As the name suggests, the Serbo-Croatian language is spoken in Serbia and Croatia. In fact, there are several differences between these two forms, which are significant enough to consider them as separate tongues. All told, there are 6 different forms:
These forms are used in several countries (not just Serbia and Croatia).
Each of these forms has multiple dialects and sub-dialects – so why is there so much diversity?
The reason is that the language was not standardized until relatively recently, in the mid 19th century. Before then, the Serbo-Croatian area went through a long period of turmoil, most notably the expansion of the Ottoman empire.
During times of turbulence, people tend to displace. Invaders and refugees enter a country during different periods. Each brings their own language and customs. Over time, these languages mix to form new dialects and forms.
Educational institutions tend to reduce the volatility, as they teach a standardized form. However, there was no standardized form until the Vienna Literary Agreement. Decades later, the formation of the Yugoslav state consolidated this standardized form.
Of course, by that time, there were already 6 major forms and dozens of dialects.
When you study Serbo-Croatian, you are learning a standardized tongue that combines all the common features of these diverse language forms. You will be able to understand (and be understood by) people who speak these forms.
However, if you want to acquire the “local color”, you should take the effort to learn the unique features of some of these forms (particularly Serbian and Croatian).
The biggest initial stumbling block for English speakers is the “pitch tone” phonetics. In English, we use pitch to perform several functions, such as add emphasis, or to turn a statement into a question. In Serbian and Croatian, you can completely change the meaning of a word by altering the pitch.
There are 4 different pitches for each vowel, and you will have to train your ear to hear the differences – at first, they may all sound the same. I’m sure you’ll have fun watching your Serbian friends react to the bizarre things you say!
With a little practice, you’ll soon master the pitch-tone vowels. After that, you’ll have to wrap your head around the way Serbo-Croatian uses inflection to mark the function of words in a sentence (whether they are the subject, object, or indirect object). In English, we rely on syntax (word order). Once you have mastered inflection in the Serbo-Croatian language, you’ll find it to be a very liberating and expressive way to speak!