The Serbian Language: Complete Review in 9 Key Points
You’ve probably heard a thing or two about the Serbian language, but you’re not sure what’s true. Are Croatian and Serbian the same language? Is the grammar really that complicated? Is writing really that simple? Why do your Serbian friends seem unable to use the articles right? Hello and welcome, I present you the Serbian language through 10 key points.
#1 Serbian is a Slavic language.
It shares many common features with Russian, Czech, Polish, Bulgarian, Slovak, Slovenian and other Slavic languages. We have many similar words – just like English and German or Spanish and Italian.
Many people also ask if the Serbs can understand the Russians or Poles or other Slavs. The answer is yes, to a certain degree. If we speak slowly, we will probably recognize and understand many words. We will survive in a Slavic country, we’ll get important information. But we won’t be able to have a long or deep conversation, unless they know the Serbian language or we know their language.
#2 Standard Serbian language is the same as Croatian, Bosnian and Montenegrin standards.
Things are different with Croats, Bosnians and Montenegrins. Our standards are based on the same dialect. Our languages are basically the same. We can even argue and joke and exchange ideas, with everyone speaking their own variant of the language. I wrote more on the subject in this article.
This similarity is the reason why the Serbian language is taught together with Croatian, Bosnian and Montenegrin at universities around the world. This is why they use the not so popular term BSCM for it.
#3 Slavs can learn Serbian very quickly.
You bet they can! If you know a Slavic language, you have a huge advantage over non-Slavic speakers. In fact, I speak almost exclusively Serbian from the very first class with any student that knows a Slavic language. In my experience, they can understand about 85% of what I speak. However, sometimes they find it difficult to stop using their language’s grammar when speaking or writing Serbian. That’s their weak point.
#4 Serbian writing is simple.
Tha’ts true – even though it hasn’t always been that way. It used to be quite complex, but it was reformed in the 19th century. You can read more about that in this article. Today we have a phonetic orthography – that means we write as we speak. Each sound has it’s own letter and it’s very easy to learn. However, for some English speakers it’s quite challenging to stop reading the vowels the English way. They need lots of practice to start reading the Serbian way automatically.
What makes our writing complex is the simultaneous usage of two scripts: Latin and Cyrillic. Many Serbian learners avoid the Cyrillic script as it scares them in the beginning. But many insist in using it and end up reading it with ease. Here you can start learning the Serbian Cyrillic script, which is said to be perfectly adapted to the Serbian language.
#5 Serbian grammar is complex.
You bet it is. But let me first tell you what the Serbian language doesn’t have and what is difficult for us to learn in other languages:
- Umlauts, in German or French.
- Vowels between [a] and [e] (like in the word “can” or “hat”), or between [i] and [ə] shwah (like in “sin”).
- Nasal sounds, like in French.
- Articles: definite (the) or indefinite (a, an).
- Conjunctive – it’s even difficult to understand the purpose of it.
- Continuous tenses – they are comparable to our verbal aspects.
That’s why we have difficulties with these features when learning a foreign language. Especially the articles are something we struggle to learn and use properly. If I’m making mistakes in English, that’s usually in articles – and you’ve probably already noticed that!
#6 Are you a man or a women?
In Serbian language it makes a big difference, grammatically and lexically. We use different words and personal pronouns for men and women.
For example, if you’re male, you are my “učenik” (male student) and if you’re female, you are my “učenica” (female student). Masculine gender typically ends in a consonant, while feminine gender ends in -a.
This video will help you learn about masculine and feminine gender in Serbian. It’s perfect for beginners.
#7 The standard Serbian language has this set of specific features:
- 2 standard pronunciations: ekavian and ijekavian.
- 2 scripts (Cyrillic and Latin),
- and 2 alphabets, accordingly.
- 30 sounds and 30 letters.
- 5 vowels.
- A consonant that can act as a vowel: R.
- 4 tones and a post-tonal length. That means 6 different ways of pronouncing a vowel (I teach about this in the Serbian Cyrillic Reader course).
- 7 cases (Nominative, Genitive, Accusative, Dative, Instrumental, Locative);
- definite and indefinite form of adjectives;
- 7 tenses (1 present, 4 past and 2 future tenses);
- 2 moods (conditional and imperative);
- 2 verbal aspects(perfective and imperfective) and
- free word order with a fixed set of rules that has to do with clitics.
#8 You don’t need all of this grammar when you start learning Serbian!
Take it easy. For example, the most dreaded feature of the Serbian grammar are the cases. You don’t have to learn them all, especially in the beginning! If you’re not familiar with a language with cases, make sure you learn only 4 of them for the first 6 months or a year: Nominative, Accusative, Locative and Genitive. (I talk about them in this article about how to learn the Serbian cases.)
#9 Beginners should learn the grammar slowly and patiently.
It’s the best to take it easy. Learn it piece by piece and make sure to memorize lots of vocabulary. That will be of tremendous help. Learn to recognize two parts of a word: the root, that tells you the meaning, and the ending, that tells you what role this word plays in a context. Learn to recognize the root, and guess the function and meaning. Tip: open your mind in terms of word order, as I explain in this video.
You speak Serbian, your spouse another language. Among yourselves you often communicate in that other language, or in a third language. And what will your child learn?
When you start learning Serbian, eventually you’ll face a vocabulary vs grammar dilemma. There is so much to learn. What to invest your time in: words or rules?
When is the best time for starting Serbian and how to use that surge of motivation and avoid the disappointment many language learners face.