More on Serbian – concentrate!

It’s my mother tongue and yet still causes me endless problems. Not only do you have to remember which words are masculine, which feminine and which neuter, you also have to deal with the 7-case system (Nominative, Genitive, Dative, Accusative, Vocative , Instrumental and Prepositional/Locative). So far, so complicated. Now add to this verbal aspect, i.e. the idea that verbs do not only indicate the TIME WHEN THE ACTION OR PROCESS TAKES PLACE, but also show whether the action or the process is complete (perfective aspect) or incomplete (imperfective aspect). Many verbs have a separate form for the perfective and imperfective aspect. However, there are verbs that have only one form. Go figure.

The difference between a perfective and an imperfective aspect can be indicated by a prefix (e.g. ‘raditi’  to do/work > ‘uraditi’  to get done), a change within the word (e.g. ‘vikati’ to shout > ‘viknuti’  to shout out), an infix -ava, -iva or -ova (e.g. ‘kupiti’  to buy > ‘kupovati’  to be buying), or be a different form altogether (e.g. ‘govoriti’ to talk  > ‘reci’  to say). Now, not only are there two forms of verbs signifying either a complete or incomplete action, within these there are more possible subdivisions. I hope you’re still following me…

Within the perfective aspect group, you can find three categories of verbs:

– those which expresses an action or process of limited duration, usually happening in one single moment (e.x. ‘pasti, sesti, uzeti’  – to fall, to sit, to take)

– those which indicate the beginning of an action or process (e.g. ‘progovoriti, zapevati, zaigrati’  –  to begin to talk, begin to sing, begin to play/dance)

– those which indicate the completion of the action or process. (e.g. ‘otpevati, izgovoriti, izigrati’  –  to finish singing, to complete what you were saying, to finish playing)

The imperfective aspect can expresses:

– an constant action or process of unlimited duration (e.x.  ‘hodati, raditi, igrati, pevati’  – to walk, to work, to play, to sing)

– an action of unlimited duration but which occurs with interruption (e.x. ‘poigravati, pevuckati, treptati’ – to play/sing on and off, to blink repeatedly)

– a habitual activity (e.x. ‘Ja čitam knjigu pre spavanja.’  –  I read before going to sleep)

Now, this I can deal with, but where it gets absurd is that sometimes, for unknown historical reasons, the conjugations for the perfective and imperfevtice aspect of the same verb (e.g. ‘prodati > prodavati’  – to sell > to be selling) have got mixed up. So whereas, in a logical world which I would like to live in, the 3rd person plural (‘they’) form of ‘prodati’ would be ‘prodaju‘, and of ‘prodavati’ would be ‘prodavaju‘ (as happens with almost all verbs of this form), for some reason for this verb it is ‘prodaju‘ in both cases.

This kind of weird anomaly happens with a number of verbs, but for native Serbian speakers this irregularity is just what it is, they don’t give it a second thought and then laugh when you get it wrong (when by all logic my way should be right!). Damn you illogical language evolution, it drives me up the wall, in a continuous, habitual, unlimited duration kind of way.

If none of this has made you lose hope of ever learning Serbian, or indeed if it has inspired you to take on a new challenge in your life, check out for tips on grammar, simple phrases and directions to monasteries. 


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