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.


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, today in Serbia the Cyrillic alphabet is mostly used in official and ceremonial uses. Majority of newspapers are published in 'Serbian Latin' (identical to 'Croatian Latin') script. 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.

Besides using Cyrillic script sometimes, there are few differences in spelling (both in Serbian 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

Vocabulary Differences

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. 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 (and listing completely predictable 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':

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

There are several specific verbs as well:

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

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 'v...

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