How Many Languages Do Croatians Speak? Too Many!

I don’t like to boast but Croatians are the real polyglots. You can say that almost 99% of Croatians, already in childhood, can understand at least four languages. At once! Now, how did the entire Croatian nation develop this supernatural talent?

This is the first article of our April 2020 section “Croatian Thursday”. Every Thursday we present one aspect of our history, culture and traditions… This April 2020 all guided tours are cancelled, but Rilak’s Zagreb Guide is continuing online, with…

We, Croatians, are of course, fluent in Croatian. Already in childhood, we can understand all three official languages of Bosnia and Herzegovina. From time to time, we might find a word we don’t understand in Serbian. We all speak Montenegrin almost like native speakers… Almost! At the same time, we are so modest so we will not write down in our CVs that we are speaking so many languages.

sarajevoCoffee is always a good idea. Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Maybe I can be considered a “real” polyglot – I am fluent in English, French, Portuguese, and I have a fairly good understanding of Spanish and Italian. Those are the “real foreign” languages. Serbian, Bosnian and Montenegrin are simply not considered “foreign” and people would laugh if they would see it in someone’s CV.

To put it in perspective, it would be like if an American would say “Well, of course I speak many languages. I speak American, but I also understand a lot of people from Canada, Australia and the UK.” Or a French person saying, yes, I speak many foreign languages – French of France, French of Belgium, French of Quebec, etc. Of course, all these countries have their own version of French or English, there are some differences, but British English is not something an American would consider a “foreign” language.

IMG_20180421_142704242Summer in Montenegro

The line is blurred with Croatian, Serbian, Montenegrin, Bosnian… Politically, they are considered four different languages. Some linguists are saying that it’s the same language, but for political reason we want to “separate” them. There is a lot of truth in that. Not to enter into big political and linguistic discussion, let’s just leave it at that: politically, they are very, very different. In reality, very, very similar.

black and white book business close up

Croatians don’t need dictionaries when they travel to Serbia/Montenegro/Bosnia and Herzegovina… Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Linguistically and historically, politicians can yell as loud as they can how each language is more special than the other, the truth is – they will always be part of the same group of South Slavic languages. In all of these languages, the word for South is “jug”. From this “jug”/”Slavic” came the name “Jugoslavija” – “Yugoslavia”, a name of the country that doesn’t exist anymore, that comprised of six republics – Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Slovenia and Macedonia (in the latter two, official languages are Slovenian and Macedonian, also South Slavic languages, but quite different). During the time of Yugoslavia, there was only one official language spoken in the entire country. After the dissolution of the country and the war of the 1990s, each republic went their own way and proclaimed its own official language (or more).

tito kumrovec

In Kumrovec, near Zagreb, Croatia. Birthplace of Tito, ruler of Yugoslavia (1945-1980). To avoid any confusion, Tito is the guy on the painting. The other guy is just me, Dejan, ruler of Zagreb city tours.

Today, maybe the biggest difference is visual and graphic. In  Croatia and most of Bosnia and Herzegovina, we use Latin script, while in Montenegro and Serbia they use both Latin and Cyrillic script (although, Latin is still predominant).

Do you want to learn a couple of words in Croatian, Serbian, Bosnian… ? I’ll tell you a secret – there’s a very good way to do that. Start planning your trip to this part of the world right now… BUT: first things first, for now, stay healthy, stay safe at your homes and let’s fight this pandemic together.

cropped-markov-trg.jpg

Picturesque rooftop of Saint Mark’s church, Zagreb, Croatia. Photo by Stanka S.

 

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