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. 


Alphabetical confusions

I’m in Serbia just now watching as my six year old cousin slowly learns the alphabet. The second one. She already knows the Cyrillic alphabet, now she needs to learn the Latin one (the one I’m using now). Once she’s in school, she’ll be expected to be able to read and write in both, using one then the other on alternate days or weeks for school and homework. Welcome to Serbia (and a couple of other countries in these Balkan parts).

Just to make things a little more confusing for these poor kids, about half of the letters in both alphabets are the same, and then there’s a whole bunch which look the same but actually represent another letter (‘P’ is actually pronounced ‘R’, ‘H’ is ‘N’, ‘X’ is ‘H’ and so on and so forth). Some of you may recognise the Russian Cyrillic alphabet in that, and yes, the Serbian one is similar, but not the same. The Serbian one was developed in the 19th century, using the Russian example as a base but adapting it to Serbian so that each symbol would correspond to exactly one sound in the spoken language. This means that once you’ve mastered the alphabet, it’s ridiculously easy to learn to spell. Think of all the problems we have with English – the double consonants, the vowels which are pronounced differently depending on the word, the silent letters, the homographs which aren’t homophones and vice versa – none of that exists.

Still, to get to that stage you have to learn two alphabets. I still get confused walking around town as signs and notices can be written in either, so the word for restaurant (“RESTORAN”), when written in Cyrillics (“PECTOPAH”), could in theory represent either alphabet as all letters exist in both. This often results in momentary mind-boggling confusion, as the word, if read with the Latin alphabet in mind, is gobbledygook. There is also another favourite of mine: the fact that a capital Z is written ‘3’. My relatives still make fun of me because at the age of maybe 11, I misread the sign above the zoo as saying “park 300”. You can see how confusion can come about.

Once you’ve mastered both alphabets, you can then feel another level of despair at discovering that the lower-case cursive Cyrillic letters have, in a number of cases, absolutely nothing to do with anything else you’ve been learning (check out G, D, T or P):


Here is what some of that looks like when you try to put the letters together to form words (this is a Russian example from my friend Alexey):


This is the point where I pretty much gave up the hope of ever being able to read handwritten letters and was silently grateful for print technology which almost never uses the cursive font.

To sum it up: Serbian, because why makes things simple when you can make them complicated?