Serbian Croatian Bosnian Montenegrin:
My Intimate Experience with the Languages of ex Yugoslavia
Are Serbian Croatian Bosnian and Montenegrin the same language? What about Macedonian and Slovenian? How different or similar are they?
What’s the difference between Slovenian, Croatian, Bosnian, Serbian, Montenegrin and Macedonian? How different or similar are they?
Can the people understand each other speaking these languages?
Serbian Croatian Bosnian Montenegrin Macedonian Slovenian
Many people are confused about all these languages and unusre about how similar or different they are. To begin with, let’s detach the whole story from Slovenian and Macedonian. The relation we have with these languages is more or less similar to the way we manage to understand each other with Russian speakers: intuitively.
But it’s actually not that simple, and in this article you will learn why.
A country named Yugoslavia
I was born in a country named Yugoslavia. It was a big and diverse country that included 6 republics: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia; and two autonomous provinces: Vojvodina and Kosovo. The official language of the country was called Serbo-Croatian, or srpskohrvatski.
That was my favorite subject at school. Some classes included Slovenian and Macedonian songs and poems. I remember, we learned them as funny rhymes, never really understanding the languages completely – only a few words here and there.
Breakup of Yugoslavia
In the beginining of the nineties, Yugoslavia started falling apart. The republics were cut off one by one, until each became an independent country. The last one to go was Montenegro, in 2004. The languages of ex Yugoslavia also fell apart.
The Serbo-Croatian language also fell apart to Serbian Croatian Bosnian and eventually Montenegrin. We never questioned that Slovenian and Macedonian were different languages.
When thousands of refugees fled Croatia or Bosnia and came to Serbia, they didn’t change the way they spoke.
Studying Serbian at the university
When I was getting ready for the University in 2000, I chose my favorite subject for my major studies. The study group I enrolled in was called „Serbian literature and language“, but I had diverse interesting classes, like for example Old Church Slavonic, or the literature of old Dubrovnik, the Croatian literature, and the Macedonian literature – all of which I had to read in original, no translation provided.
I remember that I read Croatian books with pleasure and no obstacles, occasionally finding a word or two in a whole book that I didn’t know.
But the old Dubrovnik literature! That was one of the hardest exams I had. I read old poems and novels in a dialect nobody even speaks today.
Of all these, the most challenging was probably Old Church Slavonic, with all the declensions, the old script, and peculiar grammar features, like dual.
Macedonian was less challenging for me. My father’s parents were from South Serbia, and I’d learned some Torlak from them – so I could understand a lot.
(Torlakian or Torlak dialect is a mini-dispute in itself and it illustrates the mentality of the region: it is considered a Macedonian dialect by Macedonian linguists, a Bulgarian dialect by Bulgarian linguists and a Serbian dialect by Serbian linguists.)
I studied in Novi Sad together with people from Serbia, Bosnia and Montenegro. I lived together with them for 3 years in a student dormitory. We all spoke our dialects and never needed a translator.
Life after the Yugoslavian wars
When my country went out of the dark nineties, I started traveling abroad and meeting new people.
In Italy, I met a girl from Split, Croatia. She was an Italian teacher, a linguist. And she insisted that her language was different from mine. Even though we could argue each one of us speaking her own language.
When I met a group of young people from Zagreb, I loved their way of speaking! I couldn’t resist imitating their accent. The words I heard from them kept slipping off my tongue unconsciously.
I met people from Macedonia, and they tried hard to make their language closer to mine so that we could understand each other easily. My Macedonian was far worse then their Serbian. My friends from Skopje explained that they had learned Serbo-Croatian at school, but actually contact with people helped them because they had a horrible teacher.
I worked for a Slovenian company and had to translate a few phrases occasionally from Slovenian to Serbian – that was a challenge.
Once I drank wine with a Croat and a Slovenian in Athens. The Slovenian did his best to speak Serbo-Croatian and we had a fun chat and a good laugh.
Yugoslavian Languages: just like an old joke
A Serb, a Croat, a Bosnian, a Montenegrin, a Macedonian and a Slovenian go to a bar. They all order a beer and start fighting ferociously if šljivovica and ajvar are Serbian Croatian Bosnian Montenegrin Macedonian or Slovenian invention.
No interpreters. Because the Macedonian and the Slovenian have learned some Serbo-Croatian and can make themselves clear and take part even in bar fights in the languages of ex Yugoslavia.
Slovenian is quite difficult for us to understand, as it is very different from standard BSC (an international shorthand for Bosnian Serbian Croatian). However, it is close to, and mutually intelligible with the Kajkavian dialect, spoken in the Croatian region on the Slovenian border. Tha kajkavian dialect per se is actually not understandable to the standard Croatian speakers.
Macedonian on the other hand, is somewhat easier for Serbians to understand, but it is quite different as well: it is more similar to Bulgarian, although it is very close to the southern Serbian dialects, that do not belong to the standard Serbian.
As you can notice from these short observations above, languages do not know borders. People mix and mingle, and influence one another, adapting themselves to the other in order to collaborate better or build more successful personal relationships or business. Hence, the strongest influence and the biggest similarities are most likely to occur in the adjacent areas.
In Vojvodina, for instance, the melody of speech resembles Hungarian, because of the proximity of the Hungary and the presence of Hungarian people, language and culture.
This phenomenon is the natural way the languages work. There’s nothing special about it in this area. You can see it everywhere in the world. It’s called the dialect continuum or dialect chain. As people mix and mingle, so do dialects and languages. Establishing a standard only makes our lives, as foreign language learners, easier.
Are Serbian Croatian Bosnian and Montenegrin the same language?
There is a word that describes the relation between Serbian Croatian Bosnian and Montenegrin languages perfectly: naški. It’s coined from the possessive pronoun naš (ours) and the suffix -ski that we use for making adverbs and that you’ve seen in the names of languages: srpski, hrvatski, engleski, norveški.
The truth is that the term is used mainly by the people living in diaspora, where the mentioned nations stick together and feel the need to diminish differences among them. That’s why they make a big difference between the person who speaks “our language” (naš jezik – naški) and the person who speaks, say, Czech (češki). A person who speaks “naški” is a person you can speak your own language with.
How are Serbian Croatian Bosnian and Montenegrin different?
Serbian Croatian Bosnian and Montenegrin are completely mutually intelligible. That is to say, if you are Serbian, you can communicate with people from Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina without any obstacles. The main differences are in pronunciation or melody of our speech. Yes, there are some different words, which we are mostly familiar with, because of the proximity of our nations. However, grammar features and vocabulary (pronouns, tenses, cases, word order, syntax etc.) are all mostly the same. You can see some features listed in this article on Wikipedia.
Why are they the same?
These four languages of ex Yugoslavia are based on the same dialect. Because all four countries have based their standards on the same dialect, Shtokavian, and even the same sub-dialect: Eastern-Herzegovinian. The Serbian standard includes another sub-dialect: Shumadian-Voivodinian.
Image source: Wikipedia
So, when you master the Serbian language, you will be perfectly understood in Croatia, Montengro, Bosnia and Herzegovina. You would need just a little bit of practice to get used to the other accent and learn a few words that differ.
To conclude, Serbian Croatian Bosnian and Montenegrin are considered separate languages only because the land is divided between these nations and the language is one of the means used for creating national identity. They are considered languages only for political reasons. Linguistically, they are all only dialects or variants of one language.
The Yugoslavian Languages Satire
When Yugoslavia started gradually falling apart, the proclamation of new languages was mocked up, even in television. At the time, there was a funny and very popular humoristic show “Top Lista Nadrealista” (“The Top List of the Surrealists”). They created an episode ridiculing the forced differencies and envisioned the total separation that finally occurred. No wonder this idea comes from a Sarajevo television: Bosnia and Herzegovina is the country where all our nations meet, leave together and speak the same language.
In this episode, they even talked about separated Montenegrin languages as “crnski” (Negrin) and “gorski” (Montin). You may enjoy the gig even if you understand just a little bit of the language, because the professor demonstrates how differently we say the sentence “Ja čitam” (I read) in all these languages.
In the final part of the video, it’s hillarious when the people who speak these languages need to use the help of a translator (“služba prevođenja” – translation service) or a dictionary (“rječnik”). In the very end of the video, they invite the audience to buy their dictionary, ideal for mixed marriages.
The similarity and difference between Serbian Croatian Bosnian and Montenegrin – conclusion
The differences between the standard Serbian Croatian Bosnian and Montenegrin languages are minimal. Just like between Spanish from Mexico, Cuba and Argentina. Or English from England, Australia and the States.
So if you learn any of the four standard languages, you will be able to communicate across the area.
The vast majority of the words are the same or very similar, the conjugations and the declensions are the same.
However, there are dialects that you won’t understand. They have different grammar. Because languages spill across the borders. Like Kajkavian that goes from Zagreb to Slovenia, or Torlak that goes from South Serbia to Macedonia and Bulgaria.
If you want to read about specific differences between Serbian and Croatian, you’ll find them listed and explained in this article.
by Magdalena Petrovic Jelic
Founder of Serbonika
Serbian language teacher and entrepreneur, language lover and polyglot, but also a mother and a relentless storyteller. Read more about me.
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