Controversies of Verb To Be? Explained.

Controversies of Verb To Be? Explained.

by Magdalena Petrović Jelić

Controversies of Verb To Be? Explained. 1

A dispute between linguists about the verb “to be”

“Biti ili ne biti, to je pitanje” – Do you recognize this quote?

That’s how the famous line from Hamlet sounds in Serbian (“To be or not to be, that is the question”).

The verb “jesam” and the verb “biti”

There are grammarians who argue that the verbal forms jesam, jesi, jeste, jesmo, jeste, jesu and their short variants sam, si, je, smo, ste, su are a distinct verb, separate from the verb biti and call it “the verb jesam“.

For them, the infinitive biti is only for the forms budem, budeš, bude, budemo, budete, budu.

Other grammarians follow the etymology of jesam and track its roots back to biti, considering the two different forms to be the perfective and imperfective aspects (more on the aspects soon) of this one verb.

That’s why in some textbooks and grammar books you will find the forms jesam and sam listed under the name glagol jesam, and in the others under the name glagol biti.

Don’t let them confuse you! 

Since the meaning of all these forms can only be translated with the verb to be (or its corresponding counterparts in other languages, like: essere, ser y estar, εΙμαι, être, sein etc)we will consider all these to be different forms of a single verb whose infinitive is biti.

When to use biti – verb to be?

Verb biti is used to connect a subject with:

  • a pronoun: Moj brat je on. (My brother is he.)
  • an adjective: Moj brat je dobar. (My brother is good.)
  • an adverb: Moj brat je dobro danas. (My brother is fine today.)
  • another noun with preposition: Moj brat je iz Srbije. (My brother is from Serbia.)
  • another noun without preposition: Moj brat je moj prijatelj. (My brother is my friend.)

Or an adverb with another adverb: 

  • Danas je toplo. (Today it’s hot.) 
  • Ovde je zanimljivo. (Here it’s interesting.)

As an auxiliary verb, biti is used to form

  1. past tenses,
  2. future perfect tense and
  3. the conditional.

(New posts about these are being created, subscribe not to miss them!)

Now be a diligent student and grab your notebook. Here’s a useful table for you to copy:

All possible forms of Serbian verb to be in present tense

Controversies of Verb To Be? Explained. 2


Are you confused about when to use which of all these forms?

I know, you must be.

Here are the general guidelines:


When to use which form of verb to be?


1) In present or past, use the imperfective forms:

  • short positive forms (sam, si , je etc.) for positive sentences and
  • negative forms (nisam, nisi, nije etc.) when negating


Remember to use the the long forms (jesam, jesi, jeste etc.) only in these situations:

  • when you want to really emphasize the verb;
  • for answering (we often use jesam, jeste instead of „da“, as well as nisam, nije etc. instead of „ne“);
  • when asking questions* („Jeste li vi Amerikanci?“)

* Except for the third person singular, where we use the short form („Je li on Amerikanac?“ or colloquially „Je l’ on Amerikanac?“, which is also written “Jel on Amerikanac?).



2) The perfective forms are only used:

  • with modal verbs („želim da budem”),
  • with conditional conjunctions (ako, kad) and
  • in forming the future perfect tense (more on this soon).


But the Serbian verb to be can cause another confusion!

There is another verb with infinitive biti. It’s present tense stem is bijeand it means to beat!

So to the Hamlet’s dilemma “Biti ili ne biti”, a Serbian teacher can only respond:


“Biti ili tući – to je pitanje!” To beat or to hit, THAT is the question!

(Tući, tuče is actually a synonym of biti, bije.)


Whoa, hold your horses! 

Does this variety confuse you? I bet it does, but that’s normal. It’s only a sign that you should slow down and take it bit by bit. Go back to the beginning, and write notes in your notebook as you read the text again.

If you are a complete beginner, do not rush. Start with short and negative forms only (ja sam – ja nisam; ti si – ti nisi etc.). Learn it piece by piece and give yourself time to get used to the new language.

In the video bellow, I teach only pronouns and short forms of verb to be in Serbian, positive and negative, and only singular – to begin with

First set a solid basis, and then you’ll be ready to build on.

Essentials of Serbian Verbs – The Three-Faced Present Tense

Essentials of Serbian Verbs

The Three-Faced Present Tense

by Magdalena Petrović Jelić

Essentials of Serbian Verbs - The Three-Faced Present Tense 3

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.

Essentials of Serbian Verbs - The Three-Faced Present Tense 4

The 2nd person singular of the verb biti ends in –iand 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.
Essentials of Serbian Verbs - The Three-Faced Present Tense 5

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:

Essentials of Serbian Verbs - The Three-Faced Present Tense 6

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“:

Essentials of Serbian Verbs - The Three-Faced Present Tense 7

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.

Do you know Serbia? Meet Belgrade!

Do you know Serbia? Meet Belgrade, the capital!

by Magdalena Petrović Jelić


Belgrade is the capital and the biggest city of Serbia. It has been named the “city that never sleeps”. Many young people love it for it’s night life. It is believed that whoever experiences Belgrade falls in love with it and returns to it often.

The most important site to visit in Belgrade is its famous fortress named Kalemegdan (Beogradska tvrđava Kalemegdan). It is located on the confluence of two rivers: Danube (Dunav) and Sava. The view of the rivers is magnificent.

Once you’re downtown, you shouldn’t miss Skadarlija – the famous bohemian quarter with restaurants and taverns, or as we call them kafana. There you can eat the local food, usually based on meet, and listen to traditional live music.

A video about Belgrade to teach you Serbian

Here I want to share a video to help you learn different facts about Belgrade in the Serbian language. You can also use it to practice your listening skills.

When watching the video for the first time, focus on understanding the meaning and remembering the story line. After that, you can repeatedly watch and listen to the final part of the video, the text only in Serbian. That will help you really remember and internalize what you have heard in the video. 

The Story-Telling Technique 

Listening to stories that you’re familiar with can work wonders for your Serbian language learning. This is a powerful technique that will help you remember the vocabulary and absorb pronunciation.

If you liked this video, you will certainly enjoy the Tako Lako Beginner Course, where each module contains two videos like this that inform you about Serbia in Serbian.

Introduction to the Serbian Language

Introduction to the Serbian Language

by Magdalena Petrović Jelić


Serbian is a Slavic language.

It shares many roots of the words and common features with Russian, Czech, Polish, Bulgarian, Slovak, Slovenian and other Slavic languages.


Many people also ask if Serbs can understand Russians or Poles or other Slavs? The answer is yes, to a certain degree. If we speak slowly, we will probably understand many roots of words – but we won’t be able to have a long or deep conversation.

With Croats, Bosnians and Montenegrins it’s different – our standards are based on the same dialect, so we can even argue and joke and exchange ideas, with everyone speaking their own variant of the language.


Serbian is practically the same as Croatian, Bosnian and Montenegrin standard languages.

Serbian grammar is quite complex.

But let me first tell you what our language doesn’t have and what is difficult for us.

Serbian language doesn’t have:

  • umlauts,
  • nasal sounds,
  • articles, definite (the) or indefinite (a, an),
  • conjunctive,
  • continuous tenses.

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.


The standard Serbian language has this set of specific features:

  • 30 sounds and 30 letters;
  • 2 scripts (Cyrillic and Latin);
  • 5 vowels;
  • 4 tones and 6 different ways of pronouncing those vowels (I’m working on a course to teach you that as well);
  • 2 standard pronunciations: ekavian and ijekavian;
  • 7 cases (Nominative, Genitive, Accusative, Dative, Instrumental, Locative);
  • 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.


The most dreaded feature of the Serbian grammar are the cases, and I talk about them in this article: The Declining Secret Revealed: What Cases are & how to Learn Them.

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.

Vowels in Serbian: Phonetics and Pronunciation

Vowels in Serbian: Phonetics and Pronunciation

by Magdalena Petrović Jelić

There are only 5 vowels in the Serbian language, just like in Greek, Italian or Spanish. That’s less than in English, French or German!

Vowels are sounds produced without any barrier in mouth. Air flows freely to create sound. The sound is then modulated by moving tongue up or down, closer to or further from the palate, and by changing the shape of lips.

Serbian vowels are pronounced consistently – always the same way. This is how we write them: A, E, I, O, U.
In this video, you will learn how to pronounce them accurately.

You will learn how all five vowels are produced and practice pronouncing them individually and within example words.

Introductions in Serbian: What’s your name? It’s NOT what your book taught you!

Introductions in Serbian: What’s your name? It’s NOT what your book taught you!

by Magdalena Petrović Jelić


Learn all about the real-life introductions in Serbian: how to say what’s your name, how to introduce yourself and meet others in Serbia. How to say “nice to meet you” or “pleased to meet you”, and how to respond in Serbian language.


If you’re talking like this: Kako se zoveš? Ja se zovem Magdalena. Moje ime je Magdalena. – Stop!

This is NOT a natural Serbian way of introducing yourself in Serbian! Please, do not ask others “Kako se zoveš”!

We don’t really ask “Kako se zoveš?” when we’re talking to adults!


Watch this video to learn how to say what’s your name in Serbian and how to ask others about their names. Also, how to start a conversation with a new girl or guy you’ve just met in Serbia.

/Transcript of the video/


Zdravo! Ja sam Magdalena. A ti?

This video is about introductions: how to introduce yourself and how to ask someone else about their name – how to say what’s your name in Serbian.



What your book taught you about introductions in Serbian

First, let’s see what your book taught you. „Kako se zoveš?“ is a question to ask about someone’s name, „What’s your name?“ or literally „How are you named?“

The verb zvati se means ‘to be named’. It’s the same like in Italian (mi chiamo) or in Spanish (me llamo), in French (je m’appelle), and so on.

„Kako se zoveš?“ is a question about someone’s name.



Possible answers to the question “what’s your name” your Serbian book gave you are these:

„Zovem se Magdalena.“ „Ja se zovem Magdalena“

„Moje ime je Magdalena“

„Ja sam Magdalena“


So, your book taught you three options to say your name in Serbian language: „Zovem se …“, „Moje ime je…“ and „Ja sam…“.


Well, first of all, this question „Kako se zoveš?“ or „A kako se ti zoveš?“ is a question we ask children. It’s a kid’s question. We don’t ask adults, grownups, or even teenagers „Kako se zoveš?“ – only little children.


The second option to answer, “Moje ime je…”„Moje ime je Bond, Džejms Bond.“

That structure is imported from the English language, I believe, and it’s not natural. We don’t ever use it. We never say „Moje ime je…“


It is possible that someone asks: „Kako je vaše ime?“ (How’s your name?) or „Vaše ime?“ But that is in formal situations, like in a hospital, a nurse could ask a patient „Kako je vaše ime?“, or in court. We don’t actually say „Moje ime je…“.


Another possible question: „A vi ste…?“ (And you are…?) or „A ko ste vi?“ (And who are you?) that would be sort of rude. In this way you’re saying „Who the hell are you?“ Even though it’s formal, it shows despise towards the other person.



How we actually ask what’s your name in Serbian language


So how do we actually meet other people? How do we ask what’s your name in Serbian? There are few possibilities when we are in the situation to ask someone about their name.


The 1st situation to use introductions

The first situation how we meet other people is that we normally meet others through someone else. You know, there’s someone you know and someone you don’t know, and that’s how you meet a new person. And what happens is that we just shake hands and say only our names. Only names!

  • Magdalena
  • and the other person says their name, and we shake hands
  • we can end with: Drago mi je.”


The 2nd situation to meet someone in Serbia

The second possibility, the second option is meeting someone in a train, which is a bit old-fashioned, like let’s say on a plane, or in a situation where you’re waiting with another person for something to end, and you just start a small talk with them. Or if you’re hitting on a girl!

How this happens? We never approach a person asking about their name. That’s rude, don’t do that!

What we do is that we actually start a small talk. For example, if you’re in a waiting room with someone, first you start a small talk with them, you comment on the weather, on waiting, or anything that’s irrelevant, anything that’s not personal. And then if the person is interested, they will answer, and you will start talking to each other, and then if it gets serious and you see that the other person is really interested in talking to you, you will stop and say: „O, nismo se ni upoznali!“ (Oh, we haven’t even introduced) and then a handshake, „Ja sam Magdalena“, and the other person says their name.


The 3rd situation to ask what’s your name in Serbian

The third situation where you can ask someone about their name is when you meet someone that you’ve already met before but you forgot what their name was. Then you will say: „Izvini, kako se beše zoveš?“ (I’m sorry, what was your name again?) In this sentence the word „beše“ shows that we know we’ve heard it before, but we forgot. That’s what the word „beše“ stands for.

And I’m not going to… all right, maybe I could explain a little bit of grammar. That’s one of the very rare situations when we use „imperfekat“ – that’s verb to be in imperfect past tense.


All right guys, so please do not ask other people „Kako se zoveš?“, it’s  kind of rude.

Instead, you should offer your name and a handshake. And the other person will accept your handshake and tell their name in return.

After that you can follow with „Drago mi je“. But if the other person first says „Drago mi je“, do not repeat that! Instead, you shouold say „Takođe“ (likewise) or „I meni“ (to me too).


Ending a conversation in the Serbian language

There are three other options I want to tell you about today:

„Drago mi je što smo se upoznali“, and you can add some words to that to emphasize and say:

„Baš mi je drago što smo se upoznali“

„Mnogo mi je drago što smo se upoznali“


These three variants of one phrase are used at the very end of our conversation, so when we’re leaving. We’ve met someone new, we’ve talked to them, we’ve spent some time together, and then we’re shaking hands and we’re leaving, and we say „Drago mi je što smo se upoznali, ćao, vidimo se, čujemo se“ and other things that you’ve learned in the previous video about saying goodbye.

So that’s how you actually introduce yourself and ask what’s your name in Serbian – or when you don’t ask others about their names.

Thank you for watching the Natural Serbian videos, if you find them useful, if you find this video useful, please share it with your friends on the social networks that you use.