Over the years, we have often been asked by our clients about the differences between Bosnian, Croatian, Montenegrin and Serbian (BCMS). Can Serbian linguists proofread Bosnian translations, or vice versa? What is the correct script to use? Is this one and the same language? I will try to address these questions below, starting with some history.
The dialect continuum that encompasses all of the four languages has since the mid-19th century been Serbo-Croatian. This was one of the three official languages of former Yugoslavia, along with Macedonian and Slovenian. It has 3 dialects, with names derived from how the word What? is pronounced. Those are shtokavian (što/šta), kajkavian (kaj), and chakavian (ča). The most widely used dialect is shtokavian, and it has three pronunciations: ekavian, yekavian, and ikavian. A large majority of the population of Serbia uses ekavian, while yekavian is used in Croatia, Bosnia and Montenegro. Ikavian is mostly limited to Dalmatia.
Cyrillic and Latin alphabets (novine.ca)
Serbo-Croatian has a simple phonology: 5 vowels and 25 consonants. These are written using both Latin and Cyrillic scripts. For Croatian and Bosnian, Latin script is used exclusively. For Serbian and Montenegrin, Latin and Cyrillic scripts are used equally. It is worth pointing out that official government documents are written in Cyrillic in Serbia, and Latin in Montenegro.
Yugoslav 10-dinar bill with text in Serbo-Croatian, Slovenian and Macedonian and Cyrillic and Latin scripts (avlija.me)
After the breakup of Yugoslavia, the new nations are seeking to define their separate cultural identity and codify official languages. This does not change the fact that BCMS is one language. As stated in the controversial Common Language Declaration, these are variants of one language, which have developed more or less independently through history, which is quite common if we look at English, Arabic, Spanish, Portuguese, French, etc. Speakers of these languages do not have any problems understanding each other without an interpreter.
What Does this Mean for Our Customers?
It is important to have in mind that although BCMS is easily understood in the entire region, slang, some idioms and popular and cultural references might not be. Any localization work would require a team consisting of linguists speaking one of the variants natively. This is especially important if the work involves transcreation, as it involves a more delicate approach to communicating a message from one language into another.
One might think that it would be cost-effective if the source material is translated into one language, and then adapted to other three. This would, however, be a bad idea as there is always a possibility to miss something unintentionally. Think of the English spelling of centre (UK) vs center (US); a reader without a spellchecker could easily miss this difference.
While translation by native-speakers of one of the variants, and revision or proofreading by a native speaker of another variant is possible, it is highly inadvisable for work requiring precision and extra care, like Life Sciences translation.
To conclude, Bosnian, Croatian, Montenegrin and Serbian are one and the same language, but have to be treated as separate in order to ensure quality translation, appropriate for the local market.