Background Information (Serbian)

Number of Speakers: ~11 million

Key Dialects: Štokavian, Torlak, Montenegran

Geographical Center: Serbia, Montenegro


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 profile must refer to Croatian, as well as Serbian.

Today Serbian is spoken by a total of over 11 million speakers. Serbian’s geographical center is the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia where there more than 10 million speakers. In addition there are large numbers of Serbian speakers in the U.S.A. and Canada. Smaller communities of Serbian speakers, numbering in the low tens of thousands, are found in Hungary, Romania, Albania and Russia.

Linguistic Affiliation

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

Language Variation

One major dialectal division which covers the entire Serbian and Croatian territory is based on which modern day vowel is pronounced in place of the old vowel jat’. There are three variants, but on the Serbian territory only two are found; these dialects are known as Ekavian and Ijekavian (the third variant, Ikavian, is found only in Croatia). The most widely spoken of these dialects is Ekavian, which forms the basis for standard Serbian.

Ekavian is spoken in most of Serbia, with its cultural center in Belgrade, and Ijekavian is spoken in western Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Hercegovina as well as parts of Croatia.

Another dialect group found is the Torlak group in the eastern part of Serbia, which is distinguished by a gradual loss of case endings as one moves eastward toward Macedonia and Bulgaria.


The original alphabet used by both the Serbs and Croats was Glagolitic, created by the monks Cyril and Methodius in the 9th century for the written language, Old Church Slavonic. In the Orthodox areas of Serbia and Bosnia, Glagolitic was replaced by the Cyrillic alphabet in the 12th century. The Cyrillic alphabet (along with the Latin alphabet, which was adopted in Catholic areas) 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 Cyrillic alphabet is still used today.

Linguistic Sketch

Serbian has a smaller inventory of sounds than other Slavic languages. There are 25 consonants and five vowels. Vowels can be long or short. Some Serbian dialects have remnants of a pitch accent system, meaning that the vowel of the syllable which could be considered the stressed syllable in a word is accented with either a rising pitch or falling pitch. There are seven nominal cases in Serbian: 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 a single marker fused to the noun. Adjectives agree with their noun in grammatical gender, number and case. Main verbs and participles agree with the subject in person, gender and number.

As with other Slavic languages, Serbian has perfective and imperfective verbal 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. Serbian also maintains, mainly in the written language, an aorist and an imperfect verb tense. Although Serbian and Croatian are similar in phonology, morphology and syntax, the differences between Serbian and Croatian are perhaps most apparent lexically. Traditionally, Serbian has borrowed more from western European languages while Croatian has tried to preserve more native Slavic words. For example, Serbian and Croatian use different words for the months of the year: English ‘October’ is translated in Serbian as ‘oktobar’ and in Croatian as ‘listopad’ (where list means ‘leaf’, and pad- means ‘to fall’).

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. Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian are all 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 Serbia through the twists and turns of its language policy.

Although Serbia and Croatia 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, the Serbian literary language had been based on Church language. In the beginning of the 19th century, when linguistic reforms began, the written language was a hybrid of Russian and Serbian Church Slavonic and local dialect features. The Serbian linguistic scholar, Vuk Karadžić, advocated a literary language based on the spoken language, namely, that of his native Štokavian dialect. Karadžić and Croatian scholar, Ljudevit Gaj, reformed the orthographies of their respective languages, helping them to better correspond to this 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 proviso that the language they termed “Serbo-Croatian” is one language with two pronunciations (Ekavian and Ijekavian).

Pressure soon after began to build during this time 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 Serbian is the official language of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Its standard, based on the Štokavian dialect and Ekavian 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. By the 10th century, Serbian clans converted to Christianity and following the Church schism of 1054, became Orthodox. A chieftain named Nemanja founded an independent state of Serbia in 1180, incorporating the medieval states of Zeta (parts of present-day Montenegro) and Raška (present-day Kosovo). One of his sons, Stefan, was crowned Serbia’s first prince in 1196. His other son, later canonized as Saint Sava, established an independent Serbian Church, recognized by Constantinople, in 1219. Serbia doubled its size in the 14th century under Tsar Dušan. The earliest evidence of written language in Serbia was produced in this period and is found in the Temnik inscription, a Cyrillic manuscript that dates from the 11th or 12th century. The oldest Cyrillic Church Slavonic manuscripts from the area, which show local dialect features, are the Miroslav Gospel and Vukan Gospel, dating to the 12 and 13th centuries. The first Cyrillic book, an Orthodox hymnal, was published in Montenegro in 1494.

The Ottoman invasion of Serbia began in 1389 with the Serbs’ loss at the Battle of Kosovo, and it lived under Ottoman rule through the 19th century, during which time Montenegro remain largely independent. When publishing ceased under Ottoman rule, the Serbian literary language was kept alive by the Church. The Turks were expelled from the Balkans in 1878, whereupon Montenegro and the Principality of Serbia were granted recognition as independent states. The language that emerged when publishing resumed in the 18th and 19th centuries was Slaveno-Serbian, a mix of dialect and Church Slavonic features. Slaveno-Serbian was replaced by the Štokavian vernacular as the literary standard for Serbian in the first half of the 19th century under the linguistic reforms of Vuk Karadžić.

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. In 1992, the republics of Serbia and Montenegro declared themselves a new Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.


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