The Serbs reference article from the English Wikipedia on 24-Apr-2004
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Serbs (in their language: Срби, transliteration: Srbi) are a south Slavic people which live mostly in the Serbia and Montenegro and Republika Srpska.

Table of contents
1 Population
2 Culture
3 Name
4 History
5 Subgroups
6 Famous Serbs
7 References


Most Serbs live in the traditional Serbian heartland of Serbia and Montenegro. Large Serb populations also live in Bosnia and Herzegovina (where they are a constitutive nation; principally in the Republika Srpska, one of the two entities that comprise Bosnia and Herzegovina) and Croatia, although their numbers have been much reduced by the ethnic cleansing that occurred during Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. Much smaller Serb minorities also exist in Hungary, Macedonia and Romania.

The largest urban populations of Serbs in the former Yugoslavia are to be found in Belgrade, Novi Sad and Banja Luka in Bosnia. Abroad, Chicago has the largest Serb population followed by Toronto (note that Chicago has more Serbs then Novi Sad). Serbs constitute 63% of the population of Serbia, about 7 million people in all, and another 11 million people abroad claim Serbian descent.


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 and Milutin Milanković; the writer Ivo Andrić; and the actress Mila Jovović (half Serbian, half Russian). In the United States, two Serbs are NBA stars: Vlade Divac and Peja Stojaković. The wars of the 1990s brought three Serbs to international attention: President Slobodan Milošević, Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadžić and General Ratko Mladić.


Most Serbs speak Serbian language. While the Serbian identity is to some extent linguistic, apart from the Cyrillic alphabet which they use, the language is very similar to Croatian language (see Differences in official languages in Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia) and many linguists consider it a dialect of Serbo-Croatian language.

There are several variants of Serbian language. The diaspora languages of Serbian are Molise Serbian, Gradisce & Burgenland Serbian. The older forms of Serbian are Old Serbian, and Russo-Serbian, a version of the Church Slavonic language).

There are people in Serbian diaspora who don't speak the language, but are still considered Serbs.

Last names

Serbian last names often, though not always, have ending -ић (SAMPA itj). This is often transcribed in the Latin alphabet as -ić or -ic. Serbian names have 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 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 sphere of influence became Orthodox and those who lived under the Catholic sphere of influence became 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.


Serbian flag is red-blue-white tricolour.
Serb flag
(In Detail)

Serb symbols: white two-headed eagle with Serbian cross
Larger version
Photo courtesy of
In inofficial use it is often embrodied with one or both of the other Serb symbols:

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

Serbian folk attire varies, mostly because of very diverse geography and climate of the teritorry that they inhabit. Some parts of it are, however, common:


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

Of all Slavs and Orthodox Christians, only Serbs have the custom of slava. The custom could also be found among some Russians and Albanians of Serbian origin although it has oftenly 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 no longer followed, customs that surround the Serbian wedding tend to be kept.

The traditional Serbian dance is circle dance called kolo. It is a collective dance, where more (usually tens, at the very least three) people hold each other by the hands or around the waists dancing, ideally in circle, hence the name. Similar dances also exist in other cultures.

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(s) so that the coming year may bring plenty of produce (food), happinness, love, luck and riches.

Nowadays, with most Serbs living in cities, most simply go to their church service which dispences small oak, wheat and other branches tied together to be taken home and set afire. The house floor and church is covered with hay, reminding of the stable in which Jesus Christ was born. The Christmas Day 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 consupmtion is more ritual than gourmandise. One crosses oneself first, then takes a spoonfull 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 one who finds the coin considers that he/she will have especially happy year. Christmas is not associated with presents like in the West, it is the day of St Nicolas, the protector saint of the children, when presents are given. However, under Communist, most Serbian families give presents on New Year's day. Western influences also introduces both Santa Claus (Deda Mraz) and the Christmas tree.

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

Serbs also celebrate New Year and, in addition to it oftenly (even non-religious ones), Serbian new year, on December 31st of the Julian Calendar (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 origin. The main weakness of this theory is that because next to nothing is known about the Sarmatian language, virtually any word of unknown origin could be Sarmatian.
  2. Some believe that the name is of Iranian origin. Of which word exactly is unclear.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Some [1] believe that the name comes from srkati, to suck in, referring to people so closely united as if they share mother's milk.
  6. 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).

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.


Early references to "Serboi"

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.

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. There are no other sources to verify Constantine's evidence, however, since 19th century it is commonly held as a historical truth that Serbs came to the Balkan peninsula in 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 historical truth.

The Slavs, history considers, came to the Balkans from a broad plain, which extended from the rivers Elbe in the west to the Dneiper in the east and from a point which touched the Carpathian mountains in the south and the river Niemen in the north. The settling on the Balkans appears to have taken place between 610 and 640. Different tribes were to settle in different parts of the Balkan peninsula. Those tribes were then to develop their distinct identities.

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

The first certain data on the state of the Serboi, Serbia, begin with the 9th century, and the episcopal lists of Leo VI mention bishops of Drougoubiteia and the Serbioi. Envoys of the Serboi arrived at the court of emperor Basil II, ca 993.

In the 11th century there was probably a theme of Serbia: a seal impression of Constantine Diogenes, strategos of Serbia, is preserved, and ca 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.

Further history

Serbs were converted to Christianity in several waves between the since 7th and 9th century with the last wave taking place between 867 and 874.

During and after that period, Serbs have struggled to gain independence from the Byzantine and Roman Empire. The first Serb states were Rascia and Zeta. Various rulers had various degrees of authonomy, until Saint Sava, who became the first head of the Serb Orthodox Church and his brother Stefan Prvovencani, who became the first Serb king.

It may be very surprising to today readers that there was no medieval state with the name "Serbia", but it is a fact: Serb state was called "Serb state" and its kings and tsars wore titles of "King of Serbs" or "Tsar of Serbs", not "King of Serbia" or "Tsar of Serbia". The state if oftenly called "Serbia" today, however. Serbia reached its golden age under the House of Nemanjic, for whose achievements could be said that they are still unsurpassed. And the Nemanjic Serbia reached its peak under the rule of Tsar Stefan Dusan.

The golden age ended with intrusion of Turks into Europe, of course, over Serbia. Serbia was slowly fading away, its nobility fighting among themselves and incapable of holding out the Turks. The Serbian national consciousness sees the Battle of Kosovo of 1389 as the turning point after which Serbia fell under Turkish rule.

After Serbia fell, kings of Bosnia wore the title of "King of Serbs" until it was also overrun.

Ottoman domination

Under the Ottoman Empire Serbs were again struggling for independence and to avoid being converted to Islam. Turkish pressure drove Serbs to migrate to the north and west, in then Austria-Hungary.

At the beginning of 19th century, First Serbian Uprising had success in liberating at least some Serbs, for a limited time. Second Serbian Uprising was much more successful. Eventually Serbia it created will become a modern European kingdom.

20th century Serbs

At the beginning of 20th century, some Serbs have still lived under Ottoman and Austrian occupation. Most of them were liberated in the First Balkan War.

But the Serbs in Bosnia were still not free. First World War started when a Serb nationalist, Gavrilo Princip killed Austro-Hungarian archduke Franz Ferdinand. During the war, the Serbian army fought fiercely, eventually retreated through Albania to regroup in Greece and launched a counter-offensive. Though they were victorious, the war left devastating consequences: over half of male Serbs were killed. This still influences demographics of today.

After the war, the state of Yugoslavia was created. All Serbs (of course without unavoidable minorities in bordering lands) finally lived in one state, though not their own.

During Second World War, the Axis Powers occupied and tore apart Yugoslavia. Serbs have suffered immensely, especially under Ustase regime in the Independent State of Croatia (encompassing today's Croatia, Bosnia and a part of Serbia) where they were subject to mass destruction and cleansing of the population.

After the war, second Yugoslavia was formed. Eventually it would break apart in early 1990s. Internal borders of the republics became borders of independent states which would lead to huge civil wars in Croatia and Bosnia, where Serbs did not want to separate but to stay in Yugoslavia, now consisting of only Serbia and Montenegro.


There are 5 Serbian subgroups-

  1. Montenegrins (Montenegro)
  2. Gorani (Gora region of Kosovo)
  3. Molise Serbs (Molise region of Italy, they speak a diaspora language called Molise Serbian)
  4. -5. Gradisce Serbs & Burgenland Serbs (Burgenland region of Austria, they also speak there own diaspora languages, Gradisce Serbian and Burgenland Serbian)

Famous Serbs

List of Serbs