South Slavic languages

South Slavic
Southeast Europe
Linguistic classification:


  • Eastern South Slavic
  • Western South Slavic
ISO 639-5: zls
Glottolog: sout3147[1]


  Countries where a South Slavic language is the national language

The South Slavic languages are one of three branches of the Slavic languages. There are approximately 30 million speakers, mainly in the Balkans. These are separated geographically from speakers of the other two Slavic branches (West and East) by a belt of German, Hungarian and Romanian speakers. The first South Slavic language to be written (the first attested Slavic language) was the variety spoken in Thessalonica, now called Old Church Slavonic, in the ninth century. It is retained as a liturgical language in some South Slavic Orthodox churches in the form of various local Church Slavonic traditions.


The South Slavic languages constitute a dialect continuum.[2][3] Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, and Montenegrin constitute a single dialect within this continuum.[4]

Linguistic prehistory

Map of Europe indicating where Slavic languages are spoken
Slavic languages in Europe

The Slavic languages are part of the Balto-Slavic group, which belongs to the Indo-European language family. The South Slavic languages have been considered a genetic node in Slavic studies: defined by a set of phonological, morphological and lexical innovations (isoglosses) which separate it from the Western and Eastern Slavic groups. That view, however, has been challenged in recent decades (see below).

Some innovations encompassing all South Slavic languages are shared with the Eastern Slavic group, but not the Western Slavic. These include:[5]

  1. Consistent application of Slavic second palatalization before Proto-Slavic */v/
  2. Loss of */d/ and */t/ before Proto-Slavic */l/
  3. Merger of Proto-Slavic */ś/ (resulting from the second and third palatalization) with */s/

This is illustrated in the following table:

South Slavic West Slavic East Slavic
Late Proto-Slavic reconstruction Late Proto-Slavic meaning Old Church Slavonic Slovene Serbo-Croatian Bulgarian Macedonian Czech Slovak Polish Belarusian Russian Ukrainian
*gvězda star звѣзда zvezda zv(ij)ezda/зв(иј)езда звезда ѕвезда hvězda hviezda gwiazda звязда звезда звізда
*květъ flower, bloom цвѣтъ cvet cv(ij)et/цв(иј)ет цвете цвет květ kvet kwiat кветка цвет квітка
*ordlo plough рало ralo ralo/рало рало рало rádlo radlo radło рала орало, рало рало

Several isoglosses have been identified which are thought to represent exclusive common innovations in the South Slavic language group. They are prevalently phonological in character, whereas morphological and syntactical isoglosses are much fewer in number. Sussex & Cubberly (2006:43–44) list the following phonological isoglosses:

  1. Merger of yers into schwa-like sound, which became /a/ in Serbo-Croatian, or split according to the retained hard/soft quality of the preceding consonant into /o e/ (Macedonian), or /ə e/ (Bulgarian)
  2. Proto-Slavic */ę/ > /e/
  3. Proto-Slavic */y/ > /i/, merging with the reflex of Proto-Slavic */i/
  4. Proto-Slavic syllabic liquids */r̥/ and */l̥/ were retained, but */l̥/ was subsequently lost in all the daughter languages with different outputs (> /u/ in Serbo-Croatian, > vowel+/l/ or /l/+vowel in Slovenian, Bulgarian and Macedonian), and */r̥/ became [ər/rə] in Bulgarian. This development was identical to the loss of yer after a liquid consonant.
  5. Hardening of palatals and dental affricates; e.g. š' > š, č' > č, c' > c.
  6. South Slavic form of liquid metathesis (CoRC > CRaC, CoLC > CLaC etc.)

Most of these are not exclusive in character, however, and are shared with some languages of the Eastern and Western Slavic language groups (in particular, Central Slovakian dialects). On that basis, Matasović (2008) argues that South Slavic exists strictly as a geographical grouping, not forming a true genetic clade; in other words, there was never a proto-South Slavic language or a period in which all South Slavic dialects exhibited an exclusive set of extensive phonological, morphological or lexical changes (isoglosses) peculiar to them. Furthermore, Matasović argues, there was never a period of cultural or political unity in which Proto-South-Slavic could have existed during which Common South Slavic innovations could have occurred. Several South-Slavic-only lexical and morphological patterns which have been proposed have been postulated to represent common Slavic archaisms, or are shared with some Slovakian or Ukrainian dialects.

The South Slavic dialects form a dialectal continuum stretching from today's southern Austria to southeast Bulgaria.[6] On the level of dialectology, they are divided into Western South Slavic (Slovene and Serbo-Croatian dialects) and Eastern South Slavic (Bulgarian and Macedonian dialects); these represent separate migrations into the Balkans and were once separated by intervening Hungarian, Romanian, and Albanian populations; as these populations were assimilated, Eastern and Western South Slavic fused with Torlakian as a transitional dialect. On the other hand, the breakup of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires, followed by formation of nation-states in the 19th and 20th centuries, led to the development and codification of standard languages. Standard Slovene, Bulgarian, and Macedonian are based on distinct dialects.[7] The Bosnian, Croatian, Montenegrin, and Serbian standard variants[8] of the pluricentric Serbo-Croatian[9] are based on the same dialect (Shtokavian).[10] Thus, in most cases national and ethnic borders do not coincide with dialectal boundaries.

Note: Due to the differing political status of languages/dialects and different historical contexts, the classifications are arbitrary to some degree.

Dialectal classification

Balto-Slavic languages.

Eastern group

Areas where Eastern South Slavic dialects are spoken:
  by a majority of speakers
  by a minority.

The dialects that form the eastern group of South Slavic, spoken mostly in Bulgaria and Macedonia and adjacent areas in neighbouring countries, share a number of characteristics that set them apart from other Slavic languages:[12][13]

Bulgarian and Macedonian share some of their unusual characteristics with other languages in the Balkans, notably Greek and Albanian (see Balkan sprachbund).[12]

Bulgarian dialects

Main article: Bulgarian language

Macedonian dialects

Main article: Macedonian language

Torlakian dialect in Serbian spoken language

Transitional South Slavic languages

Torlakian dialect

Main article: Torlakian dialect

Another dialect, Torlakian, is spoken in southern and eastern Serbia, northern Macedonia and western Bulgaria; it is considered transitional between the Central and Eastern groups of South Slavic languages. Torlakian is thought to fit together with Bulgarian and Macedonian into the Balkan sprachbund, an area of linguistic convergence caused by long-term contact rather than genetic relation. Because of that some researchers tend to classify it as Eastern South Slavic.[14]

Western group


Each of these primary and secondary dialectal units breaks down into subdialects and accentological isoglosses by region. In the past (and currently, in isolated areas), it was not uncommon for individual villages to have their own words and phrases. However, during the 20th century the local dialects have been influenced by Štokavian standards through mass media and public education and much "local speech" has been lost (primarily in areas with larger populations). With the breakup of Yugoslavia, a rise in national awareness has caused individuals to modify their speech according to newly established standard-language guidelines. The wars have caused large migrations, changing the ethnic (and dialectal) picture of some areas—especially in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but also in central Croatia and Serbia (Vojvodina in particular). In some areas, it is unclear whether location or ethnicity is the dominant factor in the dialect of the speaker. Because of this the speech patterns of some communities and regions are in a state of flux, and it is difficult to determine which dialects will die out entirely. Further research over the next few decades will be necessary to determine the changes made in the dialectical distribution of this language group.

Relationships among languages and dialects

The table below illustrates relationships among the languages and dialects of the western group of South Slavic languages:

Dialect Subdialect Bulgarian Macedonian Serbo-Croatian Slovene
Serbian Montenegrin Bosnian Croatian
Torlakian x x x
Shtokavian Kosovo–Resava x
ŠumadijaVojvodina x
Zeta-South Raška x x x
Eastern Herzgovinian x x x x
Eastern Bosnian x x
Western Ikavian x x
Slavonian x
Chakavian x
Kajkavian xx

Štokavian dialect

Main article: Štokavian dialect

The eastern Herzegovinian dialect is the basis of the Bosnian, Croatian, Montenegrin, and Serbian standard variants of the pluricentric Serbo-Croatian.[15]


Main article: Slavomolisano dialect

The Slavomolisano dialect is spoken in three villages of the Italian region of Molise by the descendants of South Slavs who migrated from the eastern Adriatic coast during the 15th century. Because this group left the rest of their people so long ago, their diaspora language is distinct from the standard language and influenced by Italian. However, their dialect retains archaic features lost by all other Štokavian dialects after the 15th century, making it a useful research tool.

Chakavian dialects

Main article: Chakavian dialect

Chakavian is spoken in the western, central, and southern parts of Croatia—mainly in Istria, the Kvarner Gulf, Dalmatia and inland Croatia (Gacka and Pokupje, for example). The Chakavian reflex of proto-Slavic yat is i or sometimes e (rarely as (i)je), or mixed (Ekavian–Ikavian). Many dialects of Chakavian preserved significant number of Dalmatian words, but also have many loanwords from Venetian, Italian, Greek and other Mediterranean languages.

Example: Ča je, je, tako je vavik bilo, ča će bit, će bit, a nekako će već bit!

Burgenland Croatian

This dialect is spoken primarily in the federal state of Burgenland in Austria and nearby areas in Vienna, Slovakia, and Hungary by descendants of Croats who migrated there during the 16th century. This dialect (or family of dialects) differs from standard Croatian, since it has been heavily influenced by German and Hungarian. It has properties of all three major dialectal groups in Croatia, since the migrants did not all come from the same area. The linguistic standard is based on a Chakavian dialect, and (like all Chakavian dialects) is characterized by very conservative grammatical structures: for example, it preserves case endings lost in the Shtokavian base of standard Croatian. At most 100,000 people speak Burgenland Croatian and almost all are bilingual in German. Its future is uncertain, but there is movement to preserve it. It has official status in six districts of Burgenland, and is used in some schools in Burgenland and neighboring western parts of Hungary.

Kajkavian dialect

Main article: Kajkavian dialect

Kajkavian is mostly spoken in northern and northwest Croatia, including one-third of the country near the Hungarian and Slovenian borders—chiefly around the towns of Zagreb, Varaždin, Čakovec, Koprivnica, Petrinja, Delnice and so on. Its reflex of yat is primarily /e/, rarely diphthongal ije). This differs from that of the Ekavian accent; many Kajkavian dialects distinguish a closed e—nearly ae (from yat)—and an open e (from the original e). It lacks several palatals (ć, lj, nj, dž) found in the Shtokavian dialect, and has some loanwords from the nearby Slovene dialects and German (chiefly in towns).

Example: Kak je, tak je; tak je navek bilo, kak bu tak bu, a bu vre nekak kak bu!

Slovene dialects

Main article: Slovene language


Eastern–Western division

In broad terms, the Eastern dialects of South Slavic (Bulgarian and Macedonian) differ most from the Western dialects in the following ways:

Apart from these three main areas there are several smaller, significant differences:

Divisions within Western dialects

Divisions within Eastern dialects

Writing systems

Languages to the west of Serbia use the Latin script, whereas those to the east and south use Cyrillic. Serbian officially uses the Cyrillic script, though commonly Latin and Cyrillic are used equally. Most newspapers are written in Cyrillic and most magazines are in Latin; books written by Serbian authors are written in Cyrillic, whereas books translated from foreign authors are usually in Latin, other than languages that already use Cyrillic, most notably Russian. On television, writing as part of a television programme is usually in Cyrillic, but advertisements are usually in Latin. The division is partly based on religion – Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria and Macedonia (which use Cyrillic) are Orthodox countries, whereas Croatia and Slovenia (which use Latin) are Catholic[19] The Bosnian language, used by the Muslim Bosniaks, also uses the Latin, but in past they used Cyrillic . The Glagolitic alphabet was also used in the Middle Ages (most notably in Bulgaria, Macedonia and Croatia), but gradually disappeared.

See also


  1. Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "South Slavic". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
  2. Friedman, Victor (1999). Linguistic emblems and emblematic languages: on language as flag in the Balkans. Kenneth E. Naylor memorial lecture series in South Slavic linguistics ; vol. 1. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University, Dept. of Slavic and East European Languages and Literatures. p. 8. OCLC 46734277.
  3. Alexander, Ronelle (2000). In honor of diversity: the linguistic resources of the Balkans. Kenneth E. Naylor memorial lecture series in South Slavic linguistics ; vol. 2. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University, Dept. of Slavic and East European Languages and Literatures. p. 4. OCLC 47186443.
  4. Roland Sussex (2006). The Slavic languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 43–44. ISBN 978-0-521-22315-7.
  5. Cited after Matasović (2008:59, 143)
  6. Kordić 2010, p. 75.
  7. Friedman, Victor (2003). "Language in Macedonia as an Identity Construction Site". In Brian, D. Joseph; et al. When Languages Collide: Perspectives on Language Conflict, Language Competition, and Language Coexistence. Columbus: Ohio State University Press. pp. 261–262. OCLC 50123480.
  8. Kordić 2010, pp. 77–90.
  9. Bunčić, Daniel (2008). "Die (Re-)Nationalisierung der serbokroatischen Standards" [The (Re-)Nationalisation of Serbo-Croatian Standards]. In Kempgen, Sebastian. Deutsche Beiträge zum 14. Internationalen Slavistenkongress, Ohrid, 2008. Welt der Slaven (in German). Munich: Otto Sagner. p. 93. OCLC 238795822.
  10. Gröschel, Bernhard (2009). Das Serbokroatische zwischen Linguistik und Politik: mit einer Bibliographie zum postjugoslavischen Sprachenstreit [Serbo-Croatian Between Linguistics and Politics: With a Bibliography of the Post-Yugoslav Language Dispute]. Lincom Studies in Slavic Linguistics ; vol 34 (in German). Munich: Lincom Europa. p. 265. ISBN 978-3-929075-79-3. LCCN 2009473660. OCLC 428012015. OL 15295665W.
  11. Torlakian can be treated as the part of both the Eastern South Slavic group and the Western. Speakers generally identify as ethnic Serbs, Bulgarians and Macedonians depending on their country of origin. Most Torlakian dialects are spoken in Serbia, and thus considered Serbian.
  12. 1 2 Fortson, Benjamin W. (2009-08-31). Indo-European Language and Culture: An Introduction Blackwell textbooks in linguistics. John Wiley and Sons. p. 431. ISBN 1-4051-8896-0. Retrieved 2015-11-19.
  13. van Wijk, Nicolaas (1956). Les Langues Slaves [The Slavic Languages] (in French) (2nd ed.). Mouton & Co - 's-Gravenhage.
  14. Balkan Syntax and Semantics, John Benjamins Publishing, 2004, ISBN 158811502X, The typology of Balkan evidentiality and areal linguistics , Victor Friedman, p. 123.
  15. Kordić, Snježana (2003). "Glotonim "srbohrvaški jezik" glede na "srbski, hrvaški, bosanski, črnogorski"" [The glotonym "Serbo-Croatian" vs. "Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, Montenegrin"] (PDF). Slavistična revija (in Slovenian). 51 (3): 355–364. ISSN 0350-6894. COBISS 23508578. Archived from the original on 8 August 2012. Retrieved 19 April 2015.
  16. Note that some remnants of cases do still exist in Bulgarian – see here.
  17. In Macedonian, these are especially well-developed, also taking on a role similar to demonstrative pronouns:
    • Bulgarian : stol – "chair" → stolat – "the chair"
    • Macedonian : stol – "chair" → stolot – "the chair" → stolov – "this chair here" → stolon – "that chair there". As well as these, Macedonian also has a separate set of demonstratives: ovoj stol – "this chair"; onoj stol – "that chair".
  18. In Bulgarian, more complex constructions such as "koyto i da bilo" ("whoever it may be" ≈ "anyone") can be used if the distinction is necessary.
  19. This distinction is true for the whole Slavic world: the Orthodox Russia, Ukraine and Belarus also use Cyrillic, as does Rusyn (Eastern Orthodox/Eastern Catholic), whereas the Catholic Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia use Latin, as does Sorbian. Romania and Moldova, which are not Slavic but are Orthodox, also used Cyrillic until 1860 and 1989, respectively, and it is still used in Transdnistria.


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