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Serbo-Croatian language

Serbo-Croatian (srpskohrvatski or hrvatskosrpski) is a name for a language of the western group of the South Slavic languages.

Serbo-Croatian was an official language in Yugoslavia. It continues to be used (under different names) in today's Serbia and Montenegro, Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina and is still reasonably well understood in FYR Macedonia and Slovenia. The language is also spoken by Serbian and Croatian minorities in Austria, Hungary, Albania, Italy, Romania and elsewhere.

Table of contents
1 The name controversy
2 Language characteristics
3 Dialect Groups
4 Alphabets
5 Source
6 External links

The name controversy

The name Serbo-Croatian is a controversial issue due to history, politics, and the variable meaning of the word language.

Genetic lingustics point of view

From the genetic linguistics point of view, Serbo-Croatian grew out from Neo-Shtokavian dialect and is/was considered one language with two generally mutually intelligible variants: "western" or Croatian and "eastern" or Serbian. This point of view dominated from 1870s to 1960s. The use of national names for the variants could not accommodate Bosnian Muslims.

Genetic linguistics is, generally speaking, concerned mainly with two basic traits: the origin of a language and mutual intelligibility between languages thus defined. So, according to these criteria, Hindi and Urdu are one language, as are Bulgarian and Macedonian. Genetically, there is not one German language, but at least two: one of them (Plattdeutsch) is, genetically, one language with Dutch language. These criteria have dominated the thinking about South Slavic languages in the past 200 years.

Sociolinguistics point of view

The sociolinguistic situation is much more complex. 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.

In the mid 19th century, both Serbian and Croatian writers and linguists decided to use the most widespread Štokavian dialect as a basis for their standard languages. Thus a bi-variant language appeared, which the Serbs officially called "Serbo-Croatian" and Croats "Croatian and 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.

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.

Official names

The name Serbo-Croatian is not used. Rather,

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 actually written in a "Yugoslav pidgin", with no regard to grammatical prescriptions given in any authoritative linguistic work from 1899 on — be they Serbian, Croatian or Bosnian.

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 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.

Views of the linguists

Opinions of linguists in former Yugoslavia diverge.

Language characteristics

Serbo-Croatian is a highly inflected language. There are seven cases for nouns and adjectives: Nominative case, Genitive case, Dative case, Accusative case, Vocative case, Locative case, Instrumental case.

There are three numbers of nouns, adjectives and verbs - one of them, the large plural (above five) is expressed as a change of case from nominative to genitive.

There are seven tenses of verbs (imperfect, plusquamperfect, perfect, aorist, present, futur I, futur II) and additional conditional constructs.

Dialect Groups

Serbo-Croatian is the common name for three large dialect groups, štokavian, kajkavian and čakavian.

A secondary subdicision is considering how the Proto-Slavic jat vowel is rendered: ekavian(ekavski), ijekavian(ijekavski/jekavski), and ikavian(ikavski).

The differences in the usage of dialects and variants is geographical, not ethnic. They have enough differences to be hardly mutually intelligible, but all share a very similar grammar.

Example sentence in the following sections means approximately "What is, is; it's how it always was, what will be, will be, and it'll be somehow!".


The štokavski or štokavian dialect is spoken in Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro and the greater part of Croatia. Its word for "what" is "što".

Its main subdialects are:

The first purely štokavian texts are dated ca. 1380-1400 (Vatican Croatian Prayer Book). There are several older texts written with elements of štokavian, such as a charter written by the Bosnian ban Kulin in 1189. Bosniak or Bosnian vernacular štokavian texts go back to the 16th and 17th century (folks poems and a grammar).

Example: Što jest, jest; tako je uvijek bilo, što će biti, (biće|bit će), a nekako već će biti!
(the option in the middle is a difference between Croatian and Serbian norms)

See also:


The kajkavski or kajkavian dialect is mostly spoken in northwestern Croatia. Its word for "what" is "kaj" and it renders jat as "e", i.e., it is of ekavian type.

It bears many similarities to eastern Slovenian dialects, but it has no dual number. An older philologist in the 19th century had considered kajkavian an offshoot of the Slovene language, but this has been abandoned at the beginning of the 20th century by Slovene philologist Ramovš and Serbian Belić.

1578 is the date of the oldest kajkavian written work, by Pergošić. Probably the most authoritative text describing the kajkavian dialect is "Language of Kajkavian Croats", authored by the pre-eminent Croatian linguist Ivšić in 1934.

Kajkavian further stands out by lacking phonemes such as 'c' (ц) (instead using the combination of 'ts' as in Hrvatska), 'č' (ч) (instead using 'tš', 'ć' (ћ), 'đ' (ђ), 'dž' (џ), 'lj' (љ) and 'nj' (њ), as well as the characteristic semi-vowel 'r' (р). Furthermore, Kajkavian includes a vowel the 'ə' which is similar to the Scandinavian '' and missing from štokavian and čakavian.

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


The čakavski or Čakavian dialect is spoken in western and southern parts of Croatia, mainly in Istria and Dalmatia. Its word for "what" is "ča" and it renders jat as "i", i.e., it is of ikavian type.

The first documents written in čakavian date from 1275. There are elements of čakavian in older writings such as the Baška tablet of 1100s. Today's čakavian includes many words borrowed from Italian.

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


There also exists a fourth dialect called torlački or torlak which is spoken in southern and eastern parts of Serbia, and it is often referred to as a transitional phase between štokavian and Macedonian.

It is even thought to fit into the so-called Balkan Sprachbund, an area of linguistic convergence among languages due to long-term contact rather than being related.

Dialects and official languages

The Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian standard languages are all mainly based on the Štokavian dialect, although if they are considered as systems of dialects, one might observe that:

Although most linguists nowadays consider the štokavian, čakavian and kajkavian as three dialects of one common language, there is basis for considering the three as distinct tongues. However, since there is no clear-cut criterion for distinguishing a language from a dialect, and dialects are usually described in reference to standard languages, a notion of diasystem is frequently used instead of Serbo-Croatian.


Through history, this language has been written with Latin, Greek, Angled and Round Glagolitic, Cyrillic and Arabic alphabets. Today, it is written in both the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets. Serbian and Bosnian standard version use both alphabets, while Croatian uses only Latin.

Serbian Cyrillic alphabet was revised by Vuk Stefanović Karadžić in 19th century. The Croatian Latin alphabet 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 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

Digraphs Lj, Nj and represent distinct phonemes and are considered to be single letters. In crosswords, they're put into a single square and in collation, lj comes after lz and nj after nz, except in a few words these 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.


External links