It’s been a while since we looked at Bosnian vs. Serbian vs. Croatian. With Croatia poised to become the 28th member state of the European Union on 1 July 2013, the Croatian language will soon be an official EU language and it’s time to explore the differences (and similarities) between the Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, and Montenegrin languages.

Croatia’s ascension to the EU will have a big impact on medical device and pharmaceutical companies – as well as medical translation providers. We have already seen the impact of these changes here at ForeignExchange, as the regulatory documents for the European Medicines Agency (EMA, formerly EMEA) we work with, now also need to be translated into Croatian.

However, as we were recruiting Croatian resources for these projects, it was a common trend for Croatian linguists to also speak Bosnian, Serbian, and often times Montenegrin. So, we wanted to know the connection between these former Yugoslavian languages, and the affect it has on our linguistic recruitment and allocation process.

The culture of the Balkans has been uniquely shaped by the region’s long, complex, and often violent history. At a major crossroads between Europe and the Near East, the Balkans have often been caught in a tug-of-war between major world factions including the Byzantine Empire and the Ottoman Empire; Christianity and Islam; Italian, Greek, and other European Kingdoms, etc.

As a result, the three main ethnic groups of the area (Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian, with Montenegrin often considered a sub-culture of Serbia) formed very unique identities. The Croats were heavily influenced by several European-based Kingdoms including Italian kingdoms (specifically the Republic of Venice), the Kingdom of Hungary, and especially the Roman Empire. As a result, the large majority of Croatians are Roman Catholic.

Serbian culture, on the other hand, was influenced by the Byzantine Empire, during which many ethnic Serbians were baptized into Greek Orthodoxy and adopted the Cyrillic alphabet. As a result, Eastern Orthodoxy is the predominant religion in the region.

Montenegro experienced a tumultuous history as a pivotal landmark through which several large empires drew their borders. During the Great Schism of 1054, the Western and Eastern Empires were divided by a boundary that ran straight through Montenegro. During the Ottoman Empire, much of eastern Montenegro was under Ottoman control, while coastal Montenegro was under the control of the Venetian Empire, and a large central portion of the country remained independent. Through their strong ties to Serbia and Russia in the following decades, the majority of Montenegrins are Eastern Orthodox, but they do have a significant Islam minority population.

Lastly, the area of Bosnia and Herzegovina, located in a centralized and pivotal location in the western Balkans, experienced a good deal of change and turmoil throughout their history. In particular, the Bosnians were heavily influenced by the Ottoman Empire, shown by a strong cultural mix of Eastern and Western traditions, as well as an Islamic religious majority.

While these regions and ethnicities have experienced very different historical influences, linguistically the area has very similar traditions. Serbo-Croatian (also known as Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian) is a South Slavic language that is often argued as being one base language with several dialects. While originally it was suggested that a standardized language be created, it was the formation and subsequent fall of Yugoslavia that brought about the need for separate official languages.

After the division of Yugoslavia into separate nations, based largely on ethnic populations, it became important for these ethnicities to establish a sense of independence and national identity. Language became a strong tool in establishing such nationality. Croatian literary circles wanted to establish their language (born some 800 years ago) separate from that in Serbia, while Bosnia looked to emphasize the Turkish and Muslim traditions of their culture, and Serbia flaunted their use of the Cyrillic alphabet.

So what, then, are the linguistic differences between the three “standardized” languages (Montenegro is also looking to have their own language standard)? All four languages have the same 30 regular phonemes (units of sound), along with very similar grammatical structures. However, Croatian uses Latin script, whereas official Serbian documentation uses Cyrillic, but Latin script can also be found in everyday use. Bosnian (and many parts of Montenegro) use both Latin and Cyrillic script, but the large influence of Muslim culture has also made Arabic a frequently seen script.

The largest differences between the four appear in the use of vocabulary. Commonly, there are several known variants of a word, and each language favors the use of one variant. While the other variants are known and understood within that language, they are usually considered imported, antiquated, or are simply less commonly used.

For example, the word “one thousand” in both Serbian and Bosnian is hiljada, while in Croatian it is tisuća. The word “rice”, however, is riža in both Croatian and Bosnian, whereas in Serbian it is pirinač. And yet, the term osoba can be used to say “person” in all four languages.

But there are also many differences in the sentence construction and grammar, especially between Serbian and Croatian. On the other hand, Bosnian language borrows words and constructions from both languages, Croatian and Serbian, with a strong influence of words of Turkish origin.

As a whole, however, it is commonly known that when Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks, and Montenegrins talk among themselves, they are usually understood completely by each other, with the exception of a few irregular words. The differences among them are often compared to the differences between US and British English. Also similar to English, each region of the Balkans has its own pronunciation and colloquial expressions. Therefore, it is customary when speaking among each other to use common words and phrases and to stay away from regional idiomatic terms.

Therefore, while many argue that the linguistic differences between each national standard are not enough to consider each a separate language (many argue that there are larger regional linguistic differences than there are differences in the standard versions), the political and nationalistic arguments are strong enough that these three standards were recognized, with a fourth Montenegrin standard on the way.