Essentials of Serbian Verbs:
The Three-Faced Present Tense
by Magdalena Petrović Jelić
The first verbs anyone learns in Serbian are these two:
- biti (to be), to say for example „Ja sam dobro“ (I’m fine), or “Ja sam Magdalena” (I’m Magdalena)
- and zvati se (to be named), to say „Ja se zovem Magdalena“ (My name is Magdalena).
If you compare how they are conjugated, you can observe a consistency in the endings, in all persons except for the second person singular.
The 2nd person singular of the verb biti ends in –i, and this is a striking exception,
because all the other Serbian verbs end in –Š for the second person singular of the present tense,
just like the verb zvati se.
Why we tend to omit pronouns in Serbian?
It’s the language economy.
The endings that you’ve just seen are signals that show what is the Subject, or who we are talking about.
They are the reason why we omit pronouns.
From the ending it’s clear who or what is the subject, so we won’t repeat the information. That’s the language economy.
- If a verb ends in –m, we always know that it’s about „ja“, the first person singular.
- When we see or hear –š in the end of a verb, we know it’s about „ti“, you singular.
- If a verb ends in –mo, we know it’s about „mi“, the first person plural.
- When it ends in –te, we know it’s about „vi“, you plural.
These are universal endings for ALL Serbian verbs in the present tense.
With only 3 exceptions, of which you’ve already learned one:
ti si (you are; second person singular of verb biti, to be)
The other two are also essential and important to learn:
ja hoću (I will, from the verb hteti, to will or want) and ja mogu (I can, from the verb moći, to can or be able)
Here the first person singular oddly ends in –u. But if I tell you that it’s the normal way to conjugate in Russian (Я буду, Я иду) and even some Montenegrin dialects („viđu“ instead of „vidim“, I see), it may look less strange.
The Three Types of Serbian Verbs Conjugation
The third person singular IS the present tense stem.
Its signal is actually the lack of an ending. (That’s why there’s only a dash and no ending in the table above.)
And based on how this stem ends, we can classify all the verbs in three groups:
Why is this so important for you?
Because in so many verbs of the Serbian language the infinitive and the present tense stems differ significantly! But I’ll tell you more about that in just a minute.
Now let’s see what happens with the third person plural (they).
Here we can have three different endings:
- whenever the stem (or the third person singular) ends in –A, the third person plural will end in –AJU;
- if the stem ends in –I the third person changes that to –E;
- and when the stem ends in –E the third person changes that to –U.
That’s what I call „the Law of the Third Person Endings“:
This is the table that covers ALMOST ALL verbs in the Serbian language.
Now, why is this important?
Because many verbs have one stem in infinitive and another in the present tense!
This means that the infinitive doesn’t always tell us how to conjugate a verb in present.
For example, the infinitive of the verb zvati (to call) ends in –ati,
but the verb belongs to the E group,
and it gets an extra -o-,
so it goes: (ja) ZOVEM!
If an infinitive ends in –ati, that doesn’t necessarily imply that the verb belongs to the A group!
That’s why my rule of thumb for choosing your dictionary is to make sure that it includes both the infinitive and the present tense forms.
And that’s why I always teach the verbs in two forms: zvati, zove
(zvati for infinitive, zove for the present tense stem).
Here and in my other resources, like “Your first 50 Verbs” that I share with my email subscribers, or in “The Ultimate Conjugator”.
Now, after reading all this, you must feel that you’ve learned a great deal about the Serbian verbs.
But you haven’t!
To really learn it, go back to the beginning of this text and read it with a pen and a notebook.
Write all the important information and draw the tables by your own hand.
Then make a list of verbs and practice making sentences with them.
Actually, you’ll need three lists: for A, I and E verbs.
If you don’t have that, sign up to my newsletter and I’ll send you “Your first 50 Verbs”.
Make at least two variants of all sentences with these verbs:
1) for the third person plural, because the endings are different, and
2) for any other person, because the endings are the same.
This is a useful exercise even for advanced students, because they are also often confused which ending to use for the third person plural:
–AJU, –U, or –E.
Only having the information is not enough.
Learning a language takes practice.