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Encyclopedia > Bosnian Serb
Total population: 11 million (est.)
Serbia and Montenegro
Bosnia and Herzegovina
 201,631 (2001) (580,000 in 1991)
 38,964 (2002)
 35,939 (2002)
 22,725 (2002)
 177,320 (2001)
 97,315 (2001)
 55,545 (2001)
United Kingdom
South Africa
Czech Republic
 1,801 (2001)
New Zealand
 434 (2001)
Language Serbian
Religion Predominantly Serbian Orthodox including Atheist, Protestant, Roman Catholic and Muslim minorities.
Related ethnic groups
    South Slavs

Serbs (in the Serbian language Срби, Srbi) are a south Slavic people living chiefly in Serbia and Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina.



Most Serbs live in the traditional Serbian heartland of Serbia and Montenegro. Large Serb populations also live in Croatia (largely in the entity that during the 1990s constituted the internationally unrecognized Republic of Serbian Krajina) and Bosnia and Herzegovina (where they are a constituent nation), principally in the Republika Srpska, one of the country's two entities. Much smaller Serb minorities also exist in Slovenia, Albania and Hungary. A lot of Serbs also live in the diaspora, notably in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, USA, Australia.

The largest urban populations of Serbs in the former Yugoslavia are to be found in Belgrade (1,500,000), Novi Sad about (250,000), Niš (200,000) and Banja Luka in Bosnia (200,000). Abroad, Chicago and the surrounding parts of Illinois has the largest Serb population followed by Toronto and Southern Ontario. Serbs constitute over two thirds of the population of Serbia and Montenegro, about 6,5 million. Another 2 million live in neighbouring countries of the Balkans. The number of Serbs in the diaspora is not known but is estimated to be anywhere from 1,5 to 3,5 million including people of Serbian descent. The total number of Serbs thus ranges anywhere from 10 to 12 million, depending solely on the estimation used for the diaspora.


Contribution to humanity

Serbs have played a prominent role in the development of the arts and sciences. Prominent individuals have included the scientists Nikola Tesla, Mihajlo Pupin, Milutin Milanković and Mileva Maric (mathematician and Albert Einstein's first wife), Rudjer Boscovich's father was Serb; the actress Mila Jovović (half Serbian, half United States, two Serbs are NBA stars: Vlade Divac and Peja Stojaković.

The mother of the last (Eastern) Roman Emperor Constantine XI Paleologos Dragases was Serbian princess Helene Dragas, and he liked to be known by her Serbian surname of Dragas.

According to the National Enquirer, author Ian Fleming patterned James Bond after Dusko Popov, a Serbian double agent nicknamed Tricycle.

For more famous Serbs, see List of Serbs.


Most Serbs speak the Serbian language, a member of the South Slavic group of languages. While the Serbian identity is to some extent linguistic, apart from the Cyrillic alphabet which they use along with Latin alphabet, the language is very similar to the standard Croatian (see Differences in official languages in Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia) and many linguists consider it part of a common Serbo_Croatian language.

There are several variants of Serbian language. The older forms of Serbian are Old Serbian and Russo_Serbian, a version of the Church Slavonic language).

Some members of the Serbian diaspora do not speak the language (mostly in the US, Canada and UK) but are still considered Serbs by ethnic origin or descent.

Non-Serbs who studied the Serbian language include such prominent individuals as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and J. R. R. Tolkien; see list of Serbian language speakers, learners, etc.


Most Serbian surnames have the surname suffix -ić (SAMPA: itj, Cyrillic: -ић). This is often transcribed as -ic. Serbian names have before often been transcribed with a phonetic ending, -ich or -itch. This form is often associated with Serbs from before the early 20th century: hence Milutin Milanković is usually referred to, for historical reasons, as Milutin Milankovitch.

The _ić suffix is a Slavic diminutive, originally functioning to create patronymics. Thus the surname Petrić signifies little Petar, as does, for example, a common prefix Mac ("son of") in Scottish and Irish names. It is estimated that some two thirds of all Serbian surnames end in -ić but that some 80% of Serbs carry such a surname with many common names being spread out among tens and even hundreds of non-related extended families.

Other common surname suffixes are -ov or -in which is the Slavic possessive case suffix, thus Nikola's son becomes Nikolin, Petar's son Petrov, and Jovan's son Jovanov. The two suffixes are often combined.

The most common surnames are Nikolić, Petrović, Jovanović.


The Serbian identity is based on Orthodox Christianity and on the Serbian Orthodox Church, to the extent that some Serb nationalists claim that those who are not its faithful are not Serbs. This is wrong: conversion of the south Slavs from paganism to Christianity took place before the Great Schism, the split between the Greek East and the Catholic West. After the Schism, those who lived under the Orthodox Catholic. Some ethnologists consider that the distinct Serb and Croatian identities relate to religion rather than ethnicity. With the arrival of the Ottoman Empire, some Serbs and Croats converted to Islam. This was particularly--but not wholly--so in Bosnia.

The best known Catholic Serb is Ivo Andrić and the best known Muslim Serb is probably either Mehmed Paša Sokolović or Meša Selimović.


The Serbian flag is a red-blue-white tricolour. It is oftenly combined with one or both of the other Serb symbols.

Serbian flag
Serbian coat of arms
Serbian coat of arms

Both the eagle and the cross, besides being the basis for various Serbian coats of arms through history, are bases for the symbols of various Serbian organisations, political parties, institutions and companies. The cross, being easy to draw, is often spraypainted, carrying an obvious political signature.

Serbian folk attire varies, mostly because of the very diverse geography and climate of the territory inhabited by the Serbs. Some parts of it are, however, common:

  • A traditional shoe that is called the opanak. It is recognisable by its distinctive tips that spiral backward. Each region of Serbia has a different kind of tips.
  • A traditional hat that is called the šajkača. It is easily recognisable by its top part that looks like the letter V or like the bottom of a boat (viewed from above), after which it got its name. It gained wide popularity in the early 20th century as it was the hat of the Serbian army in the First World War. It is still worn everyday by some villagers today, and it was a common item of headgear among Bosnian Serb military commanders during the Bosnian War in the 1990s.


The Serbs are a highly family-oriented society. A peek into a Serbian dictionary and the richness of their terminology related to kinship speaks volumes.

Of all Slavs and Russians and Albanians of Serbian origin although it has often been lost in the last century. Slava is celebration of a saint; unlike most customs that are common for the whole people, each family separately celebrates its own saint (of course, there is a lot of overlap) who is considered its protector. A slava is inherited from father to son and each household may only have one celebration which means that the occasion brings all of the family together.

Though a lot of old customs are now no longer practised, many of the customs that surround Serbian wedding still are.

The traditional Serbian dance is a circle dance called kolo. It is a collective dance, where a group of people (usually several dozen, at the very least three) hold each other by the hands or around the waist dancing, ideally in a circle, hence the name. The same dance, with the same name, is also traditional among the Croats. Similar circle dances also exist in other cultures of the region.

Serbs have their own customs regarding Christmas. Early in the morning of the day of the Christmas Eve the head of the family would go to a forest in order to cut badnjak, a young oak, the oaktree would then be brought into the church to be blessed by the priest. Then the oaktree would be stripped of its branches with combined with wheat and other grain products would be burned in the fireplace. The burning of the badnjak is a ritual which is most certainly of pagan origin and it is considered a sacrifice to God (or the old pagan gods) so that the coming year may bring plenty of food, happiness, love, luck and riches. Nowadays, with most Serbs living in towns, most simply go to their church service to be given a small parcel of oak, wheat and other branches tied together to be taken home and set afire. The house floor and church is covered with hay, reminding worshippers of the stable in which Jesus was born.

Christmas Day itself is celebrated with a feast, necessarily featuring roasted piglet as the main meal. Another Christmas meal is a deliciously sweet cake made of wheat, called koljivo whose consumption is more for ritual than nourishment. One crosses oneself first, then takes a spoonful of the cake and savours it. But the most important Christmas meal is česnica, a special kind of bread. The bread contains a coin; during the lunch, the family breaks up the bread and the one who finds the coin is said to be assured of an especially happy year.

Christmas is not associated with presents like in the West, although it is the day of St Nicolas, the protector saint of children, to whom presents are given. However, under Communist rule, most Serbian families give presents on New Year's day. Santa Claus (Deda Mraz) and the Christmas tree are also seen in Serbia, but are imports from the West.

Religious Serbs also celebrate other religious holidays and even non-religious people often celebrate Easter (on the Orthodox date).

Serbs also celebrate New Year on December 31st of the Julian Calendar and the Orthodox New Year (currently on January 14th of the Gregorian Calendar).

For Serbian meals, see Serbian cuisine.


The etymology of the word "Serb" (root: Srb) is not known. Numerous theories exist, but neither could be said to be certain or even probable:

  1. Some believe that the name is of Sarmatian/Iranian origin. Of which word exactly is unclear.
  2. Some believe that the name comes from the word sebar or peasant. However, as peasants did not exist in pre-medieval times while the name did, this seems unlikely.
  3. Others say that the name comes from saborac or co-fighter. This could make sense but the words are too far apart. It is possible that saborac comes from sebar (that sebar sometimes meant co-fighter), which would make this theory more interesting but there is not much basis for this claim either.
  4. Some [1] (http://www.rastko.org.yu/rastko-lu/jezik/hsuster-srbin.html) believe that the name comes from srkati, to suck in, referring to people so closely united as if they share mother's milk.
  5. Also, others argue that all Slavs originally called themselves Serbs, and that Serbs (and Sorbs) are simply the last Slavs who retained the name. If this is true, it still fails to explain the origin of the Slavic name (most of the above may apply).
All the places in the world with names beginning with "Srb" are concentrated around Serbia and Sorbia

However, one thing is certain: the name is very old. It is clearly a self-identification and not a given name as its root cannot be found in western European languages.

It is interesting that the etymology of the name of the Croats (root: Hrv) is also unknown. Some suggest that the names actually originate from the same root: indeed, the roots are distinctly similar (Srb/Hrv). However, it is not known whether this is merely coincidental or indicative of a common origin.

Regardless of the origin, the age and rarity of the name allows for certain historical conclusions based partly on it (for example, see Gordoservon below).

While Ukrainians and krajischniks (their names coming from Slavic word for "mark") or Slovaks and Slovenes (obvious variations of "Slavs") need not be related, Serbs and Sorbs may well be. Some have taken this to the extreme, creating theories that link Serbs with Sarmatians, Sirmium, Serbona, Siberia and so on. These do, however, tend to be something of a fringe view.

Relation with Sorbs

The obvious similarities in their names leads some to conclude that Serbs and Sorbs are related peoples. Indeed, in the Serbian language Sorbs are called Luzicki Srbi (Serbs of Lusatia) and north of them were even Beli Srbi (White Serbs).

Exactly what are relations between Serbs and Sorbs is not certain:

  1. Some believe that Serbs came to Balkan from Sorbia.
  2. Some believe that Serbs came to Balkans and Sorbs to Sorbia from joint ancient fatherland. Where this fatherland might be is also uncertain.
  3. Some believe that Serbs and Sorbs were one people sometimes but have separated even before they moved to Serbia/Sorbia.
  4. If we accept the claim that all Slavs have called themselves Serbs, then Serbs and Sorbs need not have nothing more in common than any other two Slavic peoples.

Regardless of which is correct, Serbs and Sorbs of today are very different peoples, with different customs, tradition and religion. Serbian language has perhaps more in common with Russian then with Sorbian.


Some of the toponyms which are named after Serbs are:

  • Republika Srpska
  • Serbia
  • Serbia and Montenegro
  • Srb
  • Srbac
  • Srbica
  • Srbijanci
  • Srbina
  • Srbinjak
  • Srbinje
  • Srbobran
  • Srbinci
  • Srbislavci
  • Srbljani
  • Srbljanovići
  • Srbljanska Glavica
  • Srbobran
  • Srbotina
  • Srbovac
  • Srbska Kamenica
  • Srbovo
  • Srpce
  • Srpenica
  • Srpska (village in Montenegro)
  • Srpska Crnja
  • Srpska Čuka
  • Srpska Klarija
  • Srpska Zelinja
  • Srbski Klanac
  • Srpski Babu¨
  • Srpski Čuntić
  • Srpski Itebej
  • Srpski Miletić
  • Srpske Moravice (changed by Croats in 1991 to Moravice)
  • Srpski Padej
  • Srpski Rid
  • Srpsko Polje
  • Srpsko Seli¨ste


Some of the anthroponyms which contain "Serb" are:


Early references to "Serboi"

Serbs VII-IX centuries, according to De administrando imperio

The tribal designation Serboi first appears in the 1st century Geography of Ptolemy (book 5, 9.21) to designate a tribe dwelling in Sarmatia, probably on the Lower Volga River. The name reappears, in the form Serbioi, in the 10th century scholar-emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitos' advice on running an empire, De administrando imperio (32.1-16), and in the continuation of Theophanes' history, the Theophanes Continuatus (288.17-20), usually in the same context as the Croatians, Zachlumians, and other peoples of Pannonia and Dalmatia.

The name of the Serbs has been identifed with the earliest verifiable historical reference to a Slavic people comes from Procopius , who describes a group of people called Spali or Spori. The name Spori of is clearly related to the Sorbs of Lusatia (Germany) and the Serbs of Balkan.

In the manuscript of the anonymous Bavarian geographer was written: "...Zeruiani (the Serbs), whose kingdom is so great, that from them all the Slav peoples came into being and are said to originate from them."

Constantine VII gives an unlikely derivation of the name from the Latin 'servi', which he explains as 'douloi' (slaves) of Roman emperors. He relates that the Serboi are descended from the "unbaptized" (pagan) Serboi who lived in the place called Boiki near Frankia (Bohemia?), and that they claimed the protection of Emperor Heraclius (reigned 610_641), who settled them in the province of Thessalonica. Constantine's assertion is regarded with some scepticism by modern scholars; since the 19th century it has been commonly held that Serbs came to the Balkan peninsula in the 6th century. Kekaumenos, the 11th century Byzantine general, locates the Serboi on the Sava River (268.28), as does The Chronicle of Nestor, but this is not considered particularly reliable.

The Slavs came to the Balkans from a broad region in central and eastern Europe, which extended from the rivers Elbe in the west to the Dnieper in the east and from a point which touched the Carpathian mountains in the south and the river Niemen in the north. Their settlement in the Balkans appears to have taken place between 610 and 640. Different tribes settled in different parts of the Balkan peninsula, subsequently developing their distinct identities.

A mention of the Serbian name in 680 is about a city of Gordoservon in Asia Minor where "some Slavic tribes" have settled. Gordoservon appears to be a distorted spelling of Grad Srba, "City of Serbs" in Serbian.

The first certain data on the state of the Serboi, Serbia, dates to the 9th century. The episcopal lists of Leo VI mention bishops of Drougoubiteia and the Serbioi. Envoys of the Serboi arrived at the court of the Emperor Basil II, around 993.

In the 11th century there was probably a thema of Serbia: a seal impression of Constantine Diogenes, strategos of Serbia, is preserved. Around 1040 Theophilos Erotikos was the governor of the Serboi until he was expelled by Stefan Voislav, who reportedly conquered the territory of the Serboi and became its 'archon'. T. Wasilewski (1964) surmised that this theme was the same as Sirmium, whereas Dj. Radojcic (1966) thinks that it was Raska, only temporarily governed by the Byzantines.

Medieval history

The Serbs were Christianized in several waves between the 7th and 9th century with the last wave taking place between 867 and 874.

During and after that period, Serbs struggled to gain independence from the Byzantine. The first Serb states were Rascia or Raska and Zeta. Their rulers had a varying degree of autonomy, until virtual independence was achieved under Saint Sava, who became the first head of the Serb Orthodox Church and his brother Stefan Prvovencani, who became the first Serb king. Serbia did not exist as a state of that name but was, rather, the region inhabited by the Serbs; its kings and tsars were called the "King of the Serbs" or "Tsar of the Serbs", not "King of Serbia" or "Tsar of Serbia". The medieval Serbian state is nonetheless often (if anachronistically) referred to as "Serbia".

Serbia reached its golden age under the House of Nemanjic, with the Serbian state reaching its apogee of power in the reign of Tsar Stefan Dusan. Serbia's power subsequently dwindled amid interminable conflict between the nobility, rendering the country unable to resist the steady incursion of the Ottoman Empire into south-eastern Europe. The Battle of Kosovo in 1389 is commonly regarded in Serbian national mythology as the key event in the country's defeat by the Turks, although in fact Ottoman rule was not fully imposed until some time later. After Serbia fell, the kings of Bosnia used the title of "King of the Serbs" until Bosnia was also overrun.

Ottoman domination

As Christians, the Serbs were regarded as a "protected people" under Ottoman law but in practice were treated as second-class citizens and often harshly treated. They were subjected to considerable pressure to convert to Islam; some did, while others migrated to the north and west, to seek refuge in Austria-Hungary.

At the beginning of the 19th century, the First Serbian Uprising succeeded in liberating at least some Serbs, for a limited time. The Second Serbian Uprising was much more successful, creating a powerful Serbia that became a modern European kingdom.

20th century Serbs

At the beginning of the 20th century, many Serbs were still under foreign rule – that of the Ottomans in the south and of the Austrians in the north and west. The southern Serbs were liberated in the First Balkan War of 1912, while the question of Austrian Serbs' independence was the spark that lit the First World War two years later. A Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip killed the Austro-Hungarian archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, initiating a chain of declarations of war that produced a continent-wide conflict. During the war, the Serbian army fought fiercely, eventually retreated through Greece and launched a counter-offensive through Macedonia. Though they were eventually victorious, the war devastated Serbia and killed a huge proportion of its population – by some estimates, over the half of the male Serbian population died in the conflict, influencing the region's demographics to this day.

After the war, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later called Yugoslavia) was created. Almost all Serbs now finally lived in one state. The new state had its capital in Belgrade and was ruled by a Serbian king; it was, however, unstable and prone to ethnic tensions. An interesting, if somewhat pro Serb, window on Yugoslavia between the wars is provided by Rebecca West's classic of travel literature, "Black Lamb & Grey Falcon".

During Second World War, the Italians and the fascist Ustase regime in the Independent State of Croatia. Under Ustase rule in particular, they were subjected to systematic genocide in which hundreds of thousands were killed.

After the war, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was formed. As with the pre_war Yugoslavia, the country's capital was at Belgrade. Serbia was the largest republic, however, the Communist regime of Josip Broz Tito diluted its power by establishing two autonomous provinces in Serbia, Kosovo and Vojvodina.

Communist Yugoslavia collapsed in the early 1990s, with four of its six republics becoming independent states. This led to several bloody civil wars as the large Serbian communities in Croatia and Serbia and Montenegro. Another war broke out in Kosovo (see Kosovo War) after years of tensions between Serbs and Albanians. Results of all the wars were unfavourable for Serbs, Croats, Bosnians and Albanians. Hundreds of thousands of Serbs were expelled or fled in widespread ethnic cleansing.


These notable Serbian subgroups are commonly recognised:

  1. Montenegrins (Montenegro)
  2. Catholic Serbs such as the Bunjevci, Janjevci and Krašovani
  3. Muslim Serbs such as the Gorani (Gora region of Kosovo and Metohija)

Some Serbs, mostly living in Montenegro and Herzegovina are organised in tribes. See list of Serbian tribes.


  • Early references to "Serboi": A.Kazhdan, Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium (1991), vol.3, pp.1875f.

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