In many languages, including Croatian, each noun is assigned a gender. This is a slightly misleading term – it simply means what forms of other words you must use whenever you refer to a noun.
For example, in English, when referring to a noun, you must use either he, she or it, depending on the noun, but there's no difference for most other words.
In German, you must use not only different pronouns, but also different articles (der, die, das) and you have to adapt adjectives (kleiner, kleine, kleines) in some situations.
In Spanish, you have to use different pronouns, different articles (el, la) and different forms of adjectives (rojo, roja).
Since there are three different forms of pronouns in English, and three different forms of articles in German, we can say that English and German have three genders (in singular, there's no difference in plural). There are two different forms of articles and adjectives in Spanish, therefore Spanish has two genders.
There are four genders in Croatian, but the difference between two of them is very small (and there's no difference in plural). The gender in Croatian is similar to gender in Spanish: it's usually assigned according to the last letter of a noun. For instance, kuća house is ‘feminine’ (since it ends in -a) in the same way as Spanish casa!
If you are familiar only with genders in English, this might be a bit surprising. Consider genders simply the way nouns are grouped. Houses are not feminine in real world. The gender that kuća house and žena woman/wife belong to is called ‘feminine’ simply because a lot of words for really feminine beings (e.g. for woman, sister, daughter) happen to belong to it.
It's straightforward to tell gender of a noun for almost all nouns in Croatian. The rules are:
|noun ends in||gender||some exceptions|
e.g. riba fish
tata m Dad
Luka m (name)
|-o or -e||neuter (n)
e.g. pivo beer
auto m car
Marko m (name)
e.g. stol table
kost f bone
noć f night
But there are four genders, right? Well, for masculine nouns there's an additional division. It will be important a bit later.
(In case you're surprised that one gender is called neuter – that's a fairly standard name for a gender that's neither male nor female.)
There are exceptions – e.g. names Luka and Marko look as if feminine and neuter; in fact, both are masculine, and frequent male names. All personal names (for people and animals) are either masculine or feminine (names ending in -o are typically masculine).
Another exception – the noun tata – is actually masculine, it means Dad.
It's actually only important to remember (and indicate) gender for exceptional nouns, and there are only 50-100 such nouns used in everyday life. For example:
|most bridge||—||masculine as expected, no need to indicate gender||kost f bone||—||feminine, contrary to the common rules, so we must indicate its gender (f)|
The biggest group of nouns that have unexpected gender are feminine nouns not ending in -a. Almost all of them end in a consonant. Common ones are:
bol f pain ®|
bolest f disease
jesen f fall, autumn
kost f bone
krv f blood
ljubav f love
obitelj f (close) family ®
ponoć f midnight
sol f salt ®
večer f evening ®
Many terms represented by only one noun in English have two nouns in Croatian: one for male and one for female (the same holds in Romance languages like Spanish or Italian):
In Croatian, main words that must adapt to noun gender are adjectives – words that indicate properties like big, red. In Croatian, adjectives also include words like my and Ivan's. They all must adapt to noun gender and case.
So, what forms of adjectives we need to use in each gender? In simple sentences like the house is big, nominative forms of adjectives are used, and they are very simple:
|feminine||-a||velika riba big fish|
|neuter||-o (some -e)||veliko jezero big lake|
|masculine||optionally -i||velik stol big table|
You probably notice that there are two possible endings for the neuter gender. Most adjectives use -o; adjectives that need -e will be shown a bit later. Here's a list of often used adjectives:
gotov ready, done
mali small, little
suh dry ®
visok high, tall
zdrav healthy, in good health
We can use them to assemble sentences like these:
Riba je velika. The fish is big.
Velika riba jede kruh. The big fish is eating bread.
Sunce nije jako. The sun isn't strong.
Jezero je duboko. The lake is deep.
Ana je zdrava. Ana is healthy.
Restoran nije skup. The restaurant isn't expensive.
You can see that adjectives got an -o regardless of nouns having the final -o or -e: it's only gender that matters, and both jezero and sunce are neuter.
In Croatian (like in other Slavic and Romance languages) adjectives always adapt to the noun, even if they are not right next to the noun. In German, adjectives in sentences like The fish is big don't adapt. That's one detail where Croatian requires words to change and German doesn't.
One more detail is still not answered: adjectives have an optional -i in the masculine gender. It's not used when you use adjectives on their own, but it's usually used when an adjective is placed before a noun:
Hrast je star. The oak is old.
Stari hrast još raste. The old oak is still growing.
Some adjectives (e.g. mali small, little) have always the -i in masculine, regardless where they're used, and they're listed so. Its feminine form is mala and so on.
The adjective gotov is used to express that something is prepared or ready, e.g.:
Ručak je gotov. The dinner is ready.
The adverbs of intensity are also used with adjectives, and must be placed right before them (or fused, in case of pre-):
Jezero je dosta duboko. The lake is quite deep.
Restoran nije preskup. The restaurant isn't too expensive.
Sunce je stvarno jako. The sun is really strong.
Vlak je strašno spor. The train is terribly slow. (colloq.)
The adverb of intensity jako is exactly the same as the neuter form of the adjective jak strong, but its meaning is not equal, so:
Sunce je jako jako. The sun is very strong.
Don't forget: nouns and adjectives really don't have the same endings. And you should always keep in mind that there are couple of nouns having unexpected genders (from their endings, at least):
Tata je zdrav. Dad is healthy.
Noć je duga. The night is long.
(A small remark: Croatian nouns ending in -a, regardless of gender, are also called a-nouns; feminine nouns not ending in -a are also called i-nouns.)
® The noun bol f pain is often masculine in Serbia.
Instead of obitelj, words familija and porodica are common in most of Bosnia and Serbia, and in some parts of Croatia.
The noun sol f salt has the form so (sol-) in Serbia and most of Bosnia; its gender and case endings are the same.
The noun večer f evening has the form veče (večer- f) in Serbia and often in Bosnia, with an additional twist: it's considered neuter in the nominative case (since it ends in -e), and feminine whenever any ending is attached to it (as indicated by an f after its case-base)! It changes like other feminine nouns not ending in -a.
Instead of suh, suv is used in Serbia, and parts of Bosnia and Croatia.