The Declining Secret Revealed: What Cases are & how to Learn Them

7 Serbian Cases and How to Learn Them: The Declining Secret Revealed

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Magdalena Petrović Jelić

My students sometimes ask me: “Do you really always use the Serbian cases properly?” Why would they ask such a thing? Because there is a myth spreading around claiming that some Serbian speakers (“less educated”) do not use the Serbian cases well.

That’s simply not true. The reality is that in some Serbian dialects the case system is different. These dialects don’t use all the standard Serbian cases. But they obey their own rules. However, when speaking in a formal situation, a dialect speaker will normally conform to standard and use all the cases.

As a Serbian language learner, you don’t have to learn all the Serbian cases – but that won’t take you far. You’ll end up speaking “Tarzan” Serbian and you won’t be able to understand more than basic sentences.

If you decide to learn Serbian properly, learn the Serbian cases. They’ll come in handy. But do not rush: learn them step by step. Otherwise you might end up confused and frustrated.

In this article I’ll explain what cases are and how to learn the Serbian cases successfully.

 

 

What are cases?

Cases are different forms of nouns, pronouns and adjectives used for different purposes. There are 7 Serbian cases:

  1. Nominative,
  2. Genitive,
  3. Accusative,
  4. Locative
  5. Dative,
  6. Instrumental, and
  7. Vocative.

When you start learning Serbian, or another similar language, cases are usually the most challenging part of the grammar you need to understand and get used to.

If you already speak a language with cases, that’s great! But if not, let me explain what cases are based on your understanding of English. Because the English language still keeps remnants of the case system in its pronouns.

When you say „I love them“, I is the subject of your sentence and them is the object. If you want to reverse this statement, you can’t simply say *Them love I (!) – you have to use the proper case: They love me.

For subject, or to say who is doing the action, we use the Nominative case: I and they.

And for object, or who is receiving the action, we use the Accusative case: me and them.

 

The fun thing is that in Serbian we do this with ALL nouns, pronouns and adjectives: we decline them. To decline means to change a noun, pronoun or adjective for different cases.

 

In some languages (like German or Greek), what shows the case is mostly the article. In Serbian we don’t have articles, so we use endings of words to indicate the case.

 

Let me tell you 3 secrets about the Serbian case system

  1. Many students are horrified when they find out that we have 7 cases. But the truth is that you actually have 6 to learn, because Locative and Dative are actually the same! The difference in their form disappeared centuries ago.
  2. Instrumental plural looks exactly the same as Locative/Dative plural.
  3. Another truth is that you don’t really need the Vocative case, if that will make your life easier: it is used only to address people or invoke gods, nothing else.

 

That leaves us with 4.5 (four and a half) sets of case endings you need to remember.

 

Understand the Serbian cases from a practical perspective

When someone starts learning Serbian as a foreign language, they typically stumble upon the cases and rely on prepositions (on, to, at, with etc.) to convey meaning – because that’s what they do in their mother tongue.

That’s not the safest way, because prepositions with different cases create different meanings.

When my son was around 2 and he was learning to speak, I’ve noticed an interesting thing: he actually used the case endings to convey meaning! He didn’t use prepositions at all!

The first case he learned after Nominative was Genitive to say “mame” – shortend from “želim kod mame” (I want to go to mom).

His “with mom” sounded “mamom” in perfect Instrumental and without the preposition “sa” – and not ”sa mama”, what you might expect.

He’s experimenting with case endings. He will usually use the right ending for the meaning he’s trying to convey, but he might apply it to a wrong noun, or use the ending for plural instead of singular.

Slowly but steady, his brain is learning all these categories and sorting out the words and all the endings. He can still occasionally make a mistake, but that’s very rare.

 

That’s what cases are: meanings!

The cases are very important because they change meaning – just like prepositions in English alter meaning: “with me” is not the same as “about me”. You can get by with using prepositions only, you will be understood. But to understand Serbian, especially more complex sentences and texts, you need to learn the meanings and endings of the cases.

 

How to learn Serbian cases efficiently

The best strategy is to learn the cases one by one and little by little. There is so much data you need to remember, to learn how to use, and to get used to using, that it’s impossible to master it all at once and hectically.

You need to organize your thoughts around each category of nouns, pronouns and adjectives. You’re supposed to assign the right case endings to each category, and to learn how to use each case. You have to get used to using the cases and understanding them.

If this is your first language with declensions, you need to build new structures in your brain, and that takes time, but it’s worth it.

 

That’s why my advice is to learn the Nominative and the Accusative case only for the first month or so. Practice only with them, do a billion exercises with them, write and speak as many sentences as you can with them. Along with that, build vocabulary.

Only after you’ve mastered the Nominative and the Accusative case for many nouns, adjectives and pronouns, should you move on to add Locative. First alone, then combined and alternating.

You will get there, step by step. Do not hurry with trying to learn all the cases in a short period! You will only feel overwhelmed and frustrated. That’s simply too much, even for a Slavic speaker! Take one case at a time and build vocabulary. Learn one well before moving on to the next. Stick to 3, or at most 4 cases for the first half of the first year.

 

Learning like this, not only will you impress everybody with your right usage of the cases, you will actually build your brain! It will grow new synapses and pathways and become more powerful.

That is how I’ve successfully taught many students and that is how I teach cases in the Tako Lako Beginner Serbian Course:

  • First I explain the Nominative, without insisting on it – it’s just singular and plural of nouns.
  • Then I add a little bit of the Genitive, just to give you the taste.
  • Then it’s time to understand Accusative and start using it as direct object.
  • Finally, Locative is used to talk about locations.

 

Learn these 4 cases very well, while building vocabulary as much as you can. Get used to using them and start feeling confident in controlled conversations. Only after that you should learn the other Serbian cases, even if it takes you a year! Otherwise, they would only make a confusion in your head.