Many of my friends and family from home ask me the same question: What are the differences among the Serbian, Bosnian, and Croatian languages? I understand their confusion, because last year I studied Serbian language at the Centre for Serbian as a Foreign Language at the University of Novi Sad in Serbia. Lately I speak of my commitment to improving my Bosnian language skills now that I live in Sarajevo. Most people in the United States still think of the language as Serbo-Croatian, and always I carry a pocket Croatian dictionary in my purse. This probably sounds confusing to many people, so here is a brief explanation for clarification.
For centuries, the dialects of the South Slavs have developed independently with slight regional variations. By the mid-19th century, writers and linguists worked to standardize the language, and they began to call the unified language Serbian-Croatian (or Croatian-Serbian). In 1918, the first Kingdom of Yugoslavia named the language Serbo-Croato-Slovene, making the previous efforts to create a supranational language official. In 1929, the names of the country and language were changed to Yugoslavia, in order to eliminate ethnic divisions among the people.
Communist Yugoslavia did not solve the language issues, but it suppressed ethnic tensions to some extent. In 1954, groups of Serbian and Croatian intellectuals signed the Novi Sad Agreement, which stated that Serbs, Croats, and Montenegrins speak the same language with some differences in pronunciation. Many Croats were uneasy with this declaration, and viewed it as Serbia’s attempt to assert political dominance over the region. Following the political pressures in the 1980s and 1990s, the forced merging of the languages ended, and speakers called the language whatever they wanted. The wars surrounding the breakup of Yugoslavia emphasized differences among the people, and language politics became very important.
It is impossible to provide a short explanation of language politics in the former-Yugoslavia. However it is most important to state that Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, and Montenegrins can easily understand each other, despite the different names for the language. In a recent B92 article, a Croatian linguist states that everyone in Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia, and Montenegro are speaking the same language. She speaks of how emphasis on small regional language differences is a mask to spread political intolerance.
Constantly, I am reminded of my Serbian professor who told me that in the former-Yugoslavia, the small differences matter most to people. Although everyone can easily understand one another, language is an important factor of national pride. In Bosnia, everyone has the right to education in their “own language” and differences are emphasized. In Serbian schools, children are taught in Serbian in the Cyrillic alphabet. Similarly, schools with Bosniak Muslim or Croatian majorities emphasize their own regional dialects and spellings. For example, Serbs say uvek and Bosnians say uvijek (always), gde and gdje (where), lepo and lijepo (beautiful). The differences are hardly noticeable in conversation, but greatly matter to teachers and parents when it comes to educational and classroom settings.
In conclusion, most people would agree that the people of these four countries speak the same language. Internationally, this language is usually called Bosnian-Serbian-Croatian to be as politically correct as possible. International organizations are working to ease the tension over language in the Bosnian education system. For my own purposes, it does not matter that I studied Serbian language last year and now I live in Bosnia. For the purposes of my CV however, I can say I speak three languages when I really speak only one. 🙂
My collection of books- Serbian dictionary in Cyrillic, Bosnian dictionary, pocket Croatian dictionary, Serbian workbooks, Bosnian workbooks.....
For more information, please read the recent B92 article on linguistics here. (In Serbian)
Also, wikipedia provides explanation on the differences between Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian here.