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The Languages of the Former Yugoslavia

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Lauren Nemec photoThough the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia has ceased to exist, the ramifications of the tumultuous changes that occurred throughout the region in decades past continues even today. One aspect that continues to be a controversial and touchy subject in the region is the language. Today, many people find it difficult to understand the differences between Serbo-Croatian, Croatian, Serbian, Bosnian, Slovenian, Macedonian, Montenegrin, etc. As outsource language specialists, it’s not only Translatus’ job to understand the nuances of the language systems of the region, but to ensure our clients and even our vendors understand them as well. While the differences between the languages are usually not significant enough to prevent basic understanding between speakers, they can create the potential for significant challenges for a company targeting this region. Perhaps this article will provide better understanding of the language complexities in the former Yugoslavia.

For many years, “Serbo-Croatian” was the standard, official language used in the former Yugoslavia. However, some would say it was more of a “pseudo language” that was created by communists to smooth over nationalistic feelings in the region. The term “Serbo-Croatian” is not used today, as many native speakers would find it to be politically incorrect or offensive.

Serbia and Croatia
Serbian is understood in Serbia, Bosnia, and Croatia. Croatian is understood in Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia. Spoken Serbian and Croatian are virtually interchangeable, meaning Serbs and Croats understand each other. However, due to ethnic tensions between the two groups, and because a translation done in Serbian would be obvious to a Croat (and vice versa) a document destined for both regions should be done in both languages. The same can be said for Bosnian. Though it can be understood in Serbia and Croatia, a Bosnian translation should be used only for the Bosnian market.

Croats are wary of any foreign influence on Croatian. They tend to be protective and purist regarding their language. As a result, Croatian, unlike Serbian, tends not to use loan words or foreign words, but will instead create its own words. For example, the English word “computer” in Serbian would be "kompjuter” – a phonetic spelling of the English word. Instead of borrowing the foreign term, the Croatians have coined the term “računalo”.

Case Study

We experienced this issue first-hand when a client in the telecommunications industry had a document translated from English into Croatian. Our translator came back to us with a question regarding treatment of the English word "router". In his words, “Croatian terminology in [the telecommunications field] is still under development and far from being standardized.” The translator presented the client with a choice of three Croatian terms for the word "router”: router, ruter, and usmjernik, representing the foreign term, the phonetically adapted term, and the new Croatian word, respectively.

In some cases, as well as in this particular case, a client might choose the term listed in their pre-approved term base or glossary. If the client has no term base, or if the term is not yet included in their term base, Translatus would suggest the most appropriate term. In this case, the most appropriate term would have been "usmjernik", as it gives proper meaning while also representing the spirit of the Croatian language.

As this case study illustrates, languages in the Former Yugoslavia are constantly evolving, presenting us with new challenges in selecting the most appropriate terminology.

Bosnia and Herzegovina
The population of Bosnia and Herzegovina is made up of three ethnic groups- Muslim, Croatian, and Serbian. The Muslim group of Bosnia (known as Bosniaks) calls their language Bosnian. However, the Croatian and Serbian groups of Bosnia speak Croatian and Serbian, respectively. All three languages are Bosnia and Herzegovina’s official languages. So what is the best language for a document for this market? It depends exactly what is being translated, but unless a client has a very specific target market within Bosnia and Herzegovina, the best bet is Bosnian.

Montenegrins speak “Montenegrin”. In fact, this is not an official language, but rather a heavy dialect of Serbian. Whether or not "Montenegrin” will become an official language of Montenegro is currently a hot issue. As such, a document intended for the Montenegrin market would best be completed in the official language of Montenegro, which is Serbian. However, a company specifically targeting Montenegro can certainly have a translation done in "Montenegrin" if required. One cost-effective way to do this might be to have an existing Serbian translation proofread or edited by a Montenegrin translator.

The primary official language of the Republic of Macedonia is Macedonian. Macedonian is the most widely spoken language in the country, though many other languages are also spoken. Macedonian is sufficient for translation destined for this region. However, the rapidly increasing Albanian population in Macedonia could lead to an increasing need for Albanian-language documents in the future.

Translations for Slovenia should be done in the official language of Slovenian. Macedonians and Slovenians who were educated during the period of Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia will be able to understand both Serbian and Croatian, but others educated after the mid-1980's will not. Therefore, Croatian and Serbian translations will not work for these countries.

Languages of the Former Yugoslavia- Quick Reference Table

Language for Translation
Bosnia & Herzegovina Bosnian Latin
Croatia Croatian Latin
Macedonia Macedonian Cyrillic
Montenegro Serbian/Montenegrin Latin
Serbia Serbian Cyrillic or Latin
Slovenia Slovenian Latin

Lauren Nemec
Marketing Manager
Article previously published on “A World of Translation Work” Translatus Blog.

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