The modern Serbian language is very closely related to Bosnian and Croatian, thanks to the complex history shared by the former Yugoslav countries where these languages are primarily spoken today. The common past shared by Croatian, Bosnian and Serbian still is evident in the many similarities between the three that continue to exist.
Classification and Early History of the Serbian Language
The Serbian language is part of the Slavic language family, a subfamily of the Indo-European language of families. After the resettlement of the Slav people throughout Eastern Europe in the 6th century AD, the Slavic language family developed three different groups, Eastern, Western, and Southern.
Serbian is part of the Southern Slavic group, along with Croatian and Bosnian, and is further classified as an Eastern South Slavic language, as opposed to Croatian, which is considered a Western South Slavic language.
Early Development of a Written Serbian Language
Serbian language literature is believed to have emerged in the Middle Ages. Although most of the early known Serbian language documents consist of legal and administrative texts, some early literary works exist, such as “Miroslav’s Gospel” (“Miroslavljevo jevandelje”), dated to approximately 1192. Influences of other cultures are also evident, as a translation of “Tristan and Iseult” from the time reveals.
During the time of Ottoman conquest in the mid-15th century, a number of significant Serbian literary works appeared, notably Serbian epic poems and folktales. The influence of these impressive works was acknowledged by such scholars as Goethe, who learned Serbian so that he might read such works in the original language.
Croatian, Bosnian, and Serbian Languages: A Shared Past
In the spoken form, Serbian, Bosnian and Croatian are all very similar, their differences being comparable to those found between American, British and Australian English. The three languages share the same primary dialects: Cakavian, spoken along the Croatian coast and Adriatic islands, Kajkavian, spoken in northern Croatia, and Stokavian, broadly used in all other regions.
Primary differences between the Croatian, Bosnian and Serbian languages are found in vocabulary, and the fact that Serbian makes use of a Cyrillic alphabet, while Croatian makes use of a Latin alphabet. This is due primarily to historical religious and cultural differences.
While peoples in the Western region, where modern-day Croatian is spoken, came under the influence of the Roman Catholic Church and adopted a Latin alphabet, those in the eastern region turned to the Eastern Orthodox Church, inspiring the adoption of a Cyrillic alphabet.
The Vienna Agreement of 1850: Serbo-Croatian, Croato-Serbian, or Serbo-Croato-Bosnian
In the year 1850, the Vienna Agreement established that the Stokavian dialect would serve as the basis for a uniform literary language for Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian. The agreement gained influence towards the end of the 19th century when the first official grammar texts and dictionaries of the amalgamated language referred to as Serbo-Croatian were published.
Serbo-Croatian has also been referred to as Croato-Serbian, or Serbo-Croato-Bosnian.
From the Kingdom of Yugoslavia to the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia
With the 1918 union of the State of Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs with the Kingdom of Serbia, a single entity known as the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was established. Linguistic effects of this territorial union were apparent, as attempts to establish a uniform language throughout the kingdom resulted in the official forging of Serbian and Croatian into a single language.
Throughout the next 50 years, the territory changed names numerous times, adding land and shifting borders, until the communist Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia was established in 1946. In 1963, the territories of Istria and Rijeka were added and the area was renamed the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY).
Ultimately, the SFRY included 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
The Novi Sad Agreement declaring Serbo-Croatian to be a single official language of the Yugoslav republic was established in 1954, under the reign of Yugoslavian President Josip Broz Tito. Two official types were recognized, the Eastern and the Western, mirroring the two types of written languages that had emerged from the Stokavian dialect in the early 19th century. The Novi Sad Agreement remained intact until the collapse of Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1991.
The Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian War: Influence on Language
The violence that ensued upon the collapse of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) lasted from about 1991 to 1995, as Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian forces fought over territory and claims to superiority. In November 1995, the presidents of Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia signed a peace accord, and NATO peacekeeping forces entered the region to enforce a return to peace.
The newfound sense of nationalism among the peoples of present-day Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia has inspired these peoples to emphasize the differences between their languages. Although many linguistic scholars outside the Balkans region scientifically classify Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian as a single language (Serbo-Croatian), a reaffirmation of the differences among these languages has become one way for the Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian people to create feelings of separate national identity after the fall of the SFRY.
Serbian Language Today
Since the collapse of the SFRY, the Serbian-speaking peoples have made attempts to purify the Serbian language, replacing words formerly shared with Croatian and Bosnian with new, distinctly Serbian words. Croatian and Bosnian-speaking peoples have taken similar measures in attempts to establish distinct linguistic systems.
The contemporary Serbian language is spoken by approximately 12 million people, primarily in the country of Serbia where it serves as the official national language. The Serbian language is also spoken in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Montenegro, as well as in Croatia and Romania, where it serves as a recognized regional language.
Serbian Quick Facts
Alternate Names & Spellings: Montenegrin
Language Family: Indo-European, Slavic, South, Western
Spoken by Approximately 11,145,000 people
Also Spoken In: United States
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