Serbo-Croatian language

Spoken in: Bosnia and Herzegovina,
Croatia, Serbia,
Montenegro (under different names) 
Region: Southeastern Europe or the Balkans
Total speakers: unknown (Some 20 million speak Serbian, Bosnian, or Croatian). 
Ranking: approx. 50
Language family: Indo-European
Language codes
ISO 639-1: sh (deprecated)
ISO 639-2: formerly scr, scc
ISO 639-3: hbs — Serbo-Croat
Central South Slavic
languages and dialects
(Central South Slavic diasystem)
Bosnian · Bunjevac
Burgenland Croatian · Croatian
Montenegrin · Našinski · Serbian · Serbo-Croatian
Romano-Serbian · Slavoserbian
Differences between Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian
Chakavian · Kajkavian · Molise Croatian
Shtokavian · Torlak · Užice speech
Gaj’s Latin alphabet
Serbian Cyrillic
Bohorčica · Dajnčica · Metelčica
Bosnian Cyrillic · Glagolitic

Serbo-Croatian or Croato-Serbian (also Croatian or Serbian, Serbian or Croatian) (srpskohrvatski, cрпскохрватски, hrvatskosrpski, hrvatski ili srpski or srpski ili hrvatski), is a South Slavic diasystem. "Serbo-Croatian" was used as 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 Slovenian and Macedonian). In its standardized form, it was based on Štokavian dialect and defined in Ekavian and Iyekavian variants called "pronounciations" (unofficially, there were "Eastern" (based on Serbian idiom) and "Western" (based on Croatian idiom) variants. By extension, it often declared also Kaykavian and Chakavian as its dialects (while Torlakian dialect was never recognized in official linguistics), but they were not in official use. The term was mentioned for the first time by Slovenian 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.

With the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, its languages followed suit and Croatian, Serbian, Bosnian (Ausbausprachen). Currently there is a movement to create a Montenegrin language, separate from Serbian. Conversely, the complex term "Serbo-Croatian" declined in usage, 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 nowadays find the term politically incorrect or even insulting. Others, however, continue using the original language name, as they have studied it at school; also recently the traditional Serbo-Croatian persisted as an important lingua franca of mutual understanding across West Balkans.

Linguists are divided on questions regarding whether the name is 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.

Mutually intelligible forms of it continue to be used under different names and standards in today’s Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, and are still reasonably well understood in Republic of Macedonia and Slovenia. Whilst most in the latter two countries born before 1982 will be fluent in the language, younger people grown after their independence have had more limited contact with it, mostly through regional media.


History of linguistic issues

Throughout the history of the South Slavs, the vernacular, literary, and written language of the regions and ethnicities developed independently and divergent. From the perspective of the genetic linguistics, Serbo-Croatian grew on the basis of Neo-Štokavian dialects.

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 to use the most widespread Shtokavian dialect as the base for their standardised languages. Vuk standardised the Serbian Cyrillic script, and Gaj and Daničić standardised the Croatian Latin script, on the basis of vernacular speech phonemes, and the principle of phonetic spelling.

At that time, some Neo-Štokavian Ekavian speakers considered Ijekavian as Croatian as opposed to the Serbian Ekavian. (Vuk Stefanović-Karadžić: Mala srpska pesmarica, Vienna 1816.) However, some two million of SW Serbs speak Ijekavian, while some northern Croats (influenced by Kajkavian) speak Ekavian.

In 1850 Serbian and Croatian writers and linguists signed the Vienna Agreement, declaring their intention to create a common language. Thus, appeared a complex bi-variant language, 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, but not a unitary language.

With unification of the first Kingdom of Yugoslavia—the Kingdom of the Serbs, the Croats, and the Slovenes—the approach of Karadžić and the Illyrians became official. Because of the unitarian politics of King Aleksandar I Karađorđević, as of 1929, "Yugoslavian" was the official language of Yugoslavia, 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 pronounciations, Ijekavian and Ekavian.

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 SFR Yugoslavia, and some 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 or Croatian or Bosnian. Officially, the Croats called it Croatian by the mid 1970s, while the Serbs called it Serbo-Croat until 1997, when the Matica srpska made the Serbian Language Dictionary, and from then on Serbs call it Serbian.

Present situation

Contemporary names

Before (1920s) and after (1980s) the formal existence of similar ethnic/national/standard languages, people did and do not call the language Serbo-Croatian. They called and call it using their ethnic/national names:

  • Most Bosniaks call their language Bosnian
  • Most Croats call their language Croatian.
  • Most Serbs call their language Serbian.
  • Some Montenegrins call their language Montenegrin

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 referenced as the combination of original signs, UDC 861/862, abbreviation sh. Furthermore, the ISO 639 standard specifies Bosnian language with 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 a regard to consistent following of grammatical prescriptions — be they Serbian, Croatian, or Bosnian.

For utilitarian purposes of communication, Serbo-Croatian language till nowadays was often called "Nash yezik" ("Our language") by native speakers. This politically correct term is frequently used to describe Serbo-Croatian language when one doesn't want to enter into the argument about the nationalities.

Views of the linguists

Opinions of linguists in former Yugoslavia diverge.

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: Croats not only appropriated Serbian literary language, but have, immediately after the death of Vuk Karadžić, in the act unprecedented in the linguistic history, added to the Serbian appellation the Croatian name. ("Slovo o srpskom jeziku"/"Decree on the Serbian language")

Croatian linguists

  • The majority of Croatian linguists think that there was never anything like an unified Serbo-Croatian language, but two different standard languages that overlapped sometime in the course of history (somewhat as Scandinavian languages). Also, they claim that the language has never dissolved, since there was formerly no Serbo-Croatian standard language. A minority of Croatian linguists deny that the Croatian standard language is based on the neo-Shtokavian 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 mutually intelligible, sharing much vocabulary
  • Typologically and structurally, these languages have virtually the 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, these arguments all have flaws:

  • As far as structural similarity or even the identity of basic grammar is concerned, one might add that, apart from the aforementioned Urdu and Hindi cases, 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.
  • 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 an 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.

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, that in 1864. published opinion of Jagic has no ground. 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.[1] 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."[2]

On the third hand, the former medieval texts from Dubrovnik and Montenegro dating before 16th century were not true Shtokavian nor Serbian, but mostly specific Yekavic-Chakavian that was nearer to actual Adriatic islanders in Croatia (S. Zekovic & B. Cimeša: Elementa montenegrina, Chrestomatia 1/90. CIP, Zagreb 1991).

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 agenda.

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, Serbian language is the official one, while Croatian is also 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—[3] 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[4]. 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); Kaykavian (kajkavski), kaj or kej (kay, key). However, the Serbo-Croatian standard language as well as contemporary standard languages are based on Shtokavian, and the diverging Chakavian and Kaykavian 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 (Kaykavian, Chakavian and Shtokavian) as distinct tongues i.e. minor languages. 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 Iyekavian or Jekavian (ijekavski or jekavski), 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 Iyekavian dialects it morphed into re or, occasionally, ri. Also, prefix prě ("trans-, over-") when yat is long passed to pre- in eastern Iyekavian 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 -ět' in their infinitive, the past participle ending -ěl evolved into -io in Iyekavian.

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 trěbat' trebati tribat(i) trebati r + short ěre
heat grějat' grejati grijati grijati r + short ěri
saw viděl video vidio vidio ělio


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; rečima, rečima, rečima.
  • 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 (as in other Slavic languages) 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. 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 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:

  • various modifications of the Latin and Greek alphabets.
  • Angled, Round, and Triangled Glagolitic alphabet, chiefly in Croatia.
  • Cyrillic alphabet, and its transition to Glagolitic (mostly called Bosanchica).
  • Arabic alphabet (mostly in Bosnia).

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 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 uniquely Croatian digraphs "lj," "nj" and "dž."

In both cases, spelling is nearly 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.



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 bad
i и /i/ close front unrounded seek
e е /ɛ/ open-mid front unrounded ten
o о /ɔ/ open-mid back rounded caught (British)
u у /u/ closed back 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 Description English approximation
r р /r/ alveolar trill rolled (vibrating) r as in carramba
v в /ʋ/ labiodental approximant vase
j ј /j/ palatal approximant yes
l л /l/ lateral alveolar approximant lock
lj љ /ʎ/ palatal lateral approximant volume
m м /m/ bilabial nasal man
n н /n/ alveolar nasal not
nj њ /ɲ/ palatal nasal canyon
f ф /f/ voiceless labiodental fricative phase
s с /s/ voiceless alveolar fricative some
z з /z/ voiced alveolar fricative zero
š ш /ʃ/ voiceless postalveolar fricative sheer
ž ж /ʒ/ voiced postalveolar fricative vision
h х /x/ voiceless velar fricative loch
c ц /ʦ/ voiceless alveolar affricate pots
џ /ʤ/ voiced postalveolar affricate dodge
č ч /ʧ/ voiceless postalveolar affricate chair
đ ђ /ʥ/ voiced alveolo-palatal affricate schedule
ć ћ /ʨ/ voiceless alveolo-palatal affricate nature
b б /b/ voiced bilabial plosive abuse
p п /p/ voiceless bilabial plosive top
d д /d/ voiced alveolar plosive dog
t т /t/ voiceless alveolar plosive talk
g г /g/ voiced velar plosive god
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 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, Norwegian, Welsh, the Limbourg dialect of Dutch, 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 English approximation
Short falling ȉ Double Grave sit
Short rising ì Grave sitting
Long falling ȋ Inverted breve[5] 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 (except Chakavian and Kaykavian)

In practice, these rules are not strictly obeyed; for example, most Croatian and Montenegrin speakers will pronounce paradajz and asistent instead of standard Shtokavian 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, Shtokavian standard stress leans towards the first syllable (in Kaykavian and Chakavian often toward the last one). Furthermore, in declension and conjugation, stress shifts are frequent, both in type and position.

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


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 (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 (chiefly Croats) 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.


  1. MLadenovic. Kratka istorija srpskog književnog jezika. Beograd 2004, 67
  2. Mladenovic. Kratka istorija srpskog književnog jezika. Beograd 2004, 67
  3. Official communique, 27 December 2004 Serbian Ministry of Education official site (Serbian) - Retrieved November 13, 2007.
  4. Opštinski službeni glasnik opštine Novi Pazar - Retrieved November 13, 2007.
  5. This symbol is sometimes replaced with a circumflex, for example, î.


  • Banac, Ivo: Main Trends in the Croatian Language Question, Yale University Press, 1984
  • 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

  • Shtokavian dialect
  • Swadesh lists for Slavic languages
  • A language is a dialect with an army and navy
  • Serbo-Croatian Wikipedia

External links

All links retrieved November 13, 2007.


New World Encyclopedia writers and editors rewrote and completed the Wikipedia article in accordance with New World Encyclopedia standards. This article abides by terms of the Creative Commons CC-by-sa 3.0 License (CC-by-sa), which may be used and disseminated with proper attribution. Credit is due under the terms of this license that can reference both the New World Encyclopedia contributors and the selfless volunteer contributors of the Wikimedia Foundation. To cite this article click here for a list of acceptable citing formats.The history of earlier contributions by wikipedians is accessible to researchers here:

Note: Some restrictions may apply to use of individual images which are separately licensed.