Written by: Olivera Tolimir
Can you remember what was the first thing you did when it occurred to you to try learning Serbian?
Whether you’re a polyglot looking for a new challenge or a regular person trying to learn Serbian for practical reasons, there’s a good chance you first searched if Serbian is a hard language to learn. If not that, you probably googled if Serbian grammar is complicated. It’s normal, we all like to know what we’re getting ourselves into before we get ourselves into it.
Let’s be brutally honest here: Serbian grammar is difficult. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be mastered. Far from it, actually. If you’re persistent and hardworking, you’ll get a solid grasp of it in no time!
To help you start, we made a list of the five things you must know if you plan to learn Serbian grammar!
One of the main reasons English speakers find Serbian grammar horrendous is grammatical cases. They’re so essential we already mentioned them in the introduction text “Is Serbian a hard language to learn“. Considering their importance, that wasn’t enough, so we dedicated them a whole blog text! If you haven’t read it yet, quickly check it out and come back to see what are the other terr… ahem, terrific parts of the Serbian grammar! (Yes, the word terrific has two meanings, and they’re both applicable here!)
The present tense is a basic tense, right? It’s the one you always learn first, and naturally, it’s the easiest. Well, not necessarily.
The thing is: in most languages, such as English, if you know infinitive (the basic form of the verb, the one you find in a dictionary) and the endings in the present tense, you automatically know how to make present tense. In English, to learn the present tense, you only need to remember to add an -s/-es in the third person singular, and that’s it. For example, if we look at the verb to go, its conjugation looks like this:
- I go. 1. We go.
- You go. 2. You go.
- He/She/It goes. 3. They go
Easy-peasy! Let’s look at a bit more complicated language – German. German infinitive ends in -en. So, to make present tense, you should remove -en, and add certain suffixes.
Here’s a German verb gehen (to go) in the present tense:
- gehe 1. gehen
- gehts 2. geht
- geht 3. gehen
Not as easy as English, but quite logical! You remove two letters and add -e, -ts, -t, and so on, and voila! You have your present tense!
So, isn’t it the same in Serbian? Unfortunately, not. Serbian also has typical present tense suffixes like German, but there’s one slight difficulty. We don’t add those suffixes to a part of an infinitive (like Germans). We add it to the base of the present tense.
But what is the base of the present tense? In Serbian, that’s a form of the present tense in 3rd person singular (3rd person singular is goes in English and geht in German). “But how am I supposed to know a form of a present tense in 3rd person singular if I don’t know present tense yet?” you might ask. That’s the catch. You don’t. It’s a bit of a circular definition, so you’ll have to memorize it the way it is.
In case you despair already, don’t! With some verbs, we can remove the last two letters from the infinitive and get the base of the present tense. It depends on the verb. For example, we have the verb spavati (to sleep). It’s the easy one because we can remove the suffix -ti and add new suffixes:
- spavam 1. spavamo
- spavaš 2. spavate
- spava 3. spavaju
But, we also have verbs such as putovati (to travel). In this case, we can’t just remove -ti, and the verb changes a lot in the present tense:
- putujem 1. putujemo
- putuješ 2. putujete
- putuje 3. putuju
The good news is: future and past tense are a lot easier! Now, let’s continue to talk about the difficulties. This text is full of tough love, we know. (But, hey, it still counts as love!)
The verb aspect is something you won’t have to wrap your head around in the beginner course of the Serbian language. Depending on your native language, this can be a difficult or a logical part of Serbian.
The verb aspect shows us if an action is completed, or not. For example, there are verbs čitati i pročitati. The first one marks an uncompleted process (Čitam ceo dan. = I’m reading all day). The second one denotes finishing reading a book (Kad pročitam knjigu, idem napolje. = When I read the book, I’ll go out).
This part of the Serbian grammar can be problematic for those who don’t have the verb aspect in their language. It’s the same with anything in a new language – it’s always easier to adopt grammatical categories that exist in our language. Most Serbs find English articles hard to understand because our language doesn’t have this category!
Serbian prepositions are not different than prepositions in English. They’re usually short words that link nouns, pronouns, and other words in a sentence. They show us time, place, direction, and so on. So, what’s so complicated about them?
The thing with prepositions in a foreign language is that they’re never used the same way in it as in our mother tongue. For example, in English, you would say that a girl is on the bus, but in Serbian, the literal translation would be that a girl is in the bus. Again, there’s no other way than to remember it the way it is!
Does this mean it’s impossible to learn Serbian grammar?
The most important of the five facts for today is this: it’s absolutely possible to learn Serbian grammar! It may be more difficult for an English speaker to learn Serbian than let’s say, Spanish, but it doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
As we previously said, all you need is patience, will, and a little bit of love for the Serbian language. Also, don’t get discouraged because of this list – we stated the biggest obstacles you’ll run into when you start to learn Serbian. There are also a lot of easy and fun parts we’ll talk about in our future texts, so stay tuned!