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Alternative Names: Serbo-Croatian, Serbo-Croatian-Bosnian, Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian.

Classification: Indo-European, Balto-Slavic, Slavic, South Slavic. Serbo-Croat is closely related to Slovenian. Other, more distant, South Slavic languages are Bulgarian and Macedonian.

Overview. Serbo-Croat is the language of four independent states of the Balkans, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia Herzegovina and Croatia, which were united into the state of Yugoslavia in 1918 (along with Slovenia and Macedonia) until it broke down into the 1990's after an armed conflict.

    The Slavs arrived into the area around 700 CE and in the next few centuries emerged linguistic, religious and political divisions. Those settled in the eastern regions spoke dialects that would later develop into Bulgarian and Macedonian while those inhabiting the western ones spoke dialects that were the basis for Serbo-Croat and Slovene. Christianity spread among these South Slavs in the 9th century, and after the schism in 1o54 into Eastern and Western churches, the Croatian and Slovenes adopted Catholicism while Serbians, Montenegrins and Macedonians adopted Orthodoxy. In the 15th century the Turks occupied Bosnia and Herzegovina, where a large proportion of the population converted to Islam. These divisions are also reflected in the variety of scripts used to write what is, essentially, one language. Croats employ the Latin alphabet and Serbs have traditionally used Cyrillic (which is official in Serbia) though nowadays many Serbs prefer the Latin script. Montenegrins and Bosnians use both alphabets, and during the Ottoman era the latter employed the Arabic alphabet as well.

    Serbo-Croat is quite conservative, having retained most of the grammatical forms of the proto-language, including a complex declension system for nouns, adjectives and pronouns with up to seven cases. Besides, in contrast to several Slavic languages, its verbal system has retained until recently a number of tenses that no longer exist in, for example, Russian where the main tense distinction is between past and non-past.

Distribution. Serbo-Croat is the native language of Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia Herzegovina, and Croatia. It historically served as an important secondary language in Slovenia and Macedonia.

Speakers. They number about 16 million in the following countries:




Bosnia Herzegovina


















Status: Serbo-Croat is the official language of Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia Herzegovina, and Croatia although receiving a different name in each country. In Serbia and Montenegro is called Serbian, in Croatia Croatian, in Bosnia Herzegovina is called Bosnian by Muslims and Serbian or Croatian by the other national groups.

Varieties. The modern literary language is based on the Central dialect, also known as Shtokavian because of its interrogative pronoun što ('what?'). Two other main dialects are also named according to their interrogative pronoun: Chakavian ('what?' = ča) belongs to the Dalmatian islands and Istria while the Kajkavian dialect ('what?' = kaj) is spoken in northern Croatia, around Zagreb.

    After the disintegration of Yugoslavia in 1991, three very similar standard languages emerged, Croatian, Serbian and Bosnian, which differ in minor points of vocabulary, pronunciation and grammar. In fact, the main difference is between western and eastern varieties: ijekavian is spoken in Croatia and Bosnia, ekavian in Serbia.

Oldest Documents. The earliest records in Serbo-Croat are stone inscriptions dating back to the 11th century written with the Glagolitic and Cyrillic scripts.


Vowels (11):  Serbo-Croat has short and long vowels. Long vowels occur in stressed position or after the stress. When r is placed before a consonant it behaves as a syllabic liquid vowel [rə], though it is not marked in the script.


Consonants (25). Serbo-Croat lacks palatalized consonants in contrast to many Slavic languages.


Accent: it involves pitch (rising/falling) and vowel length (short/long) rather than stress. There are four classes: short falling (), long falling (â), short rising (à) and long rising (á). Falling tones occur on the initial syllable of a word (including monosyllables) while rising accents occur on any syllable but the last. Excepting some recent loanwords, stress is never on the final syllable of a word.

Script and Orthography

    South Slavic languages were originally written in Glagolitic. In Serbia it was replaced from the 12th century by the Cyrillic alphabet. In the west, the Latin alphabet was introduced in the fourteenth century due to Catholic influence though Glagolitic remained in use in certain places for a long time. From the 16th century until the Second World War, some Muslims in Bosnia used the Arabic script.

   In summary, nowadays, Croats and Bosnians use the Latin alphabet while the official Serbian script is Cyrillic. Both are shown below with their equivalents in the International Phonetic Alphabet, including as well the usual transliteration of Serbian.

Note: vowel length is marked by accents (see above the section on accent), and in post-accentual syllables by a macron e.g. ā for [a:], ē for [e], etc.


  1. Nominal. Nouns and adjectives are inflected for gender, number and seven cases.

  1. gender: masculine, feminine, neuter.

  1. number: singular, plural.

  1. case: nominative, vocative, accusative, genitive, dative, instrumental, locative.

  2. With a very few exceptions, all Serbo-Croat nouns are declinable. This contrasts with Russian, where nouns whose stem ends in a vowel (a considerable number) are normally indeclinable.

  1. There are four declension types based mainly, but not absolutely, on gender: feminine a-stem (including a few masculine nouns), masculine o-stem, neuter o-stem, feminine i-stem. For example, the declension of žèna ('woman'), grâd ('city'), sèlo ('village') and kôst ('bone') is as follows:


  1. adjectives: Serbo-Croat adjectives have short and long forms. The citation form of an adjective is the nominative singular masculine short form (long form if short is lacking). Short forms are used in predicate position, and with indefinite nouns (only in the written language); long forms when the adjective is attributive. For example, the long declension of nȍv ('new') is:


  1. pronouns: personal, reflexive, possessive, demonstrative, interrogative, indefinite, negative, relative.

  1. Personal pronouns distinguish three genders in the third person. Besides, there is a reflexive pronoun.


  1. When more than one form is listed, the monosyllabic ones are enclitics (the most frequently used) and the other (disyllabic) forms are emphatic.

  1. There are three demonstrative pronouns. One is used indistinctly for ‘this’ or ‘that’: tâj (masc. sg), (masc. pl.); (neuter sg.), (neuter pl.); (femin. sg.), (femin. pl.), though by prefixing it with tam-, it serves to indicate a more distant referent (‘that’). Òvāj is specific for ‘this’, and onāj for ‘that’; they decline like tâj. They are all fully declined (but don't have vocative forms). Possessive pronouns are declined like adjectives.

  1. Interrogative pronouns are (t)kȍ (‘who?’) and štȍ (‘what?’). Both are fully declined.

  1. Indefinite pronouns are formed from interrogatives by adding prefixes or suffixes: nȅ(t)ko (‘someone’), nȅšto (‘something’), nȅkakav (‘of some sort’), svȁ(t)ko (‘every’), etc.

  1. The usual relative pronoun is kòjī (‘which’); it agrees with the head of the antecedent phrase (a noun or personal pronoun) in gender and number and, besides, is inflected for case according to its role in the subordinate clause. If the antecedent is a demonstrative, interrogative or indefinite pronoun in the singular, (t)kȍ (‘who’) or štȍ (‘what’) are used, instead. Alternatively, the invariable što (that’) may serve as a relativizer, the agreement with the antecedent in gender and number being indicated by a personal pronoun.

  1. Verbal

  2. person and number: 1s, 2s, 3s; 1p, 2p, 3p.

  1. aspect: perfective, imperfective.

  2. The aspectual distinction between an incomplete (imperfective) and a completed action (perfective) is a fundamental feature of the Slavic verb. Most unprefixed verbs are imperfective, and perfective verbs derive from them by prefixation. Frequently, the change from imperfective to perfective is accompanied by a change in meaning. Perfective verbs can be imperfectivized by adding suffixes or by a vowel change. There are also biaspectual verbs, including some common ones (‘to see, to hear, to go, to understand’, etc).

  1. tense: Serbo-Croat has simple and compound tenses. The simple tenses are: present, aorist, and imperfect. The compound tenses are: perfect, pluperfect, future and exact future.

  1. The perfect is the all-purpose past tense. The imperfect and aorist are optional past tenses found in some dialects (the first one has almost disappeared) and in the literary language. The imperfect indicates an action in process in the past while the aorist is a narrative tense used to express a completed single action. The imperfect is formed almost exclusively from imperfective verbs and the aorist from perfective ones. The exact future is used only in subordinate clauses.

  1. There are three main conjugation types defined by the vowel occurring in the 3rd singular of the present tense: ā in conjugation I, , ī in conjugation II, and ē in conjugation III. An important irregular verb is bȉti (‘to be’) which has full and enclitic forms (shown between brackets).




  1. The perfect is formed with the present of bȉti ('to be') + l-participle.

  1. The very rare pluperfect is formed with the perfect (or less frequently imperfect) of 'to be' + l-participle.

  1. The future is formed with either the short or long forms of the auxiliary htjȅti ('to want') + infinitive. In the east the infinitive is frequently replaced by da + the present of the verb.

  1. The exact future is formed with bȕdēm (an alternative form of the verb 'to be') + l-participle.

  1. mood: indicative, imperative, conditional. The imperative has 2nd person singular (identical in most verbs to the present stem), 1st person plural (-mo) and 2nd plural (-te). The conditional is made with the auxiliary bih ('would') + l-participle. It is used in hypothetical or in purpose clauses.

  1. voice: active, passive. The passive consists of a passive participle and the past, present or future of 'to be' as auxiliary. A sort of passive without an agent can be formed with the clitic se.

  1. non-finite forms: infinitive, present gerund, past gerund, past passive participle, verbal noun, l-participle.

  1. The infinitive is formed with the infinitive stem plus the ending -ti or, less frequently, -ći.

  1. The present gerund is formed from imperfective verbs and indicates that an action is contemporaneous with that of the main verb. The past gerund (extremely rare nowadays)is generally formed from perfective verbs and indicates that an action precedes that of the main verb.

  1. The past passive participle ends in -n, -en, -t and usually derives from perfective verbs.

  1. The l-participle is used in compound tenses (perfect, pluperfect, future II, conditionals), and distinguishes gender and number.


Due to the richness of the case system, word order is essentially free with the exception of enclitics. Serbo-Croat is remarkable for its many enclitics, which include pronouns, verbal auxiliaries and interrogative and reflexive particles. They are placed after the first stressed constituent of the sentence (a single word or a noun phrase) and must follow a strict order among them:

  1. I. interrogative particle li.

  2. II. auxiliary verbs with the exception of je (the 3rd person singular of 'to be').

  3. III. dative pronouns.

  4. IV. accusative/genitive pronouns.

  5. V. reflexive pronoun.

  6. VI. je (the 3rd person singular of 'to be').

In Serbo-Croat, a construction with the conjunction da and a verb in the present tense tends to replace the infinitive, mostly in case of purposive meaning.

Modifiers agree in gender, number and case with their head nouns.


Greek loans entered Serbian from Byzantium by means of Church Slavonic. Later, Serbo-Croat borrowed from Romance languages, Hungarian, Turkish and German. In the 19th and 20th centuries, many Latin-derived words were incorporated (a number of them from Greek origin). More recently, English has become the number one source of foreign words.

Basic Vocabulary

one: jedan

two: dva

three: tri

four: četiri

five: pet


seven: sedam

eight: osam

nine: devet

ten: deset

hundred: sto

father: otac

mother: majka, mati

brother: brat

sister: sestra

son: sin

daughter: kćerka, kći

head: glava

face: lice

eye: oko

hand: ruka

foot: noga

heart: srce

tongue: jezik

Key Literary Works (forthcoming)

  1. © 2013 Alejandro Gutman and Beatriz Avanzati                                                                               

Further Reading

  1. -'Serbo-Croat'. W. Browne. In The Slavonic Languages, 306-387. B. Comrie & G. G. Corbett, (eds). Routledge (1993).

  2. -'Serbo-Croat'. G. Corbett & W. Browne. In The World's Major Languages, 330-346. B. Comrie (ed). Routledge (2009).

  3. -Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian: A Grammar. R. Alexander. University of Wisconsin Press (2006).

  4. -Geschichte der serbokroatischen Sprache. I. Popović, I. Otto Harrassowitz (1960).

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