Serbo-Croatian language

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(српскохрватски / srpskohrvatski
hrvatskosrpski / хрватскосрпски
hrvatski ili srpski / хрватски или српски
српски или хрватски / srpski ili hrvatski)
Spoken in: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro, and others
Region: Southeastern Europe or the Balkans
Total speakers: not known (17,5M)
Ranking: 44 or lower
Genetic classification: Indo-European
Official status
Official language of:
Regulated by:
Language codes
ISO 639-1 sh
ISO 639-2 scr, scc
SIL none (formerly SRC)
See also: LanguageList of languages

Serbo-Croatian or Croato-Serbian (srpskohrvatski or hrvatskosrpski), earlier also Serbo-Croat, was an official language of Yugoslavia (along with Slovenian and Macedonian). Officially, the term was used from 1921-ca. 1993 as a "cover" term for dialects spoken by Serbs and Croats, and later Bosniaks and Montenegrins. In its standardized form, it was based on shtokavian dialect and defined "Eastern" (based on Serbian idiom) and "Western" (based on Croatian idiom) as its variants. By extension, it also declared kajkavian and chakavian as its dialects, but they were never in official use.

With the breakup of Yugoslavia, the term "Serbo-Croatian" goes out of use, first from official documents and gradually from linguistic literature. Today, the name Serbo-Croatian is a controversial issue due to history, politics, and the variable meaning of the word language. Many native speakers will find the term politically incorrect or even offensive.

Mutually intelligible forms of it continue to be used under different names and standards in today’s Serbia and Montenegro, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, and are still reasonably well understood in Macedonia and Slovenia.

In this article, apart from linguistic and politic issues, common properties of all "descendent" languages (Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian) are described; for differences, see Differences in official languages in Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia.


History of linguistic issues

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.

From the genetic linguistics point of view, Serbo-Croatian grew out from Neo-Štokavian dialecs.

In the mid 19th century, Serbian (led by Vuk Stefanović Karadžić) and Croatian writers and linguists (represented in Illyrian movement led by Ljudevit Gaj and Đuro Daničić) decided to use the most widespread Štokavian dialect as a basis for their standard languages. Vuk standardized the Serbian Cyrillic script and Gaj and Daničić Croatian Latin script, on the basis on phonemes used in vernacular speach and the principle of purely phonetic spelling.

It is peculiar that Neo-Štokavian Ijekavian language was in time considered Croatian as opposed to the Serbian ekavian. (Vuk Stefanović-Karadžić: Mala srpska pesnarica, Vienna 1816.) But, a lot of Serbs (around 2 millions) speak Ijekavian, as well as some Croats (influenced by Kajkavian) speak Ekavian.

Thus a bi-variant language appeared, which the Serbs officially called "Serbo-Croatian" and the Croats "Croatian or 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.

With unification of the first Kingdom of Yugoslavia, (Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes) the approach of Karadžić and Illyrians became official. With the unitarian politics of king Aleksandar I Karadjordjevic as of 1929, the official language of Yugoslavia was called "Yugoslavian" and all ethnic denominations erased.

In communist-dominated second Yugoslavia, ethnic issues eased to a certain extent, but the language issue was still open. 1954, a group of Serbian and Croatian linguists and writers, backed up by Matica srpska and Matica hrvatska signed Novi Sad Agreement which in the first article stated that:

The national language of Serbs, Croats and Montenegrins is one language. Thus, the literary language developed on its basis around two principal centers, Belgrade and Zagreb is unified, with two pronunciations, ijekavian and ekavian.

The Novi Sad Agreement was the basis of language politics in second Yugoslavia. However, many Croats felt uneasy with it, as they viewed the "merging" of languages as an attempt of "Serbization" of Croatian idiom. Also, many of constructs typical for Serbian idiom replaced more Croatian-based ones in Bosnia and Herzegovina media and politics and, gradually, vernacular speech. Some view it as a proof of Serbian hegemony in SFR Yugoslavia, and others as a natural process of language changes.

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. Today, in accordance with the Romantic nationalism of the nineteenth century, every nation has its own language. Out of this definition arises an ambiguity: namely, should there be a nation per language (the "SerboCroats") or a language per nation (Serbian, Croatian, and Bosniak)? Vuk Karadžić took the first position and became the target of nationalist Croats. Modern sensibilities in the Balkans dictate the second position.

Present situation

Official names

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

  • Bosniaks call their language Bosnian
  • Croats call their language Croatian.
  • Serbs call their language Serbian. 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.

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 consider Serbian and Serbo-Croatian to be one language (mainly because of simple renaming of languages). 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-Štokavian 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.


Main article: Serbo-Croatian dialects

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:

English Predecessor Ekavian Ikavian Ijekavian
time vrěme vreme vrime vrijeme
beautiful lěp lep lip lijep
girl děvojka devojka divojka djevojka
true věran veran viran vjeran
village selo selo selo selo
to need trěbati trebati tribati trebati
to heat grějati grejati grijati grijati

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, 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; rečima, rečima, rečima.
  • There is a strictly 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 number is indeclinable, and numbers after prepositions have not been declined for a long time.

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 (namely, aorist and imperfect) favor a particular aspect. 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 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
Latin Cyrillic
Ina 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 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 Cyrillic script IPA X-SAMPA Description English approximation
i и [i] [i] front closed unrounded seek
e е [ε] [E] front half open unrounded ten
a а [a] [a] central open unrounded father
o о [ɔ] [o] back half open rounded caught (British)
u у [u] [u] back closed rounded boom


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 Cyrillic script IPA X-SAMPA Description English approximation
r р [r] [r] alveolar trill rolled (vibrating) r as in carramba
v в [ʋ] [P] labiodental approximant vase
j ј [j] [j] palatal approximant yes
l л [l] [l] lateral alveolar approximant lock
lj љ [ʎ] [L] palatal lateral approximant volume
m м [m] [m] bilabial nasal man
n н [n] [n] alveolar nasal not
nj њ [ɲ] [J] palatal nasal canyon
f ф [f] [f] voiceless labiodental fricative phase
s с [s] [s] voiceless alveolar fricative some
z з [z] [z] voiced alveolar fricative zero
š ш [ʃ] [S] voiceless postalveolar fricative sheer
ž ж [ʒ] [Z] voiced postalveolar fricative vision
h х [h] [h] voiceless glottal fricative hat
c ц [ʦ] [ts] voiceless alveolar affricate pots
џ [ʤ] [dZ] voiced postalveolar affricate dodge
č ч [ʧ] [tS] voiceless postalveolar affricate chair
đ ђ [ʥ] [dz\] voiced alveolo-palatal affricate schedule
ć ћ [ʨ] [ts\] voiceless alveolo-palatal affricate nature
b б [b] [b] voiced bilabial plosive abuse
p п [p] [p] voiceless bilabial plosive top
d д [d] [d] voiced alveolar plosive dog
t т [t] [t] voiceless alveolar plosive talk
g г [g] [g] voiced velar plosive god
k к [k] [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 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 syllabic r. A similar feature exists in Czech, Slovak and Macedonian. Very rare, l can be syllabic (in the word for the river "Vltava", 'l' is syllabic) as well as lj, m, n and nj in jargon.


Apart from Slovenian, Serbo-Croatian (with Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian) 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 [à] cut up
Long falling [â] leave
Long rising [á] 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.

Comparative linguistics nevertheless offers some rules. So if one compares Serbo-Croatian words to the similar Russian words, the stress in Russian will be on the following syllable if the Croatian word has either rising stress and vice versa. That even holds in comparing the same words in neo-Štokavian and either Čakavian or old-Štokavian.

Čakavian or old-Štokavian: gospodȁar

which turns into: gospȍdȁar or in the existing classification: gospòdār.

So, strictly speaking, the last syllable can still be stressed but it then must share the stress with the preceding syllable.

That way the ijekavian can be deduced from the ikavian: l ȉipo - l ȉ(schwa)po - l ȉepo - l ȉjepo. /CONFUSING -->


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 iščega

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 do not change into ts and (although d tends to be unvoiced in normal speech in such clusters):

  • predstava (show)
  • odštampati (to print)

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])


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, including 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, since they were Yugoslav republics. Furthermore, the popularity of singers singing in either B, C, or S, has helped maintain the presence of the language in the Yugoslav successor states, where it is not spoken as a first language


  • 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 éditions 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

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