Number of Speakers: approximately 2 million

Key Dialects: See below

Geographical Center: Bosnia and Hercegovina


The central South Slavic continuum known as Serbo-Croatian was the most widely spoken language in the former Yugoslavia, at its peak counting as many as 20 million speakers. Culturally, Yugoslavia’s three regions, including the eastern Serbia and Montenegro (modern day Yugoslavia), the central Bosnia and Hercegovina, and the western Croatia were separated both religiously and linguistically from each other. As a result, the Serbian, Bosnian, and Croatian official languages as they exist today are based on distinct dialects and are written with two different alphabets, although because of their close similarity, some still consider the languages as a unit called ‘Serbo-Croatian’. Because of their shared development, portions of this abstract must refer to Serbian and Croatian in addition to Bosnian.

Today Bosnian is spoken by approximately 2 million speakers. Bosnia and Hercegovina has three national languages, Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian. Bosnian is the language of the Bosniaks, or the Bosnian Muslims. Many argue that Bosnian should be called Bosniak or Bosniac, to avoid the impression that Bosnian is the sole official language of Bosnia and Hercegovina.

Bosnian is a member of the Slavic branch of Indo-European languages. Other Slavic languages include Russian, Polish and Ukrainian. Bosnian is a part of the South Slavic sub-group of Slavic. Bulgarian, Macedonian, and Slovene are also South Slavic languages.

There are three major dialects of the central South Slavic continuum: Čakavian, Kajkavian, Štokavian, named for the different ways of saying “what” in these dialects – ‘ča’, ‘kaj’, and ‘što’, respectively. Štokavian has three variants: Ekavian, Ikavian, and Ijekavian (based on what vowel was yielded by an old vowel known as jat’ : e, i, and (i)je, respectively.) The most widely spoken of these dialects are Ijekavian, which forms the basis for Bosnian and Croatian, and Ekavian, which forms the basis for Serbian.

The original alphabet used by both the Croats and Serbs was Glagolitic, created by the monks Cyril and Methodius in the 9th century for the written language, Old Church Slavonic. In the 14th century the Latin alphabet began to be used in documents on the Dalmatian coast and from then on the use of the Latin alphabet spread, eventually displacing Glagolitic among Croats. The Latin alphabet (along with the Cyrillic alphabet used by Serbs) was reformed by linguists in the 19th century to create a one-to-one correspondence between the language’s sounds and letters as well as a one-to-one correspondence between the symbols in the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets. Bosniaks and Croats in Bosnia and Hercegovina more commonly use the Latin alphabet, while Cyrillic is more often used by Bosnian Serbs.

Bosnian has a smaller inventory of sounds than other Slavic languages. There are twenty-five consonants and five vowels. Vowels can be long or short. Bosnian has pitch accent, meaning that the vowel of the syllable which could be considered the stressed syllable in each word is accented with either a rising pitch or falling pitch. The location of the pitch accent and the type of accent varies from region to region, and in some regions the system is fading out altogether. There are seven nominal cases in Bosnian: nominative, accusative, genitive, locative, dative, vocative, and instrumental. However, today few nouns have vocative forms and the locative and dative forms are virtually identical. Three grammatical genders (masculine, feminine, and neuter) and two numbers (singular and plural) are also distinguished. Case, grammatical gender and number are represented by inflectional morphemes. Adjectives agree with their noun in grammatical gender, number and case. Main verbs and participles agree with the subject only in person, number and gender.

As with other Slavic languages, Bosnian verbs have perfective and imperfective aspect. Word order in the sentence can vary, but is usually SVO (subject-verb-object). There are six types of particles called ‘enclitics’ that must appear in a strict order in the sentence governed by a set of syntactic rules. Although Bosnian, Serbian, and Croatian are similar in phonology, morphology and syntax, the differences between Bosnian on the one hand and Croatian and Serbian on the other are perhaps most apparent lexically. Traditionally, Croatian has tried to preserve more native Slavic words, while Serbian has borrowed more from western European languages. Bosnian, however, has a large and increasing number of loans from Arabic, Turkish, and Persian. Otherwise, Bosnian is perhaps more similar to Croatian. Like standard Croatian, it is an Ijekavian variant of Štokavian. Besides the Arabic, Turkish, and Persian loan words, lexcially Bosnian is split between eastern and western lexical items. The Croatian term for carrot, mrkva, is preferred over the Serbian term šagarepa, but Serbian ko ‘who’ rather than Croatian tko. Croatian kino and Serbian bioskop are found equally frequently.

It is difficult to pinpoint objectively where a dialect ceases to be a dialect and becomes a language. The choice of the term ‘language’ or ‘dialect’, thus, can be a very subjective one, but has played a crucial role in questions of national identity, nowhere more so than in the Balkans. Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian are closely related linguistically, a fact that leads many to consider them one language (Serbo-Croatian) but they have also been identified in various historical contexts as separate languages. During most of the long struggle for Bosnian independence the Bosniaks’ identifying cultural feature was religion, not language, and so little effort or interest was put into standardizing a separate Bosnian language. Bosnian writers and grammarians only began to standardize Bosnian at the beginning of the twentieth century, and to this day there is some disagreement over which features make up the official Bosnian language.

South Slavs (including tribes of Croats and Serbs) arrived in the Balkans in the 6th and 7th centuries. Bosnia was first split between the Serbian and Croatian kingdoms in the ninth century. From the eleventh to the twelfth centuries it was ruled by the kingdom of Hungary. It gained its independence first in 1200, and remained independent until 1463, when the Ottoman Turks took control. It was during this period when many Bosnians adopted Islam. In 1878 Bosnia again changed hands and was ruled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire as a colony. After World War I the first incarnation of Yugoslavia was formed. During World War II, however, the Croatian fascist government took control of Bosnia, a situation that lasted until the end of the war, when Yugoslavia was reformed under the Communist dictator Tito. Bosnia declared official independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, which started a bloody five-year battle between Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia and Hercegovina.

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