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What is Serbo-Croatian?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 23, 2024
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Serbo-Croatian is a language spoken predominantly in Yugoslavia and Macedonia. It is spoken by between 18 and 21 million people worldwide. Outside of Yugoslavia and Macedonia it has significant population bases in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro, and Serbia. It also has pockets of speakers in Albania, Australia, Austria, Bulgaria, Canada, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Romania, Russia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland, and Turkey.

Serbo-Croatian is more accurately an umbrella term for three distinct languages which are tied together by similarities. These three languages are: Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian. The Serbs and the Croats split in the 11th century, when the overarching population converted to Christianity. The Serbs became Eastern Orthodox Christians, and predominantly used the Cyrillic alphabet. The Croats became Roman Catholics, and used the Glagolitic, and later the Latin, alphabet. Later, the Turks would conquer much of Serbia and Bosnia, and spread Islam throughout the region, resulting in the use of the Arabic script.

Serbo-Croatian contains loan words from many different languages, as a result of its history of various allegiances. From Serbian the group contains many words from both Turkish and Greek. From Croatian the group contains many words from German and Latin. Both the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets are used, and the Arabic alphabet is sometimes used for Bosnian.

Serbo-Croatian was standardized as a single language during the era of Yugoslavia, from 1918 to the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. During this period Serbo-Croatian was one of the three official languages, alongside Macedonian and Slovenian. Following the breakup of Yugoslavia, the Serbo-Croatian language broke into its constituent parts, with Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian becoming distinctly recognized languages. Currently in Montenegro there is a push to have Montenegrin recognized as its own language, as well.

The issue of Serbo-Croatian has become highly politicized, and is many ways a political issue, rather than a linguistic one. Language is viewed by many people as a sign of cultural and political independence, and as a result there has been a push since the breakup of Yugoslavia for each distinct social group to have their own dialect recognized as a distinct language, For this reason, the term Serbo-Croatian itself may be seen as offensive by some people, who may consider it an effort to lump the Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians together as a one unified group.

As a possible politically correct way of addressing this problem, some people simply refer to the language they speak as nash yezik, which roughly means “our language.” This avoids using either the umbrella term of Serbo-Croatian, or the specific terms such as Bosnian.

Linguists themselves differ over the classification of the Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, and Montenegrin. Often their opinions align with how they politically view the ethnic identities of the respective Bosnians, Croats, Serbians, and sometimes Montenegrins. Regardless of the political realities, or of whether these are distinct languages or simply dialects, the languages spoken throughout these countries are more or less completely mutually intelligible.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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