The Declining Secret Revealed:
The Best Approach to Understanding and Learning the Serbian Cases
by Magdalena Petrović Jelić
What are cases?
Cases are different forms of nouns, pronouns and adjectives used for different purposes. The Serbian language has 7 of them:
- Instrumental, and
When you start learning Serbian, or another similar language, that’s usually the most challenging part of the grammar you need to understand and get used to.
If you’ve already learned a language with cases, that’s great!
If not, let me try and explain what cases are based on your understanding of English.
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.
So 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. Yep, that’s the verb: to decline means to change a noun, pronoun or adjective for number and case.
In some languages (like German or Greek) it is mostly the article what shows the case. In Serbian we don’t have articles, so we use the ending of a word to indicate case.
Let me tell you two secrets about the Serbian case system
You will read everywhere 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.
Another truth is that you don’t really need the Vocative case if it will make your life easier: it is used only to call or address the people, so it’s practically useless.
That leaves us with 5 sets of case endings you need to learn.
Understand the Serbian cases from a practical perspective
When someone starts learning Serbian as a foreign language, they stumble upon the cases and they rely on prepositions (on, to, at, with etc.) to convey meaning, because that’s what they do in their mother tongue.
However, watching my two-years old son learning to speak, I’ve noticed that he actually uses the case endings to convey meaning! He doesn’t use prepositions at all!
The first case he learned after Nominative was Genitive to say [kod] „mame“ (I want to go to mama).
His „with mama“ sounds „mamom“ in perfect Instrumental, instead of „sa mama“, what you might expect.
He experiments 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 often use plural ending for singular.
Slowly but steady, his brain is learning all these categories and sorting out the words and endings.
So this is what cases are: meanings!
And they are very important because of that. You can get by with using prepositions and nouns, you will be understood. But to understand Serbian, especially when you start using more complex sentences and texts, you need to learn and become familiar with the meanings of the cases.
How to learn the cases efficiently
One by one and little by little. You need to organize your thoughts around each category of nouns, pronouns and adjectives. Then you’re supposed to assign the right case endings to each category, and to learn how to use each case. Then you have to 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.
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.
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, that’s simply too much! Take one case at a time and build vocabulary. Practice using one before moving on to the next. Stick to 3 or 4 cases for the first half of a year!
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.
And that’s it!
Learn these 4 cases very well, while building vocabulary as much as you can. Get used to using them and start feeling confident at least a little.
Only after that you should learn other Serbian cases, even if it takes you a year! Otherwise, they would only make a confusion in your head.