There is a word that describes the relationship between Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Montenegrin languages perfectly: НАШКИ / NAŠKI. It is coined from the possessive pronoun NAŠ (ours) and the suffix -SKI that we use for making adverbs and that you have seen in the names of the languages: srpski, hrvatski, engleski, norveški, italijanski (Cro. talijanski), španski (Cro. španjolski). It is used mainly by the people living in diaspora, where the previously mentioned nations stick together and feel the need to diminish the differences among them. That's why they differentiate between the person who speaks our language (On govori naški) and the person who speaks, say, German (On govori nemački, cro. njemački). A person who speaks naški is a person with whom you can speak your own language.


That is in fact how we speak. Let us imagine for a second that there was a Serbian from Belgrade, a Croatian from Zagreb, a Bosnian from Sarajevo and a Montenegrin from Podgorica in one room. What do you think, how would they communicate? Do you think they would need an interpreter, or maybe several interpreters? No. They could pick an argument, each one of them in their own languages, and they would understand each other perfectly. Exactly like four people from Argentina, Mexico, Chile and Andalucia, or four people from the USA, UK, South Africa and Australia would.


This gives you the idea of how similar the languages are. That is because "language" is a political, and not a linguistic category. As a smart person once said: “A language is a dialect with an army and navy.”


As a matter of fact, all four languages have based their standards on the same dialect, namely the Shtokavian dialect (штокавски / štokavština), and even on the same subdialect, namely Eastern Herzegovinian (источно-херцеговачки / istočno-hercegovački), which is marked yellow in the picture below. The Serbian standard assimilated another subdialect, Shumadinian-Voivodinian (шумадијско-војвођански / šumadijsko-vojvođanski), marked blue in the same picture.


To conclude, if you learn any of these languages, you will be able to communicate across all the four countries. The vast majority of the words are the same or incredibly similar, the conjugations and the declensions are virtually the same.


Now, you probably wonder here why am I not going to speak about Bosnian and Montenegrin. That is because I wouldn't suggest starting with either of them, and let me explain why. Montenegrin is the newest language and the materials available are quite scarce and still undeveloped, and the Bosnian standard partly conforms with the Croatian rules and partly with the Serbian ones, with its main distinction being a greater number of Turkish loan words in their vocabulary. Serbian and Croatian already have a long tradition of being taught to foreigners and there are more quality books available.


Another article that describes the four languages can be found here on my blog and I'd suggest it for further reading.


That being said, let us now focus on the five most notable differences between Serbian and Croatian, and investigate the advantages they offer to learners.


Difference #1: The Melody of Speech


The first most notable difference that all of us in the four countries are accustomed to intuitively perceiving is the melody of speech. That is how we can distinguish if someone is coming from another country, or even another region or town in the same country. Now, this would be impossible to explain in writing and I will leave it to your ears. Try watching the national television or listening to the national radio stations to catch the nuances of different accents, and maybe even deciding on your favourite. It will probably be easier to hear once you're an intermediate to advanced learner.


Difference #2: The Two Yat Reflexes – Ijekavian vs. Ekavian


Yat (ѣ) was a common Slavic long vowel, that in Eastern-Herzegovinian was replaced with -je- or -ije-, producing the pronunciation that we call ijekavica, while in Shumadinian-Voivodinian it was replaced with -e-, giving the pronunciation that we call ekavica. That is why you can see and hear both ovde and ovdje, mleko and mlijeko, devojka and djevojka.


The Serbian standard allows for both pronunciations and in our official orthography and grammar books both are given an equal importance. On the other hand, not many people in Serbia use ijekavian, and ekavian is widespread, while all the Serbians from Republika Srpska speak ijekavian. In Croatia and Bosnia only ijekavian forms the standard.


Pros & Cons: If you decide to learn Serbian (first), your teacher and your books will probably teach you ekavian. And that's good because it is somewhat easier to pronounce and you don't have to remember where to put -e-, where -je- and where -ije-. However, if you want to learn Croatian as well, you should consider starting from there, because it might be slightly more difficult remembering where to put e/je/ije after you've gotten accustomed to the simple -e- in ekavian.


For more general information about Yat, please refer to this article.


Difference #3: Double Conjugation vs. Infinitives


People in Croatia tend to use infinitives to complement modal, semi-modal or phrasal verbs, for example: ja hoću raditi, ti možeš doći, on želi učiti, mi volimo plivati, oni su počeli pričati. On the other hand, in Serbia people prefer to double conjugate: ja hoću da radim, ti možeš da dođeš, on želi da uči, mi volimo da plivamo, oni su počeli da pričaju. However, using infinitives is also legitimate, especially when there are too many da's accumulated. The extensive use of the conjunction da is sometimes referred to with the (somewhat scornful) term dakanje.


Pros & Cons: For a Romance or Germanic language speaker, using infinitives will be very convenient and probably easier to pick up. However, double conjugation is an excellent brain-empowering exercise, especially when it comes to combining two verbs from different groups, such as:


  • ja volim da putujem
  • ti voliš da putuješ
  • on voli da putuje
  • mi volimo da putujemo
  • vi volite da putujete
  • oni vole da putuju


Quite challenging, isn't it?


Difference #4: Vocabulary


Even though the vast majority of the words are exactly the same or slightly different, there are quite a few differences in vocabulary, that are nonetheless understood by both sides. For educative purposes, we can group the different words into five categories.



  1. Some of those words are just regional terms, such as: Serbian and Bosnian greeting zdravo and Croatian bog, or hleb/hljeb vs. kruh, voz vs. vlak etc.
  2. Others are different because Serbians loaned a foreign word and Croatians coined their own word: pasoš/putovnica; avion/zrakoplov; aerodrom/zračna luka.
  3. Sometimes the words are developed from the same stem with a different ending (used, however, in both languages): studentkinja/studentica; sportista/sportaš; lekar/lječnik.
  4. Sometimes different stems are chosen for building a word. There is this famous, funny and illustrative example that in Serbian house is kuća and housewife is domaćica, while in Croatian kuća is dom and domaćica is kućanica. Please don't be misguided by a joke, both kuća and dom are used in both languages.
  5. In some cases Serbians loaned a foreign word while Croatians preserved the Slavic word. That's how for a thousand in Serbian the Greek word hiljada is used, while in Croatian it remained tisuća. This also goes for the names of the months: the international names are adopted in Serbian, while the old Slavic words are kept in Croatian:
    • Месеци у српском: јануар, фебруар, март, април, мај, јун, јул, август, септембар, октобар, новембар, децембар.
    • Mjeseci u hrvatskom: siječanj, veljača, ožujak, travanj, svibanj, lipanj, srpanj, kolovoz, rujan, listopad, studeni, prosinac.


Pros & Cons: If you prefer an easier way, then your choice here will definitely be Serbian, with somewhat more international loan words that can be useful to quickly enrich your vocabulary and, in turn, your ability to express yourself.


Difference #5: Building Verbs from Loan Words With the Suffixes -irati or -ovati


This applies to the most widespread Latin and Greek international heritage and to the new technology-related English terms that have flooded virtually every language. Generally speaking, in Croatia the suffix -irati (essentially Latin borrowed through German) seems to be the most productive (i.e. makes the most verbs), while in Serbia the Slavic suffix -ovati and the Greek-originated suffix -isati are preferred. However, there are words that come only in the -ovati pattern. Please refer to the table below for the examples. Where there is only one form, it is the only one and used in both countries.


Serbian -ovati

Serbian -isati

Croatian -irati




































Pros & Cons: If you prefer an easier way, then your choice here will definitely be Croatian, with all the foreign verbs following the same pattern. However, if you prefer diversity over simplicity, have a go at the Serbian jolly suffixes.


To sum it all up, take a look at the core differences explained, listen to the languages and find your favourite. By all means, you should first learn the language of the country you have the most friends in or where you travel the most often. That is the most sensible choice. Later on, after you've mastered the language of your choice, you will easily get acquainted with all the other existing variants, dialects or accents of this region. It will be great source of fun, I promise!


Image Sources


Hero image is CC BY-SA 4.0.


Magdalena Petrovic is a teacher at italki who many students have described as “excellent” and “fun.” Did you like her article? Keep reading her blog, or access more interesting materials for Serbian learning here.