Serbian and Russian: Are they Similar Languages?

Serbian and Russian are both Slavic languages. Linguists classify Serbian as a South Slavic language (alonside Bulgarian, Slovene and a few others). Russian is an East Slavic language (together with Ukrainian and Belarusian)

Another similarity between Serbian and Russian is that both languages use the Cyrillic script. But Serbian is one of the rare languages which uses two scripts. Both the Cyrillic and the Latin script are commonly used when writing Serbian.

Although they are similar, Serbian and Russian are not mutually intelligible. Some of the reasons are differences in accent, stress, and pronunciation which make it difficult for speakers from these two languages to understand each other.

In their written form -where accents and pronunciation don't matter- a reader can sometimes recognize words from the other language and guess the meaning of a sentence.

Serbian and Russian alphabets

The Serbian language is one of the few European language that is digraphic, meaning that it has two official scripts. Serbian uses both the Latin script and the Cyrillic script.

A document written in Serbian will be in either one or the other of these two scripts. The choice of which script to use will depend on type of document, the sector or the preferences of the writer.

This is why the Serbian words which appear in this article are provided both in their Latin script version as well as in their Cyrillic script version.

Serbian is a highly phonetic language: writing is simple to learn because each sound has its own letter. Conversely there is one letter for each of the 30 sounds found in Serbian.

Both of the Serbian alphabets consists of 30 letters (5 vowels, and 25 consonants).

One thing which surprises foreigners who start learning Serbian, is that some words contain only consonants. Then they learn that in Serbian the letter ‘r’ can behave both as a vowel and as a consonant.

Indeed, besides falling on vowels, the pronunciation stress can fall on the letter ‘r’. For example, in the word “vrt” (garden) the pronunciation stress falls on the letter ‘r’ vŕt.

Serbian is not the only language in which the letter 'r' often behaves as a vowels, this also occurs in the ancient Sanskrit language. On a related note, we have previously looked at some similarities between Sanskrit and Russian.

In contrast to Serbian, the Russian language uses exclusively the Cyrillic script. The Russian alphabet consists of 33 letters: 11 vowels, 20 consonants, and 2 pronunciation signs.

Serbian and Russian Cyrillic letters are similar, but their pronunciations are different. Also, here are other differences:

Russian has the hard sign “ъ” and the soft sign “ь”. They don’t have their own sounds. The first one shows a slight pause between syllables. It makes the preceding consonant sound hard. The soft sign makes the preceding consonant sound soft.

Are Serbian and Russian mutually intelligible languages?

Speakers of mutually intelligible languages or varieties can understand each other without prior familiarity or studying. Usually, there are different degrees of mutual intelligibility in spoken and written modes of language.

Even though Serbian and Russian belong to the same language family, they are not mutually intelligible. In the spoken mode, speakers may find it difficult to understand each other. Some of the reasons are differences in accent, stress, pronunciation, etc.

In the written mode, the situation can be a bit better since they use similar Cyrillic script systems. E.g. readers can notice and draw the connection between spoken and written forms.

Can Serbians easily learn Russian and can Russians easily learn Serbian?

Learning another language that comes from the related group of languages can be easy to a certain degree. Slavic languages share many similarities in grammar and vocabulary.

However, sometimes those similarities between languages can cause mixing up grammar rules, suffixes, etc. Beginner learners can start to apply the rules from their native language to a new one.

In Russian, the pronunciation stress may fall on any vowel in a word. This can be very unpredictable for beginners.

In Serbian, the pronunciation stress never falls on the final syllable of multisyllabic words. Here we can see the same words in Serbian and Russian but with different stress on syllables:

Serbian-Russian vocabulary "False friends"

If speakers spot and use similar words without checking out their meaning it can lead to various problems. Words that have similar forms but different meanings are known as false friends. In Serbian and Russian there are plenty of them.

Here are some examples of Serbian-Russian vocabulary "false friends":

Serbian
Russian
живот/život
meaning– life
живот (zhivot)
meaning – stomach
жалост/žalost
sadness
жалость (zhalost')
pity
красно/krasno
beautiful
красно (krasno)
red
вредни/vredni
hard-working
вредный (vrednyy)
harmful

Russian loanwords in Serbian

While learning a new language, learners can notice many loanwords from other languages. They may sound or look like the words in the language they come from.

Sometimes, they have their special meaning that is different from their origin. Here are some examples of Russian loanwords in Serbian:

Serbian Russian English
награда / nagrada награда (nagrada) award
брак / brak брак (brak) marriage
чудовиште / čudovište чудовище (chudovishche) monster
запета / zapeta запятая (zapyataya) comma

Serbian loanwords in Russian

Here are some examples of Serbian loanwords in Russian. Also, we can find these loanwords in English and other languages across the world.

Serbian Russian English
вампир / vampir вампир (vampir) vampire
шљивовица / šljivovica сливовый бренди (slivovyy brendi) plum brandy / slivovitz
Тесла Тесла Tesla

Here the word “Tesla” refers to the electric car named for Nikola Tesla, the Serbian American inventor.

Also, one has to consider personal experience, motivation, and exposure to different languages. Learners who have more exposure to the related language will likely pick up more phrases and words. E.g. living in Russia or Serbia may help learners improve their spoken fluency in the related languages. However, mastering Serbian or Russian in-depth requires considerable effort and practice.

Great reforms that led to modern Serbian and Russian and their spelling systems

In the 19th century, the major reformer of the Serbian language was a Serbian philologist and linguist, Vuk Stefanovic Karadzic.

Before his reforms, Serbian literature was written in Church Slavonic from the Middle Ages. Later on, it was written in Russo-Slavonic and Slavonic-Serbian. The ordinary people didn’t understand these languages.

Karadzic used the everyday spoken language as the basis for the literary language. He reformed the Cyrillic alphabet by adding new letters. Also, he removed 18 letters that had no use in Serbian.

The principle he used was “write as you speak and read as it is written”. His important works are the collections of folk songs, fairytales, riddles, the first Serbian dictionary, etc.

In the early 18th century, Peter the Great introduced one of the important Cyrillic script reforms. One of his goals was to provide more information to ordinary people. He created the new and simplified civil alphabet and the civil script.

In his reform, he removed several archaic letters, diacritics, and accents. Arabic numerals replaced literal numerals. He introduced the rules for the usage of capital letters and punctuation marks. The number of letters decreased to 38. Later on, several reforms modernized and made Russian alphabet and script simpler.

Foreign loanwords in Serbian and Russian

Various historical events and influences impact the languages. Serbia was under Ottoman rule for almost 500 years from the 14th to 19th century. As a result, a lot of Turkish words entered the Serbian language.

Also, words from Arabic and Persian were adopted through Turkish loanwords. Today, some of them are archaic; others are still in common use. Here are some examples of words that are everyday vocabulary:

In contrast to Serbian, Russian has more loanwords coming from other Altaic languages. The contact between the languages of indigenous people in the Russian Federation and Russian enriches cultures and vocabulary.

Great examples of that process are loanwords from Yakutian or Yakut language. It is a Turkic language spoken in the Republic of Sakha or Yakutia in northeastern Russia.

Grammar: Cases and verbal aspect

Different word forms of nouns, adjectives, pronouns, and numerals show the grammatical function in a sentence. These word forms are called cases. They can be used for many purposes. These parts of speech change or decline for different cases.

Serbian has 7 cases: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, vocative, instrumental, and locative. Russian has 6 cases: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, instrumental, and prepositional (locative).

In Serbian, there are 7 tenses: 1 present tense, 2 future tenses, and 1 past tense. Very rarely do speakers use the following ones: aorist, imperfect, and pluperfect. In Russian, there are 3 tenses: past, present, and future.

Both languages are similar in expressing verbal aspects. There are verbs of perfective aspect for completed actions and verbs of imperfective aspect for continuous actions.

What is easy for English speakers to learn in Serbian and Russian?

Greek and Latin roots and loanwords

Many words share a common Greek and/or Latin root. English speakers can notice the same or similar root with a slightly different spelling or pronunciation. This is also a great way to learn endings and memorize the patterns.

Serbian Russian English
консултација / konsultacija консультация (konsul'tatsiya) consultation (counseling)
анђео / anđeo ангел (angel) angel
школа / škola школа (shkola) school

Cognates

English speakers who start learning Serbian or Russian can notice a certain number of English words in those languages.

Those words can look, sound, or have the same or similar meaning across many languages. They are known as cognates. Noticing cognate patterns can help Anglophones boost their vocabulary quickly.

Serbian Russian English
лифт / lift лифт (lift) lift
Интернет / Internet Интерне́т (internet) Internet
компјутер / kompjuter компью́тер (kompyuter) computer
бар / bar бар (bar) bar
селфи / selfi селфи (selfi) selfie

The most common words in Serbian and Russian

At the top of the most common English words we find articles such as: “a", "an” and “the”. In contrast, Serbian and Russian are similar in that neither language has articles.

Some of the tops of the most common words in these languages include pronouns, conjunctions, and question words.

Beginners can check out frequency dictionaries for other parts of speech and explore them further. One of the effective ways to learn them is through short stories as well. In this way, they can start to build up a picture of how different parts of speech are used.

For example, Russian and Serbian adverbs do not decline, but some of them have different forms in comparative and superlative degrees. Beginners can learn the invariable parts of speech easier because they don’t have to memorize many forms and other changes that occur in these highly inflected languages.

Russian adverbs are important in everyday conversation. They are usually formed from adjectives and other parts of speech. Speakers can use them when they want to express different states or actions. They are common in sentences with no subject. Many Russian adverbs end in –о as it is in громко.

Она говорит громко. (She speaks loudly.)

In Serbian, there are different types of adverbs. They do not change their form, but some of them have altered comparatives and superlatives. Beginner learners can start with adverbs of time and place. By using them, they add more info to their descriptions.

On je sada ovde. (He is here now.) [Sada – now; ovde –here.]

At the top of list of the most common Serbian words is the particle «da». It is important in making questions and connecting clauses. Also, its other function in the sentence can be the affirmative particle “yes”.

Da li govoriš srpski? (Do you speak Serbian?)

Da. (Yes.)

In Russian word frequency lists, the negative particles “не” and “нет” are common. The particle “не” used with verbs express denial or reluctance. Other parts of speech can show uncertainty and other meanings. Here’s the example of the particle “нет” expressing decline politely:

– Будешь чай? (Would you like some tea?)

– Нет, спасибо. (No, thank you.)

For more examples of Russian phrases, see this article on Russian compliments, or this one on easy Russian phrases.

Suffixes to indicate gender in Serbian and Russian

Serbian and Russian are gendered languages. They have three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. The ending of a noun typically indicates its gender.

Pronouns, adjectives, verbs, and other parts of speech need to agree in gender with the nouns.

Throughout history, many occupations have nouns that describe them in a male form. The default masculine term for professions has been used in the official documents, institutions, etc. Gender neutrality is almost impossible in these languages.

One of the solutions for making female forms for professions and similar is in the use of feminitives. By adding various suffixes to male occupations new female forms are emerging both in the Serbian and Russian language.

They can increase women’s visibility and change people’s occupational stereotypes and perceptions.

Serbian masculine Serbian feminine English
истраживач / istraživač истраживачица / istraživačica researcher
преводилац / prevodilac преводитељка / prevoditeljka translator
терапеут / terapeut терапеуткиња / terapeutkinja therapist
Russian masculine Russian feminine English
юрист (yurist) юристкa (yuristka) lawyer
дизайнер (dizayner) дизайнерка (dizaynerka) designer
программист (programmist) программистка (programmistка) programmer
Conclusion

While Serbian and Russian share many similarities in grammar structures and vocabulary, many differences arise when learners go deeper into details.

Learners who are familiar with Slavic languages can enrich their experience with unique features of Serbian and Russian. Others who learn these languages for the first time can gain new skills and opportunities.

To learn more about Slavic languages, see this comparison of Croatian and Russian.

Editor's note: You can use our free language tool to make your own vocabulary lists, and record your own phrases.