Language Learning in Serbia

There’s an old adage about learning the rules in order to then forget them.

I have long been using this as my philosophy of language learning. Would I ever deny the value of textbooks in first beginning a language? Certainly not. Tried-and-true, clear-cut resources are invaluable first as guides to learning, then as reference resources – to double-check that one phrase that always comes up (“does ‘preko’ take the genitive or accusative?”).

However, learning only from textbooks teaches you to talk like a book. And you have to learn to talk like a book before you can learn to talk like a human, but, at some point, you do want to talk like a human.

Becoming human is the fun part. First, you begin to forget the rules, to throw out that dusty old grammar volume. Then you start to learn new rules, because, even though nobody you meet on the street speaks like the characters in your textbook, everybody breaks the rules in very specific, well-defined ways. For example, you can take the “h-”and “-de-” out of the plural form “hajdemo,” but you can’t take the “-de” out of the singular form “hajde,” you can only destress it.

In this way, you have to create a new textbook, in your head, for normal, everyday speech. This process is a linguistic and geographic adventure. All of these changes take place in specific situations and groups, and even if you are able to find some sort of guidebook to them, it is necessarily out-of-date as soon as it is published.

The number of variations and dialects in Serbia is staggering. These can differ by place, by context, by subculture, just as they can differ in vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar. One grammatical variation that I find particularly interesting is the formation of the future tense in certain parts of central Serbia. Instead of being formed through the combination of the auxiliary ću/ćeš/… and the infinitive, it is formed by combining the auxiliary with the present form of the verb. As such, “I will do” would be “ja ću radim” instead of the more standard “ja ću raditi.”

This grammatical change is a compelling example of common usage variation, but there are also manners of speaking that are more constructed. Two interrelated examples of this are šatrovački and utrovački jargon. Šatrovački is noted for being present in Belgrade and other urban centers, and it shares certain similarities with French Verlan or Italian Riocontra. This is to say šatrovački words are formed by rearranging the syllables in a word. For example, “brate” (the vocative of “brother”) would become “tebra.” A related jargon, even more complex, is based on šatrovački, but adds additional sounds. Utrovački requires that one add “u,” “za,” and “nje” to šatrovački words (though, depending on the variant, “za” might not be necessary). “Brate,” to use the previous example, would not be “tebra” but instead would be “utezabranje.”

Learning a language is a never-ending process, and living in-country allows you to appreciate that even more. On a daily basis, you find new words, new slangs, and all sorts of unexpected linguistic situations. It makes you appreciate how little you really understand, not discouraging, but rather inspiring you all the more to learn and understand as much as possible.

By: Michael O’Shea

Program: Balkan Language Initiative, Belgrade, Serbia

Term: Summer 2019

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