Serbian is the official language of Serbia, co-official in the territory of Kosovo, and one of the three official languages of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In addition, it is a recognized minority language in Montenegro, Croatia, North Macedonia, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic.
Serbian is a standardized variety of Serbo-Croatian, a Slavic language (Indo-European), of the South Slavic subgroup. Other standardized forms of Serbo-Croatian are Bosnian, Croatian, and Montenegrin. It has lower intelligibility with the Eastern South Slavic languages Bulgarian and Macedonian, than with Slovenian (part of the Western South Slavic subgroup)
What Is the Geographical Distribution of the Serbian Language?
Figures of speakers according to countries:
- Serbia: 6,540,699 (official language)
- Bosnia and Herzegovina: 1,086,027 (co-official language)
- Germany: 568,240
- Austria: 350,000
- Montenegro: 265,890 (recognized minority language)
- Switzerland: 186,000
- United States: 172,874
- Sweden: 120,000
- Italy: 106,498
- Canada: 72,690
- Australia: 55,114
- Croatia: 52,879 (recognized minority language)
- Slovenia: 38,964
- North Macedonia: 24,773 (recognized minority language)
- Romania: 22,518 (recognized minority language)
Where Does the Serbian Language Originate from?
It All Began With the Balto-Slavic Language
According to the most likely scientific assumption, the Kurgan hypothesis, which is based on a comparison of today’s languages, all Baltic languages originated from the Proto-Balto-Slavic language, which, again, originated from the eastern branch of the Proto-Indo-European language in the Pontic steppes (also known as Satemic). The Proto-Balto-Slavic language probably existed from the 3rd to the 1st millennium B.C. The given language was close to the Indo-Iranian language and the Proto-Germanic language.
The “mature age” of the Proto-Balto-Slavic language is related to the period 1500-1300. B.C. Thereafter, the given language decomposed into two separate languages: the Proto-Baltic and the Slavic languages.
Proto-Slavic and the Appearance of the Slavic Languages
The Proto-Slavic language probably appeared sometime between 1500 and 1000 B.C. in the southern half of the area of the Proto-Balto-Slavic language. This is inferred from the fact that in the Slovene languages today the words for inland waters (which are the most important element of the landscape) are well-preserved compared to other toponyms. Similarly, the words for plants and animals that inhabit this area also have a high level of similarity in most living Slavic languages. Many archaeological sites have been found in the area, which indicates the existence of prehistoric cultures.
The area inhabited by the Slavs (and where the Proto-Slavic language was spoken) covered the areas of the Wiesla, Buga, Dnieper and Pripyat rivers during the antiquity, which coincides with the present-day territories of eastern Poland, southern Belarus and northwestern Ukraine.
The Slavic language zenith is related to the period of the 5th and 6th centuries, when it spread rapidly with the migrations of the Slavic population to the west, south, east and north. At the same time, individual dialects were separated. Even so, it is believed that in the 8th century the same language was spoken from Thessaloniki in the south to Veliky Novgorod in the north. For two centuries the linguistic area of the Slavic language has been expanded several times. The rapid spread of the Slavic language (and population) is still a mystery today.
In the 9th century, the last changes in the Slavic language occurred, which were characteristic of all its dialects. Some Slavic languages were gradually distinguished on the basis of dialects. Nonetheless, for the next 4-5 centuries, one can speak of “universal linguistic intelligibility”. This is confirmed by the activity of the Saint Cyril and Methodius, who at the end of the 9th century spread Christianity in the Slavic dialect from the Thessaloniki region among the Slovenes from Greater Moravia without great difficulty.
The last feature of the Slavic language is the loss of the “weak yer” sound, which occurred in different areas sometime between the 10th and 12th centuries. At this time, the first written sources appear, showing the appearance of significant differences. This led to the emergence of the so-called recensions, from which the present-day Slavic languages originated.
Old Slavic: The First Written Slavic Language
The Old Slavic language is the first written Slavic language, codified on the basis of the speech of the Macedonian Slavs from the vicinity of Thessaloniki, in the 9th century. The Old Slavic alphabets were Glagolitic and Cyrillic.
It was codified by Christian missionaries, the brothers Cyril and Methodius, for the translation of the Bible and other scriptures from the Greek language. During the Middle Ages, the Slavic language became the written language of most Slavic peoples (the
Southern Slavs from the 9th to the 18th centuries, the Eastern Slavs from the 10th to the 18th centuries, the Moravian Slavs and the Czechs from the 9th to the 11th centuries) and influenced the formation of many younger Slavic languages. Today it is used in liturgical use in Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches of Slavic countries.
Church Slavic: the Language of the Slavic Orthodox Churches
Church Slavic is a liturgical language in Slavic Orthodox churches. Church Slavic began to be used after the missions of Cyril and Methodius and until modern times it was the most important Slavic written language. The language in the form in which it was created during Cyril and Methodius is called the canonical Church Slavic language.
Serbian Recension of the Old Slavic
The first norm of the Serbian written language was considered to have developed in the territory of the Serbian Littoral in Zeta and Zahumlje, the area from which the oldest preserved monuments created by this recension originated, but today, on the basis of some linguistic phenomena, it is considered that it developed much more east, closer to the first centers of Slavic literacy in the Balkan Peninsula, Ohrid and Preslav. The area around the present-day border of Serbia and Northern Macedonia, north of the Kratovo-Skopje-Tetovo line, is taken as its origin. It had three regular spellings:
- Zeta-Hum, which was the oldest and used in Serbia (until the beginning of the 13th century) and Bosnia (until its demise, in the mid-15th century)
- Raska, which inherited the Zeta-Hum in Serbia and was in use until the first decades of the 15th century
- Resava, which originated in the 15th century
The oldest preserved written monuments, dating from the end of the 12th century, testify that the process of forming the Serbian recension had already been completed. In addition to Old Slavic, during this period also the vernacular language was in use (professionally called Old Serbian language), which mainly occurs in letters and legal documents, and sometimes in literary works. The oldest preserved monument written in the vernacular is the charter of Ban Kulin (1180-1204) addressed to the people of Dubrovnik from 1189.
Vernacular Language and Reform
The reform of the Serbian language was carried out by Vuk Stefanovic Karadzic (1787-1864), who advocated for the vernacular to be written standard, as well as for writing the first Serbian grammars and dictionaries. His work is significant in the history of literature as he has preserved numerous Serbian folk poems, stories, riddles and customs. He also reformed the Cyrillic alphabet by following the phonetic rule “write as you speak and read as it is written”.
The Serbian written language was reformed, and the Serbian Cyrillic amended following the strict phonetic principles of Johan Christoph Adelung’s model. The reform modernized and removed the Serbian written language from the Slavic-Serbian and Church Slavic languages, and downplayed the activities of the church, thereby standardizing the vernacular. The Vienna Literary Agreement, encouraged by the then Austrian authorities, laid the foundations for the Serbian language, which today is spoken in various forms by the Serbs in Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia. The translation of the New Testament into Serbian was published in 1868.
The reform of the Serbian language and the standardization of the Serbian Cyrillic were officially recognized in 1868, four years after Karadzic’s death.
How Complex Is the Serbian Grammar?
Serbian is a highly inflected language, with grammatical morphology for nouns, pronouns and adjectives as well as verbs.
Nouns Are Classified Into 3 Declensional Types
Serbian nouns are classified into three declensional types, denoted largely by their nominative case endings as “-a” type, “-i” and “-e” type. Into each of these declensional types may fall nouns of any of three genders: masculine, feminine or neuter. Each noun may be inflected to represent the noun’s grammatical case, of which Serbian has seven:
Nouns are further inflected to represent the noun’s number, singular or plural.
Pronouns Are Inflected in the Same Manner as Nouns
Pronouns, when used, are inflected along the same case and number morphology as nouns. Serbian is a pro-drop language, meaning that pronouns may be omitted from a sentence when their meaning is easily inferred from the text. In cases where pronouns may be dropped, they may also be used to add emphasis.
Adjectives Can Be Placed Before or After the Noun
Adjectives in Serbian may be placed before or after the noun they modify, but must agree in number, gender and case with the modified noun.
Verbs Are Conjugated in 3 Moods, 2 Voices, and 6 Tenses
Serbian verbs are conjugated in four past forms – perfect, aorist, imperfect, and pluperfect – of which the last two have a very limited use (imperfect is still used in some dialects, but the majority of native Serbian speakers consider it archaic), one future tense (also known as the first future tense, as opposed to the second future tense or the future exact, which is considered a tense of the conditional mood by some contemporary linguists), and one present tense. These are the tenses of the indicative mood. Apart from the indicative mood, there is also the imperative mood. The conditional mood has two more tenses: the first conditional (commonly used in conditional clauses, both for possible and impossible conditional clauses) and the second conditional (without use in the spoken language – it should be used for impossible conditional clauses). Serbian has active and passive voice.
As for the non-finite verb forms, Serbian has one infinitive, two adjectival participles (the active and the passive), and two adverbial participles (the present and the past).
Where is the Serbian Vocabulary Coming from?
Most Serbian words are of native Slavic lexical stock, tracing back to the Proto-Slavic language. There are many loanwords from different languages, reflecting cultural interaction throughout history. Notable loanwords were borrowed from Greek, Latin, Italian, Turkish, Hungarian, Russian, German, and French.