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. Furthermore, we can talk about ‘Croatian’ and ‘Serbian’ only if we discuss the standardized languages. If we take into the account how people actually speak, the situation is much more complex.

Spelling

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 the ‘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 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.

There’s a tradition of playing down differences between Ekavian and Ijekavian: most people, especially in Serbia, are used to hear and read both (but they can write and speak only Ekavian). However, Ekavian forms are not completely trivial – they cannot be completely obtained from (Standard Croatian) Ijekavian forms, and Ijekavian forms cannot be obtained at all from Ekavian. For example, there are some words where Ekavian has e, in comparison to Ijekavian i, like in these common verbs:

verbIjekavianEkavian
heat grijati (grije) grejati (greje)
laugh smijati (smije) se² smejati (smeje) se²
hate mrziti mrzeti (mrzi)
sit sjediti sedeti (sedi)
be worth vrijediti vredeti (vredi)

These differences are sometimes surprising to native speakers as well: very few people in Croatia would guess the forms mrzeti and vredeti. 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 (the same holds for vrijediti). Therefore, Ekavian forms of these verbs turn out to be more complicated.

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:

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

The Ekavian verbs razumeti and smeti have a specific ending in pres-3pl: -eju, which is different from Ijekavian or Ikavian.

Sequences -je- in endings of verbal adjectives are not subject to these differences. In all ‘pronunciations’, words voljen loved, primljen received etc. have the same form.

The same applies to verbal nouns in -je; the difference in sjećanje vs. sećanje (both meaning memory) is only in the 1st syllable; the final -je, which forms the gerund, is not affected.

There are more words with non-trivial correspondences:

wordIjekavianEkavian
part dio (dijel-) deo (del-)
last year lani lane
lazy lijen lenj

When -je comes after a vowel which is not i (e.g. dvoje two people, jaje egg) the forms are the same in Ekavian, Ijekavian and Ikavian. Of course, the same applies to verbal forms such as pije he/she drinks nije he/she/it is not etc. Ekavian forms have to be learned if you want to know them.

I will list Serbian words in both Ijekavian and Ekavian forms in this chapter.

Other partially regular differences

A major difference is loss of h in native words in Serbian (both Ekavian and Ijekavian; however, it was restored at the beginning of words in standard Serbian). It has been replaced by either v or j:

term Croatian Serbian
deaf gluh gluv
dry suh suv
fly (insect) muha muva
cook (verb) kuhati kuvati
son’s wife snaha snaja

In nouns ending in -ol, Serbian (both Ekavian and Ijekavian) had lost final -l, which is restored whenever any ending is added. It also happened to -r in nouns and adverbs ending in -er:

term Croatian Serbian
salt sol f so (sol-) f
table stol sto (stol-) m
ox vol vo (vol-) m
evening večer f veče (večer- f)
yesterday jučer juče
also također takođe

This change didn’t happen in bol pain.

The noun veče is considered neuter in N and A, and feminine when it gets any ending, which is an occasional source of confusion for native speakers.

There are a bit simplified forms or pronouns; however, these forms are colloquially used in Croatia as well:

term Croatian Serbian
who tko ko
someone netko neko
what što šta

In some words there’s su in Croatian vs. sa in Serbian, while in others there’s no difference; common examples are:

term Croatian Serbian
cooperation suradnja saradnja
consent suglasnost f saglasnost f
conflict               sukob
contents               sadržaj

As you can see, such words often correspond to English words with co- or con-, but there’s no real rule which words have the difference, and which don’t.

Vocabulary Differences in Nouns and Adjectives

Serbian has some specific common nouns:

termCroatianSerbian
bladder mjehur bešika
week tjedan (tjedn-) nedjelja
nedelja
sedmica
island otok ostrvo
pants, trousers hlače f pl. pantalone f pl.
farmer’s market tržnica pijaca
floor (of a building) kat sprat
wave val talas
handbag, purse torba tašna
wheel (not to steer) kotač točak (točk-)
condition, prerequisite uvjet uslov
air zrak vazduh

Some words are only slightly different:

termCroatianSerbian
eyeglasses naočale f pl. naočari f. pl.
price-list cjenik cjenovnik
cenovnik
palace palača palata
salary plaća plata
point, dot točka tačka
priest svećenik sveštenik
physician (m) liječnik ljekar
lekar
physician (f) liječnica ljekarka
lekarka
coal ugljen ugalj (uglj-)

There are also different terms related to modern life:

termCroatianSerbian
factory tvornica fabrika
football nogomet fudbal
train vlak voz
movie theatre kino bioskop
mobile phone mobitel mobilni (adj.)

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
apricot marelica kajsija
bread kruh hljeb
hleb
beans grah pasulj
rice riža pirinač
carrot mrkva šargarepa
leek poriluk praziluk
vinegar ocat (oct-) sirće (sirćet-)
soup juha supa
spoon žlica kašika
cup (of tea, coffee) šalica šolja
scissors škare f pl. makaze f pl.
towel ručnik peškir

However, in real life, the variation in culinary terms is much greater, especially within Croatia. Some ‘Croatian’ terms like riža and mrkva are also used in Serbia, especially in some parts, and sometimes a distinction is made between mrkva and šargarepa.

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
liquid tekućina tečnost
(chem.) compound spoj jedinjenje
(chem.) solution otopina rastvor
cell (in biology) stanica ćelija
mammal sisavac (sisavc-) sisar
rat štakor pacov
camel deva kamila
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, and generally school:

term Croatian Serbian
triangle trokut trougao (trougl-)
rule (to draw lines) ravnalo lenjir
straight line pravac (pravc-) prava
curve krivulja kriva
sum zbroj zbir
degree stupanj (stupnj-) stepen
equation jednadžba jednačina
lecture, class in school sat čas
class (group of students) razred odjeljenje
odeljenje

However, notice that razred in both Croatia and Serbia means grade in school (e.g. prvi razred first grade).

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 Serbian
accent akcent akcenat (akcent-)
fascist fašist fašista
flu gripa grip
casette kazeta kaseta
mayonnaise majoneza majonez
orange naranča narandža / pomorandža
chimp čimpanza šimpanza
clown klaun klovn

The form kaseta is standard in Croatian as well, but it’s very rare in real use.

Some words adapted from Greek have k- in Croatian, and h- in Serbian; another, less common difference in such words is -b- vs -v-, and -c- vs -k-:

term Croatian Serbian
chemistry kemija hemija
chaos kaos haos
chlorine klor hlor
surgeon kirurg hirurg
labyrinth labirint lavirint
ocean ocean okean

Some regions, countries and cities also have different names, sometimes the difference is slight:

term Croatian Serbian
Athens Atena Atina
Babylon Babilon Vavilon
Cyprus Cipar (Cipr-) Kipar (Kipr-)
Europe Europa Evropa
Jerusalem Jeruzalem Jerusalim
Persia Perzija Persija
The Netherlands Nizozemska (adj.) Holandija
Romania Rumunjska (adj.) Rumunija
Spain Španjolska (adj.) Španija

There are more different names, these are just the most common; the difference applies to derived adjectives and names of inhabitants, of course. Additionally, there’s a difference in adjectives derived from places ending in -iški:

term Croatian Serbian
Parisian pariški pariski
Tunisian tuniški tuniski

Words related to government, having the suffix -kracija in Croatian, have -kratija in Serbian:

term Croatian Serbian
bureucracy birokracija birokratija
democracy demokracija demokratija

There are terms which correspond to two words in Croatia – an ‘international’ one, and a word made from Slavic roots (or borrowed from Czech in the 19th century) – which are used interchangeably, or one is formal and the other colloquial, or there’s a small difference in meaning, while only the ‘international’ word in used in Serbian. Common pairs are:

term Croatian Serbian & Croatian
library knjižnica biblioteka
machine stroj mašina
music glazba muzika
system sustav sistem

For example, in Croatia, only knjižnica is used for public libraries, while biblioteka can mean any book collection, e.g. in someone’s home.

Then, there’s a difference which applies only to standard languages, while Croatia, or parts of Croatia, uses words which are used in Serbia in everyday speech:

term Croatia Serbia
thousand tisuća (std.)
hiljada
hiljada
clothes iron glačalo (formal, rare in speech)
pegla
pegla
tomato rajčica (formal, rare in speech)
paradajz
pom(idor)
paradajz

Conversely, there are some words which are used in Serbia and not in Croatia, but words common to Serbia and Croatia actually dominate in Serbia as well, such as:

term Croatia & Serbia Serbia (rare)
universe svemir vasiona
later (adverb) kasnije docnije

In Serbian, suffixes -ka and -kinja are more common to derive feminine nouns, while Croatian prefers -ica; again, in some terms there’s no difference:

term Croatian Serbian
university student (f) studentica studentkinja
doctor (f) doktorica doktorka
teacher (f)           učiteljica
mathematician (f)           matematičarka

Forms studentica and doktorica are accepted as standard in Serbian as well, but are much less common than the alternative forms.

There are some specific adjectives as well; again, some are only slightly different:

term Croatian Serbian
common opći opšti
happy, lucky sretan (srećn-) srećan (srećn-)
used korišten korišćen
secure, safe siguran (sigurn-) bezbjedan (-n-)
bezbedan (-n-)

Vocabulary differences in verbs

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)
reserve rezervirati («) rezervisati (-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, such as:

analizirati («) analyze
diplomirati («) graduate (on univ.)
kopirati («) copy
kreirati («) create
maskirati («) mask
parkirati («) park (a car)
planirati («) plan
studirati («) study (on univ.)
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
improvise improvizirati («) improvizovati (-uje)
isolate izolirati («) izolovati (-uje)
combine kombinirati («) kombinovati (-uje)
compensate kompenzirati («) kompenzovati (-uje)
modernize modernizirati («) modernizovati (-uje)
organize organizirati («) organizovati (-uje)
pack pakirati («) pakovati (-uje)

When such verbs have -cirati in Croatian, they have -kovati in Serbian:

verb         Croatian             Serbian
disinfect, sanitize dezinficirati («) dezinfikovati (-uje)
identify identificirati («) identifikovati (-uje)
complicate komplicirati («) komplikovati (-uje)
modify modificirati («) modifikovati (-uje)

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

verb Croatian Serbian
comment komentirati («) komentarisati (-še)

Many recently adapted verbs – mostly colloquial – often have just -ati in Croatia vs -ovati (-uje) in Serbia:

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

There are few 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)

These verbs are specific as well:

verb Croatian Serbian
be silent šutjeti / šutiti ćutati (ćuti)
move, shift pomicati (pomiče) ~
 pomaknuti (pomakne)
pomjerati («) ~
 pomjeriti
pomerati («) ~
 pomeriti
mention spominjati
 spomenuti (spomene)
pominjati
 pomenuti (pomene)
watch, look at promatrati («) posmatrati («)
lose weight (perf.) smršaviti smršati

Grammar and other differences

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. (mostly Croatian)

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

Jako sam umorna. I’m very tired. (mostly Croatian)

Mnogo sam umorna. I’m very tired. (Serbian)

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 some often-used nicknames for men in Serbia ending in -a: Pera (from Petar), Vlada (from Vladimir and similar), Brana (from Branislav), etc., all behaving as any name ending in -a. They are quite rare in Croatia, where forms Pero, Vlado, etc. are preferred.

A famous difference is preference for da + present instead of infinitives in Serbia. Using infinitives in Serbia is not ungrammatical, but they are simply rarely used (especially in speech); these results are from Google™, in thousands (try yourself similar expressions):

form Croatia (.hr) Bosnia (.ba) Serbia (.rs)
Želim da kažem 0.2 54 116
Želim reći 74 51 10
Želim da idem 0 24 45
Želim ići 12 4 0.3

As usual, Bosnia (which includes Ijekavian Serbian in parts of Bosnia) is somewhere in between.

Montenegrin

Montengrin uses more or less the same vocabulary and spelling conventions as Serbian, but only the Ijekavian variant. It uses few specific forms, like nijesmo vs. Croatian/Serbian nismo we aren’t. Words having sequences dj in Croatian often have đ in Montenegrin:

word Croatian Montenegrin
where gdje đe
nowhere nigdje niđe
girl djevojka đevojka

Recently the Montenegrin alphabet introduced two additional letters: ś and ź (there are Cyrillic versions as well) for specific consonants heard in speech there – but they are rarely used in real life.

It has been observed that Montenegrin public media have recently started to use more Croatian forms than before.

Bosnian

Bosnian (or: Bosniak, there’s a dispute over name – there are disputes about almost everything) uses only Latin script and Ijekavian. Two spelling differences (e.g. Njujork and imaću) are used sometimes in Bosnian, but it seems that Croatian versions occasionally prevail (New York, imat ću). Standard Bosnian sometimes freely mixes Croatian and Serbian terms, so both tisuća and hiljada 1000 seem acceptable.

Since Bosnian is a standard used by Bosniaks which are predominantly Muslim, there are lot of oriental and Islamic terms. Sound h is always retained, even when not in Croatian (one example is lahko easy vs Croatian lako; of course, lahko exists in some dialects in Croatia too, but it’s not standard). There are some specific terms, e.g. daidža uncle (Croatian ujak).

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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