Balkan languages - same or different?

by Kate Chernavina

Ever thought about growing your business in the Balkans but not sure what language to use for your website or marketing communication? Do the people of the various countries in the Balkans understand each other fully? And if they do, does it mean they understand/read all the Slavic languages? Today we will try to answer these questions and shed more light on this topic.

The Balkans are what we refer to as a cultural area rather than a defined region or a nation state. It comprises several countries (the specific number of which depends on people's different opinions) and a wide variety of peoples. Differing opinions on national boundaries and politics are the source of much of the confusion that crops up regarding language. A popular internet joke in the region at the moment concerns a cigarette packet that has three translations for 'Smoking Kills' on it, two of which appear identical and all three of which are pronounced identically. The three languages are near enough to be considered identical and yet telling a Croatian that he speaks Bosnian would cause him great offence.

When doing business in the region, the concern is less about making sure to use the correct language and more about being culturally sensitive to the different nations and understanding why they refer to slightly differentiated dialects as entire languages. From an outsider's perspective; this seems ridiculous. The Bosnian government publishes in four languages; English, Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian. The first three are written using the Latin alphabet, the last in Cyrillic script. And when War Criminals go to trial in The Hague, they receive translation from whatever person is on duty rather than only from someone who speaks their language specifically.

Historical aspect

To discuss the languages of the Balkans is in many ways to discuss the language of the Slavic people. The Balkans are in what is referred to as the South-Slavic region and so contain languages from the Eastern South Slavic and Western South Slavic language families, both of which descend from the wider ancient Indo-European language family (other languages of which are also spoken throughout the Balkans). What is striking about the Slavic languages is that they are more or less completely mutually intelligible. This is due to these languages having quite recently evolved. Where the Germanic languages began evolving around 200CE and had become early forms of English and German around 750CE, the ancestral Slavic language (Proto-Slavic) did not emerge until the period 500-1000CE which meant it had less time to develop. This is why their languages now are essentially the same and why there is actually a great deal of mutual intelligibility with other Slavic languages such as Russian and Bulgarian. But like in many parts of the world, language is a part of national identity and so whilst linguists refer to them as a polycentric language, the people who speak them refer to them by their country's names.


To understand Slavic languages, linguists use the same set of 30 phonemes to refer to the spoken sounds and so even though they don't all share the same script, the different scripts they use map to one another, meaning the phonemes are universal. The main scripts in use are the Cyrillic script and the more familiar Latin alphabet. Croatia exclusively uses the Latin alphabet whereas Bosnia and Montenegro offer both but rely more heavily on the Latin. Serbia's official script for administration and the one that is taught in most schools is Cyrillic, yet the Latin script is used more often in the media and on the internet.


Transliterations of English words tend to be a good way of explaining the similiarities and differences in languages.

English Croatian Bosnian Serbian
To organise organizirati organizirati
To construct konstruirati konstruirati

If we look at these basic terms 'to organise' and 'to construct', we can see that the Latin alphabet translations are near identical with only minor variations between the different countries version of the language. Additionally, we can also ascertain that these words are pronounced very similarly as they use the same phonemes with this alphabet.

English Croatian Bosnian and Serbian
What did he say? Što je rekao? Šta je rekao?
Ask him what he said. Pitaj ga što je rekao. Pitaj ga šta je rekao.
What he said was a lie. To što je rekao je laž.  

Variations also occur in the language's grammar and the use of pronouns demonstrate this quite well. For example, in Serbian and Bosnian the što (what) is used as a relative pronoun, but this changes to šta when used as an interrogative. However Croatian uses što for both but when speaking (colloquially) most will use šta.

There are also plenty of examples of differentiation in phonics as well. As we've said there are plenty of words that are written the same way across the versions of the language, but these can, in some cases, be pronounced differently, which we can illustrate with the Latin alphabet:

Feature Croatian Bosnian Serbian English
-u/e porculan porcelan
porcelan porcelain
-s/z inzistirati insistirati   insist
-t/ć plaća   plata salary

To summarise, the Balkan people are truly the South Slavs and this is reflected in their language. Their languages are largely mutually intelligible thanks to their very recent development and those differences that do exist are minor compared to those you'd find in other Indo-European languages. The language of the Southern Slavs is even quite closely related to that of regions far further afield such as Russia and Poland which is quite remarkable when viewed alongside the linguistic variation found as near as Western Europe. So if you meet someone from the Balkans, try not to get too bogged down with whether they speak Serbo-Croatian or Montenegrin-Bosnian. Instead, try to respect where they're from as it's a point of pride, but take solace in the fact that you only really have to learn one language, not four.

About the writer

Kate Chernavina has a great background in linguistics, majoring in Chinese language, she lives in China for the past 12 years and works at Hi-Com Asia, an international translation and copywriting company.


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