Background Information (Croatian)

Number of Speakers: ~6 million

Key Dialects: Čakavian, Kajkavian, Štokavian

Geographical Center: Croatia


The language 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 eastern region – consisting of present-day Serbia, Montenegro and parts of Bosnia and Hercegovina – was separated both religiously and linguistically from its western region — consisting of present-day Croatia and parts of Bosnia and Hercegovina. As a result, the Serbian and Croatian official languages as they exist today are based on distinct dialects and are written with 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 as well as Croatian.

Today, Croatian is spoken by a total of approximately 6 million speakers. Croatian’s geographical center is Croatia where there are almost 5 million speakers. In addition there are large numbers of Croatian speakers, between 100,000-200,000, in the U.S.A. and Canada. Smaller communities of Croatian speakers, numbering in the low tens of thousands, are found in Austria, Hungary, Germany, Australia and Chile.

Linguistic Affiliation

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

Language Variation

There are three major dialects of Croatian and Serbian, Cakavian, Kajkavian, Štokavian, named for the different ways of saying “what” in these dialects – ‘ca’, ‘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 Croatian, and Ekavian, which forms the basis for Serbian.

Cakavian and Kajkavian now have relatively limited distribution. Cakavian is spoken along the Dalmatian coast, in the Adriatic Islands, and in part of northern Croatia. Kajkavian is spoken in and around Zagreb. Ekavian is spoken in most of Serbia, and Ijekavian is spoken in parts of Croatia as well as the western part of Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Hercegovina. The main center of Ijekavian is Zagreb, although Zagreb is historically located in the Kajkavian-speaking area.


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. This reformed Latin alphabet is still used today. It uses diacritics to mark certain consonantal distinctions.

Linguistic Sketch

Croatian has a smaller inventory of sounds than other Slavic languages. There are 25 consonants and five vowels. Vowels can be long or short. Serbo-Croatian 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. There are seven nominal cases in Croatian: 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, Croatian 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 Serbian and Croatian are similar in phonology, morphology and syntax, the differences between Croatian and Serbian are perhaps most apparent lexically. Traditionally, Croatian has tried to preserve more native Slavic words, while Serbian has borrowed more from western European languages. For example, Croatian and Serbian use different words for the months of the year: English ‘October’ is translated in Croatian as ‘listopad’ (where list means ‘leaf’, and pad- means ‘to fall’) and Serbian as ‘oktobar’.

Role in Society

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. Croatian, Serbian and Bosnian 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. In fact, one can effectively trace the political history of Croatia through the twists and turns of its language policy.

Although Croatia and Serbia had long existed under very different spheres of influence — Serbia under Ottoman rule and Croatia under Austro-Hungarian rule — the identification of Serbian and Croatian as one unified language took place in the 19th century, in large part in order to secure the basis for an independent South Slavic state. Prior to this, Croatian had existed without a single, recognized standard, as a collection of different dialects — Štokavian in Dubrovnik, Kajkavian near Zagreb and Cakavian throughout Dalmatia, as well as Ikavian along the Dalmatian coast and Ijekavian throughout the rest of Croatia. In the beginning of the 19th century, the Serbian linguistic scholar, Vuk Karadžic, and the Croatian scholar, Ljudevit Gaj, reformed the orthographies of their respective languages, helping them to better correspond to their pronunciation and bringing them closer to one another. In 1850, Serbian and Croatian scholars signed the ‘Vienna Accord,’ which stated that Serbian and Croatian were one language, based on the Eastern-Hercegovinian dialect (Štokavian) with Ijekavian pronunciation, these being the linguistic features on which the various dialects of Serbian and Croatian best overlapped. During the Yugoslav period, the unity of Serbian and Croatian was largely affirmed in the 1954 ‘Novi Sad Agreement’ with the revision that what they termed “Serbo-Croatian” is one language with two pronunciations (Ekavian and Ijekavian).

Pressure soon after began to build in Yugoslavia to return to nationally based politics and to identify Serbian and Croatian as separate languages. In 1967, Croatian scholars and writers issued the ‘Declaration Concerning the Name and Status of the Literary Language,’ which called for greater public use of Croatian and, later, the 1974 Yugoslav constitutions would allow each republic to identify their own official language. With the break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, advocacy for a return to national languages played a central role in bolstering the self-identification of the various emerging states. Today, Croatian is the official language of the state of Croatia. Its standard, based on the Štokavian dialect and Ijekavian pronunciation, is used in schools and the media.


South Slavs (including tribes of Croats and Serbs) arrived in the Balkans in the 6th and 7th centuries. In 803, the Croats accepted the suzerainty of Charlemagne and became Christian through the Roman Church. Following its Christianization, the Croatian Kingdom, formed in 910 under King Tomislav, deferred to Rome in religious matters and, after the Church schism of 1054 and its union with the Hungarian crown in 1102, became Catholic. The oldest evidence of written language in Croatia comes from this early period and is found in Glagolitic texts dating from the 11th century. These include the Baška tablet, Glagolitica Clozianus and Vienna Folia. The first Glagolitic book was a missal published in 1483.

The area now known as Croatia has experienced various foreign occupations in its history, each of which affected linguistic profile of the area. The Turks invaded the Balkans in the 14th century, extending their rule as far as present-day Eastern Croatia and in the 16th century, most of Croatia came under Habsburg rule. Additionally, parts of the Dalmatian coast remained under the rule of Venice until the 18th century, leaving only the city-state of Dubrovnik independent. At the Turks’ expulsion from the Balkans in 1878, Croatia was still a part of the Austria-Hungary. The development of the dialects of Croatian was uneven during this period of occupations. In the 17th century, the Štokavian-based vernacular literature of Dubrovnik’s thrived, and the use of this literary vernacular spread to Bosnia and Slavonia by the 18th century. At the same time, there was a burgeoning Kajkavian literary language in northern Croatia. As a result of this linguistic fragmentation, at the opening of the 19th century, Croatian had three strong dialects (Cakavian, Kajkavian, and Štokavian) but the pressure it faced as part of Austria-Hungary to adopt German and Hungarian prompted Croats to develop a single literary language. In the 1830s, Ljudevit Gaj, head of the pro-South Slav Illyrian Movement, advocated adopting Štokavian as the literary standard. In addition to forming the basis for Dubrovnik’s literature, Štokavian was the dialect most widely known to Croats, Bosnians and Serbs.

A unified state for the South Slavs — the ‘Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes’ — came into being following World War I. After World War II, in 1945, the kingdom was reestablished as the Communist federal republic of Yugoslavia, consisting of the republics of Croatia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Slovenia.

In the 1990s, with considerable fighting, the republic of Yugoslavia broke up and four of its six republics petitioned for international recognition as independent states. After declaring its independence in 1991, Croatia was recognized by the United Nations as an independent state in 1992.


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