Serbo-Croatian is a South Slavic language with four national standards. The Eastern Herzegovinian Neo-Shtokavian dialect forms the basis for Bosnian, Croatian, Montenegrin, and Serbian (the four national standards).

Standard Serbo-Croatian has 30 phonemes according to the traditional analysis: 25 consonants and 5 vowels (or 10, if long vowels are analysed as distinct phonemes). It features four types of pitch accent, although it is not the characteristics of all dialects.


The consonant system of Serbo-Croatian has 25 phonemes. One peculiarity is a presence of both post-alveolar and palatal affricates, but a lack of corresponding palatal fricatives.[1] Unlike most other Slavic languages such as Russian, there is no palatalized versus non-palatalized (hard–soft) contrast for most consonants.

Labial Dental/
Retroflex (Alveolo-)
Nasal m n ɲ
Plosive voiceless p t k
voiced b d ɡ
Affricate voiceless t͡s t͡ʂ t͡ɕ
voiced d͡ʐ d͡ʑ
Fricative voiceless f s ʂ x
voiced v z ʐ
Approximant central j
lateral l ʎ
Trill r

/r/ can be syllabic, short or long, and carry rising or falling tone, e.g. kȓv ('blood'), sȑce ('heart'), sŕna ('deer'), mȉlosr̄đe ('compassion'). It is typically realized by inserting a preceding or (more rarely) succeeding non-phonemic vocalic glide.[8]

/l/ is generally velarized or "dark" [ɫ].[9] Diachronically, it was fully vocalized into /o/ in coda positions, as in past participle *radil > radio ('worked').[10] In some dialects, notably Torlakian and Kajkavian that process did not take place, and /l/ can be syllabic as well. However, in the standard language, vocalic /l/ appears only in loanwords, as in the name for the Czech river Vltava for instance, or debakl, bicikl. Very rarely other sonorants are syllabic, such as /ʎ̩/ in the surname Štarklj and /n̩/ in njutn ('newton').

The retroflex[11][12] consonants /ʂ, ʐ, tʂ, dʐ/ are, in more detailed phonetic studies, described as apical [ʃ̺, ʒ̺, t̺ʃ̺ʷ, d̺ʒ̺ʷ].[1] In most spoken Croatian idioms, as well as in some Bosnian, they are postalveolar (/ʃ, ʒ, t͡ʃ, d͡ʒ/) instead, and there could be a complete or partial merger between /tʂ, dʐ/ and palatal affricates /tɕ, dʑ/.[13]

Alveolo-palatal fricatives [ɕ, ʑ] are marginal phonemes, usually realized as consonant clusters [sj, zj]. However, the emerging Montenegrin standard has proposed two additional letters, Latin ⟨Ś⟩, ⟨Ź⟩ and Cyrillic ⟨С́⟩, ⟨З́⟩, for the phonemic sequences /sj, zj/, which may be realized phonetically as [ɕ, ʑ].

Voicing contrasts are neutralized in consonant clusters, so that all obstruents are either voiced or voiceless depending on the voicing of the final consonant, though this process of voicing assimilation may be blocked by syllable boundaries.


Vowel space of Serbo-Croatian from Landau et al. (1999:67). The diphthong /ie/ occurs in some Croatian and Serbian dialects. Schwa [ə] only occurs allophonically.

The Serbo-Croatian vowel system is symmetrically composed of five vowel qualities /a, e, i, o, u/.[1] Although the difference between long and short vowels is phonemic, it is not represented in standard orthography, as it is in Czech or Slovak orthography, except in dictionaries. Unstressed vowels are shorter than the stressed ones by 30% (in the case of short vowels) and 50% (in the case of long vowels).[2]

Front Central Back
short long short long short long
Close i u
Mid e o
Open a

The long Ijekavian reflex of Proto-Slavic jat is of disputed status. The prescriptive grammar Barić et al. (1997) published by the foremost Croatian normative body—the Institute of Croatian Language and Linguistics, describes it as a diphthong,[14] but this norm has been heavily criticized by phoneticians as having no foundation in the spoken language, the alleged diphthong being called a "phantom phoneme".[15] Thus the reflex of long jat, which is spelled as a trigraph ⟨ije⟩ in standard Croatian, Bosnian and Ijekavian Serbian, represents the sequence /jeː/.

Stressed vowels carry one of the two basic tones, rising and falling.

Pitch accent

See also: Shtokavian dialect § Accentuation

New Shtokavian dialects (which form the basis of the standard languages) allow two tones on stressed syllables and have distinctive vowel length and so distinguish four combinations, called pitch accent: short falling (ȅ), short rising (è), long falling (ȇ), and long rising (é).[16]

Most speakers from Serbia and Croatia do not distinguish between short rising and short falling tones. They also pronounce most unstressed long vowels as short, with some exceptions, such as genitive plural endings.[17] Several Southern Serbian dialects, notably the dialect of Niš, lack vowel length and pitch accent, instead using a stress based system, as well as differing from the standard language in stress placement. These are considered barbarisms which leads to varying degrees of code switching.

The accent can be on any syllable, but rarely on the last syllable.[Note 1] This is relevant for Serbia, where educated speakers otherwise speak close to standard Serbian in professional contexts; this is less so in Croatia, where educated speakers often use a local Croatian variant which might have a quite different stress system. For example, even highly educated speakers in Zagreb will have no tones, and can have stress on any syllable.

Accent alternations are very frequent in inflectional paradigms, in both quality and placement in the word (the so-called "mobile paradigms", which were present in Proto-Indo-European itself and became much more widespread in Proto-Balto-Slavic). Different inflected forms of the same lexeme can exhibit all four accents: lònac /ˈlǒnats/ ('pot' nominative sg.), lónca /ˈlǒːntsa/ (genitive singular), lȏnci /ˈlôːntsi/ (nominative plural), lȍnācā /ˈlônaːtsaː/ (genitive plural).

Research done by Pavle Ivić and Ilse Lehiste has shown that all stressed syllables of Serbo-Croatian words are basically spoken with a high tone and that native speakers rely on the phonetic tone of the first post-tonic syllable to judge the pitch accent of any given word.[18][19] If the high tone of the stressed syllable is carried over to the first post-tonic syllable, the accent is perceived as rising. If it is not, the accent is perceived as falling, which is the reason monosyllabic words are always perceived as falling. Therefore, truly narrow phonetic transcriptions of lònac, lónca, lȏnci and lȍnācā are [ˈlónáts, ˈlóːntsá, ˈlóːntsì, ˈlónàˑtsàˑ] or the equivalent [ˈlo˦nats˦, ˈloːn˦tsa˦, ˈloːn˦tsi˨, ˈlo˦naˑ˨tsaˑ˨]. Ivić and Lehiste were not the first scholars to notice this; in fact, Leonhard Masing [et] made a very similar discovery decades earlier, but it was ignored due to him being a foreigner and because it contradicted the Vukovian approach[clarification needed], which was then already well-ingrained.[20]

Although distinctions of pitch occur only in stressed syllables, unstressed vowels maintain a length distinction. Pretonic syllables are always short, but posttonic syllables may be either short or long. These are traditionally counted as two additional accents. In the standard language, the six accents are realized as follows:

ȅ ê short vowel with falling tone
ȇ êː long vowel with falling tone
è ě short vowel with rising tone
é ěː long vowel with rising tone
e e non-tonic short vowel
ē non-tonic long vowel

Examples are short falling as in nȅbo ('sky') /ˈnêbo/; long falling as in pîvo ('beer') /ˈpîːvo/; short rising as in màskara ('eye makeup') /ˈmǎskara/; long rising as in čokoláda ('chocolate') /t͡ʂokoˈlǎːda/. Unstressed long syllables can occur only after the accented syllable, as in d(j)èvōjka ('girl') /ˈd(ј)ěvoːjka/ or dòstavljānje ('delivering') /ˈdǒstavʎaːɲe/. There can be more than one post-accent length in a word, notably in genitive plural of nouns: kȍcka ('cubes') → kȍcākā ('cubes''). Realization of the accents varies by region.

Restrictions on the distribution of the accent depend, beside the position of the syllable, also on its quality, as not every kind of accent can be manifested in every syllable.

  1. Falling tone generally occurs in monosyllabic words or the first syllable of a word[21] (pȃs ('belt'), rȏg ('horn'); bȁba ('old woman'), lȃđa ('river ship'); kȕćica ('small house'), Kȃrlovac. The only exception to this rule are interjections, words uttered in the state of excitement (such as ahȁ, ohȏ)
  2. Rising tone generally occurs in any syllable of a word except the last one and so never occurs in monosyllabics[21] (vòda 'water', lúka 'harbour'; lìvada 'meadow', lúpānje 'slamming'; siròta 'orphan', počétak 'beginning'; crvotòčina 'wormhole', oslobođénje 'liberation').

Thus, monosyllabics generally have falling tone, and polysyllabics generally have falling or rising tone on the first syllable and rising in all the other syllables but the last one. The tonal opposition rising ~ falling is hence generally possible only in the first accented syllable of polysyllabic words, and the opposition by lengths, long ~ short, is possible in the accented syllable, as well as in the postaccented syllables (but not in a preaccented position).

Proclitics, clitics that latch on to a following word, on the other hand, may "steal" a falling tone (but not a rising tone) from the following monosyllabic or disyllabic word. The stolen accent is always short and may end up being either falling or rising on the proclitic. The phenomenon (accent shift to proclitic) is most frequent in the spoken idioms of Bosnia, as in Serbian it is more limited (normally with the negation proclitic ne) and it is almost absent from Croatian Neo-Shtokavian idioms.[6] Such a shift is less frequent for short rising accents than for the falling one (as seen in this example: /ʒěliːm//ne ʒěliːm/).

in isolation with proclitic Translation
Croatian Serbian Bosnian
rising /ʒěliːm/ 'I want' /neʒěliːm/ 'I don't want'
/zǐːma/ 'winter' /uzîːmu/ /ûziːmu/ 'in the winter'
/nemoɡǔːtɕnoːst/ 'inability' /unemoɡǔːtɕnosti/ 'not being able to'
falling /vîdiːm/ 'I see' /něvidiːm/ 'I can't see'
/ɡrâːd/ 'city' /uɡrâːd/ /ûɡraːd/ 'to the city' (stays falling)
/ʃûma/ 'forest' /uʃûmi/ /ǔʃumi/ 'in the forest' (becomes rising)

Morphophonemic alternations

Serbo-Croatian exhibits a number of morphophonological alternations. Some of them are inherited from Proto-Slavic and are shared with other Slavic languages, and some of them are exclusive to Serbo-Croatian, representing later innovation.

Fleeting a

The so-called "fleeting a" (Serbo-Croatian: nepóstojānō a), or "movable a", refers to the phenomenon of short /a/ making apparently random appearance and loss in certain inflected forms of nouns. This is a result of different types of reflexes Common Slavic jers */ъ/ and */ь/, which in Štokavian and Čakavian dialects merged to one schwa-like sound, which was lost in a weak position and vocalized to */a/ in a strong position, giving rise to what is apparently unpredictable alternation. In most of the cases, this has led to such /a/ appearing in word forms ending in consonant clusters,[22] but not in forms with vowel ending.

The "fleeting a" is most common in the following cases:[22]


Further information: Slavic first palatalization

The reflex of the Slavic first palatalization was retained in Serbo-Croatian as an alternation of


before /e/ in inflection, and before /j, i, e/ and some other segments in word formation.[23] This alternation is prominently featured in several characteristic cases:

There are some exceptions to the process of palatalization. The conditions are:

Doublets exist with adjectives derived with suffix -in from trisyllabic proper names:


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Further information: Slavic second palatalization and Slavic third palatalization

The output of the second and the third Slavic palatalization is in the Serbo-Croatian grammar tradition known as "sibilantization" (sibilarizácija/сибилариза́ција). It results in the following alternations before /i/:


This alternation is prominently featured in several characteristic cases:

In two cases there is an exception to sibilantization:

Doublets are allowed in the following cases:


Main article: Iotation


There are two types of consonant assimilation: by voicing (jednačenje po zvučnosti) and by place of articulation (jednačenje po m(j)estu tvorbe).

Assimilation of voice

Main article: Consonant voicing and devoicing

All consonants in clusters are neutralized by voicing, but Serbo-Croatian does not exhibit final-obstruent devoicing as most other Slavic languages do.[24] Assimilation is practically always regressive, i.e. voicing of the group is determined by voicing of the last consonant.[25] Sonorants are exempted from assimilation, so it affects only the following consonants:

Furthermore, /f/, /x/ and /ts/ don't have voiced counterparts, so they trigger the assimilation, but are not affected by it.[25]

As can be seen from the examples above, assimilation is generally reflected in orthography. However, there are numerous orthographic exceptions, i.e. even if voicing or devoicing does take place in speech, the orthography does not record it, usually to maintain the etymology clearer.

Assimilation by place of articulation

Main article: Assimilation (phonology)

Assimilation by place of articulation affects /s/ and /z/ in front of (post)alveolars /ʃ/, /ʒ/, /t͡ʂ/, /d͡ʐ/, /tɕ/, /dʑ/, as well as palatals /ʎ/ and /ɲ/, producing /ʃ/ or /ʒ/:[25]

Simultaneously, assimilation by voicing is triggered if necessary.


See also: L-vocalization

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A historical /l/ in coda position has become /o/ and is now so spelled, and produces an additional syllable. For example, the Serbo-Croatian name of Belgrade is Beograd. However, in Croatian, the process is partially reversed; compare Croatian stol, vol, sol vs. Serbian sto, vo, so ('table', 'ox' and 'salt').


The sample text is a reading of the first sentence of The North Wind and the Sun by a 57-year-old female announcer at the Croatian Television Network reading in a colloquial style.[4]

Phonemic transcription

/sjêʋeːrniː lědeniː ʋjêtar i sûːnt͡se su se prěpirali o sʋǒjo:j snǎːzi/[26]

Phonetic transcription

[sjêʋeˑrniˑ ɫědeniˑ ʋjêtar i sûːnt͡se su se prěpiraɫi o sʋǒjoˑj snǎːzi]

Orthographic version (Ijekavian)

Sjeverni ledeni vjetar i Sunce su se prepirali o svojoj snazi.[26]

See also


  1. ^ Exceptions to this qualification, which is considered by some[who?] a prescriptive rule, include: paradàjz ('tomato' nominative sg.), which normally bears a short rising tone on the final syllable in the speech of educated speakers. fabrikànt ('manufacturer' nominative sg.), asistènt ('assistant' nominative sg.), apsolvènt ('student who has fulfilled all requirements except an honours thesis' nominative sg.), trafikànt ('sales assistant at a newsstand' nominative sg.)
  2. ^ This is a stylistically marked form: the usual plural form of vrȃg is with -ov- interfix: vrȁgovi; accusative plural: vrȁgove, but the infix is inhibiting the environment conditioning the palatalization, so the short plural form was provided.


  1. ^ a b c d Morén (2005:5–6)
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Landau et al. (1999:68)
  3. ^ Kordić (2006:5)
  4. ^ a b Landau et al. (1999:66)
  5. ^ Jazić (1977:?), cited in Ladefoged & Maddieson (1996:188)
  6. ^ a b Wayles Brown & Theresa Alt (2004), A Handbook of Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian, SEELRC
  7. ^ Landau et al. (1999:67)
  8. ^ Trubetskoi, Nikolai S (1969), Principles of phonology. (Grundzüge der Phonologie), University of California Press, p. 59, ISBN 9780520015357
  9. ^ Gick et al. (2006:?)
  10. ^ Wyn Johnson; David Britain (2007), "L-vocalisation as a natural phenomenon: explorations in sociophonology" (PDF), Language Sciences (29): 304
  11. ^ Stevanović, Mihailo (1986). Савремени српскохрватски језик. Belgrade: Naučna knjiga. p. 82. И при изговору сугласника ж и ш [...] врх се језика диже према предњем делу предњег непца, и овлаш га додирује на делу одмах иза алвеола.
  12. ^ P. A. Keating (1991). "Coronal places of articulation". In C. Paradis; J.-F. Prunet (eds.). The Special Status of Coronals (PDF). Academic Press. p. 35.
  13. ^ Ćavar (2011:1)
  14. ^ Barić et al. (1997:49) "Prednji je i složeni samoglasnik, dvoglasnik (diftong) ie. Pri njegovu su izgovoru govorni organi najprije u položaju sličnom kao pri izgovoru glasa i, a onda postupno prelaze u položaj za izgovor glasa e. U hrvatskom književnom jeziku dvoglasnik je ie ravan diftong."
  15. ^ Kapović (2007:66) "Iako se odraz dugoga jata u kojem ijekavskom govoru možda i može opisati kao dvoglas, on tu u standardu sasma sigurno nije. Taj tobožnji dvoglas treba maknuti iz priručnikâ standardnoga jezika jer nema nikakve koristi od uvođenja fantomskih fonema bez ikakve podloge u standardnojezičnoj stvarnosti."
  16. ^ Kordić, Snježana (1998). "Diletantski napisana gramatika: recenzija knjige Vinka Grubišića, Croatian Grammar" [An amateurish grammar book: Review of the book Vinko Grubišić, Croatian Grammar] (PDF). Republika (in Serbo-Croatian). 54 (1–2). Zagreb: 254. ISSN 0350-1337. SSRN 3451649. CROSBI 446647. ZDB-ID 400820-0. Archived (PDF) from the original on 25 August 2012. Retrieved 16 June 2019. (CROLIB).
  17. ^ Alexander (2006:356)
  18. ^ Lehiste & Ivić (1963)
  19. ^ Lehiste & Ivić (1986)
  20. ^ Alexander (2006:354)
  21. ^ a b Kordić (2006:8)
  22. ^ a b Kordić (2006:7)
  23. ^ Browne (1993:312)
  24. ^ Kenstowicz, Abu-Mansour, and Törkenczy, Two notes on laryngeal licensing, MIT, p. 7((citation)): CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  25. ^ a b c "Jednačenje suglasnika po zvučnosti". Pravopis hrvatskog jezika (in Serbo-Croatian).
  26. ^ a b Landau et al. (1999:69)


Further reading

  • "Fonetika hrvatskog književnog jezika", Povijesni pregled, glasovi i oblici hrvatskog književnog jezika, 1991