A9 Bosnian, Serbian and Montenegrin

Bosnian, Serbian and Montenegrin are separate standard languages quite similar to the Standard Croatian (some people consider them ‘variants’ of a single language). I will summarize the most important differences.

You should keep in mind that there are regions in Croatia where some ‘Serbian’ words are used, and some ‘Croatian’ words can be found in Serbia as well. Of course, Bosnian and Montenegrin are somewhere in the middle.


The major difference is that Serbian and Montenegrin use another alphabet – Cyrillic. However, each letter of Croatian Latin corresponds to one letter of Serbian Cyrillic.

Actually, in Serbia today the Cyrillic alphabet is mostly used in official and ceremonial uses. Majority of newspapers are published in ‘Serbian Latin’ script (identical to ‘Croatian Latin’). Web sites published in Cyrillic have usually a ‘LAT’ button somewhere. For instance, Politika daily has pages both in Cyrillic and Latin (check CYR and LAT links on top), but B92 TV is in Latin only. Even the web site of Serbian government has links ћирилица Cyrillic and latinica Latin on the top (Cyrillic is chosen by default). Statistics show that about 1/6 of text on Serbian web sites is written in the Cyrillic script.

In Montenegro, the Cyrillic alphabet is even less used. The web site of Montenegrin government has the two links on top, but the Latin script is displayed as default. Most web pages, even official ones, are in Latin script only.

Besides using Cyrillic script sometimes, there are few differences in spelling (both in Serbian/Montenegrin Latin and Cyrillic). The first one is spelling of foreign names. Serbian and Montenegrin usually respell them using approximated pronunciation:

original   Serbian spelling
New York Njujork Њујорк
George Bush Džordž Buš Џорџ Буш
Chicago Čikago Чикаго

The second difference is spelling of the future tense. When an infinitive in -t is immediately followed by an auxiliary ću², ćeš²... it's spelled together, and the infinitive-final -t is discarded, with possible sound mutations:

Croatian       Serbian
pisat ću pisaću писаћу
jest ću ješću јешћу
reći ću reći ću рећи ћу

This is, however, merely a spelling convention: the words ću², ćeš² are second-position words; therefore, Serbian words like pisaću are limited to the 1st position in a sentence! They are usually listed as separate verb forms in Serbian grammars.

Ekavian ‘Pronunciation’

As I have already mentioned, there are three common ‘pronunciations’: Ijekavian, Ikavian and Ekavian (there are more in various dialects, but these three prevail in public). The name is misleading, since the difference is visible in spelling as well. The basic difference is: where Standard Croatian has Ijekavian mlijeko, Ikavian has mliko and Ekavian mleko for milk.

People usually associate Ekavian (mleko, pesma) and not Ijekavian (mlijeko, pjesma) with Serbian, but it's not really true, since Serbs use both as standard: most Serbs outside of Serbia (e.g. Bosnia, Croatia and Montenegro) use Ijekavian, and Serbs in most of Serbia, including Belgrade, use only Ekavian. You can find both in Serbian newspapers, but Ekavian clearly dominates. (The Serbian Standard is much less strict than Croatian, there is a bigger choice of ‘acceptable’ variants.)

If you find a ‘dictionary of differences’ listing bijeli as ‘Croatian’ vs. beli as ‘Serbian’ you can immediately conclude it's oversimplifying things.

However, Ekavian forms are not completely trivial, they cannot be completely obtained from Standard Croatian Ijekavian forms. There are some words where Ekavian has e, in comparison to Ijekavian i, for instance in these common verbs:

heat grijati (grije) grejati (greje)
hate mrziti mrzeti (mrzi)
sit sjediti sedeti (sedi)
laugh smijati (smije) se² smejati (smeje) se²

These differences are sometimes surprising to natives speakers as well: very few people in Croatia would guess the form mrzeti. Different verbs have to be learned: the verb brijati (brije) shave has the same form in both pronunciations, while grijati (grije) heat doesn’t. The verb sjediti shows the expected je vs. e in the 1st syllable, besides the unexpected i vs. e in the second one.

However, the verb vidjeti and similar ones, including razumjeti, are much simpler in Ekavian: their past forms are always regular, and verbs like razumjeti are plain verbs in Ekavian, all forms regularly derived from the inf:

want htjeti (hoće +, htio, htjela) hteti (hoće +)
see vidjeti (vidi, vidio, vidjela) videti (vidi)
understand razumjeti (razumije,...) razumeti
may smjeti (smije, smio, smijela) smeti

Vocabulary Differences

Serbian has some specific nouns:

bešika mjehur bladder
čas sat lecture, class in school
fabrika tvornica factory
fudbal nogomet football
gas plin gas
lenjir ravnalo rule (to draw lines)
tjedan (tjedn-) week
ostrvo otok island
pijaca tržnica farmer's market
sprat kat floor (of a building)
talas val wave
tašna torba handbag, purse
točak (točk-) kotač wheel (not to steer)
uslov uvjet condition, prerequisite
vazduh zrak air
voz vlak train

Specific adjectives:

bezbjedan (bezbjedn-) siguran (sigurn-) adj. secure, safe

Here Serbian words are given in Ijekavian forms, it's trivial to obtain Ekavian forms that are normally used in Serbia.

Especially, terms related to cooking, food, and standard house items show numerous differences; these terms are often completely unknown outside their 'territory':

term Croatian Serbian
green beans mahune f pl. boranija
spoon žlica kašika
leek poriluk praziluk
soup juha supa
scissors škare f pl. makaze f pl.

There are several specific verbs as well:

ćutati (ćuti) be silent (Cro. šutjeti/šutiti)
pomjerati («) ~ pomjeriti move, shift (Cro. pomicati (pomiče) ~ pomaknuti (pomakne)

Adverbs puno/jako vs. mnogo are characteristic in meaning a lot, very. Of course, vrlo can be used as well, but it's not used in speech much. The use of these adverbs is different in Croatian and Serbian:

Puno hvala! Thanks a lot. (Croatian only)

Mnogo hvala! Thanks a lot. (Serbian, sometimes Croatian)

Jako sam umorna. I'm very tired. (Croatian only)

Mnogo sam umorna. I'm very tired. (Serbian only)

Vrlo sam umorna. I'm very tired. (both languages, more formal)

Observe that mnogo is normally used in both Croatian and Serbian meaning much before comparatives: mnogo veći much bigger. This is a subtle difference.

There are numerous differences in scientific terms, especially chemistry and biology:

term Croatian Serbian
hydrogen vodik vodonik
oxygen kisik kiseonik
nitrogen dušik azot
tin kositar (kositr-) kalaj
gas plin gas
(chemical) solution otopina rastvor
cell (in biology) stanica ćelija
mammal sisavac (sisavc-) sisar
science znanost nauka

However, prison cell is just ćelija in both Croatian and Serbian. Croatian uses obitelj f for human family, while Serbian uses porodica, and both usually use just porodica for families in biology (sets of closely related species).

There are also different terms in math:

term Croatian Serbian
triangle trokut trougao (trougl-)
straight line pravac (pravc-) prava
curve krivulja kriva
degree stupanj (stupnj-) stepen
equation jednadžba jednačina

Some words have only a slightly different form due to different adaptation of foreign words (this table includes only characteristic words showing ways words differ):

term Croatian eastern
accent akcent akcenat (akcent-)
fascist fašist fašista
flue gripa grip
mayonnaise majoneza majonez

Some words adapted from Greek have k- in Croatian, and h- in Serbian:

term Croatian Serbian
chemistry kemija hemija
chaos kaos haos
chlorine klor hlor

Verbs ending in -isati (-iše) are very characteristic of Serbia and most of Bosnia; they usually correspond to Croatian verbs in -irati («). They are all adaptations of foreign words. Common ones are:

verb           Croatian             Serbian
define definirati («) definisati (-še)
formulate formulirati («) formulisati (-še)
generate generirati («) generisati (-še)
function funkcionirati («) funkcionisati (-še)
ignore ignorirati («) ignorisati (-še)
integrate integrirati («) integrisati (-še)
intervene intervenirati («) intervenisati (-še)
manage, oversee kontrolirati («) kontrolisati (-še)
operate operirati («) operisati (-še)
reform reformirati («) reformisati (-še)
tolerate tolerirati («) tolerisati (-še)

(The thin vertical line, as usual, divides the constant part on the left of it from the variable part on the right.)

They also have stress on different syllables.

However, it's completely wrong to think that all Croatian verbs in -irati correspond to Serbian verbs in this way. In fact, there are many verbs in -irati used in Serbia as well, e.g. diplomirati («) graduate (from university), kreirati («) create, planirati («) plan, studirati («) study (on university), šokirati («) shock, trenirati («) train, varirati («) vary, etc.

Also, some Croatian -irati verbs correspond to Serbian ones in -ovati (-uje). Common ones are:

verb         Croatian             Serbian
disinfect, sanitize dezinficirati («) dezinfikovati (-uje)
improvise improvizirati («) improvizovati (-uje)
combine kombinirati («) kombinovati (-uje)
compensate kompenzirati («) kompenzovati (-uje)
modernize modernizirati («) modernizovati (-uje)
organize organizirati («) organizovati (-uje)
pack pakirati («) pakovati (-uje)

Occasionally, there's a non-trivial correspondence to Croatian -irati verbs:

verb Croatian Serbian
comment komentirati («) komentarisati (-še)
complicate komplicirati («) komplikovati (-uje)

Many recently adapted verbs often have just -ati in Croatian vs -ovati (-uje) in Serbian:

verb Croatian         Serbian
like (on Facebook) lajkati lajkovati (-uje)
surf surfati surfovati (-uje)
strike (in workplace) štrajkati štrajkovati (-uje)

Two more verbs are used a bit differently in Serbian.

The verb smjeti (smije, smio, smjela) may – in Ekavian form smeti – has an additional meaning in Serbia: dare.

The verb umjeti (umije, umio, umjela) know how – in Ekavian form umeti – is quite common in Serbia:

Umijem da plivam! I know how to swim. (Ijekavian)

Umem da plivam! (the same, Ekavian)

Bosnia-Herzegovina is today officially tri-lingual, as evidenced by this warning on a box of cigarettes that displays three identical sentences (the first one is just in Cyrillic; I have taken a photo of an actual box):

5 Easy Croatian: A9 Bosnian, Serbian and Montenegrin Bosnian , Serbian and Montenegrin are separate standard languages quite similar to the Standard Croatian (some people consider them ‘varia...

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