For the place of the Croatian dialects among Slavonic languages generally, see Slavs. The Croatian dialects, like the Servian, have gradually developed from the Old Slavonic, which survives in medieval liturgies and biblical or apocryphal writings. The course of this development was similar in both cases, except that the Croats, owing to their dependence on Austria-Hungary, were not so deeply influenced as the Serbs by Byzantine culture in the middle ages, and by Russian linguistic forms and Russian ideas in modern times. The Orthodox Serbs, moreover, use a modified form of the Cyrillic alphabet, while the Roman Catholic Croats use Latin characters, except in a few liturgical books which are written in the ancient Glagolitic script. As the literary language of both nations is now practically the same, and is, indeed, commonly known as “Serbo-Croatian,” the reader may be referred to the article Servia: Language and Literature, for an account of its history, of its chief literary monuments up to the 19th century and inclusive of Dalmatian literature, and of the principal differences between the dialects spoken in Servia and Croatia-Slavonia.
The three most important Croatian dialects are known as the Cakavci, Cakavština or, in Servian, Chakavski, spoken along the Adriatic littoral; theŠtokavci (Štokavština, Shtokavski), spoken in Servia and elsewhere in the north-west of the Balkan Peninsula; and the Kajkavci (Kajkavština,Kaykavski), spoken by the partly Slovene population of the districts of Agram, Warasdin and Kreuz. This classification is based on the form, varying in different localities, of the pronoun ca, što, or kaj, meaning “what.”
The Cakavci literature includes most of the works of the Dalmatian writers of the 15th and 16th centuries—the golden age of Serbo-Croatian literature. Its history is indissolubly interwoven with that of the Štokavci, which ultimately superseded it, and became the literary language of all the Serbo-Croats, as it had long been the language of the best national ballads and legends.
Kajkavci had from about 1550 to 1830 a distinctive literature, consisting of chronicles and histories, poems of a religious or educational character, fables and moral tales. These writings possess more philological interest than literary merit, and are hardly known outside Croatia-Slavonia and the Slovene districts of Austria.
Apart from the Kajkavci dialect, the whole body of Serbo-Croatian literature up to the 19th century may justly be regarded as the common heritage of Serbs and Croats. The linguistic and literary reforms which Dossitey Obradovich and Vuk Stefanovich Karajich carried out in Servia about the close of this period helped to stimulate among the Croats a new interest in their national history, their traditions, folk-songs and folk-tales. One result of this nationalist revival was the unsuccessful attempt made between 1814 and 1830 to raise the Cakavci dialect to the rank of a distinctive literary language for Croatia-Slavonia; but the Illyrist movement of 1840 led to the adoption of the Štokavci, which was already the vernacular of the majority of Serbo-Croats. Ljudevit Gaj (1809-1872), though he failed to create an artificial literary language by the fusion of the principal dialects spoken by Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, was by his championship of Illyrism instrumental in securing the triumph of the Štokavci. Gaj was a poet of considerable talent, and one of the founders of Croatian journalism. Among other writers of the first half of the 19th century may be mentioned Ivan Mažuranic (1813-1890), whose first poems were published in the Danica ilirska (“Illyrian Dawnstar”), a journal founded and for a time edited by Gaj. In 1846 Mažuranic published his Smrt Smail Aga Cengica (“Death of Ismail Aga Cengic”), called by Serbo-Croats the “Epos of Hate.” This remarkable poem, written in the metre of the old Servian ballads, gives a vivid description of life in Bosnia under Turkish rule, and of the hereditary border feuds between Christians and Moslems. In later life Mažuranic distinguished himself as a statesman, and became ban of Croatia from 1873 to 1880. Other writers representative of Croatian literature before 1867 were the lyric poet Stanko Vraz (1810-1851) and Dragutin Rakovac (1813-1854), the author of many patriotic songs.
With the foundation of the South Slavonic Academy at Agram, in 1867, the study of science and history received a new impetus. Under the presidency of Franko Racki (1825-1894) the academy, with its journal the Rad jugoskovenske Akademije, became the headquarters of an active group of savants, among whom may be mentioned Vastroslav Jagic (b. 1838), sometime editor of the Archiv für slavische Philologie; the historians Šime Ljubic (1822-1896) and Vjekoslav Klaic, author of several standard works on Croatia and the Croats; the lexicographer Bogoslav Šulek (1816-1895); the ethnographer and philologist Franko Karelac (1811-1874). In Dalmatia, where the Ragusan journal Slovinac has served, like the Agram Rad, as a focus of literary activity, there have been numerous poets and prose writers, associated, in many cases, with the Illyrist or the nationalist propaganda. Among these may be mentioned Count Medo Pucic (1821-1882), and the dramatist Matija Ban (1818-1903), whose tragedy Meyrimah is considered by many the finest dramatic poem in the Serbo-Croatian language.