The Croatian language shares a difficult past closely intertwined with the Bosnian and Serbian languages. Despite the many similarities shared between Bosnian, Serbian, and Croatian, Croatian-language speakers have made a point of defining a unique Croatian language since the fall of the former Yugoslav Republic.
Classification and Early History of the Croatian Language
The Croatian language is classified as part of the western group of the South Slavic language subfamily. The South Slavic subfamily is part of the Common Slavic language, the parent language of all Slavic languages which is part of the Indo-European family of languages.
In the 6th century AD, the Slav people migrated from Old Poland and settled throughout Eastern Europe. From this resettling process, three primary Slavic language groups emerged: Eastern, Western, and Southern. Croatian, Bosnian and Serbian originated from the South Slavic group.
Development of Early Written Croatian
The written Croatian language is believed to have begun around the 9th century, when Old Slavonic was adopted as the religious language of choice. The first known Croatian literary text dates from approximately the 12th century AD.
It was not until the early 19th century that a standardized written Croatian language, based on Latin script, was developed in a movement spearheaded by Croatian national Ljudevit Gaj. From 1830, Gaj led the Illyrian movement which chose the Stokavian dialect as the basis for a standardized written Croatian language.
Close Relationship Between the Serbian, Bosnian, and Croatian Languages
Like Bosnian and Serbian, the Croatian language has three main dialects: Cakavian, Kajkavian, and Stokavian. Cakavian is spoken mostly along the Croatian coast and on the Adriatic islands, while Kajkavian is spoken primarily in the north of Croatia. The rest of the region generally utilizes the Stokavian dialect.
The Serbian, Bosnian and Croatian languages are all very similar in the spoken form. In fact, they differ even less than American, British, and Australian English do from one another. All three languages share three primary dialects, and differ primarily in terms of vocabulary. As far as the written language, differences exist in that Serbian uses a Cyrillic alphabet while Croatian uses a Latin alphabet.
Cyrillic vs. Latin Alphabets
The difference in written Croatian and Serbian is due to various religious and cultural differences that have developed in the region throughout history. Peoples inhabiting the Western region, where modern-day Croatian is spoken, came under the influence of the Roman Catholic Church, leading them to adopt a Latin alphabet. The western region also looked to Rome as a cultural and religious model, further encouraging the use of a Latin alphabet.
In contrast, the Eastern region turned to the Eastern Orthodox Church and looked to Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) and Russia as models of cultural and religious guidance. This inspired the adoption of a Cyrillic alphabet which remains in use today. Aside from differences in the alphabet systems, Croatian, Bosnian and Serbian differ primarily in terms of vocabulary.
The Vienna Agreement of 1850: Serbo-Croatian, Croato-Serbian, or Serbo-Croato-Bosnian
The modern Croatian literary language developed during the 19th century. In the year 1850, the Vienna Agreement established the Stokavian dialect, which is common to Croatian, Bosnian and Serbian, as the basis of a uniform literary language for all three languages.
The full effect of the significance of the Vienna Agreement was not felt until the late 19th century, however, when a number of official grammar texts, orthographies, and dictionaries of the language known as Serbo-Croatian (also referred to as Croato-Serbian, or Serbo-Croato-Bosnian) were published.
From the Kingdom of Yugoslavia to the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia
Modern-day Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia have a closely-intertwined history, as all three nations are part of the area of land formerly known as Yugoslavia. In 1918, the union of the State of Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs with the Kingdom of Serbia led to the creation of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. An attempt to create a single language of use for the kingdom resulted in the forging of Serbian and Croatian into a single language.
In 1929, this area of land was renamed the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. After invasion of Axis powers in 1941 and the period of unrest that followed, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was abolished. Shortly after, in 1943, a Yugoslav resistance movement proclaimed the area to be the Democratic Federal Yugoslavia. With the establishment of a communist government in 1946, this became the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia.
The country was again renamed in 1963, when Istria and Rijeka were added to the new area, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY). In total, the SFRY was comprised of eight Socialist Republics and Autonomous Provinces: SR Bosnia and Herzegovina, SR Serbia, SR Slovenia, SR Montenegro, SR Croatia, SR Macedonia, SAP Kosovo, and SAP Vojvodina.
The Novi Sad Agreement: Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian as a Single Language
In 1954, under Yugoslavian President Josip Broz Tito, the Novi Sad Agreement was established, declaring Serbo-Croatian to be a single language. Two official variants were recognized within Serbo-Croatian, the Eastern and the Western. Although it was met with some tension, the Novi Sad Agreement was maintained until the collapse of Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1991.
Disintegration of the SFRY and the Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian War
With the collapse of Yugoslavia, the former Yugoslav states of Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia became embroiled in a number of territorial disputes that led to the Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian War. Violent battles over territory escalated, spurred on by ethnic conflicts and nationalist urges as the newly independent states sought to claim territory and establish superiority over the others.
Violence continued from 1991 to 1995. In November 1995, a peace accord was signed by Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, and Croatian President Franjo Tudjman. NATO peacekeeping forces were deployed to aid the peace-keeping process.
Contemporary Croatian Language
The fact that Bosnian, Serbian, and Croatian speakers tend to emphasize the differences of these closely-related languages speaks largely to the complicated political, cultural, and religious history of the region.
After the collapse of Yugoslavia, successor countries such as Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia turned to language as one way of reaffirming distinct ethnic identities. In the Croatian language, measures were taken to rid the language of the Serbian influence it had felt since the Vienna Agreement of 1850.
Today, the Croatian language is spoken by approximately 6 million people, primarily in the country of Croatia where it serves as the official national language. The Croatian language also is spoken in nearby Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, and Italy.
Croatian Quick Facts
Alternate Names & Spellings: Hrvatski
Language Family: Indo-European, Slavic, South, Western
Spoken by Approximately 6,215,000 people
Also Spoken In: United States
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