A Look at the Serbo-Croatian Language

From here.
A look at the Serbo-Croatian language to see how hard it is to learn fro an English speaker. Serbo-Croatian is legendary for its difficulty. Whether it is harder than Czech or Polish is somewhat up in the air, but probably Czech and Polish are harder. Few L2 speakers ever attain anything near native speaker competence. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating language.
Serbo-Croatian, similar to Czech, has seven cases in the singular and seven in the plural, plus there are several different declensions. The vocative is still going strong in Serbo-Croatian (S-C), as in Polish, Ukrainian and Bulgarian. There 15 different types of declensions: seven tenses, three genders, three moods, and two aspects. Whereas English has one word for the number 2 – two, Serbo-Croatian has 17 words.
Case abbreviations below:
N = NAV – nominative, accusative, vocative
G = Genitive
D = Dative
L =Locative
I = Instrumental
Masculine inanimate gender
N dva
G dvaju
D L I dvama
Feminine gender
N dve
G dveju
D L I dvema
Mixed gender
N dvoje
G dvoga
D L I dvoma
Masculine animate gender
N dvojica
G dvojice
D L dvojici
I dvojicom
“Twosome”
N dvojka
G dvojke
D L dvojci
I dvojkom
The grammar is incredibly complex. There are imperfective and perfective verbs, but when you try to figure out how to build one from the other, it seems irregular. This is the hardest part of Serbo-Croatian grammar, and foreigners not familiar with other Slavic tongues usually never get it right.
Serbian has a strange form called the “paucal.” It is the remains of the old dual, and it also exists in Polish and Russian.  The paucal is a verbal number like singular, plural and dual. It is used with the numbers dva (2), tri (3), četiri (4) and oba/obadva (both) and also with any number that contains 2, 3 or 4 (22, 102, 1032).

gledalac            viewer
pažljiv(i)          careful
gledalac pažljiv(i) careful viewer
1 careful viewer  jedan pažljivi gledalac
2 careful viewers dva pažljiva gledaoca
3 careful viewers tri pažljiva gledaoca
5 careful viewers pet pažljivih gledalaca

Above, pažljivi gledalac is singular, pažljivih gledalaca is plural and pažljiva gledaoca is paucal.
As in English, there are many different ways to say the same thing. Pronouns are so rarely used that some learners are surprised that they exist, since pronimalization is marked on the verb as person and number. Word order is almost free or at least seems arbitrary, similar to Russian.
Serbo-Croatian, like Lithuanian, has pitch accent – low-rising, low-falling, short-rising and short-falling. It’s not the same as tone, but it’s similar. In addition to the pitch accent differentiating words, you also have an accented syllable somewhere in the word, which as in English, is unmarked. And when the word conjugates or declines, the pitch accent can jump around in the word to another syllable and even changes its type in ways that do not seem transparent. It’s almost impossible for foreigners to get this pitch-accent right.
The “hard” ch sound is written č, while the “soft” ch sound is written ć. It has syllabic r and l. Long consonant clusters are permitted. See this sentence:
Na vrh brda vrba mrda.
However, in many of these consonant clusters, a schwa is present between consonants in speech, though it is not written out.
S-C, like Russian, has words that consist of only a single consonant:
swith
Serbo-Croatian does benefit from a phonetic orthography.
It is said that few if any foreigners ever master Serbo-Croatian well. Similar to Czech and Polish, it is said that many native speakers make mistakes in S-C even after decades of speaking it, especially in pitch accent.
Serbo-Croatian is often considered to be one of the hardest languages on Earth to learn. It is harder than Russian but not as hard as Polish.
Serbo-Croatian gets a 4.5 rating, extremely difficult.

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12 thoughts on “A Look at the Serbo-Croatian Language”

  1. Dear Robert
    When Yugoslavia still existed, it was said that Serbo-Croatian was its main official language. Now they tell me that Serbian and Croatian are really separate languages. Do you have an opinion about that? Is the notion that they are 2 different languages just stupid nationalistic BS?
    Regards. James

    1. Indians speak Hindi and use the Devanagari script; Pakistanis speak Urdu and use the Nasta’liq script. Hindi has lots of Sanskrit loanwords; Urdu has lots of Persian loanwords. Hindus speak Hindi; Muslims speak Urdu.
      But they are almost 100% mutually intelligible; in fact, Bollywood actors often speak in “Urdu,” despite a predominantly Hindu viewership.
      Politically? Different languages. (rolls eyes)
      We all know they’re the same language.
      Same goes for Bosnian/Croatian/Montenegrin/Serbian.

  2. There are differences between Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Monetenegrin. They are technically languages within their own right but the phrase Serbo-Croatian is commonly used to encompass all four as they are so similar.

    1. If they are technically different languages then Americans and Canadians technically speak different languages 9_9

      1. Standard languages are mutually intelligible. When I talk to for example Serbs it sounds like dialect though there is small percent of words, grammar rules/ortography that’s 100% the same. We can guess out of the context what the other speaker wants to say.
        I cannot say much of Serbian language though but I can say about Croatian. Croatian has 3 vernaculars and it’s special among the Slavic languages. These 3 vernaculars have been used as literature languages since around 11th century. Each vernacular has more than 15 dialects.
        Two of those vernaculars, Kajkavian (northern Croatia) and Chakavian (litoral Croatia with islands, it’s the oldest one) can be completely different from standard. Moreover, Kajkavian has it’s own grammar and vocabulary.
        The third one, Shtokavian (western) is spoken in eastern Croatia and Bosnia. It was used as basis for standard language as Serbs speak Eastern variant of Shtokavian, so it’s the most spoken one in the region.
        Since examples are always the best, here are some:
        STANDARD CROATIAN (based on Shtokavian): Što ćemo sutra raditi?
        KAJKAVIAN: Kaj/Kuoj bume vsutra delali?
        STANDARD: Stavi pile u pećnicu.
        KAJKAVIAN: Deni čučeka f šporet.
        STANDARD: Tjesteninu sa umakom, molim!
        CHAKAVIAN: Manistru sa točen, molin!
        These are some simple common examples.
        The reason why Shtokavian spread a lot lies in historic events. Some of you know, some not, but at the time of Ottoman attacks on Europe, when they succeeded in conquering Serbian empire (and controversial Kosovo, where was crucial battle in which were involved both Serbs and Croats against the Turks), many Serbs fled into Austro-Hungarian Empire, precisely into Croatian Kingdom inside it. The policy in Vienna saw immigrants as a competence against the locals (Croats) and they invited and gave many benefits to the Serbs and other nations in regions of Croatia, especially part called the Military front. (read on wikipedia about Great Serbian MIgrations to the west). Later, in the end of 19th century, Hungarian Count Hedervary had mission to do hungarization of Croatia (language, culture..) and he gave many benefits to Serbs living in Croatia so he can play against Croats. So throughout last 3-4 centuries Serbs remained there and unfortunately due to politics of Hungary and Austria many things mixed including spreading of shtokavian vernacular (the regions where in Croatia, in central part, and in Bosnia is shtokavian used a lot is the place were Serbs and Croats lived together thus Shtokavian overwhelemd Chakavian/Kajkavian. Later in Yugoslavia there were trials to merge later these languages into one, and since Serbs were majority they would prevail. Of course, this is about politics, most of nations on both sides didn’t want this. And since we lived for many decades in same country/states we learned much of words from each other.
        I hope I helped with this. This things are not usually said but all the problems started in wars with Ottomans and migrations and mixture of nations and later. Croatian vernaculars can be as distant (or even more) as Portuguese and Spanish or Italian. But you cannot say these 3 languages are one, right?

        1. Croatian dialects are about different as Italian dialects, actually. And some people don’t call Italian dialects “dialects”, but “languages”, e.g. Veneto is called a language. Such large internal variations are more common than you think.
          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Venetian_language
          Per your differences in culinary vocabulary, it’s also possible to construct sentences that will differ enormously (in pronouns, tenses…) when you move from European Portuguese to Brazilian Portuguese, but people still claim they are “one language”. It’s best to leave all discussion one language/many languages aside, as they’re pointless.
          “many Serbs fled into Austro-Hungarian Empire, precisely into Croatian Kingdom inside it”
          At that time, there was no “Austro-Hungarian Empire”. It was established only with the Ausgleich of 1867! And most of them actually fled into Hungary (hence all Serbs in today Vojvodina).
          lp Daniel

        2. This post requires more comments.
          “When I talk to for example Serbs it sounds like dialect though there is small percent of words, grammar rules/ortography that’s 100% the same.”
          Actually, it’s not, there are (small) differences, e.g. in spelling of the future tense.
          “Croatian has 3 vernaculars and it’s special among the Slavic languages. These 3 vernaculars have been used as literature languages since around 11th century.”
          No, they were not. Do you know any Kajkavian literature from the 11th century (or 12th, 13th, for that matter)?
          “Each vernacular has more than 15 dialects.”
          No. There’s only one division of Kajkavian to 15 dialects (based on stress) but I have never heard of a division of e.g. Štokavian to 15 “dialects”
          “Two of those vernaculars, Kajkavian (northern Croatia) and Chakavian (litoral Croatia with islands, it’s the oldest one)”
          Why is Čakavian the oldest? In what sense?
          “The third one, Shtokavian (western) is spoken in eastern Croatia and Bosnia. It was used as basis for standard language as Serbs speak Eastern variant of Shtokavian”
          No, Serbs don’t speak “eastern variant”. Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia actually speak the same variant that’s used in the Croatian standard.
          “controversial Kosovo, where was crucial battle in which were involved both Serbs and Croats against the Turks”
          The battle on Kosovo was not crucial, as pointed out by many historians.
          “Croatian vernaculars can be as distant (or even more) as Portuguese and Spanish or Italian. But you cannot say these 3 languages are one, right?”
          This is also not true, since Portuguese is much closer to Spanish than to Italian. And it’s notoriously difficult to measure “language distances”.

  3. This is not correct, macedonia, and slovenians was also in the same contry but the did not “adapt” the same language ? You can not compare spanish and portoguese with serbian and croatian. This is more like serbian and bulgarian and they are diffrent languages. Theese people is devided politically by diffrent occupiers but it does not match croatian nationalism. Most studies eaven croatian studies shows that theese are more or less the same people divided by time.
    Mexico city and madrid has more cultural diffrent but it is both considered spanish. Sweden has more dialectal diffrens within the contry then croat and serbs. The cultural diffrens is becouse of diffrent occupiers.

  4. There is one official language and that is Serbian/Croation. There is no such thing as a Bosnian and Montanogrian language. Serbian’s have cerilic writing which was simplified by Vuk Karadzic.
    Write as you speak and read as it is written.
    —The essence of modern Serbian spelling
    In Serbian: Пиши као што говориш и читај како је написано. (Piši kao što govoriš i čitaj kako je napisano.)
    Although the above quotation is usually attributed to Vuk Stefanović Karadžić, it is in fact an orthographic principle devised by the German grammarian and philologist Johann Christoph Adelung. Karadžić merely used that principle to push through his language reform.( Cited from Wikapedia). Serbain and Croatian is based on this principle. The rest is political BS! Please people note: There was never a Bosnian language! No such thing period!

    1. Write as you speak and read as it is written.
      —The essence of modern Serbian spelling
      If I may comment, this was essentially PR by Vuk Karadžić. At that time, virtually nobody in Serbia, actually, nobody anywhere spoke, in the way Mr. Karadžić proposed people to write. His language had a mix of different characteristics from various locations. He had tjerati and not ćerati, he had h- in various words (where it was lost in speech centuries ago), and many other fine points.
      It’s also questionable that “There is one official language and that is Serbian/Croation”. When the Parliament of Croatia-Slavonia changed its official language, the first proposed name was “Yugoslavian” 🙂
      It was never a single, monolith language. You always heard where the speaker comes from, and if it wasn’t your area, you would hear an unfamiliar word from time to time. Even within Croatia, if a speaker had come from a different region and tried to speak “standard”, you would hear a where he or she is from and an unfamiliar word or construct from time to time (and it’s still so nowadays).
      lp Daniel

  5. I will comment some statements, as a native speaker and amateur interested into these things, since the statements are generally true, but might mislead readers.
    Serbo-Croatian, similar to Czech, has seven cases in the singular and seven in the plural, plus there are several different declensions.
    Well the standard variant, as spoken by the majority of people in Croatia, Serbia, etc. has actually less cases. The dative and locative cases are the same in singular for almost everyone (some people seem to keep the traditional stress distinction in some short words, too complicated to go into here), and in plural, dative=locative=instrumental for all words (this is one of defining Štokavian characteristics, actually).
    There 15 different types of declensions: seven tenses, three genders, three moods, and two aspects.
    In the real life, only four tenses are really used, the aorist tense is the fifth and it’s sometimes used (I go for months without using it).
    The conditional mood is really simple since it reuses the past adjective with just a different auxiliary verb (past tense: radio sam, conditional: radio bih).
    Serbo-Croatian, like Lithuanian, has pitch accent – low-rising, low-falling, short-rising and short-falling.
    This is also in principle true, but in the real life, many people don’t distinguish those four prozodic forms. Most people in Serbia don’t distinguish short accents (that is, intonations on short stressed vowels) and many people in Croatia (about half, myself included) don’t distinguish lengths and vowel length at all (and often stress different syllables than the standard accent says they should). The same holds for Montenegro. The traditional accents are best preserved in Bosnia.
    There are imperfective and perfective verbs, but when you try to figure out how to build one from the other, it seems irregular.
    They are best understood as different verbs, having different meanings. Historically, there were derivation processes, but there’s no pattern now, we simply have two verbs, e.g. one for “eat” and “finish eating”. Two meanings, two verbs. We have a verb for “fall asleep”, a verb for “get angry” etc. We have many verbs, and less nouns (e.g. sreća = “luck” = “happiness”, no difference foot vs. leg, arm vs. hand etc.)
    lp

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