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Differences between standard Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian

Serbo-Croatian language

The Serbo-Croatian language or Croato-Serbian language (cрпскохрватски језик srpskohrvatski jezik) is a South Slavic diasystem. "Serbo-Croatian" was used as an umbrella term (dachsprache) for dialects spoken in Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina; it was one of the official languages of Yugoslavia from 1918 to 1991 (along with Slovene and Macedonian). In its standardized form, it was based on the Štokavian dialect and defined in Ekavian and Iyekavian variants, called "pronunciations." Unofficially, there were "Eastern" (based on the Serbian idiom) and "Western" (based on the Croatian idiom) variants. By extension, Kaykavian and Chakavian were often considered to be dialects (while the Torlakian dialect was never recognized in mainstream linguistics), but they were not in official use.

The dispute over "Serbo-Croatian"

With the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, its languages followed suit and Croatian, Serbian, and Bosnian became separate standards (Ausbausprachen). Currently, there is a movement to create a Montenegrin language, separate from Serbian. Conversely, the complex term "Serbo-Croatian" declined in use, first from official documents and gradually from linguistic literature.

Today, use of the term "Serbo-Croatian" is controversial due to history, politics, and the variable meanings of the word language.

Linguists are divided on questions regarding whether the use of the name should be deprecated. It is still used, for lack of a more succinct alternative, to denote the "daughter" languages as a collectivity.


An alternative name has emerged in official use abroad Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian (BHS). It is also known in the regional linguistic community as the Central South Slavic diasystem.

History of linguistic issues

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", "Bosnian" or "Croatian", were still unstandardized despite the presence of an extensive vernacular literature developed in the different local dialects.

From the perspective of genetic linguistics, standard Serbo-Croatian was based on the Neo-Štokavian dialects.

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 Pavol Jozef Šafárik's manuscript "Slovanské starožitnosti" printed 1837.

In the mid 19th century, Serbian (led by Vuk Stefanović Karadžić) and most Croatian writers and linguists (represented in the Illyrian movement, led by Ljudevit Gaj and Đuro Daničić), proposed the use of the most widespread Štokavian dialect as the base for their standardized languages. Karadžić standardised the Serbian Cyrillic script, and Gaj and Daničić standardized the Croatian Latin script, 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 common supra-national language. Thus a complex bi-variant language appeared, which the Serbs officially called "Serbo-Croatian" and the Croats "Croatian or Serbian". Yet, in practice, the variants of the supposed single language were different standard languages. 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-Slovenian 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 .

In the Communist-dominated second Yugoslavia, ethnic issues eased to an extent, but the matter of language remained blurred and unresolved. In 1954, a group of Serbian and Croatian linguists and writers, backed by Matica srpska and Matica hrvatska signed the Novi Sad agreement, which in its first article stated:

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

This act was less of an agreement than a political document signed under political pressure, as many writers later asserted (such as Miroslav Krleža). In fact, its Croatian signers later withdrew their signing. 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. Also, many Serbian idiomatic constructs replaced Croatian idiomatic constructs in Bosniak and Herzegovinian media and politics 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.

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 what they wanted.

The Croats returned to using name they had used for the language before the dissolution of Yugoslavia (officially, they had called it Croatian until the mid 1970s). The Serbs called it Serbo-Croatian until 1997, when the Matica srpska made the Serbian Language Dictionary. Since then Serbs have called it Serbian, but unofficialy. The Bosniaks called their language Serbo-Croatian or Croato-Serbian until 1993. Curiously, 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.

Present situation

Contemporary names

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.

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

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.

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 used to be called Serbo-Croatian (srpskohrvatski)/ 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

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:

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. Croats exclusively use Latin script; Serbians and Bosniaks use them interchangeably, although Serbians tend to favor Cyrillic while Bosniaks usually prefer Latin. Nonetheless, beyond the "first 100" words, there are numerous small and large vocabular differences presented in "Razlikovni rječnik srpskog i hrvatskog jezika" (Matica Hrvatska).
  • 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 yet 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.

However, some argue that these arguments have flaws:

  • As far as structural similarity or even the identity of basic grammar is concerned, one might add that Malay and Indonesian are the same with regard to basic grammar, yet they are dutifully listed as different languages in classification manuals. Moreover, the basic grammar (morphology and syntax) is just one part of a theoretical description of a language: other fields (phonetics, phonology, word formation, semantics, pragmatics, stylistics, lexicology, etc.) give different theoretical linguistic descriptions and prescriptions for Croatian, Bosnian and Serbian (just as with Hindi and Urdu). A comparable example are also the mutually similar Scandinavian languages.

(One might add here, that following these particular theoretical definitions of a language "uniqueness", American and British English would have to be separated.)

  • 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 explicitely calls his Čakavian-written Judita as u uersih haruacchi slosena ("arranged in Croatian stanzas") in 1501, and Štokavian grammar and dictionary of Bartol Kašić written in 1604 unambiguously identifies etnonyms Slavic and Illyrian with Croatian.

All the arguments aside, it is fair to say that the politics and the linguistics of the region cannot be separated in a straightforward manner.

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 Italic, 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, as far as mid 1500s and 1600s, 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. 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. 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.

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-Chakavian that was nearer to actual Adriatic islanders in Croatia.

Bosniak linguists

  • 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 agendas.

Political connotations

Nationalists have rather conflicting views about the language(s). The nationalists among the Croats conflictingly claim either that they speak entirely separate language from Serbs and Bosniaks or that these two peoples have, due to the longer lexicographic tradition among Croats, somehow "borrowed" their standard languages from them; Bosniak nationalists claim that both Croats and Serbs have "appropriated" Bosnian language, since Ljudevit Gaj and Vuk Karadžić preferred neoštokavian-iyekavian 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 Shtokavian dialect is theirs and the Čakavian Croats'— in more extreme formulations Croats have "taken" or "stolen" their language from the Serbs. Proponents of unity among Southern Slavs claim that there is a single language with normal dialectal variations. Moderate ordinary people are confused: sometimes, they express the opinion that languages of Bosniaks, Croats, Montenegrins and Serbs are different, but closely related languages; on other occasions, they say that they are mutually understandable variants of one language.

Now, the term "Serbo-Croatian" (or synonyms) is not in official use 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— it 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. 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. Bosnian is not official anywhere, and, as in Serbia, there is a tendency to refer to it as "Bosniak" instead.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, all three languages are recorded as official but in practice and media, mostly Bosnian or 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.


The primary dialects are usually named after their word for what: Shtokavian (Štokavski) uses the pronoun što or šta (shto, shta), Chakavian (čakavski) uses ča or ca (cha, tsa); Kajkavian (kajkavski), kaj or kej. However, the Serbo-Croatian standard language as well as contemporary standard languages are based on Shtokavian, and the diverging Chakavian and Kajkavian were "adopted" into this classification more for political reasons (someones consider them as separate minor languages). Torlakian (torlački) was regarded as an old Shtokavian dialect and not included explicitly, although many scholars now classify it as a separate dialect transitional toward Bulgarian.

Furthermore, there are also three different ways of rendering the changing Proto-Slavic vowel jat (yat). Čakavian mainly says i (rarer y), Kajkavian mainly uses e (rarer ie) while the Shtokavian dialect is broken down into a secondary subdivision based on whether ije (iye), je (ye) or e is used. Serbian standard uses e while Croatian and Bosnian have ije/je.

Each of these primary and secondary dialectal units break down into subdialects and accents by region. Chiefly in the past (in mountains and islands up today), 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 more or less influenced by the Neo-Shtokavian standards through mass media and public education, and a part of this "local color" has been lost chiefly in towns.

There is a basis for recent considering the three dialects (Kajkavian, Chakavian and Shtokavian) 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 complex diasystem is frequently used instead of Serbo-Croatian.

Rendering of yat

The Proto-Slavic vowel yat has changed over time and now has three distinct reflexes:

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

However, when short yat is preceded by r, in most Ijekavian dialects it morphed into re or, occasionally, ri. Also, prefix prě ("trans-, over-") when yat is long passed to pre- in eastern Ijekavian dialects and to prije- (priye) in western; in Ikavian, it also evolved into pre- or prije- because of 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.

The following are some examples:

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


see: serbian grammar, croatian grammar
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 Shtokavian 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 partly Chakavian 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 Shtokavian writing, and the time sequence of the exact future is more commonly formed through an alternative construction.

In addition, like most Slavic languages, the Shtokavian 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 Shtokavian tenses (namely, aorist and imperfect) favor a particular aspect (but they are rarer or absent in Chakavian and Kaykavian). 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 lithurgies.

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 diacritical marks, apparently borrowing much from Czech, but also from Polish, and inventing the unique digraphs "lj", "nj" and "dž". 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 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 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 Serbo-Croat keyboards.



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

Latin script Cyrillic script IPA Description English approximation
a а /a/ open front unrounded father
i и /i/ close front unrounded seek
e е /ɛ/ open-mid front unrounded den
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, voicedness 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
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 hard, loch
c ц /ʦ/ voiceless alveolar affricate pots
џ /ʤ/ voiced postalveolar affricate roughly eject
č ч /ʧ/ voiceless postalveolar affricate roughly check
đ ђ /ʥ/ voiced alveolo-palatal affricate roughly Jews
ć ћ /ʨ/ 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 /g/ 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 a vowel in certain Shtokavian 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.


Apart from Slovene, Serbo-Croatian is the only Slavic language with a pitch accent system. This feature is present in some Indo-European languages; the few other examples include Swedish, Norwegian, Welsh, the Limbourg dialect of Dutch, Spanish spoken in Chile and Colombia (to a lesser extent), and Ancient Greek. Serbo-Croatian has four types of accent; in addition, unstressed syllables following the stress may be short or long.

Serbo-Croatian stress system
Stress type Symbol Diacritic English approximation
Short falling ȉ Double grave sit
Short rising ì Grave sitting
Long falling ȋ Inverted breve leave
Long rising í Acute leaving
Long unstressed ī Macron 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 of polysyllabic words
  • 3) Stress can never occur on the last syllable of polysyllabic words

There are no other rules for stress placement, thus the stress of every word must be learned individually; furthermore, in declension and conjugation, stress shifts are common, both in type and position. The second rule is not strictly obeyed, especially in borrowed words.

Comparative and historical linguistics nevertheless offers some clues for the stress. If one compares many Standard Serbo-Croatian words to similar Russian words, the stress in the Serbo-Croatian word will be one syllable before the one in the Russian word, with the rising stress. Historically, the rising stress appeared when the place of the stress shifted to the preceding syllable, but the quality of this new stress was different - its melody still "gravitated" towards the original syllable. Most Shtokavian dialects (neo-Shtokavian) underwent this shift, but Chakavian, Kajkavian and old Shtokavian did not.

Stress diacritics are never indicated outside the linguistic or language-learning literature. Unlike Russian, other East Slavic languages and Bulgarian, there are very few minimal pairs where an error in accent can lead to misunderstanding. Statistically speaking, the second or the third syllable from the end are usually stressed.


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 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)
  • 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])


According to data collected from various census bureaus and administrative agencies the total number of native Serbo-Croatian speakers in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, 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 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 almost in Australia, Austria, Brazil Canada, Germany, Sweden and the United States. In addition, the language is reasonably understood as lingua franca in Slovenia and Macedonia, since they were Yugoslav republics. Furthermore, the popularity of singers singing in Bosnian, Croatian, or Serbian, has helped maintain the presence of the language in the Yugoslav successor states, where it was not spoken as a first language.



  • 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
  • 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.
  • Rešetar, Milan: Der Schtokawische Dialekt, Berlin, 1908
  • Zekovic, Sreten & Cimeša, Boro: Elementa montenegrina, Chrestomatia 1/90. CIP, Zagreb 1991

Differences to similar languages

See also

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