I grew up the in the former Yugoslavia, and the language I studied in school was called Serbocroatian, which was spoken in four out of the six republics of the union. When the country fell apart, the nationalist politicians (all of them) wanted to separate their language by name, i.e. Bosnian, Serbian, Croatian etc. but it really remains the same language, only really different dialects less distinct than let's say Brazilian and Portuguese, which are BTW both properly called Portuguese.

I am reaching out to the community of experts to inquire whether there are any scientific grounds by which these now four (above three + Montenegrin) can be considered distinct languages.

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    There is not much some foreign experts can tell you about the situation that you do not already know. Writing as a fellow human with origins in ex-Yu. Commented Jul 29, 2017 at 18:37

2 Answers 2


I grew up the in the former Yugoslavia, and the language I studied in school was called Serbocroatian, which was spoken in four out of the six republics of the union.

You were basically studying the standard, 'literary' language. And then, you were mostly focused on your version of Serbo-Croatian [SC].

There were at least 4 versions. They were called 'Western', 'Eastern', 'Ekavian', etc.

You weren't systematically studying all these versions. Very few people did learn systematically - in school - differences such as:




brijati = brijati

and such as:




trenirati = trenirati

Not to mention that nobody was learning this in school, for example: https://youtu.be/G2YJr5JNnnM

Can you understand all of it? I had really problems with some words. Is it the same language? Is he singing in SC? Or not?

There's another problem, a very practical one. In Croatia, spelling naprimjer 'for example' is acceptable. In Serbia, it's not, you can only spell it with 2 words (na primer). So imagine a teacher in school who has to prove to a student that naprimjer is acceptable. There has to be a book which proves it, an orthography manual. What will be written on the cover of it?

SC orthography? But it would describe only spellings acceptable in Croatia. Croatian SC? Standard Croatian Serbo-Croatian?

Since laypeople usually equate 'language' with 'proper spelling' and 'standard language', the only option is to write Croatian on the cover.

Linguistically speaking, one can say that:

  • what is spoken in Zagreb, Split and Belgrade is not the same, but it's similar
  • people can still understand each other without misunderstandings, but there are funny moments once a while
  • dialects don't follow political or ethnic borders, except in a small number of situations

There's something more. People who were born and raised in Serbia or Bosnia-Herzegovina often underplay actual diversity of speech. I, living in Zagreb, can sometimes only barely understand people living in a village (in Croatia!) 40 km from Zagreb. They might be speaking Slovak, as far as I am concerned. What are they speaking? Is it the same language? Or we call it a dialect? Why?

People in Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina often don't think dialects are important in the everyday life. Now listen to the YouTube link again. Dialects are very important in Croatia, and many people actually consider their native dialect "the true language".

So, depending on your view, there is maybe only one language with many dialects and variants (some incomprehensible to you), or 4 or 10 languages.


From the linguistic point, distinguishing languages vs. dialects can be tricky. There are quite a few posts on this site about this very problem:

I would recommend reading the above questions along with their answers prior to moving forward here. Maybe the most crucial point is that the following statements about Serbian, Bosnian, Croatian, and Montenegrin are all true:

  • they are parts of a larger Serbo-Croatian language (or the Southern-Slavonic language, if you will);
  • these can be considered individual languages;
  • they have a high level of mutual intelligibility.

Although, "dialect" is a linguistic term, many people would deny they speak a "dialect" because of its connotation of "speaking a spoiled version of a language which is used correctly elsewhere".

There also are some political/regulatory factors that take place, and each country naturally prefers to have their own regulatory institutions, rather than depending on a neighbor's book named, e.g., "Standard Serbo-Croatian", and each country would claim that their Serbo-Croatian is correct, while others are "dialects".

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    Not sure that all applies here, there are people from literally the same village who speak the same way who use different labels for that language. Intelligibility is basically irrelevant here. Commented Jul 28, 2017 at 6:33

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