How similar are Serbian and Croatian? 7 Biggest Differences

How similar are Serbian and Croatian? 7 Biggest Differences 1

How Similar Are Serbian and Croatian: 7 Biggest Differences and Which Language is Good for You to Learn

 

Welcome to my blog for Serbian language learners. It contains free Serbian lessons and articles about Serbia and its lifestyle. To read more about me, visit my presentation page. For frequent updates, follow me on Facebook or Instagram.

Magdalena Petrović Jelić

Serbian, Croatian Bosnian or Montenegrin: our language

There is one word that describes the relation between Serbian and Croatian with Bosnian and Montenegrin languages perfectly: NAŠKI (pronounced: nashkee). It is coined from the possessive pronoun NAŠ (ours) and the suffix -SKI that we use for making adverbs. You’ll recognize it in the names of the languages: srpski, hrvatski, engleski, norveški, italijanski (Cro. talijanski), španski (Cro. španjolski).

The term “naški” or “naš jezik” (our language) is used mainly by the people living in diaspora, where all the mentioned nations stick together. Out there, they feel the need to diminish the differences among them. That’s why they differentiate between the person who speaks “our language” (On govori naški) and the person who speaks, for example, Czech (On govori češki). A person who speaks “naški” is someone you can speak your own language with.

Imagine that there were a Serb from Belgrade, a Croat from Zagreb, a Bosnian from Sarajevo and a Montenegrin from Podgorica in one room. What do you think, how would they communicate? Do you think they would need an interpreter, or maybe several interpreters? No. They could pick an argument, each one of them in their own languages. And they would understand each other perfectly. Just like four people four people from USA, UK, South Africa and Australia would.

That is in fact how we speak, as I explained in this post.

There is a Facebook group called “Naš jezik” (our language) that gathers linguists and commoners from our region. I really enjoy being part of this group. We discuss serious linguistic matters, have fun, spread tolerance – but often also joke mercilessly.

Hopefully, this gives you the idea of how similar the languages are. “Language” is a political, and not a linguistic category. As someone once said: “A language is a dialect with an army and navy”. Montenegrin, Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian are considered languages because of politics, and not for linguistic reasons.

 

Why are Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Montenegrin (almost) the same?

In fact, all four languages have based their standards on the same dialect – the Shtokavian dialect (štokavski, штокавски). The name is derived from the word we use for what: što or šta. They are even based on the same subdialect: Eastern Herzegovinian (istočnohercegovački) – marked yellow in the picture below. In addition, the Serbian standard assimilated another subdialect: Shumadinian-Voivodinian (šumadijsko-vojvođanski) – marked blue in the picture.

Serbian and Croatian

Image from Wikipedia: Shtokavian subdialects according to Pavle Ivić (1988)

 

The conclusion is: weather you learn Bosnian, Montenegrin, Serbian or Croatian, you will be able to communicate across all the four countries. The vast majority of the words are the same, or incredibly similar. Conjugations and declensions are the same.

 

Why you should start with Serbian or Croatian (and not Bosnian or Montenegrin)

You may wonder why am I not going to speak about Bosnian and Montenegrin. Because I wouldn’t suggest starting with none of them. And I’ll explain why: Montenegrin and Bosnian are the newest languages. Therefore, resources available for them are quite scarce and undeveloped. Bosnian standard partly conforms with Croatian and partly with Serbian. Its main distinction is more Turkish loanwords in the standard vocabulary.

On the other hand, Serbian and Croatian already have a long tradition in being taught to foreigners, starting as Serbo-Croatian. Consequently, there are more quality books available.

Having explained all this, we can now focus on the most notable differences between Serbian and Croatian. I will also present the advantages they offer to the learners. My goal is to help you understand the differences and decide which one of the two languages to learn – or to start with.

The Biggest Differences between Serbian and Croatian

 

Difference #1: The Melody of Speech in Serbian and Croatian, Bosnian and Montenegrin

 

The most notable difference lies in the melody of speech. All of us in the four countries recognize intuitively. That’s how we can distinguish if someone is coming from another country, or even region or town in the same country. It’s impossible to explain this in writing and I will leave it to your ears. Try watching to the national televisions or listening to the national radio stations to catch the nuances of different accents, and maybe even deciding on your favorite. It will probably be easier to hear once your an intermediate Serbian or Croatian speaker.

If you’re advanced, I suggest you to watch this excellent video: a young man from Serbia imitates different accents from EX YU (that’s short for Former Yugoslavia). He’s incredibly good at that, as you can read in the comments.

There are two videos you can watch to try and hear the difference between Serbian and Croatian pronunciations.

  1. In this video you can hear a Croatian musician Tony Cetinski (on your left) and a Serbian musician Željko Joksimović (on your right). They are interviewed about a song they recorded together (the interviewer speaks Serbian).
  2. In this video you can watch a popular Croatian singer Severina interviewed by a Serbian journalist for a Serbian TV. From the minute 7.25 you can even hear a song she sings in Ikavian, a dialect typical for her hometown Split in Dalmatia.

 

Difference #2: The Yat ReflexesIjekavian, Ekavian, Ikavian

 

Yat (ѣ) was a common Slavic long vowel, that in Eastern-Herzegovinian was replaced with -je- or -ije-, producing the pronunciation that we call “ijekavica”, while in Shumadinian-Voivodinian it was replaced with -e-, giving the pronunciation that we call “ekavica”. That’s what makes the difference between ijekavian and ekavian: “ovdje” and “ovde”, “mlijeko” and “mleko”, “djevojka” and “devojka”.

Both subdialects have several ikavian Yat reflexes: that’s why we have nisam and they say nijesam in Montenegro. That’s also why we have htio and smio from the verbs htjeti and smjeti in ijekavian.

The Serbian standard allows both pronunciations. Both are given an equal importance in our official orthography and grammar books. However, ekavian is widespread in Serbia; virtually only people originating from Bosnia, Croatia or Montenegro speak ijekavian here. On the other hand, everyone in Republika Srpska speaks ijekavian. In Croatia and Bosnia only ijekavian forms the standard.

 

Conclusion: If you decide to learn Serbian (first), your teacher and your books will probably teach you ekavian. And that’s good because it is somewhat easier to pronounce and you don’t have to remember where to put -e-, where -je- and where -ije-.

For example, this is how we decline the word time in ekavian: vreme, vremena; and in ijekavian: vrijeme, vremena

However, if you want to learn both Serbian and Croatian, you should consider starting with the latter. Because it might be slightly more difficult to remember where to put e/je/ije after you’ve accustomed to the simple e in ekavian.

For more information about Yat, You can refer to this article on Wikipedia.

 

Difference #3: Double Conjugation in Serbian vs Infinitives in Croatian

 

People in Croatia tend to use infinitives to complement modal, semi-modal or phasal verbs, for example: “ja hoću raditi”, “ti možeš doći”, “on želi učiti”, “mi volimo plivati”, “oni su počeli pričati”.

On the other hand, in Serbia people prefer to double conjugate: “ja hoću da radim”, “ti možeš da dođeš”, “on želi da uči”, “mi volimo da plivamo”, “oni su počeli da pričaju”. But using infinitives is also legitimate, especially when there are to many conjunctions “da” accumulated.

In Croatia, the extensive use of the conjunction “da” is referred to with the scornful term “dakanje”.

Using infinitives is a feature typical for Slavic languages, while double conjugating is considered a Balkan languages common feature.

 

Conclusion: For a Romance, Germanic and even Slavic language speaker, using infinitives will be very convenient and probably easier to pick up. However, double conjugation is an excellent brain-empowering exercise. Especially when you have to combine two verbs from different groups, such as:

 

ja volim da putujem

ti voliš da putuješ

on voli da putuje

mi volimo da putujemo

vi volite da putujete

oni vole da putuju

 

Quite challenging, isn’t it?

 

Difference #4: The Future Tense

 

In both standards, the future tense is the same: made from the model verb “hteti” (mostly its short or enclitic forms) and infinitive of the verb we want to use.

Ja ću ići. Ja ću raditi. Ja ću jesti.

If we omit the pronoun, we’ll have the future tense in inversion. The verbs in –ći are the same here. There is a slight difference only in the verbs with infinitive ending in –ti.

So in Serbian we have: Ići ću. Radiću. Ješću.

And in Croatian we have: Ići ću. Radit ću. Jest ću.

In colloquial speech in Serbia it is very common to use da+present instead of infinitives in the future tense, which is typical for the Balkan Sprachbund. So we have another variant of the future tense: Ja ću da idem. Ja ću da radim. Ja ću da jedem.

In some parts of Croatia (including Zagreb), under the influence of the Kajkavian dialect, they use the Slavic future tense. It is compound of the perfect forms of verb to be (budem), but shortened (bum), and the participle that is also used for the past tense: Bum išel/išla. Bum radil/radila. Bum jel/jela.

 

Conclusion: The future tense is quite complex. You’ll need to learn to recognize it in all its various forms, in both languages. For your speaking, one form will suffice. Learn to use the basic standard form and only recognize the other forms in the beginning. The word order can also be tricky here, especially in elaborate sentences. Focus on noticing the parts of it, as they can be scattered around the sentence.

 

 

Difference #5: Vocabulary or Lexicon – Words Typical for a Region

 

Even though the vast majority of the words are exactly the same or slightly different, there are quite a few differences in vocabulary. Nonetheless, they are understood by both sides. We all mostly know all the variants, and we just use the one normally used in our region.

In this excellent Croatian dictionary, you’ll find many words marked as reg. (regional) and srp. (Serbian). Still, they are used.

For educative purpose, we can group the different words into five categories.

 

  1. Some of those words are just regionally colored, such as: Serbian greeting “zdravo” and Croatian “bog”, or  “hleb/hljeb” vs “kruh”, “voz” vs “vlak” etc.
  2. Other words are different because Serbs took a foreign word and Croats coined their own word: pasoš / putovnica; avion / zrakoplov; aerodrom / zračna luka.
  3. Sometimes the words are developed from the same stem with a different ending: studentkinja/studentica; sportista/sportaš; lekar/lječnik. However, the same stems and endings are used in both Serbian and Croatian languages. It’s just the specific combination of a stem with an ending that is typical for a region.
  4. Sometimes different stems are chosen for deriving a word. There is this famous, funny and illustrative example: in Serbian house is “kuća” and housewife is “domaćica”; in Croatian “kuća” is “dom” and “domaćica” is “kućanica”. (Of course, both “kuća” and “dom” are used in both languages.)
  5. In some cases Serbian loaned a foreign word while Croatian preserved the Slavic word. That’s how we use the Greek word “hiljada” for “a thousand” in Serbian, while the Slavic word “tisuća” is kept in Croatian. This also explains the different names of the months: the international names are adopted in Serbian, while the old Slavic words are kept in Croatian:

Meseci u srpskom: januar, februar, mart, april, maj, jun, jul, avgust, septembar, oktobar, novembar, decembar

Mjeseci u hrvatskom: siječanj, veljača, ožujak, travanj, svibanj, lipanj, srpanj, kolovoz, rujan, listopad, studeni, prosinac

 

Conclusion: If you prefer an easier way, then your choice here will definitely be Serbian, because it has more international loanwords. That allows you to quickly enrich your vocabulary and your ability to express yourself.

 

Difference #6: Deriving Verbs With Different Suffixes

 

Both languages still use many loan words, and derive verbs from them. This applies to the Latin and Greek international heritage and also to the new technology-related English terms, that have flooded every language. Generally speaking, the suffix -irati (essentially Latin borrowed through German) seems to be the most productive (i.e. makes the most verbs) in Croatian. On the other hand, the Slavic suffix -ovati and the suffix -isati of Greek origin are preferred in Serbia.

However, there are words that come only in -ovati pattern. Please refer to the table bellow for the examples. (In rows with only one word, it is the only form and used in both countries.)

 

Serbian -ovatiSerbian -isatiCroatian -irati
InteresovatiInteresirati
OrganizovatiOrganizirati
RecitovatiRecitirati
DeklamovatiDeklamirati
FotografisatiFotografirati
KontrolisatiKontrolirati
KanalisatiKanalizirati
Parkirati
Analizirati
Paradirati
Marširati
Skenirati
ModelovatiModelirati

Conclusion: If you prefer an easy way, then your choice here will definitely be Croatian. It’s obviously easier to learn foreign verbs if they follow the same pattern. However, if you prefer diversity over simplicity, have a go on the Serbian jolly suffixes.

 

Difference #7: Pronunciation of the tricky sounds

 

I’m referring here to the sounds represented by the letters Č, Ć, Dž and Đ. These sounds are clearly and strongly distinguished only in Serbia and Montenegro. The majority of Croats and Bosnians make no difference between Č and Ć, nor between DŽ and Đ. (Explanation how to pronounce C, Č and Ć can be found here.)

The difference between these sounds is very difficult to hear for a non-native. So it’s easy to give up trying to learn them. However, it’s very difficult to know what letter you should write in a word if you do not distinguish the sounds. If you read random comments on the internet, you’ll see that many Croats and Bosnians confuse the letters together with the sounds.

Luckily, there are very few examples where confusing these sounds can cause a misunderstanding. On the internet and text messages, many people even write “ošišana latinica” (“haircut Latin script”) and survive. (“Ošišana latinica” is the term for writing Serbian in Latin script without the diacritical signs – the little strokes above the letters č, ć, š, ž.)

 

Conclusion: Whether you choose Serbian or Croatian, try to learn the tricky sounds as much as you can. If it’s difficult for you to hear the difference, that’s probably because you don’t have similar sounds in your language. At least, try to remember how the words are written. But don’t take that too seriously. Even if you make a mistake, everyone will understand you.

 

Choose your language: Should you learn Serbian or Croatian?

This is the question only you can answer for yourself. I will give you a few things to consider when making your decision.

1) Do you have friends or family from Croatia or Serbia? If you do, choose the language you can speak with more people you know.

2) Do you travel to Serbia or Croatia? If you do, choose the language of the country you’ll travel to more often.

By all means, you should first learn the language of the country you have the most friends in or where you travel the most often ‒ that’s the most sensible choice. But what if you have and equal number of friends from Serbia and Croatia and travel equally often to both countries?

3) Then, take a look at the differences I explained, listen to the two languages, and pick your favorite.

After you’ve mastered the language of your choice, you will easily get acquainted with the other existing variants. You will learn Serbian and Croatian, and many different dialects or accents of the region. It will be a great source of fun. And you’ll enjoy it, I promise!

Recent Posts

Verb To Be in Serbian: Controversies Completely Explained

Verb To Be in Serbian: Controversies Completely Explained 2

Verb To Be in Serbian: Controversies Completely Explained

by Magdalena Petrović Jelić

“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”). And I open with this line because there is a serious dispute between linguists about the verb to be in Serbian. 

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.

How to use verb to be in Serbian?

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

Verb To Be in Serbian: Controversies Completely Explained 3

 

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. It’s a part of my Tako Lako Beginner Serbian Course, where everything is taught step by step.

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

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3 Groups of Serbian Verbs: the Present Tense

3 Groups of Serbian Verbs: the Present Tense 4

Essentials of Serbian VerbsThe Three-Faced Present Tense

Welcome to my blog for Serbian language learners. It contains free Serbian lessons and articles about Serbia and its lifestyle. To read more about me, visit my presentation page. For frequent updates, follow me on Facebook or Instagram.

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.

3 Groups of Serbian Verbs: the Present Tense 5

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.
3 Groups of Serbian Verbs: the Present Tense 6

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:

3 Groups of Serbian Verbs: the Present Tense 7

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“:

3 Groups of Serbian Verbs: the Present Tense 8

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.

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Belgrade, Serbia: Meet the Serbian Capital!

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Do you know Serbia? What do you know about Belgrade, the capital? Can you tell that in Serbian?
Watch this video to learn about Belgrade in Serbian and to practice your listening skills.

The Declining Secret Revealed: How to Learn 7 Serbian Cases

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

The Declining Secret Revealed: How to Learn Serbian Cases

Welcome to my blog for Serbian language learners. It contains free Serbian lessons and articles about Serbia and its lifestyle. To read more about me, visit my presentation page. For frequent updates, follow me on Facebook or Instagram.

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. It claimis that some Serbian speakers (“less educated”) do not use all the cases properly. But that’s far from the truth. The reality is that in some Southern Serbian dialects the case system is different. They simply don’t use all the standard Serbian cases. But they obey the dialect rules and declensions.

As a Serbian learner, you’ll need to learn all the Serbian cases. They’ll come in handy, trust me. But do not rush: learn them step by step.

What are cases?

Cases are different forms of nouns, pronouns and adjectives used for different purposes. The Serbian language has 7 of them:

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

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 that’s 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 Serbian 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.

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