April 2018
Text by Zana Cizmin

Image: © somartin/123rf.com

Zana Cizmin manages the business development department at Ciklopea, a role which includes sales, marketing and account management. She has been involved in collaborations with the academic community, for example as a regular guest speaker at regional universities. Her focus is on business development sales, process improvement and introduction of advanced solutions.




Timeline of Serbo-Croatian

German philologist Jacob Grimm coins the term Serbo-Croatian
after the bordering Serbian and Croatian nations as a collective
name for the yet unstandardized Central South Slavic languages.
Previously, these languages developed independently, under
different influences, and were given various regional names by
different authors e.g. S(c)lavonic, Illyrian, Slavic, Dalmatian etc.

Vienna Literary Agreement - Leading Croatian and Serbian
philologists of the time (including Vuk Karadžić, Ivan Mažuranić,
Dimitrije Demeter and Slovene Slavist Franc Miklošič)
propose the common standardized language of Croats and Serbs.

Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes/Kingdom of Yugoslavia formed.
The official language is called Serbo-Croato-Slovene, in line with
the state’s unitary ideology.
In reality, this language/standardized form never existed and terms
Croatian, Serbian and Serbo-Croatian (and, of course, Slovenian)
were used instead.

Federal People's Republic of Yugoslavia/
Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia formed.
There is no official language at the federal level.
Serbo-Croatian / Croato-Serbian is de facto official language.

Novi Sad Agreement – another proposed model for unification
of the standardized Serbo-Croatian language, favored by the
Yugoslavian government and composed by 25 mostly Serbian and
Croatian linguists with several linguists from Bosnian and Herzegovina
and Montenegro.
Criticized from the outset from all sides for various reasons and
never implemented.

Yugoslavia breaks up into 5 independent states. Separate
linguistic policies continue / begin and the notion of a common
linguistic standard is no longer maintained.

Montenegro declares independence.
Independent linguistic policy begins and, after Croatian, Serbian and
Bosnian previously, Montenegrin becomes the fourth standardized form
of Serbo-Croatian.

Croatia joins the European Union and Croatian becomes
an official language of the EU.



The curious case of mutual intelligibility

Any attempts at establishing a universally accepted standardized Serbo-Croatian language have ultimately failed. While Croatian, Serbian, Bosnian and Montenegrin are all understood by native speakers of any of these languages, localization remains a task more challenging than it first appears.

The modern independent states of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo, and the Republic of Macedonia have spent the greater part of the 20th century in common states (the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, 1918-1945; the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, 1945-1991).

The different language policies of these states were shaped by ideological and political concepts based on mutual intelligibility between the four ethnic and national groups that together formed the majority of the population (Croats, Serbs, Bosniaks and Montenegrins).

Succinctly speaking, the linguistic policies in both Yugoslav states were built on the 19th century concept of a Serbo-Croatian language, albeit in different ways. However, all attempts to form such a standardized Serbo-Croatian language that would be accepted by the four ethnic groups ultimately failed and, following the dissolution of Yugoslavia, Croatian, Serbian, Bosnian and Montenegrin are regarded as four separate languages.

Today, the terms Serbo-Croatian, BCS/BCMS or Central South Slavic Diasystem are still used for academic purposes, by linguists who view these languages as a single polycentric language, as well as by certain institutions, almost exclusively outside Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, or Montenegro.

A dialect or a separate language?

There is no universally accepted answer to the question where a separate language begins and a dialect of an existing language ends. This is because the phenomenon of language includes an array of extra-linguistic aspects such as the national and cultural identity of the speakers and political and social conventions.

The purely linguistic aspect of mutual intelligibility, highly important as it is, is simply not enough to establish this distinction. A group of mutually unintelligible or asymmetrically intelligible languages and dialects can be classified as a single language (for example Chinese), or mutually intelligible languages can form a group of separate languages with unique standard forms (such as Scandinavian and Central South Slavic languages). This is also the reason why the total number of the world languages remains estimated rather than determined.

Croatian, Serbian, Bosnian and Montenegrin are highly mutually intelligible, both for the reasons of linguistics as well as of history and culture. Cultural products such as movies, books or TV shows are actively exchanged between these four countries, mostly without any linguistic adaptation.

However, each respective native speaker of Croatian, Serbian, Bosnian or Montenegrin can instantly recognize the unique features of each of the four languages that include the mutual differences in syntax, morphology and vocabulary. While mutual intelligibility enables us to make friends or read a book from other nations, it brings particular challenges to localization as it bears the risk of false assumptions.

To illustrate this, we will take a look at a simple word that looks and sounds the same in all four languages, but whose meaning is different:


Spremiti - (verb in infinitive mode)

Croatian and Bosnian: to save

Serbian and Montenigrin: to prepare


It is obvious that a Serbo-Croatian localization of a simple software string "Save File" could cause a lot of confusion. In addition to numerous obvious differences in vocabulary, seemingly subtle differences such as this one are frequent among Croatian, Serbian, Bosnian and Montenegrin, and it is one of the reasons why localization projects for each of these languages must always be performed by separate teams of native linguists.


Language combinations

The best way to localize to any of the Central South Slavic languages, as has been shown time and again, is to work directly from the source language, i.e. from English or German to Croatian, Serbian, Bosnian and Montenegrin, rather than to adapt, for example, a Croatian translation to any of these languages.

Croatian and Serbian have distinctive structures and vocabularies that, although largely understandable among the native speakers of these languages, also feature increased risks of mistranslations between the closely related languages as shown in Figure 1.

For example, infinitive phrases are common in Croatian and Bosnian, but almost completely replaced with subjunctive constructions in Serbian and Montenegrin. Use of infinitive construction such as "Želim ići" (I want to go) is understandable and correct in all four languages. However, while it will feel natural in Croatian and Bosnian, it will sound mechanical in Serbian and Montenegrin, where a subjunctive construction "Želim da idem" would be more appropriate.

This is only a most basic example of what may result in awkward syntax and unusual lexical choices because translators working in these language pairs will always tend to retain the mutually intelligible lexical choices that are grammatically correct and understandable to them, but they will end up being "not Croatian enough" or "not Serbian enough".

Different approaches to localization into these languages also have to be taken into consideration. For example, English loanwords are frequently replaced with Slavic equivalents or calques in Croatian, while they are often phonetically adapted in Serbian.

Some examples include:














In addition, foreign names, cities and states are transcribed in Serbian, while they mostly remain unchanged in Croatian:















While translation between the closely related languages may at first appear to be a piece of cake, it actually brings additional risks and issues. This is the reason why translation from the direct source remains the best option that will yield the best results.


Localization is about the market

While any product localized to, for example, Croatian, will certainly be understood on the three remaining markets, it will also be recognized as a product localized for the market of Croatia, which may cause the product to underperform in the target market.

Regardless of the degree of mutual intelligibility, the three main aspects of localization include market, standard language and regulatory requirements.

As Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro do not form a single market and have separate standard languages and separate national regulatory bodies, all localization efforts for these countries should be performed by professional human linguists trained for translation into and from each of these languages.

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#1 Andreas Ternes wrote at Wed, Apr 18 answer

This is an interesting article about the languages of the former Yugoslavia.

But I am missing information about Slovenian here. How does it fit into your classification?