Serbo-Croatian (srpskohrvatski / српскохрватски /ˌsɜːrboʊkroʊˈeɪʃən, -bə-/ ( listen); also called Serbo-Croat /ˌsɜːrboʊˈkroʊæt, -bə-/, Serbo-Croat-Bosnian (SCB), Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian (BCS), or Bosnian-Croatian-Montenegrin-Serbian (BCMS)) is a South Slavic language and the primary language of Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro. It is a pluricentric language with four mutually intelligible standard varieties.
South Slavic dialects historically formed a continuum. The turbulent history of the area, particularly due to expansion of the Ottoman Empire, resulted in a patchwork of dialectal and religious differences. Due to population migrations, Shtokavian became the most widespread dialect in the western Balkans, intruding westwards into the area previously occupied by Chakavian and Kajkavian (which further blend into Slovenian in the northwest). Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs differ in religion and were historically often part of different cultural circles, although a large part of the nations have lived side by side under foreign overlords. During that period, the language was referred to under a variety of names, such as "Slavic", "Illyrian", or according to region, "Bosnian", "Serbian" and "Croatian", the latter often in combination with "Slavonian" or "Dalmatian".
Serbo-Croatian was standardized in the mid-19th-century Vienna Literary Agreement by Croatian and Serbian writers and philologists, decades before a Yugoslav state was established. From the very beginning, there were slightly different literary Serbian and Croatian standards, although both were based on the same Shtokavian subdialect, Eastern Herzegovinian. In the 20th century, Serbo-Croatian served as the official language of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (when it was called "Serbo-Croato-Slovenian"), and later as one of the official languages of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The breakup of Yugoslavia affected language attitudes, so that social conceptions of the language separated on ethnic and political lines. Since the breakup of Yugoslavia, Bosnian has likewise been established as an official standard in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and there is an ongoing movement to codify a separate Montenegrin standard. Serbo-Croatian thus generally goes by the names Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, and sometimes Montenegrin and Bunjevac.
Like other South Slavic languages, Serbo-Croatian has a simple phonology, with the common five-vowel system and twenty-five consonants. Its grammar evolved from Common Slavic, with complex inflection, preserving seven grammatical cases in nouns, pronouns, and adjectives. Verbs exhibit imperfective or perfective aspect, with a moderately complex tense system. Serbo-Croatian is a pro-drop language with flexible word order, subject–verb–object being the default. It can be written in Serbian Cyrillic or Gaj's Latin alphabet, whose thirty letters mutually map one-to-one, and the orthography is highly phonemic in all standards.
|Native to||Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Kosovo[a]|
|Ethnicity||Serb, Croat, Bosniak, Montenegrin, Bunjevac|
|21 million (2011)|
Official language in
Throughout the history of the South Slavs, the vernacular, literary, and written languages (e.g. Chakavian, Kajkavian, Shtokavian) of the various regions and ethnicities developed and diverged independently. Prior to the 19th century, they were collectively called "Illyric", "Slavic", "Slavonian", "Bosnian", "Dalmatian", "Serbian" or "Croatian". As such, the term Serbo-Croatian was first used by Jacob Grimm in 1824, popularized by the Viennese philologist Jernej Kopitar in the following decades, and accepted by Croatian Zagreb grammarians in 1854 and 1859. At that time, Serb and Croat lands were still part of the Ottoman and Austrian Empires. Officially, the language was called variously Serbo-Croat, Croato-Serbian, Serbian and Croatian, Croatian and Serbian, Serbian or Croatian, Croatian or Serbian. Unofficially, Serbs and Croats typically called the language "Serbian" or "Croatian", respectively, without implying a distinction between the two, and again in independent Bosnia and Herzegovina, "Bosnian", "Croatian", and "Serbian" were considered to be three names of a single official language. Croatian linguist Dalibor Brozović advocated the term Serbo-Croatian as late as 1988, claiming that in an analogy with Indo-European, Serbo-Croatian does not only name the two components of the same language, but simply charts the limits of the region in which it is spoken and includes everything between the limits (‘Bosnian’ and ‘Montenegrin’). Today, use of the term "Serbo-Croatian" is controversial due to the prejudice that nation and language must match. It is still used for lack of a succinct alternative, though alternative names have emerged, such as Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian (BCS), which is often seen in political contexts such as the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
Old Church Slavonic was adopted as the language of the liturgy. This language was gradually adapted to non-liturgical purposes and became known as the Croatian version of Old Slavonic. The two variants of the language, liturgical and non-liturgical, continued to be a part of the Glagolitic service as late as the middle of the 19th century. The earliest known Croatian Church Slavonic Glagolitic manuscripts are the Glagolita Clozianus and the Vienna Folia from the 11th century.
An example of Old Croatian used in Baška tablet.
The beginning of written Serbo-Croatian can be traced from the 10th century and on when Serbo-Croatian medieval texts were written in five scripts: Latin, Glagolitic, Early Cyrillic, Bosnian Cyrillic (bosančica/bosanica), and Arebica, the last principally by Bosniak nobility. Serbo-Croatian competed with the more established literary languages of Latin and Old Slavonic in the west and Persian and Arabic in the east.
Old Slavonic developed into the Serbo-Croatian variant of Church Slavonic between the 12th and 16th centuries.
Among the earliest attestations of Serbo-Croatian are the Humac tablet, dating from the 10th or 11th century, written in Bosnian Cyrillic and Glagolitic; the Plomin tablet, dating from the same era, written in Glagolitic; the Valun tablet, dated to the 11th century, written in Glagolitic and Latin; and the Inscription of Župa Dubrovačka, a Glagolitic tablet dated to the 11th century.
The Baška tablet from the late 11th century was written in Glagolitic. It is a large stone tablet found in the small Church of St. Lucy, Jurandvor on the Croatian island of Krk that contains text written mostly in Chakavian in the Croatian angular Glagolitic script. It is also important in the history of the nation as it mentions Zvonimir, the king of Croatia at the time.
The luxurious and ornate representative texts of Serbo-Croatian Church Slavonic belong to the later era, when they coexisted with the Serbo-Croatian vernacular literature. The most notable are the "Missal of Duke Novak" from the Lika region in northwestern Croatia (1368), "Evangel from Reims" (1395, named after the town of its final destination), Hrvoje's Missal from Bosnia and Split in Dalmatia (1404), and the first printed book in Serbo-Croatian, the Glagolitic Missale Romanum Glagolitice (1483).
During the 13th century Serbo-Croatian vernacular texts began to appear, the most important among them being the "Istrian land survey" of 1275 and the "Vinodol Codex" of 1288, both written in the Chakavian dialect.
The Shtokavian dialect literature, based almost exclusively on Chakavian original texts of religious provenance (missals, breviaries, prayer books) appeared almost a century later. The most important purely Shtokavian vernacular text is the Vatican Croatian Prayer Book (c. 1400).
Both the language used in legal texts and that used in Glagolitic literature gradually came under the influence of the vernacular, which considerably affected its phonological, morphological, and lexical systems. From the 14th and the 15th centuries, both secular and religious songs at church festivals were composed in the vernacular.
Writers of early Serbo-Croatian religious poetry (začinjavci) gradually introduced the vernacular into their works. These začinjavci were the forerunners of the rich literary production of the 16th-century literature, which, depending on the area, was Chakavian-, Kajkavian-, or Shtokavian-based. The language of religious poems, translations, miracle and morality plays contributed to the popular character of medieval Serbo-Croatian literature.
In the mid-19th century, Serbian (led by self-taught writer and folklorist Vuk Stefanović Karadžić) and most Croatian writers and linguists (represented by the Illyrian movement and led by Ljudevit Gaj and Đuro Daničić), proposed the use of the most widespread dialect, Shtokavian, as the base for their common standard language. Karadžić standardised the Serbian Cyrillic alphabet, and Gaj and Daničić standardized the Croatian Latin alphabet, on the basis of vernacular speech phonemes and the principle of phonological spelling. In 1850 Serbian and Croatian writers and linguists signed the Vienna Literary Agreement, declaring their intention to create a unified standard. Thus a complex bi-variant language appeared, which the Serbs officially called "Serbo-Croatian" or "Serbian or Croatian" and the Croats "Croato-Serbian", or "Croatian or Serbian". Yet, in practice, the variants of the conceived common literary language served as different literary variants, chiefly differing in lexical inventory and stylistic devices. The common phrase describing this situation was that Serbo-Croatian or "Croatian or Serbian" was a single language. During the Austro-Hungarian occupation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the language of all three nations was called "Bosnian" until the death of administrator von Kállay in 1907, at which point the name was changed to "Serbo-Croatian".
With unification of the first the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes – the approach of Karadžić and the Illyrians became dominant. The official language was called "Serbo-Croato-Slovenian" (srpsko-hrvatsko-slovenački) in the 1921 constitution. In 1929, the constitution was suspended, and the country was renamed the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, while the official language of Serbo-Croato-Slovene was reinstated in the 1931 constitution.
On January 15, 1944, the Anti-Fascist Council of the People's Liberation of Yugoslavia (AVNOJ) declared Croatian, Serbian, Slovene, and Macedonian to be equal in the entire territory of Yugoslavia. In 1945 the decision to recognize Croatian and Serbian as separate languages was reversed in favor of a single Serbo-Croatian or Croato-Serbian language. In the Communist-dominated second Yugoslavia, ethnic issues eased to an extent, but the matter of language remained blurred and unresolved.
In 1954, major Serbian and Croatian writers, linguists and literary critics, backed by Matica srpska and Matica hrvatska signed the Novi Sad Agreement, which in its first conclusion stated: "Serbs, Croats and Montenegrins share a single language with two equal variants that have developed around Zagreb (western) and Belgrade (eastern)". The agreement insisted on the equal status of Cyrillic and Latin scripts, and of Ekavian and Ijekavian pronunciations. It also specified that Serbo-Croatian should be the name of the language in official contexts, while in unofficial use the traditional Serbian and Croatian were to be retained. Matica hrvatska and Matica srpska were to work together on a dictionary, and a committee of Serbian and Croatian linguists was asked to prepare a pravopis. During the sixties both books were published simultaneously in Ijekavian Latin in Zagreb and Ekavian Cyrillic in Novi Sad. Yet Croatian linguists claim that it was an act of unitarianism. The evidence supporting this claim is patchy: Croatian linguist Stjepan Babić complained that the television transmission from Belgrade always used the Latin alphabet— which was true, but was not proof of unequal rights, but of frequency of use and prestige. Babić further complained that the Novi Sad Dictionary (1967) listed side by side words from both the Croatian and Serbian variants wherever they differed, which one can view as proof of careful respect for both variants, and not of unitarism. Moreover, Croatian linguists criticized those parts of the Dictionary for being unitaristic that were written by Croatian linguists. And finally, Croatian linguists ignored the fact that the material for the Pravopisni rječnik came from the Croatian Philological Society. Regardless of these facts, Croatian intellectuals brought the Declaration on the Status and Name of the Croatian Literary Language in 1967. On occasion of the publication’s 45th anniversary, the Croatian weekly journal Forum published the Declaration again in 2012, accompanied by a critical analysis.
West European scientists judge the Yugoslav language policy as an exemplary one: although three-quarters of the population spoke one language, no single language was official on a federal level. Official languages were declared only at the level of constituent republics and provinces, and very generously: Vojvodina had five (among them Slovak and Romanian, spoken by 0.5 per cent of the population), and Kosovo four (Albanian, Turkish, Romany and Serbo-Croatian). Newspapers, radio and television studios used sixteen languages, fourteen were used as languages of tuition in schools, and nine at universities. Only the Yugoslav Army used Serbo-Croatian as the sole language of command, with all other languages represented in the army’s other activities—however, this is not different from other armies of multilingual states, or in other specific institutions, such as international air traffic control where English is used worldwide. All variants of Serbo-Croatian were used in state administration and republican and federal institutions. Both Serbian and Croatian variants were represented in respectively different grammar books, dictionaries, school textbooks and in books known as pravopis (which detail spelling rules). Serbo-Croatian was a kind of soft standardisation. However, legal equality could not dampen the prestige Serbo-Croatian had: since it was the language of three quarters of the population, it functioned as an unofficial lingua franca. And within Serbo-Croatian, the Serbian variant, with twice as many speakers as the Croatian, enjoyed greater prestige, reinforced by the fact that Slovene and Macedonian speakers preferred it to the Croatian variant because their languages are also Ekavian. This is a common situation in other pluricentric languages, e.g. the variants of German differ according to their prestige, the variants of Portuguese too. Moreover, all languages differ in terms of prestige: "the fact is that languages (in terms of prestige, learnability etc.) are not equal, and the law cannot make them equal".
In 2017, the "Declaration of the Common Language" (Deklaracija o zajedničkom jeziku), signed by a group of NGOs and linguists from former Yugoslavia, argues that all variants belong to a common polycentric language.
The total number of persons who declared their native language as either 'Bosnian', 'Croatian', 'Serbian', 'Montenegrin', or 'Serbo-Croatian' in countries of the region is about 16 million.
Serbian is spoken by about 9.5 million, mostly in Serbia (6.7m), Bosnia and Herzegovina (1.4m), and Montenegro (0.4m). Serbian minorities are found in the Republic of Macedonia and in Romania. In Serbia, there are about 760,000 second-language speakers of Serbian, including Hungarians in Vojvodina and the 400,000 estimated Roma. Familiarity of Kosovo Albanians with Serbian in Kosovo varies depending on age and education, and exact numbers are not available.
Croatian is spoken by roughly 4.8 million, including some 575,000 in Bosnia and Herzegovina. A small Croatian minority that lives in Italy, known as Molise Croats, have somewhat preserved traces of the Croatian language. In Croatia, 170,000, mostly Italians and Hungarians, use it as a second language.
Bosnian is spoken by 2.2 million people, chiefly Bosniaks, including about 220,000 in Serbia and Montenegro.
The notion of Montenegrin as a separate standard from Serbian is relatively recent. In the 2003 census, around 150,000 Montenegrins, of the country's 620,000, declared Montenegrin as their native language. That figure is likely to increase, due to the country's independence and strong institutional backing of Montenegrin language.
Serbo-Croatian is also a second language of many Slovenians and Macedonians, especially those born during the time of Yugoslavia. According to the 2002 Census, Serbo-Croatian and its variants have the largest number of speakers of the minority languages in Slovenia.
Outside the Balkans, there are over 2 million native speakers of the language(s), especially in countries which are frequent targets of immigration, such as Australia, Austria, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Sweden and the United States.
Serbo-Croatian is a highly inflected language. Traditional grammars list seven cases for nouns and adjectives: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, vocative, locative, and instrumental, reflecting the original seven cases of Proto-Slavic, and indeed older forms of Serbo-Croatian itself. However, in modern Shtokavian the locative has almost merged into dative (the only difference is based on accent in some cases), and the other cases can be shown declining; namely:
Like most Slavic languages, there are mostly three genders for nouns: masculine, feminine, and neuter, a distinction which is still present even in the plural (unlike Russian and, in part, the Čakavian dialect). They also have two numbers: singular and plural. However, some consider there to be three numbers (paucal or dual, too), since (still preserved in closely related Slovene) after two (dva, dvije/dve), three (tri) and four (četiri), and all numbers ending in them (e.g. twenty-two, ninety-three, one hundred four) the genitive singular is used, and after all other numbers five (pet) and up, the genitive plural is used. (The number one [jedan] is treated as an adjective.) Adjectives are placed in front of the noun they modify and must agree in both case and number with it.
There are seven tenses for verbs: past, present, future, exact future, aorist, imperfect, and plusquamperfect; and three moods: indicative, imperative, and conditional. However, the latter three tenses are typically used only in Shtokavian writing, and the time sequence of the exact future is more commonly formed through an alternative construction.
In addition, like most Slavic languages, the Shtokavian verb also has one of two aspects: perfective or imperfective. Most verbs come in pairs, with the perfective verb being created out of the imperfective by adding a prefix or making a stem change. The imperfective aspect typically indicates that the action is unfinished, in progress, or repetitive; while the perfective aspect typically denotes that the action was completed, instantaneous, or of limited duration. Some Štokavian tenses (namely, aorist and imperfect) favor a particular aspect (but they are rarer or absent in Čakavian and Kajkavian). Actually, aspects "compensate" for the relative lack of tenses, because aspect of the verb determines whether the act is completed or in progress in the referred time.
|Latin script||Cyrillic script||IPA||Description||English approximation|
|a||а||/a/||open central unrounded||father|
|e||е||/e/||mid front unrounded||den|
|i||и||/i/||close front unrounded||seek|
|o||о||/o/||mid back rounded||lord|
|u||у||/u/||close back rounded||pool|
The vowels can be short or long, but the phonetic quality does not change depending on the length. In a word, vowels can be long in the stressed syllable and the syllables following it, never in the ones preceding it.
|Latin script||Cyrillic script||IPA||Description||English approximation|
|r||р||/r/||alveolar trill||rolled (vibrating) r as in carramba|
|v||в||/ʋ/||labiodental approximant||roughly between vortex and war|
|l||л||/l/||alveolar lateral approximant||light|
|lj||љ||/ʎ/||palatal lateral approximant||roughly battalion|
|nj||њ||/ɲ/||palatal nasal||news or American canyon|
|f||ф||/f/||voiceless labiodental fricative||five|
|s||с||/s/||voiceless dental sibilant||some|
|z||з||/z/||voiced dental sibilant||zero|
|š||ш||/ʃ/||voiceless postalveolar fricative||sharp|
|ž||ж||/ʒ/||voiced postalveolar fricative||television|
|h||х||/x/||voiceless velar fricative||loch|
|c||ц||/t͡s/||voiceless dental affricate||pots|
|dž||џ||/d͡ʒ/||voiced postalveolar affricate||roughly eject|
|č||ч||/t͡ʃ/||voiceless postalveolar affricate||roughly check|
|đ||ђ||/d͡ʑ/||voiced alveolo-palatal affricate||roughly Jews|
|ć||ћ||/t͡ɕ/||voiceless alveolo-palatal affricate||roughly choose|
|b||б||/b/||voiced bilabial plosive||book|
|p||п||/p/||voiceless bilabial plosive||top|
|d||д||/d/||voiced dental plosive||dog|
|t||т||/t/||voiceless dental plosive||it|
|g||г||/ɡ/||voiced velar plosive||good|
|k||к||/k/||voiceless velar plosive||duck|
In consonant clusters all consonants are either voiced or voiceless. All the consonants are voiced if the last consonant is normally voiced or voiceless if the last consonant is normally voiceless. This rule does not apply to approximants – a consonant cluster may contain voiced approximants and voiceless consonants; as well as to foreign words (Washington would be transcribed as VašinGton), personal names and when consonants are not inside of one syllable.
/r/ can be syllabic, playing the role of the syllable nucleus in certain words (occasionally, it can even have a long accent). For example, the tongue-twister navrh brda vrba mrda involves four words with syllabic /r/. A similar feature exists in Czech, Slovak, and Macedonian. Very rarely other sonorants can be syllabic, like /l/ (in bicikl), /ʎ/ (surname Štarklj), /n/ (unit njutn), as well as /m/ and /ɲ/ in slang.
Apart from Slovene, Serbo-Croatian is the only Slavic language with a pitch accent (simple tone) system. This feature is present in some other Indo-European languages, such as Swedish, Norwegian, and Ancient Greek. Neo-Shtokavian Serbo-Croatian, which is used as the basis for standard Bosnian, Croatian, Montenegrin, and Serbian, has four "accents", which involve either a rising or falling tone on either long or short vowels, with optional post-tonic lengths:
|e||[e]||non-tonic short vowel|
|ē||[eː]||non-tonic long vowel|
|è||[ě]||short vowel with rising tone|
|é||[ěː]||long vowel with rising tone|
|ȅ||[ê]||short vowel with falling tone|
|ȇ||[êː]||long vowel with falling tone|
The tone stressed vowels can be approximated in English with set vs. setting? said in isolation for a short tonic e, or leave vs. leaving? for a long tonic i, due to the prosody of final stressed syllables in English.
General accent rules in the standard language:
There are no other rules for accent placement, thus the accent of every word must be learned individually; furthermore, in inflection, accent shifts are common, both in type and position (the so-called "mobile paradigms"). The second rule is not strictly obeyed, especially in borrowed words.
Comparative and historical linguistics offers some clues for memorising the accent position: If one compares many standard Serbo-Croatian words to e.g. cognate Russian words, the accent in the Serbo-Croatian word will be one syllable before the one in the Russian word, with the rising tone. Historically, the rising tone appeared when the place of the accent shifted to the preceding syllable (the so-called "Neoshtokavian retraction"), but the quality of this new accent was different – its melody still "gravitated" towards the original syllable. Most Shtokavian dialects (Neoshtokavian) dialects underwent this shift, but Chakavian, Kajkavian and the Old Shtokavian dialects did not.
Accent diacritics are not used in the ordinary orthography, but only in the linguistic or language-learning literature (e.g. dictionaries, orthography and grammar books). However, there are very few minimal pairs where an error in accent can lead to misunderstanding.
Serbo-Croatian orthography is almost entirely phonetic. Thus, most words should be spelled as they are pronounced. In practice, the writing system does not take into account allophones which occur as a result of interaction between words:
Also, there are some exceptions, mostly applied to foreign words and compounds, that favor morphological/etymological over phonetic spelling:
One systemic exception is that the consonant clusters ds and dš do not change into ts and tš (although d tends to be unvoiced in normal speech in such clusters):
Only a few words are intentionally "misspelled", mostly in order to resolve ambiguity:
Through history, this language has been written in a number of writing systems:
The oldest texts since the 11th century are in Glagolitic, and the oldest preserved text written completely in the Latin alphabet is "Red i zakon sestara reda Svetog Dominika", from 1345. The Arabic alphabet had been used by Bosniaks; Greek writing is out of use there, and Arabic and Glagolitic persisted so far partly in religious liturgies.
The Serbian Cyrillic alphabet was revised by Vuk Stefanović Karadžić in the 19th century.
The Croatian Latin alphabet (Gajica) followed suit shortly afterwards, when Ljudevit Gaj defined it as standard Latin with five extra letters that had diacritics, apparently borrowing much from Czech, but also from Polish, and inventing the unique digraphs "lj", "nj" and "dž". These digraphs are represented as "ļ, ń and ǵ" respectively in the "Rječnik hrvatskog ili srpskog jezika", published by the former Yugoslav Academy of Sciences and Arts in Zagreb. The latter digraphs, however, are unused in the literary standard of the language. All in all, this makes Serbo-Croatian the only Slavic language to officially use both the Latin and Cyrillic scripts, albeit the Latin version is more commonly used.
In both cases, spelling is phonetic and spellings in the two alphabets map to each other one-to-one:
Latin to Cyrillic
Cyrillic to Latin
|Latin collation order||Cyrillic|
The digraphs Lj, Nj and Dž represent distinct phonemes and are considered to be single letters. In crosswords, they are put into a single square, and in sorting, lj follows l and nj follows n, except in a few words where the individual letters are pronounced separately. For instance, nadživ(j)eti "to outlive" is composed of the prefix nad- "out, over" and the verb živ(j)eti "to live". The Cyrillic alphabet avoids such ambiguity by providing a single letter for each phoneme.
Đ used to be commonly written as Dj on typewriters, but that practice led to too many ambiguities. It is also used on car license plates. Today Dj is often used again in place of Đ on the Internet as a replacement due to the lack of installed Serbo-Croat keyboard layouts.
Unicode has separate characters for the digraphs lj (Ǉ, ǈ, ǉ), nj (Ǌ, ǋ, ǌ) and dž (Ǆ, ǅ, ǆ).
South Slavic historically formed a dialect continuum, i.e. each dialect has some similarities with the neighboring one, and differences grow with distance. However, migrations from the 16th to 18th centuries resulting from the spread of Ottoman Empire on the Balkans have caused large-scale population displacement that broke the dialect continuum into many geographical pockets. Migrations in the 20th century, primarily caused by urbanization and wars, also contributed to the reduction of dialectal differences.
The primary dialects are named after the most common question word for what: Shtokavian uses the pronoun što or šta, Chakavian uses ča or ca, Kajkavian (kajkavski), kaj or kej. In native terminology they are referred to as nar(j)ečje, which would be equivalent of "group of dialects", whereas their many subdialects are referred to as dijalekti "dialects" or govori "speeches".
The pluricentric Serbo-Croatian standard language and all four contemporary standard variants are based on the Eastern Herzegovinian subdialect of Neo-Shtokavian. Other dialects are not taught in schools or used by the state media. The Torlakian dialect is often added to the list, though sources usually note that it is a transitional dialect between Shtokavian and the Bulgaro-Macedonian dialects.
The Serbo-Croatian dialects differ not only in the question word they are named after, but also heavily in phonology, accentuation and intonation, case endings and tense system (morphology) and basic vocabulary. In the past, Chakavian and Kajkavian dialects were spoken on a much larger territory, but have been replaced by Štokavian during the period of migrations caused by Ottoman Turkish conquest of the Balkans in the 15th and the 16th centuries. These migrations caused the koinéisation of the Shtokavian dialects, that used to form the West Shtokavian (more closer and transitional towards the neighbouring Chakavian and Kajkavian dialects) and East Shtokavian (transitional towards the Torlakian and the whole Bulgaro-Macedonian area) dialect bundles, and their subsequent spread at the expense of Chakavian and Kajkavian. As a result, Štokavian now covers an area larger than all the other dialects combined, and continues to make its progress in the enclaves where non-literary dialects are still being spoken.
The differences among the dialects can be illustrated on the example of Schleicher's fable. Diacritic signs are used to show the difference in accents and prosody, which are often quite significant, but which are not reflected in the usual orthography.
A basic distinction among the dialects is in the reflex of the long Common Slavic vowel jat, usually transcribed as *ě. Depending on the reflex, the dialects are divided into Ikavian, Ekavian, and Ijekavian, with the reflects of jat being /i/, /e/, and /ije/ or /je/ respectively. The long and short jat is reflected as long or short */i/ and /e/ in Ikavian and Ekavian, but Ijekavian dialects introduce a ije/je alternation to retain a distinction.
Standard Croatian and Bosnian are based on Ijekavian, whereas Serbian uses both Ekavian and Ijekavian forms (Ijekavian for Bosnian Serbs, Ekavian for most of Serbia). Influence of standard language through state media and education has caused non-standard varieties to lose ground to the literary forms.
The jat-reflex rules are not without exception. For example, when short jat is preceded by r, in most Ijekavian dialects developed into /re/ or, occasionally, /ri/. The prefix prě- ("trans-, over-") when long became pre- in eastern Ijekavian dialects but to prije- in western dialects; in Ikavian pronunciation, it also evolved into pre- or prije- due to potential ambiguity with pri- ("approach, come close to"). For verbs that had -ěti in their infinitive, the past participle ending -ěl evolved into -io in Ijekavian Neoštokavian.
The following are some examples:
|beautiful||*lěp||lep||lip||lijep||long ě → ije|
|faith||*věra||vera||vira||vjera||short ě → je|
|pr + long ě → prije|
|times||*vrěmena||vremena||vrimena||vremena||r + short ě → re|
|heat||*grějati||grejati||grijati||grijati||r + short ě → ri|
|saw||*viděl||video||vidio||vidio||ěl → io|
|village||*selo||selo||selo||selo||e in root, not ě|
Enisa Kafadar argues that there is only one Serbo-Croatian language with several varieties. This has made it possible to include all four varieties in a new grammar book. Daniel Bunčić concludes that it is a pluricentric language, with four standard variants spoken in Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The mutual intelligibility between their speakers "exceeds that between the standard variants of English, French, German, or Spanish". Other linguists have argued that the differences between the variants of Serbo-Croatian are less significant than those between the variants of English, German, Dutch, and Hindi–Urdu.
Among pluricentric languages, Serbo-Croatian was the only one with a pluricentric standardisation within one state. The dissolution of Yugoslavia has made Serbo-Croatian even more of a typical pluricentric language, since the variants of other pluricentric languages are also spoken in different states.
The current Serbian constitution of 2006 refers to the official language as Serbian, while the Montenegrin constitution of 2007 proclaimed Montenegrin as the primary official language, but also grants other languages the right of official use.
The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has specified different Universal Decimal Classification (UDC) numbers for Croatian (UDC 862, abbreviation hr) and Serbian (UDC 861, abbreviation sr), while the cover term Serbo-Croatian is used to refer to the combination of original signs (UDC 861/862, abbreviation sh). Furthermore, the ISO 639 standard designates the Bosnian language with the abbreviations bos and bs.
The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia considers what it calls BCS (Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian) to be the main language of all Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian defendants. The indictments, documents, and verdicts of the ICTY are not written with any regard for consistently following the grammatical prescriptions of any of the three standards – be they Serbian, Croatian, or Bosnian.
For utilitarian purposes, the Serbo-Croatian language is often called "naš jezik" ("our language") or "naški" (sic. "Ourish" or "Ourian") by native speakers. This politically correct term is frequently used to describe the Serbo-Croatian language by those who wish to avoid nationalistic and linguistic discussions.
The majority of mainstream Serbian linguists consider Serbian and Croatian to be one language, that is called Serbo-Croatian (srpskohrvatski) or Croato-Serbian (hrvatskosrpski). A minority of Serbian linguists are of the opinion that Serbo-Croatian did exist, but has, in the meantime, dissolved.
The opinion of the majority of Croatian linguists is that there has never been a Serbo-Croatian language, but two different standard languages that overlapped sometime in the course of history. However, Croatian linguist Snježana Kordić has been leading an academic discussion on this issue in the Croatian journal Književna republika from 2001 to 2010. In the discussion, she shows that linguistic criteria such as mutual intelligibility, the huge overlap in the linguistic system, and the same dialect basis of the standard language are evidence that Croatian, Serbian, Bosnian and Montenegrin are four national variants of the pluricentric Serbo-Croatian language. Igor Mandić states: "During the last ten years, it has been the longest, the most serious and most acrid discussion (…) in 21st-century Croatian culture". Inspired by that discussion, a monograph on language and nationalism has been published.
The view of the majority of Croatian linguists that there is no single Serbo-Croatian language but several different standard languages has been sharply criticized by German linguist Bernhard Gröschel in his monograph Serbo-Croatian Between Linguistics and Politics.
A more detailed overview, incorporating arguments from Croatian philology and contemporary linguistics, would be as follows:
The linguistic debate in this region is more about politics than about linguistics per se.
The topic of language for writers from Dalmatia and Dubrovnik prior to the 19th century made a distinction only between speakers of Italian or Slavic, since those were the two main groups that inhabited Dalmatian city-states at that time. Whether someone spoke Croatian or Serbian was not an important distinction then, as the two languages were not distinguished by most speakers. This has been used as an argument to state that Croatian literature Croatian per se, but also includes Serbian and other languages that are part of Serbo-Croatian, These facts undermine the Croatian language proponents' argument that modern-day Croatian is based on a language called Old Croatian.
However, most intellectuals and writers from Dalmatia who used the Štokavian dialect and practiced the Catholic faith saw themselves as part of a Croatian nation as far back as the mid-16th to 17th centuries, some 300 years before Serbo-Croatian ideology appeared. Their loyalty was first and foremost to Catholic Christendom, but when they professed an ethnic identity, they referred to themselves as "Slovin" and "Illyrian" (a sort of forerunner of Catholic baroque pan-Slavism) and Croat – these 30-odd writers over the span of c. 350 years always saw themselves as Croats first and never as part of a Serbian nation. It should also be noted that, in the pre-national era, Catholic religious orientation did not necessarily equate with Croat ethnic identity in Dalmatia. A Croatian follower of Vuk Karadžić, Ivan Broz, noted that for a Dalmatian to identify oneself as a Serb was seen as foreign as identifying oneself as Macedonian or Greek. Vatroslav Jagić pointed out in 1864:
(From The History of the Croatian language, Zagreb, 1864.)
On the other hand, the opinion of Jagić from 1864 is argued not to have firm grounds. When Jagić says "Croatian", he refers to a few cases referring to the Dubrovnik vernacular as ilirski (Illyrian). This was a common name for all Slavic vernaculars in Dalmatian cities among the Roman inhabitants. In the meantime, other written monuments are found that mention srpski, lingua serviana (= Serbian), and some that mention Croatian. By far the most competent Serbian scientist on the Dubrovnik language issue, Milan Rešetar, who was born in Dubrovnik himself, wrote behalf of language characteristics: "The one who thinks that Croatian and Serbian are two separate languages must confess that Dubrovnik always (linguistically) used to be Serbian."
Finally, the former medieval texts from Dubrovnik and Montenegro dating before the 16th century were neither true Štokavian nor Serbian, but mostly specific a Jekavian-Čakavian that was nearer to actual Adriatic islanders in Croatia.
Nationalists have conflicting views about the language(s). The nationalists among the Croats conflictingly claim either that they speak an entirely separate language from Serbs and Bosniaks or that these two peoples have, due to the longer lexicographic tradition among Croats, somehow "borrowed" their standard languages from them. Bosniak nationalists claim that both Croats and Serbs have "appropriated" the Bosnian language, since Ljudevit Gaj and Vuk Karadžić preferred the Neoštokavian-Ijekavian dialect, widely spoken in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as the basis for language standardization, whereas the nationalists among the Serbs claim either that any divergence in the language is artificial, or claim that the Štokavian dialect is theirs and the Čakavian Croats'— in more extreme formulations Croats have "taken" or "stolen" their language from the Serbs.
Proponents of unity among Southern Slavs claim that there is a single language with normal dialectal variations. The term "Serbo-Croatian" (or synonyms) is not officially used in any of the successor countries of former Yugoslavia.
In Serbia, the Serbian standard has an official status countrywide, while both Serbian and Croatian are official in the province of Vojvodina. A large Bosniak minority is present in the southwest region of Sandžak, but the "official recognition" of Bosnian language is moot. Bosnian is an optional course in 1st and 2nd grade of the elementary school, while it is also in official use in the municipality of Novi Pazar. However, its nomenclature is controversial, as there is incentive that it is referred to as "Bosniak" (bošnjački) rather than "Bosnian" (bosanski) (see Bosnian language#Controversy and recognition for details).
Croatian is the official language of Croatia, while Serbian is also official in municipalities with significant Serb population.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, all three standard languages are recorded as official but in practice and media, mostly Bosnian and Serbian are applied. Confrontations have on occasion been absurd. The academic Muhamed Filipović, in an interview to Slovenian television, told of a local court in a Croatian district requesting a paid translator to translate from Bosnian to Croatian before the trial could proceed.