Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro. 4 countries of Western Balkans and their language chaos
Speaking about Serbo-Croatian or asking if the same language is in use in Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro is a good way to start a discussion among people from those countries. Opinions on this are different and due to the region’s complicated past, this topic may lead to a real argument. The good news is that no matter if you do Croatian, Serbian, Bosnian or Montenegrinian course, it will help you on your travels through all of the four above mentioned countries! Some words and phrases are good to know whether you decide to go partying in Belgrade, explore Croatian islands, sunbathe on Montenegrin beaches, or try some tasty food in Sarajevo. Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks, and Montenegrins understand each other almost perfectly. However, there are some differences between how they speak in each country. Let’s see what they are!
A brief history of the language
Before starting to explain the differences between languages, maybe it is worth explaining where all the similarities come from. Well, the first thing that you should know about this European region is that countries’ borders were often changing throughout history and they kept changing even in the 21st century. Serbs, Montenegrins, Croats and Bosniaks differ in religion and were historically often part of different cultural circles, but in some parts of their history, they have lived side by side under foreign overlords. In the area of today’s Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro, different south Slavic dialects were spoken. In the 19th century, Croatian and Serbian writers and philologists started the process of standardization of their respective languages. Croatian and Serbian standard languages were both based on the same eastern Herzegovinian dialect (Shtokavian) and therefore very similar to each other, although with some small differences.
In 1945 Yugoslavia was established as a federation of 6 federal republics, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Macedonia (today North Macedonia). Serbo-Croatian was an official language and two versions of languages were accepted, the eastern (Serbian) one and the western (Croatian) one. While the languages spoken in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro were intelligible to Serbo-Croatian, Slovenian and Macedonian were not, therefore Serbo-Croatian was taught in all schools making the population of Slovenia and Macedonia bilingual. In the ’90s, after the breakup of Yugoslavia, Slovenia and Macedonia went back to using just their languages as official ones. Western standard of Serbo-Croatian, now known as Croatian, became an official language of Croatia and the eastern standard, or simply, Serbian became the official language of Serbia and Montenegro (who were at the time still the same country). In that period the Bosnian language was standardized as the language of Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims). Since Bosnia and Herzegovina is home to three constituent peoples, Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats, it recognized three official languages: Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian. Standardization of Montenegrin language started later, in 2007, a year after Montenegro split from Serbia.
The most notable difference between these languages is the alphabet. In Croatia, the only used alphabet is Latin and Croatian standard is written just in Latin. The official alphabet in Serbia is Cyrillic and street signs are in Cyrillic, but the Latin alphabet is learned in school and widely used in the media, especially online. Serbian Cyrillic and Serbian Latin have the same number of letters and each letter from one alphabet can be directly mapped to a letter in the other alphabet. Bosnian language is written in the Latin alphabet and since Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian are the official languages of Bosnia and Herzegovina, both alphabets are in use. In Montenegro, the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets enjoy equal status, but the Latin alphabet is more commonly in use. To sum up, in Croatia there is just the Latin alphabet, while in the other three countries both alphabets are used.
Most words used in all countries are the same. Not similar, but exactly the same, even though there are some exceptions. However, you must know that there are three types of “dialects”, ekavica, ijekavica and ikavica. It’s best to start with an example. In ijekavica a word for milk is mlijeko, in ekavica mleko and in ikavica mliko. So, if in ijekavica a word contains the vowel ije or je, in ekavica it passes into e and in ikavica into i. Some other examples are lijepo (beautiful) in ijekavica, lepo in ekavica and lipo in ikavica or ljeto (summer) in ijekavica, leto in ekavica and lito in ikavica. Historically, je, ije, e and i are different outcomes of an old Slavic vowel called jat.
While the Serbian language is based on ekavica, Croatian, Bosnian and Montenegrin are based on ijekavica. So if, for example, a Croatian friend taught you some Croatian words containing ije or je, but now you are in Serbia and you need a Serbian word, try replacing ije with e. This is not the official rule and there are some exceptions, but usually, it goes this way. If you are wrong, don’t worry! Locals in all four countries appreciate foreigners who can say even just one word in their language. And if you make a mistake, everyone will just think it’s cute.
Now we explained where ekavica and ijekavica are spoken, but what is with ikavica? The dialect spoken in the South of Bosnia and Herzegovina (or better say in the Herzegovina part) is based on ikavica. It’s the same for dialects spoken in a big part of Croatian south. Ikavica is not official in any country and it’s not used in the media. However, people are usually very proud of their dialects. It’s possible that they will just keep talking to you in dialect even though you are a foreigner who barely speaks the basics of the standard language, so it’s not a bad idea to keep ikavica in mind as well.
Does this ekavica-ijekavica thing mean that you just learn Serbian and substitute e with ije and you know all the words used in Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina and in Croatia? Almost, but not entirely. There are still some words that are completely different from one country to another.
Here are some examples:
In some other examples, words have the same root, but they are still different.
Differences sometimes regard names for countries, nationalities and languages:
The interesting fact is that in Serbian, Bosnian and Montenegrin the names for month derive from Latin, and are similar to those in English, while in Croatian they come from completely different roots.
New graphemes in Montenegrin
Croatian, Bosnian and Serbian alphabets have 30 graphemes, while Montenegrin language has accepted two new ones ś (in Cyrilic “ć”, pronounced /ʑ/) and ź (in Cyrilic “З́”, pronounced /ɕ/) to replace the combinations of “s+j” or “z+j” from other ijekavian based languages. Therefore, if there is a Croatian or Bosnian word containing “s+j” or “z+j” , in Montenegrin it will have ś or ź.
Similarly, in the Montenegrin language, the combination of “d+j” in Croatian or Bosnian, should be replaced by đ (/dʒ/), and the combination of “t+j” by ć (/tʃ/).
In Croatian, modal verbs htjeti (want) or moći (can) are followed by the infinitive of the main verb. In other countries, the preferred construction is: modal verb h(je)ti or moći + da (that/to) + present tense of the main verbs.
|I want to go to the beach.||Hoću ići na plažu.||Hoću da idem na plažu.|
|I can take a car.||Mogu uzeti auto.||Mogu da uzmem auto|
This rule extends to the future tense. In Croatian, the future tense is always formed with a shorter version of the verb htjeti and the infinitive of the main verb. In the other three countries, the preferred version is: shorter version of the verb ht(j)eti+ da + present tense of the main verb.
|Tomorrow I will buy bread.||Sutra ću kupiti kruh.||Sutra ću da kupim kruh.|
|future||modal verb + infinitive||modal verb + da + present tense||modal verb + da + present tense||modal verb + da + present tense|
No worries about mixing up the languages!
It’s possible to find more things that separate these languages one from another than mentioned above, but differences in alphabets, outcomes of the jat sound (”ije”, “je”, “i”, “e”), use of modal verbs and formation of future tense are the most important ones. If you mixed words from one language with words from the other, you will still be understood. Even when words completely differ from country to country there are often still well known in all four countries, maybe even used in colloquial speech.
So, is this the same language or 4 different ones?
Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks and Montenegrins will sometimes, especially if they live abroad, refer to this language(s) with “naš jezik” with the meaning of “our language” to avoid inconveniences. Therefore, it’s normal if at some point of reading this article you asked yourself the question you were worn about at the beginning: Ok, are we talking about four languages or four dialects of the same language? or How many languages we have here: one, two, three or four? The discussion about this is neverending. Let me just advise you to skip trying to find an answer and rather learn some new words of this language(s), no matter how it is/are they called. Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks and Montenegrins may be sensitive about the language issue, but they are still welcoming and friendly people who enjoy visitors from abroad and appreciate when a foreigner shows an interest in their language and culture. A very positive aspect is that if you learn one of the Balkan languages, you will be understood everywhere. So if you are planning a trip to the Balkans, don’t hesitate and start learning the language now, so that you can find your way around more easily and talk to the locals. It’s easier than you think: with just a few minutes a day you can take Croatian courses at VocApp. We recommend the courses Croatian in 1 day and Croatian day 2 to you and hope you enjoy your trip through one or more of these beautiful countries.