Croatian language

Croatian (Hrvatski)
Spoken in: Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro, and others
Total speakers: 5 million (25M)
Ranking: not in top 100 (44)
Genetic classification: Indo-European
Official status
Official language of: Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Vojvodina
Regulated by: ---
Language codes
ISO 639-1hr
ISO 639-2scr (B), hrv (T)
See also: LanguageList of languages

The Croatian language is a language of the western group of South Slavic languages which is used primarily by the Croats. It is one of the standard versions of the Central-South Slavic diasystem, formerly (and still frequently) called Serbo-Croatian.

Croatian is based on the Štokavian dialect (with some influence from Čakavian and Kajkavian) and written with the Latin alphabet.

The modern Croatian standard language is a continuous outgrowth of more than nine hundred years of literature written in a mixture of Croatian Church Slavonic and the vernacular language. If we narrow out the subject, Croatian Church Slavonic had been abandoned by the mid-1400s, and Croatian "purely" vernacular literature has been in existence for more than five centuries — a story of remarkable linguistic continuity with only a few shock points.


Early development

The beginning of the Croatian written language can be traced to the 9th century, when Old Church Slavonic was adopted as the language of the liturgy. This language was gradually adapted to non-liturgical purposes and became known as the Croatian version of Old Slavonic. The two variants of the language, liturgical and non-liturgical, continued to be a part of the Glagolitic service as late as the mid-9th century.

Until the end of the 11th century, Croatian medieval texts were written in three scripts: Latin, Glagolitic, and Croatian Cyrillic (bosančica), and also in three languages: Croatian, Latin and Old Slavonic. The latter developed into what is referred to as the Croatian variant of Church Slavonic between the 12th and 16th centuries.

Glagolitic Missal of Duke Novak, 1368
Glagolitic Missal of Duke Novak, 1368

The most important early monument of Croatian literacy is the Baška tablet from the late 11th century. It is a large stone tablet found in the small church of St. Lucy on the Croatian island of Krk, containing text written mostly in čakavian, today a dialect of Croatian, and in Croatian Glagolitic script. It is also important in the history of the nation as it mentions Zvonimir, the king of Croatia at the time. However, the luxurious and ornate representative texts of Croatian Church Slavonic belong to the later era, when they coexisted with the Croatian vernacular literature. The most notable are the "Missal of Duke Novak" from the Lika region in northwestern Croatia (1368), "Evangel from Reims" (1395, named after the town of its final destination), "Missal of Duke Hrvoje" from Bosnia and Split in Dalmatia (1404) and the first printed book in Croatian language (1483).

Missing image
The Vinodol Codex, 1288
Missing image
Istrian land survey, 1275

Also, during the 13th century Croatian vernacular texts began to appear, the most important among them being "Istrian land survey", 1275 and "The Vinodol Codex", 1288., both in the Čakavian dialect.

The Štokavian dialect literature, based almost exclusively on Čakavian original texts of religious provenance (missals, breviaries, prayer books) appeared almost a century later. The most important purely Štokavian vernacular text is Vatican Croatian Prayer Book (ca. 1400).

Both the language used in legal texts and that used in Glagolitic literature gradually came under the influence of the vernacular, which considerably affected its phonological, morphological and lexical systems. From the 14th and the 15th centuries, both secular and religious songs at church festivals were composed in the vernacular.

Vatican Croatian Prayer Book
Vatican Croatian Prayer Book

Writers of early Croatian religious poetry (začinjavci), translators and editors gradually introduced the vernacular into their works. These začinjavci were the forerunners of the rich literary production of the 15th and 16th centuries. The language of religious poems, translations, miracle and morality plays contributed to the popular character of medieval Croatian literature.

Modern language and standardisation

Although the first purely vernacular texts in a Croatian distinctly different from Church Slavonic date back to the 13th century, it was in the 14th and 15th centuries that the modern Croatian language emerged (recorded in texts as Vatican Croatian prayer book from 1400.) in the form (morphology, phonology and syntax) that only slightly differs from contemporary Croatian standard language.

Bartul Kašić's manuscript Bible translation
Bartul Kašić's manuscript Bible translation

The standardization of Croatian language can be traced back to the first Croatian dictionary (Faust Vrančić: Dictionarium quinque nobilissimarum Europae linguarum—Latinae, Italicae, Germanicae, Dalmatiae et Ungaricae, Venice 1595) and first Croatian grammar (Bartul Kašić: Institutionum linguae illyricae libri duo, Rome 1604).

Interestingly enough, the language of Jesuit Kašić's translation of the Bible (Old and New Testament, 1622-1636; unpublished until 2000) in the Croatian štokavian-ijekavian dialect (the ornate style of the Dubrovnik Renaissance literature) is as close to the contemporary standard Croatian language (problems of orthography apart) as are French of Montaigne's "Essays" or King James Bible English to their respective successors—modern standard languages.

This period, sometimes called "Baroque Slavism" was crucial in formation of literary idiom that was to become Croatian standard language—the 17th century witnessed flowering in three fields that shaped modern Croatian:

 : Tears of the prodigal son, 1622
Ivan Gundulić: Tears of the prodigal son, 1622

This "triple achievement" of Baroque Slavism in first half of the 17th century laid the firm foundation upon which later Illyrian movement completed the work of language standardisation.

See also: Croatian-language grammar books, Croatian dictionaries

Illyrian period

But, due to the unique Croat linguistic situation, formal shaping of Croatian standard language was a process that took almost four centuries to complete: Croatian is a three dialects tongue (a somewhat simplistic way to distinguish between dialects is to refer to the pronoun what, which is ča, kaj, što in, respectively, čakavian, kajkavian and štokavian dialects) and three scripts language (Glagolitic, Croatian/Western/Bosnian Cyrillic and Latin script, with Latin script as the ultimate winner). The final obstacle to the unified Croatian literary language (based on celebrated vernacular Croatian Troubadour, Renaissance and Baroque -- acronym TRB) literature (ca. 1490 to ca. 1670) from Dalmatia, Dubrovnik and Boka Kotorska was surmounted by Croatian national awakener Ljudevit Gaj's standardization of Latin scriptory norm in 1830–1850s.

Gaj and his Illyrian movement (centred in kajkavian-speaking Croatia's capital Zagreb) were, however, important more politically than linguistically. They "chose" štokavian dialect because they didn't have any other realistic option—štokavian, or, more precisely, neoštokavian (a version of štokavian which emerged in the 15th/16th century) was the major Croatian literary tongue from 1700s on. The 19th century linguists and lexicographers' main concern was to achieve a more consistent and unified scriptory norm and orthography; an effort followed by peculiar Croatian linguistic characteristics which may be humorously described as "passion for neologisms" or vigorous word coinage, originating from the purist nature of Croatian literary language. One of the peculiarities of the "developmental trajectory" of the Croatian language is that there is no single towering figure among the Croatian linguists/philologists, because the vernacular osmotically percolated into the "high culture" via literary works so there was no need for revolutionary linguistic upheavals—only reforms sufficed.

See also: Croatian linguistic purism

The Serbian connection

The 19th century language development overlapped with the upheavals that befell Serbian language. It was Vuk Stefanović Karadžić, an energetic and resourceful Serbian language and culture reformer, whose scriptory and orthographic stylisation of Serbian linguistic folk idiom made a radical break with the past; until his activity in the first half of the 19th century, Serbs had been using Serbian variant of Church Slavonic and a hybrid Russian-Slavonic language. His "Serbian Dictionary", published in Vienna 1818 (along with the appended grammar), was the single most significant work of Serbian literary culture that shaped the profile of Serbian language (and, the first Serbian dictionary and grammar thus far).

Following the incentive of Austrian bureaucracy which preferred some kind of "unified" Croatian and Serbian languages for purely practical administrative reasons, in 1850, Slovenian philologist Franc Miklošič initiated a meeting of two Serbian philologists and writers, Vuk Karadžić and Đuro Daničić together with five Croatian "men of letters": Ivan Mažuranić, Dimitrija Demetar, Stjepan Pejaković, Ivan Kukuljević and Vinko Pacel. This, so-called "Vienna agreement" on the basic features of unified "Croatian or Serbian" or "Serbo-Croatian" language was signed by all eight participants (including Miklošič).

Karadžić's influence on Croatian standard idiom was only one of the reforms for Croats, mostly in some aspects of grammar and orthography; many other changes he made to Serbian were already present in Croatian. Both languages shared the common basis of South Slavic neoštokavian dialect, but the Vienna agreement didn't have any effect in reality until a more "unified" standard appeared at the end of 19th century when Croatian sympathisers of Vuk Karadžić, so-called "Croatian vukovites", wrote first modern (from the vantage point of dominating neogrammarian linguistic school) grammars, orthographies and dictionaries of language they called "Croatian or Serbian" (Serbs preferred Serbo-Croatian). Monumental grammar authored by pre-eminent fin de sicle Croatian linguist Tomislav Maretić (Grammar and stylistics of Croatian or Serbian language) and dictionary by Broz and Iveković (Croatian dictionary) temporarily fixed the elastic (grammatically, syntactically, lexically) standard of this hybrid language.

Unification and separation with Serbian

The establishment of the Yugoslav state was an important event in the history of the Croatian language.

The Kingdom of Yugoslavia (23 year period 1918-1941) was dominated by the Serbian government which tried to use a joint language in the spirit of supra-national Yugoslav ideology. This meant that Croatian and Serbian were no longer developing individually side by side, but instead that they tried to be forged into one language under political pressure. Due to the nature of the state politics at the time, this forging was resulting in an Serbian-based language, which meant a certain Serbianization of the language of Croatia and Bosnia. In the 1920s and the 1930s, the lexical, syntactical, orthographical and morphological characteristics of the Serbian language were officially prescribed for Croatian textbooks and general communication.

This artificial process of "unification" into one, Serbo-Croatian language, was preferred by neo-grammarian Croatian linguists, the most notable example being the influential philologist and translator Tomislav Maretić. However, this school was virtually extinct by the late 1920s and since then leading Croatian linguists such as Petar Skok, Stjepan Ivšić and Petar Guberina were unanimous in the re-affirmation of the Croatian purist tradition.

The situation somewhat eased in the eve of World War II (cf. the establishment of Banovina Hrvatska within Yugoslavia in 1939), but with the capitulation of Yugoslavia and creation of Nazi-Fascist puppet "Independent State of Croatia" (1941-1945) came another, this time hardly predictable and extremely grotesque attack on standard Croatian: totalitarian dictatorship of Ante Pavelić pushed natural Croatian purist tendencies to ludicrous extremes and tried to reimpose older morphonological orthography preceding Ivan Broz orthographical prescriptions from 1892. An official order signed by Pavelić and co-signed by Mile Budak and Milovan Žanić in August 1941 included verbiage that deprecated all imported words and actually forbade the use of any foreign words that could be replaced with Croatian neologisms.

However, Croatian linguists and writers were strongly opposed to this travesty of "language planning" — in the same way they rejected pro-Serbian forced unification in the monarchist Yugoslavia. Not surprisingly, no Croatian dictionaries or Croatian grammars had been published during this period.

While during monarchist Yugoslavia "Serbo-Croatian" unification was motivated mainly by the Greater Serbia policy, in the Communist period (45 years between 1945 and 1990) it was the by-product of Communist centralism and "internationalism". Whatever the intentions, the result was the same: the suppression of basic features that differentiate Croatian language from Serbian language — from orthography to vocabulary. No Croatian dictionaries (apart from historical "Croatian or Serbian", conceived in the 19th century) appeared until 1985, when Communist centralism was well in the process of decay.

In Communist Yugoslavia, Serbian language and terminology were "official" in a few areas: the military, diplomacy, Federal Yugoslav institutions (various institutes and research centres), state media and jurisprudence at the Yugoslav level; also, the language in Bosnia and Herzegovina was gradually Serbianized in all levels of educational system and the republic's administration. Virtually the only institution of any importance where Croatian language was dominant had been Lexicographic Institute in Zagreb, headed by Croatian writer Miroslav Krleža. This unitary linguistic policy was encouraged by the Communist party-state.

Notwithstanding the declaration of intent of AVNOJ (The Antifascist Council for the National Liberation of Yugoslavia) in 1944, which proclaimed the equality of all languages of Yugoslavia (Slovenian, Croatian, Serbian and Macedonian) — everything had, in practice, been geared towards the supremacy of the Serbian language. This was done under the pretext of "mutual enrichment" and "togetherness", hoping that the transient phase of relatively peaceful life among peoples in Yugoslavia would eventually give way to one of fusion into the supra-national, essentially paradoxical Yugoslav nation and, arguably, provide a firmer basis for Serbianization to be stepped up. However — this "supra-national engineering" was doomed from the outset: the nations that formed the Yugoslav state were formed long before its incipience and all unification pressures only poisoned and exacerbaced inter-ethnic/national relations, causing the state to become merely ephemeral.

The single most important effort by ruling Yugoslav Communist elite to erase the "differences" between Croatian and Serbian — and in practice impose Serbian Ekavian language, written in Latin script, as the "official" language of Yugoslavia, was the so-called "Novi Sad Agreement". Twenty five Serbian, Croatian and Montenegrin philologists came together in 1954 to sign the Agreement named after the site of the signing, Novi Sad. A common Serbo-Croatian or Croato-Serbian orthography was compiled in an atmosphere of state repression and fear. There were 18 Serbs and 7 Croats in Novi Sad. The "Agreement" was seen by the Croats as a defeat for the Croatian cultural heritage. According to the eminent Croatian linguist Ljudevit Jonke, it was imposed on the Croats. The conclusions were formulated according to goals which had been set in advance, and discussion had no role whatsoever. In more than a decade to follow the principles of Novi Sad Agreement were put into practice.

A collective Croatian reaction against such de facto Serbian imposition erupted on 15th March 1967. On that day, nineteen Croatian scholarly institutions and cultural organizations dealing with language and literature (Croatian Universities and Academy), including foremost Croatian writers and linguists (Miroslav Krleža, Radoslav Katičić, Dalibor Brozović and Tomislav Ladan among them) issued the "Declaration Concerning the Name and the Status of the Croatian Literary Language". In the Declaration, they asked for amendment to the Constitution expressing two claims:

  • the equality not of three but of four literary languages, Slovenian, Croatian, Serbian and Macedonian, and consequently, the publication of all federal laws and other federal acts in four instead of three languages
  • the use of the Croatian standard language in schools and all mass communication media pertaining to the Republic of Croatia. The Declaration accused the federal authorities in Belgrade of imposing Serbian as the official state language and downgrading Croatian to the level of a local dialect.

Notwithstanding the fact that "Declaration" was vociferously condemned by Yugoslav Communist authorities as an outburst of "Croatian nationalism"-Serbo-Croatian forced unification was essentially halted and the uneasy status quo remained until the end of Communism.

In the decade between the death of Yugoslav dictator Tito (1980) and the final collapse of Communism and Yugoslavia (1990/1991), major works that manifested irrepressibility of Croatian linguistic culture had appeared. The studies of Brozović, Katičić and Babić that had been circulating among specialists or printed in the obscure philological publications in the 60s and 70s (frequently condemned and suppressed by Communist authorities) have finally, in the climate of dissolving authoritarianism, been published in the broad daylight. This was formal divorce of Croatian language from Serbian (and, strictly linguistically speaking, death of Serbo-Croatian). The works, based on modern fields and theories (structuralist linguistics and phonology, comparative-historical linguistics and lexicology, transformational grammar and areal linguistics) revised or discarded older language histories, restored the continuity of Croatian language by definitely reintegrating and asserting specific Croatian language characteristics (phonetic, morphological, syntactic and lexical) that had been constantly suppressed in both Yugoslav states and finally gave modern linguistic description and prescription of Croatian language. Among many monographs and serious studies, one could point out to works issued by Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts, particularly Katičić's Syntax and Babić's Word-formation.

After the collapse of Communism and the birth of Croatian independence (1991), situation with regard to the Croatian language has become stabilized. No longer under negative political pressures and de-Croatization impositions, Croatian linguists expanded the work on various ambitious programs and intensified their studies on current dominant areas of linguistics: mathematical and corpus linguistics, textology, psycholinguistics, language acquisition and historical lexicography. From 1991 numerous representative Croatian linguistic works were published, among them four voluminous monolingual dictionaries of contemporary Croatian, various specialized dictionaries and normative manuals (the most representative being the issue of Institute for Croatian Language and Linguistics). For a curious bystander, probably the most noticeable language feature in Croatian society was re-Croatization of Croatian language in all areas, from phonetics to semantics- and most evidently in everyday vocabulary.

Political ambitions played the key role in the "invention" of the Serbo-Croatian language. Likewise, politics again was crucial agent in dissolving the "unified" language. With the collapse of Yugoslavia, Serbo-Croatian language officially followed suit.

A brief notice on Serbo-Croatian

One still finds many references to Serbo-Croatian, and proponents of Serbo-Croatian who deny the existence of Croatian language (as well as Serbian and Bosnian languages) as a separate standard language. The usual argumentation generally goes along the following lines:

  • Croatian, Serbian and Bosnian are almost completely mutually intelligible
  • Typologically and structurally, these languages have virtually the same grammar, i.e. morphology and syntax
  • The Serbo-Croatian language was "created" in the mid 19th century, and all subsequent attempts to dissolve its basic unity have not (yet) succeeded
  • The affirmation of distinct Croatian, Serbian and Bosnian languages is purely politically motivated
  • Linguistically, these languages are essentially one language, ie. Serbo-Croatian

However, these arguments all have flaws:

  • mutual intelligibility is not the decisive criterion for anything. For instance, although Urdu and Hindi are mutually intelligible to a degree probably higher than Croatian and Bosnian, they are recognized as separate standard languages. On the other hand, the unity of Chinese culture has imposed the notion of one Chinese language, although numerous "dialects" are almost mutually unintelligible. Also, some linguists operate with the notion of "Chinese languages" – but this is not the generally accepted position. To give a simple and clear example: if there is no "Hindi-Urdu", then there is no reason to have "Serbo-Croatian".
  • As far as structural similarity or even identity of basic grammar is concerned, one might add that, apart from the aforementioned Urdu and Hindi cases, the Malay and Indonesian are the same with regard to basic grammar, yet they are dutifully listed as different languages in languages classification manuals. Moreover, the basic grammar (morphology and syntax) is just one part of a theoretical description of a language: other fields — phonetics, phonology, word formation, semantics, pragmatics, stylistics, lexicology — give different theoretical linguistic descrption and prescription for Croatian, Bosnian and Serbian languages (just like they do for Hindi and Urdu).
  • Since the Croatian language as recorded in Držić's and Gundulić's works (1500s and 1600s) is virtually the same as the contemporary standard Croatian (understandable archaisms apart) — it is evident that the 19th century formal standardization was just the final touch in the process that, as far as Croatian language is concerned, had lasted more than three centuries. The radical break with the past, so characteristic for modern Serbian language (whose medieval texts were church documents written in a dead Church Slavonic and whose vernacular was likely not as similar to Croatian as it is today), is a trait completely at variance with Croatian language history. In short: formal standardization processes for Croatian and Serbian had coincided chronologically (and, one could add – ideologically), but they haven't produced a unified standard language. Gundulić did not write in "Serbo-Croatian" (which is a rather obvious contention), nor did August Šenoa. Marko Marulić and Marin Držić wrote in a sophisticated idiom of the Croatian language, some 300/350 years before the "Serbo-Croatian" ideology appeared on the scene.
  • Politics is always the central factor in determining what is a language and what a dialect. The purely linguistic criterion (or criteria) that would decide on the status of a language simply doesn't exist. Various modern linguistic atlases give extremely varying number of languages of the world: the number generally fluctuates between 4,000 and 8,000, but some books reduce it to ca. 3,000, while others expand the figure to ca. 17,000. It is evident that such a wide variance is the best sign that no reliable linguistic criteria exist to give a unanimous answer to the question "what is a language?". Serbo-Croatian is a political construct — as is Croatian or, for that matter, any language in the world. A similar analogy could be drawn between the Croatian kajkavian dialect and Slovene language — had politics drawn those two sets of dialects closer together, they might have been considered a single language, too.

The topic of language with the writers from Dalmatia and Dubrovnik prior to the 19th century is somewhat blurred by the fact they by and large placed more emphasis on whether they were Slavic rather than Italic, given that Dalmatian city-states were then inhabited by those two main groups. There was less notable distinction being made between Croats and Serbs, and this, among other things, has been used as an argument to state that these people's literature is not solely Croatian heritage, thus undermining the argument that modern-day Croatian is based on old Croatian.

However, the major part of intellectuals and writers from Dalmatia who used the štokavian dialect and were of Catholic faith had explicitly expressed Croatian national affiliation, as far as mid 1500s and 1600s, some three hundred years before the Serbo-Croatian ideology had appeared. Their loyalty was first and foremost to the Catholic Christendom, but when they professed ethnic identity, they called it "Slovin" and "Illyrian" (a sort of forerunner of Catholic baroque pan-Slavism) and Croat — these 30-odd writers in the span of ca. 350 years themselves never mentioned Serb ethnic affiliation any time. A Croatian follower of Vuk Karadžić, Ivan Broz, noted that the Serbian affiliation was as foreign as Macedonian and Greek appellation at this time. Vatroslav Jagić pointed out in 1864:

"As I have mentioned in the preface, history knows only two national names in these parts – the Croatian and Serbian. As far as Dubrovnik is concerned, the Serbian name was never in use; on the contrary, the Croatian name was frequently used and gladly referred to"
"At the end of the 15th century [in Dubrovnik and Dalmatia], sermons and poems were exquisitely crafted in the Croatian language by those men whose names are widely renowned by deep learning and piety."

(From The History of the Croatian language, Zagreb, 1864.)

Current events

Croatian language is today the official language of the Republic of Croatia and, along with Bosnian and Serbian, one of three official languages of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

There isn't a single official definition of Croatian, but there exists an Institute for Croatian language and linguistics with a prescription department.

The current rules of the language are generally laid out in the grammar books and dictionaries used in education facilities, such as the school curriculum prescribed by the Ministry of Education and the university programmes of the Faculty of Philosophy at the four main universities. The most prominent recent editions describing the rules of Croatian are:

The Rječnik hrvatskoga jezika by Anić is often referenced, though not particularly purist.

Also notable are the recommendations of Matica hrvatska, the national publisher and promoter of Croatian heritage, the Lexicographical institute "Miroslav Krleža", as well as the Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts.


  • Ivo Banac: Main Trends in the Croatian Language Question, YUP 1984
  • Branko Franolić: A Historical Survey of Literary Croatian, Nouvelles editions latines, 1984
  • Milan Moguš: A History of the Croatian Language, NZ Globus, 1995
  • Miro Kačić: Croatian and Serbian: Delusions and Distortions, Novi Most, Zagreb 1997

External links


Language history

General links

bs:Hrvatski jezik cs:Chorvatština de:Kroatische Sprache es:Idioma croata eo:Kroata lingvo fr:Croate hr:Hrvatski jezik nl:Servokroatisch se:Krotiagiella sl:hrvaščina sr:Хрватски језик fi:Kroatian kieli sv:Kroatiska


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