Serbian 101

Serbian has an extended system of accentuation. From the phonological point of view it has four accents which are divided into two groups according to their quality:

  • there are two accents with falling intonation ("old accents")- the short one and the long one
  • there are two accents with rise in intonation ("new accents")- the short one and the long one

However, their realization varies according to vernacular. That is why Daničić, Budmani, Matešić and other scientists have given different descriptions of the four Serbian accents. The old accents are rather close to Italian and English accent types, and the new ones to German (this can be easily seen through loanwords).

Here is one possibility of phonetic realization of 4 Serbian accents:

  1. Short falling ( kratkosilazni ; symbol `` – double grave) as in Mïlica (PNfem). Pronunciation:/ˈmilitsa/ ('i' is stressed and short, as in English thick , cut ).
  2. Long falling ( dugosilazni ; symbol ^) as in pîvo ('beer'). Pronunciation:/piːvo/ ('i' is stressed, first low, then high and then again low, as in English seek , Italian Gino , Marco ).
  3. Short rising ( kratkouzlazni ; symbol ` – grave)as in màskara ('eye makeup'). Pronunciation:/ˈmaskara/ (the first 'a' is slightly stressed, the second 'a' is higher than the first one, and the third 'a' is even higher than the second one, as in German Arbeiter , Matratze ).
  4. Long rising ( dugouzlazni ; symbol ´) as in čokoláda ('chocolate'). Pronunciation:/tʃɔkɔˈlaːda/ ('a' is stressed, longer than the other vowels, and the intonation is slightly rising, as in German Balade or Schokolade ).

The "finest" realization—the differences between the accents are relatively small, words are pronounced without any special effort—can be found in the most respectable vernaculars of Piva and Drobnjak and in Belgrade and partly in familiar vernaculars in Kolubara district and south-western Banat. These two groups of vernaculars gave the base for Belgrade old speaker school. Already in surrounding Nikšić (Montenegro), Dubrovnik (Croatia), Užice (Serbia) area stress is more intensive. Modern surveys have shown for instance, that there is a minimal difference in Piva and Drobnjak (where the family of Vuk Stefanović Karadžić had come from) between the syllables that carry short-stressed accent with fall intonation and the short-stressed with rise intonation. In the first edition of Vuk's dictionary (1818), Vuk even marked these two accents as one and the same accent. The difference between the short-stressed accent with falling acentuation and the short-stressed with rise accent is almost lost in two-syllable words (cf. the surveys of Pavle Ivić on Serbian prosody). The informal speech- slang in Belgrade has very special, neutralized accentuation (the oppositions falling/rising, short/long is only partly based on genuine word accents, far more on phonetic letter structure of the word).

Unstressed Lengths

Not only the stressed syllables can be short or long. Other syllables have that feature as well. In neo-shtokavian vernaculars, the unstressed long syllable (unstressed length) can occur only after the accented syllable (these lengths are usually called postaccent lengths . Their symbol is macron (-): dèvōjka ('girl'), Jugòslāvīja (Yugoslavia).

The phonetic realization of postaccent lengths is different. In vernaculars of Piva and Drobnjak they are rather very short, without any stress components. In some other East-Herzegowinian vernaculars, they are almost stressed (of course, less intense than the really stressed syllable). In many vernaculars—for instance in Belgrade, and in many places in Vojvodina—postaccents lengths are almost lost. That's why foreign students are not expected to pay much attention to them.


Before 1400, most Serbian vernaculars had two accents, both with fall intonation—the short one and the long one. That is why they are called "old accents". By 1500, the old accents moved by one syllable towards the beginning of the word, changing their quality to rising accents. For instance junâk (hero) became jùnāk. The old accents, logically remained only when they were on first syllable. Not all dialects had that evolution; those who had it are called neo-shtokavian. The irradiation point was in east Herzegovina, between Prokletije mountains and town of Trebinje. Since the 1500s people had been emigrating from this area. The biggest migrations were to the north, then toward Military Krajina and to the seaside (Dubrovnik area, including islands of Mljet and Šipan). In 1920s and 1930s royal government tried to settle people from this poor mountainous area to Kosovo basin. Vojvodina was settled with inhabitants from this area after the WW II.

When all old accents had moved to the beginning of the word for one syllable, this was the result:

  • In words with two or more syllables the last syllable cannot be stressed
  • One-syllable words can have only falling accents
  • In polysyllabic words, if an inner syllable is stressed, then it can have only a rising accent (there are exceptions- in standard and in many vernaculars, for instance when there is a ` - - combination)
  • In a word with two or more syllables, if the first syllable is stressed, than it can have any of the four accents.

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