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.


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:

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:

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.

Also, words starting with je- are not affected: it’s jesti (jede, jeo) eat in both Ekavian and Ijekavian (interestingly, there is a difference in Ikavian; however, it’s not important for Serbian).

Personal pronouns are not affected as well: for example, njega (A/G of on he) is the same in all ‘pronunciations’. However, the noun njega care (of a person) is affected – it’s nega in Ekavian.

There are more words with non-trivial correspondences:

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. These forms are used coloquially in some parts of Croatia as well, e.g. veče can be often heard in Dalmatia.

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:

bladder mjehur bešika
neighbor (m) susjed komšija m
neighbor (f) susjeda komšinica
week tjedan (tjedn-) nedjelja
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:

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

There are also different terms related to modern life:

movie theatre kino bioskop
boxer boksač bokser
animated cartoon crtić (colloq.) crtać (colloq.)
factory tvornica fabrika
jeans (pants) traperice f pl. farmerke f pl.
football (soccer) nogomet fudbal
football player nogometaš fudbaler
mobile phone mobitel mobilni (adj.)
theater kazalište pozorište
rolling shutters roleta roletna
train vlak voz

Especially, terms related to cooking and food show numerous differences; these terms are often completely unknown outside their ‘territory’:

term Croatian Serbian
green beans mahune f pl. boranija
liver (to eat) jetra f pl. /
jetrica f pl.
apricot marelica kajsija
bread kruh hljeb
oats zob ovas (ovs-)
beans grah pasulj
cream (cooking) vrhnje pavlaka
rice riža pirinač
vinegar ocat (oct-) sirće (sirćet-)
soup juha supa / čorba
carrot mrkva šargarepa
hazelnut lješnjak lješnik
parsley peršin peršun
leek poriluk praziluk
elderberry bazga zova

As you can see, some words are quite similar, but others are completely unrelated. 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 differences in words for standard house items:

term Croatian Serbian
spoon žlica kašika
scissors škare f pl. makaze f pl.
towel ručnik peškir
cup (of tea, coffee) šalica šolja / šoljica
toilet seat (WC) školjka (WC) šolja
dishes, kitchenware suđe / posuđe sudovi m pl.
kitchen sink sudoper sudopera

Some terms are specific to Serbia, but Croatian terms are used in Serbia too, sometimes with a bit specific meaning:

term Croatian Serbian
bed sheet plahta čaršav (thick) / plahta (thin)
blanket deka ćebe / deka

Some words differ in gender. Sometimes, the difference exists only in the spoken language; in other cases, only in the standard languages:

term Croatian Serbian
candy bombon bombona
bombon (very rare)
flu gripa grip
mayonnaise majoneza majonez
planet planeta
planet (std.)
visit posjeta
posjet (*)
pain bol f
bol (*)

Forms marked by (*) are considered standard, but are quite rare in the real use, while (std) are standard words which are a bit less common than the other variant. (You’ll also hear bombona in parts of Croatia; as stated before, there are many variants of some words.) The words for minute and second have an even more complex distribution:

forms Croatia Serbia
minuta minute
sekunda second
common and
less common,
but used
minut minute
sekund second
used in some parts
(Slavonia, Dalmatia)

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
shark morski pas (ps-) ajkula
science znanost f 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 physics and 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
diameter promjer prečnik
lens leća sočivo
sum zbroj zbir
degree stupanj (stupnj-) stepen
equation jednadžba jednačina
lecture, class in school sat čas
class (group of students) razred odjeljenje
upbringing, manners odgoj vaspitanje
first-grader prvaš prvak
third-grader trećaš trak
eight-grader osmaš osmak

However, notice that razred in both Croatia and Serbia means grade in school (e.g. prvi razred first grade). The word odgoj is used in Serbia as well, but vaspitanje is much more common; furthermore, Standard Serbian insists on the stress vaspitanje, which is rare in real life in Serbia.

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-)
depression depresija depresija
fascist fašist fašista m
casette kazeta kaseta
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. As you can see, some words have only different stress.

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

term Croatian Serbian
chaos kaos haos
chemistry kemija hemija
surgeon kirurg hirurg
chlorine klor hlor
Christianity kršćanstvo hrišćanstvo
chronicle kronika hronika
barbarians barbari varvari
labyrinth labirint lavirint
ocean ocean okean

This is not completely regular, as e.g. archeology also comes from Greek, has ch, but it’s arheologija in both Croatia and Serbia. The same holds for psihologija psychology, arhitektura architecture and some other terms.

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

term Croatian Serbian
Athens Atena Atina
Babylon Babilon Vavilon / Vavilonija
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. There’s a well known difference in the adjective derived from Slovenia, and the adjective meaning Slavic, i.e. related to Slavic people and/or languages:

term Croatian Serbian
Slovene slovenski slovenki
Slavic slavenski slovenski

Additionally, there’s a difference in adjectives derived from places ending in -iški in Croatian:

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.)
million milijun (std.)
clothes iron glačalo (*)
pharmacy ljekarna (*)
tomato rajčica (*)
pom(idor) (coast)

Again, words marked by (*) are considered standard, formal, but they are quite rare in speech. 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)
centimeter (unit) centimetar (-r-) santimetar (-r-)
hour (in general use) sat čas
universe svemir vasiona
floor (of a room) pod patos
later (adverb) kasnije docnije

(I have divided the variable part of words with a vertical line to make everything more compact.)

A couple of loanwords have ce in Croatia vs se in Serbia:

term Croatia Serbia
certificate certifikat sertifikat
Barcelona Barcelona Barselona

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:

female term for Croatian Serbian
university student studentica studentkinja
doctor doktorica doktorka
teacher           učiteljica
mathematician           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
used korišten korišćen
common opći opšti
happy, lucky sretan (srećn-) srećan (srećn-)
moldy pljesniv buđav
secure, safe siguran (sigurn-) bezbjedan (-n-)
bezbedan (-n-)
artificial umjetan (umjetn-) veštački

The relational suffix -ski is used in Serbia with some nouns, where the suffix -ni is used with the same nouns in Croatia:

base noun Croatian Serbian
autobus bus autobusniʷ¹ autobuski
jezik language jezični jezički
porez tax porezni poreski

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

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)
stabilize stabilizirati («) stabilizovati (-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 («) ~
pomerati («) ~
mention spominjati
 spomenuti (spomene)
 pomenuti (pomene)
watch, look at promatrati («) posmatrati («)
lose weight (perf.) smršaviti smršati

Some verbs have fine differences in use, which often go unnoticed; for example, there are two verbs meaning cut, one for fine, one for coarse cuts – but what is ‘fine’ is not the same in Croatia and Serbia:

tool Croatia Serbia
knife rezati (reže) rezati (reže)
scissors seći (seče, sekao, sekla)
axe sjeći (siječe, sjekao, sjekla)

So, in Croatia, people use rezati (reže) for trimming fingernails and cutting paper – both normally done with scissors – while in Serbia, a different verb is used.

This verb pair has a subtle difference:

završavati («) ~ završiti («) finish

It can be used simply with a subject in N, and without any objects in Croatia, but in such use, se² is required in Serbia:

Utakmica je završila. The game has ended. (in sports)

Utakmica se završila. (the same meaning, in Serbia)

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 Croatia and Serbia:

Puno hvala! Thanks a lot. (Croatia, Serbia)

Mnogo hvala! Thanks a lot. (mostly Serbia)

Jako sam umorna. I’m very tired. (common in Croatia)

Mnogo sam umorna. I’m very tired. (common in Serbia)

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.

Another difference is in the ‘can’t be bothered to’ construction, where different verbs and cases are used:

Ne da mi se... (Croatian)

Mrzi me... (Serbian)


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 (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 who 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):

Fingernails are cut by rezati (reže) in Bosnia, but the verb sjeći (siječe, sjekao, sjekla) is sometimes used too.

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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