from this area. The biggest migrations were to the north, then toward Military Krajina and to the seaside (Dalmatia, Istria, Dubrovnik area, including the islands of Mljet and Šipan). In the 1920s and 1930s the royal government tried to settle people from this poor mountainous area to the Kosovo basin. Vojvodina was settled with inhabitants from this area after WWII.

When all old accents had moved to the beginning of the word for one syllable, this was the result:

  • In words with two or more syllables the last syllable cannot be stressed
  • One-syllable words can have only falling accents
  • In polysyllabic words, if an inner syllable is stressed, then it can have only a rising accent (there are exceptions—in standard and in many vernaculars, for instance when there is a ` – – combination)
  • In a word with two or more syllables, if the first syllable is stressed, then it can have any of the four accents.


Serbian is a form of Serbo-Croatian, a Slavic language (Indo-European), of the South Slavic subgroup. Serbo-Croatian consists of Serbian along with Bosnian, Croatian, and Montenegrin. It has lower intelligibility to East South Slavic languages of Bulgarian and Macedonian, then Slovene (although Slovene is part of the West subgroup, it is hindered by differences in vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation to the Serbo-Croatian standard forms, although closer to the Kajkavian and Čakavian dialects of Croatian[16]).

The South Slavic languages all derive their forms from Old Church Slavonic, with Serbian emerging from Old Serbian (Serbian-Slavonic), which has a literary history from the 10th century.[citation needed]

Geographic distribution

Former Yugoslavia

Figures of speakers according to countries:

Status in Montenegro

Linguistic map of Montenegro (2003 census).

Serbian was the official language of Montenegro until 2007 when the new Constitution of Montenegro replaced the Constitution of 1992. Amid opposition from pro-Serbian parties,[17] Montenegrin language was made the sole official language of the country and Serbian was given the status of a recognised minority language along with Bosnian, Albanian, and Croatian.[18] As per 2003 census results, 63.49% of the population declared their native language as Serbian, compared to 21.96% who declared as Montenegrin, the latter being mainly concentrated in Old Montenegro. The 2011 census results show that 42.88% still declare Serbian to be their native language, while Montenegrin is declared by 36.97% of the population.

Serbian dialects

Shtokavian dialects (1988)

All Serbian dialects belong to Shtokavian.

Serbian is standardized around Šumadija-Vojvodina and Eastern Herzegovinian subdialects of Shtokavian. Apart from Shtokavian, the unclassified Torlak dialect (it does not have a literary tradition and is considered a low-prestige dialect by some linguists), transitional to Macedonian and Bulgarian, is spoken in southeast Serbia.

Shtokavian dialects according to linguist Pavle Ivić (1924–1999):

  • East Herzegovina
  • Zeta-South Sanjak
  • East Bosnian
  • Šumadija-Vojvodina
  • Smederevo-Vršac
  • Kosovo-Resava
  • Prizren-South Morava
  • Svrljig-Zaplanje
  • Timok-Lužnica
  • Younger Ikavian
  • Slavonian

Writing system

Standard Serbian language uses both Cyrillic (ћирилица / ćirilica) and Latin script (latinica / латиница).

Although Serbian language authorities have recognized the official status for both scripts in contemporary standard Serbian language for more than half of a century now, due to historical reasons, Cyrillic was made the official script of Serbia's administration by the 2006 Constitution.[19] However, the law does not regulate scripts in standard language, or standard language itself by any means, leaving the choice of script as a matter of personal preference and to the free will in all aspects of life (publishing, media, trade and commerce, etc.), except in government paperwork production and in official written communication with state officials which have to be in Cyrillic. Even in official government document this constitutional requirement is rarely enforced. Serbian is a rare and excellent example of synchronic digraphia, a situation where all literate members of a society have two interchangeable writing systems available to them. An example of diagraphia is the media in Serbia. The public broadcaster, Radio Television of Serbia, predominantly uses the Cyrillic script while the privately run broadcasters, like RTV Pink, predominantly uses the Latin script.

Alphabetic order

The sort order of the ćirilica (ћирилица) alphabet:

  • Cyrillic order called Azbuka (азбука): А Б В Г Д Ђ Е Ж З И Ј К Л Љ М Н Њ О П Р С Т Ћ У Ф Х Ц Ч Џ Ш

The sort order of the latinica (латиница) alphabet:

  • Latin order called Abeceda (абецеда): A B C Č Ć D Dž Đ E F G H I J K L Lj M N Nj O P R S Š T U V Z Ž


The following table provides the upper and lower case forms of the Serbian Cyrillic alphabet, along with the Serbian Latin equivalent and the IPA value for each letter, in Cyrillic sort order:

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



Serbian verbs are conjugated in four past forms—perfect, aorist, imperfect, and pluperfect—of which the last two have a very limited use (imperfect is still used in some dialects, but majority of native Serbian speakers consider it archaic); one future tense (AKA first future tense—as opposed to the second future tense or the future exact, which is considered a tense of the conditional mood by some contemporary linguists), and one present tense. These are the tenses of the indicative mood. Apart from the indicative mood, there is also the imperative mood. The conditional mood has two more tenses, the first conditional (commonly used in conditional clauses, both for possible and impossible conditional clauses), and the second conditional (without use in spoken language—it should be used for impossible conditional clauses). Serbian has active and passive voice.

As for the non-finite verb forms, Serbian has one infinitive, two adjectival participles (the active and the passive), and two adverbial participles (the present and the past).


  • Most of the words in Serbian are of Slavic origin, meaning that their roots can often be traced back to a reconstructed Proto-Slavic language. For instance, srce ("heart"), plav ("blue").
  • There are many loanwords from different languages:
  1. The number of Turkish loanwords is also significant. Linguist Abdulah Škaljić [20] found around 7,000 Turkish words in Serbo-Croatian, however many of these are in use only in Bosnian, and still more fell out of use. Some of these words are not Turkish in origin but Arabic or Persian; they entered Serbian via Turkish. However, these words are disappearing from the standard language at a faster rate than loanwords from any other language. In Belgrade, for instance, čakšire (чакшире) was the only word for trousers before World War II, today pantalone (панталоне; a borrowing from Italian) is current; some 30–50 years ago avlija (авлија < Turkish avlı[21]) was a common word for courtyard or backyard in Belgrade, today it is the native Slavic dvorište (двориште); only 15 years ago čaršav (чаршав) was usual for tablecloth, today it is stolnjak (столњак). The greatest number of Turkish loanwords were and are in the vernaculars of south Serbia, followed by those of Bosnia and Herzegovina and central Serbia, generally corresponding with how many Muslims live in an area. Many Turkish loanwords are usual in the vernaculars of Vojvodina as well.[20]
  2. There are plenty of loanwords from German. The great number of them are specific for vernaculars which were situated in the Austrian monarchy (Vojvodina). Most cultural words attested before World War II, were borrowed from (or via) German, even when they are of French or English origin (šorc, boks). The accent is an excellent indicator for that, since German loanwords in Serbian have rising accents.
  3. Italian words in standard language were often borrowed via German (makarone). If they were not taken directly from Italian, they show specific, not regular, adaptations. For instance špagète for Italian spaghetti rather than the "expected" špàgete. The most common informal Serbian greeting is "Ćao", after the Italian "Ciao".
  4. Greek loanwords were very common in Old Serbian (Serbian-Slavonic). Some words are present and common in the modern vernaculars of central Serbia (as well as other areas) and in the standard language: hiljada (хиљада), tiganj (тигањ), patos (патос), jeftin (јефтин). Almost every word of the Serbian Orthodox ceremonies is of Greek origin (parastos (парастос) 'requiem').[22]
  5. The number of Hungarian loanwords in the standard language is small: bitanga (битанга), alas (алас), ašov (ашов)). However, they are present in some vernaculars of Vojvodina and also in historical documents, local literature. Some place names in northern central Serbia as Barajevo, are probably of Hungarian origin.[23]
  • Classical international words (words mainly with Latin or Greek roots) are adapted in Serbian like in most European languages, not translated as in Croatian. For instance Serbian atmosfera, Croatian ozracje, S telegraf, C brzojav, S avion, C zrakoplov.
  • Two Serbian words that are used in many of the world's languages are vampire[24] and paprika.[25] Slivovitz and ćevapčići are Serbian words which have spread together with the Serbian food/drink they refer to.[26] Paprika and slivovitz are borrowed via German; paprika itself entered German via Hungarian. Vampire entered most West European languages through German-language texts in the early 18th century and has since spread widely in the world.

Serbian literature

Miroslavljevo jevanđelje (The Gospel of Miroslav), a manuscript, ca. 1186

Serbian literature emerged in the Middle Ages, and included such works as Miroslavljevo jevanđelje (Miroslav's Gospel) in 1192 and Dušanov zakonik (Dušan's Code) in 1349. Little secular medieval literature has been preserved, but what there is shows that it was in accord with its time; for example, Serbian Alexandride, a book about Alexander the Great, and a translation of Tristan and Iseult into Serbian. Although not belonging to the literature proper, the corpus of Serbian literacy in the 14th and 15th centuries contains numerous legal, commercial and administrative texts with marked presence of Serbian vernacular juxtaposed on the matrix of Serbian Church Slavonic.

In the mid-15th century, Serbia was conquered by the Ottoman Empire and for the next 400 years there was no opportunity for the creation of secular written literature. However, some of the greatest literary works in Serbian come from this time, in the form of oral literature, the most notable form being Serbian epic poetry. The epic poems were mainly written down in the 19th century, and preserved in oral tradition up to the 1950s, a few centuries or even a millennium longer than by most other "epic folks". Goethe and Jacob Grimm learned Serbian in order to read Serbian epic poetry in original. By the end of the 18th century, the written literature had become estranged from the spoken language. In the second half of the 18th century, the new language appeared, called Slavonic-Serbian. This artificial idiom superseded the works of poets and historians like Gavrilo Stefanović Venclović, who wrote in essentially modern Serbian in the 1720s. These vernacular compositions have remained cloistered from the general public and received due attention only with the advent of modern literary historians and writers like Milorad Pavić. In the early 19th century, Vuk Stefanović Karadžić, promoted the spoken language of the people as a literary norm.


Serious Serbian and Croatian dictionaries regularly include Croatian only, and Serbian only words.

Standard dictionaries

  • Rečnik srpskohrvatskog književnog i narodnog jezika (Dictionary of Serbo-Croatian standard language and vernaculars) is the biggest dictionary of Serbian and still unfinished. Starting with 1959, 16 volumes were published, about 40 are expected. Works of Croatian authors are excerpted, if published before 1991.
  • Rečnik srpskohrvatskoga književnog jezika in 6 volumes, started as a common project of Matica srpska and Matica hrvatska, but only the first three volumes were also published in Croato-Serbian (hrvatskosrpski).
  • Rečnik srpskoga jezika (ISBN-13: 978-86-7946-004-2) in one volume, published in 2007 by Matica srpska, which on more than 1500 pages in A4 format explains more than 85.000 entries. Several volume dictionaries were published in Croatia (for the Croatian language) since the 1990s (Anić, Enciklopedijski rječnik, Hrvatski rječnik).

Bilingual dictionaries

  • Standard dictionaries
  • Specialized dictionaries
  • Phraseological dictionaries

Historical dictionaries

The Rječnik hrvatskoga ili srpskoga jezika (I-XXIII), published by the Yugoslav academy of sciencies and arts (Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts) from 1880 to 1976, is the only general historical dictionary of Croatian and Serbian language. Its first editor was Đuro Daničić, followed by Pero Budmani and the famous Vukovian Tomislav Maretić. The sources of this dictionary are, especially in the first volumes, mainly Štokavian.

Etymological dictionaries

The standard and the only completed etymological dictionary of Serbian is the "Skok", written by the Croatian linguist Petar Skok: Etimologijski rječnik hrvatskoga ili srpskoga jezika ("Etymological Dictionary of Croatian or Serbian"). I-IV. Zagreb 1971–1974.

There is also a new monumental Etimološki rečnik srpskog jezika (Etymological Dictionary of Serbian). So far, two volumes have been published: I (with words on A-), and II (Ba-Bd).

There are specialized etymological dictionaries for German, Italian, Croatian, Turkish, Greek, Hungarian, Russian, English and other loanwords (cf. chapter word origin).

Dialect dictionaries

  • Kosovsko-resavski dialect dictionaries:
Gliša Elezović, Rečnik kosovsko-metohiskog dijalekta I-II. 1932/1935.
  • Prizren-Timok (Torlakian) dialect dictionaries:
Brana Mitrović, Rečnik leskovačkog govora. Leskovac 1984.
Nikola Živković, Rečnik pirotskog govora. Pirot, 1987.
Miodrag Marković, Rečnik crnorečkog govora I-II. 1986/1993.
Jakša Dinić, Rečnik timočkog govora I-III.1988–1992.
Jakša Dinić, Timocki dijalekatski recnik ,(Institut za srpski jezik, Monografije 4;ISBN 978-86-82873-17-4) Beograd 2008 ,
Momčilo Zlatanović, Rečnik govora južne Srbije. Vranje, 1998, 1–491.
  • East-Herzegowinian dialect dictionaries:
Milija Stanić, Uskočki rečnik I–II. Beograd 1990/1991.
Miloš Vujičić, Rečnik govora Prošćenja kod Mojkovca. Podgorica, 1995.
Srđan Musić, Romanizmi u severozapadnoj Boki Kotorskoj. 1972.
Svetozar Gagović, Iz leksike Pive. Beograd 2004.
  • Zeta-Pester dialect:
Rada Stijović, Iz leksike Vasojevića. 1990.
Drago Ćupić – Željko Ćupić, Rečnik govora Zagarača. 1997.
Vesna Lipovac-Radulović, Romanizmi u Crnoj Gori – jugoistočni dio Boke Kotorske. Cetinje – Titograd, 1981.
Vesna Lipovac-Radulović, Romanizmi u Budvi i Paštrovićima. Novi Sad 1997.
  • Others:
Rečnik sprskih govora Vojvodine. Novi Sad.
Mile Tomić, Rečnik radimskog govora – dijaspora, Rumunija. 1989.

Differences between Serbian and Croatian and Bosnian

See also


  1. ^ Including, as of 2006, 6.62 million in Serbia sans Kosovo (88% of the population), 1.49 million in Bosnia (37.1%), 400,000 in Montenegro (60%), 133,000 in Kosovo and 45,000 in Croatia (not counting refugees), and perhaps a million in the diaspora. Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, 2nd ed.
  2. ^
  3. ^ "Serbo-Croatian". Retrieved 2010-04-24. 
  4. ^ Serbia claims the territory of Kosovo. Has limited international recognition. Considered to be an independent state by 75 UN members. "Draft Constitution of the Republic of Kosovo" (PDF). Retrieved 2010-09-17. 
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^ David Dalby, Linguasphere (1999/2000, Linguasphere Observatory), pg. 445, 53-AAA-g, "Srpski+Hrvatski, Serbo-Croatian".
  10. ^ Benjamin W. Fortson IV, Indo-European Language and Culture: An Introduction, 2nd ed. (2010, Blackwell), pg. 431, "Because of their mutual intelligibility, Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian are usually thought of as constituting one language called Serbo-Croatian."
  11. ^ Václav Blažek, "On the Internal Classification of Indo-European Languages: Survey" retrieved 20 Oct 2010, pp. 15-16.
  12. ^ E.C. Hawkesworth, "Serbian-Croatian-Bosnian Linguistic Complex", also B Arsenijević, "Serbia and Montenegro: Language Situation". Both in the Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, 2nd edition, 2006.
  13. ^
  14. ^ Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, Or Montenegrin? Or Just 'Our Language'?, Radio Free Europe, February 21, 2009
  15. ^
  16. ^ Greenberg, Marc L., A Short Reference Grammar of Slovene, (LINCOM Studies in Slavic Linguistics 30). Munich: LINCOM, 2008. ISBN 3-89586-965-1
  17. ^ Pro-Serbian parties oppose Montenegro constitution
  18. ^ Ustav Crne Gore
  19. ^ "The Constitution". The Constitutional Court of the Republic of Serbia. Retrieved 2010-12-06. 
  20. ^ a b Škaljić, Abdulah (1966). Turcizmi u srpsko-hrvatskom jeziku. "Svjetlost" Sarajevo. p. 25. 
  21. ^ Ottoman Turkish lexeme itself was in turn borrowed from the Greek αὐλή
  22. ^ Vasmer, Max. Griechische Lehnwörter im Serboischen. 1943.
  23. ^ Hadrovics, László. Ungarische Elemente im Serbischen. Köln / Wien. 1985
  24. ^ cf.: Deutsches Wörterbuch von Jacob Grimm und Wilhelm Grimm. 16 Bde. [in 32 Teilbänden. Leipzig: S. Hirzel 1854–1960.], s.v. Vampir; Trésor de la Langue Française informatisé; Dauzat, Albert, 1938. Dictionnaire étymologique. Librairie Larousse; Wolfgang Pfeifer, Етymologisches Woerterbuch, 2006, p. 1494; s.v. Vampir; Tokarev, S.A. et al. 1982. Mify narodov mira. ("Myths of the peoples of the world". A Russian encyclopedia of mythology); Russian Etymological Dictionary by Max Vasmer. Retrieved on 2006-06-13
  25. ^ Wolfgang Pfeifer, Etymologisches Woerterbuch, 2003, p. 968-969; s.v. papar
  26. ^ for instance cf. Duden Universalwörterbuch, s.v. Schliwowitz

Further reading

  • Robert David Greenberg (2004). Language and identity in the Balkans: Serbo-Croatian and its disintegration. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199258154.  (reprinted in 2008 as ISBN 9780199208753)

External links

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