You’ve probably heard that Serbian uses two alphabets – Cyrillic and Latin. And although this fact can seem fascinating, it can also feel like a bummer if you’re starting to learn Serbian.
I know how you might feel. In my teaching experience, I had two types of students in my Serbian language courses. A small percentage of them wanted to learn Cyrillic and use it exclusively from day 1. Usually, they were language enthusiasts or linguistics. But the majority wanted to find a way or excuse to avoid this “torture”.
If you are totally unfamiliar with the Cyrillic alphabet of any language, you might feel Cyrillic is not a really big deal. You might wonder if it is really worth learning, or if Latin is enough to get by in Serbia. Let me explain how this two-alphabet situation actually works in Serbian and give you some advice about whether you should learn Cyrillic or not.
The Official State of Things
In Serbia, both Cyrillic and Latin alphabets are still in use. Cyrillic is defined as the alphabet in official use, while the use of the Latin alphabet is prescribed by law. All the official state documents are produced in Cyrillic by default. For some, you can choose to have them in Latin, or at least parts of the documents.
What about the schooling system?
When you start elementary school, you first learn Cyrillic. Then during the second course, you learn Latin. This means that from 8 or 9 years of age, children can already use both alphabets. Amazing, right?
In the course of recent history, the education system functioned quite differently. For instance, my grandma never got to learn the Latin alphabet in school. And just to think that nowadays life would be impossible without it.
Why? The truth is that with all of the technology and uniformity within Europe, Latin is used more and more every day in Serbia. With the Internet and tech gadgets being omnipresent in our lives, everyone had to adapt and start using and reading in Latin far more than before.
In the beginning, people had to use the English keyboard most of the time. Just in the last 5 to 7 years, Serbian Latin keyboards became a thing. By saying this I refer to a keyboard with characters like ć,č, ž, etc. Some manufacturers, like Apple for example, still haven’t reached this point.
Technology didn’t just change what we use, but also what we do. Many people have embarked on career paths related to technology, marketing, or finance where most of the terms in use are English.
The race for the faster and the prettier
With all the emerging technology, it also became obvious that the Latin alphabet or, as we call it, latinica was easier to handwrite. Cyrillic is a pretty alphabet with a lot of decorative elements, especially in the cursive version.
In the Latin alphabet most people just write it as it is although the cursive version also exists. However, knowing the cursive version of Cyrillic makes writing much faster. But it is pretty different from the letters you first learn. This is why when people learn Serbian as a second language and have to read someone’s handwriting in ćirilica is like having to learn an entirely new alphabet. Bummer!
The Republic Strikes Back
On the other hand, there are a lot of initiatives from the government and some organizations that fight to preserve Cyrillic. For example, as a retailer with a street shop in Belgrade, you can have certain benefits if you opt to outline your shop’s name in Cyrillic. A great example of this is the Starbucks coffee shops in Belgrade. You can always spot their name in both alphabets.
Day to day
Regarding your day to day in Serbia, you will mostly get around with your knowledge of the Serbian Latin alphabet. However, in some situations you will still need the Cyrillic:
- You can’t count on all street signs being in both alphabets. Somewhere you‘ll find them in Cyrillic, on another building, they will be in Latin or both. It is true, you do have a GPS on your phone, but better don’t risk getting lost.
- Another point for getting around – public transport. All the lines have their respective numbers, but the direction matters too. And the direction sign is usually in Cyrillic. As a non-native Belgradian, I can tell you that even when you know Cyrillic it’s easy to get into the wrong bus.
- Receipts are in Cyrillic. You want to know what you’re paying for, right?
- If you plan to open your business in Serbia, being able to at least read Cyrillic is a must.
Other reasons to learn the Serbian Language Cyrillic alphabet:
- Having your name written in Cyrillic is super fun.
- If you learn how to write in Cyrillic you can use it like a secret code.
- Contrary to popular belief, Cyrillic is actually easier to learn than Latin. In Cyrillic, there is one sound per letter, while in Latin you have letters like “dž”, “lj” and “nj” which in theory represent one sound. When you start learning Serbian, it’s so much easier if you begin with Cyrillic first. I proved this theory so many times with my students.
- Using Cyrillic or how we call it, ćirilica, in your brand name is becoming quite popular nowadays. Besides the popular coffeehouse Starbucks, there are a lot of modern alternative brands that exclusively use Cyrillic. It plays an interesting part in the hipster culture in Serbia. Take a walk through the streets of Dorćol and you’ll see what I mean.
- At the end of the day, your brain wouldn’t mind building some new neuro pathways. In that sense, reading and writing in Cyrillic is a great exercise. You can do it at home, walking on the street, or commuting.
Cyrillic is the alphabet in official use in the Republic of Serbia. It will always have priority over Latin, especially in the government-y areas of life. Some think Cyrillic is on life support, but it is definitely still hanging in there.
In my personal opinion, ćirilica is starting to overcome the technological boom and find its way back into the culture, especially among the young. People are realizing that using Cyrillic is not a thing of the past or tradition, but a part of their identity and evolves together with them.
So, should you learn it? Whether you want to learn Cyrillic or not is entirely up to you. But would your life in Serbia be easier if you spoke Serbian and were able to use Cyrillic? Absolutely.
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