We just learned how to make the plural of nouns. However, if you ask an average Croatian speaker what the plural of list leaf is, chances are he or she will answer it’s lišće, and not listovi, the form you learned so hard! What’s going on?
Also, what is going on with the noun brat brother? How do you talk about brothers in Croatian? Or children?
It turns out that for some words standing for things that exist as individual items, but which often come in hard-to-count heaps, there’s another singular noun that stands for the whole heap. Such noun is usually called a collective or mass noun.
Mass nouns in singular stand for any amount, except for a single item (that is, if you see a single leaf, you should use list). English hasn’t many mass nouns, but has one for leaves – foliage.
Mass nouns are more frequent in Croatian. Actually, they are so often used for any larger amount of some things that regular plurals of certain nouns are used very rarely.
Common nouns having often used mass nouns are:
|grm bush ®||grmlje|
As you can see, all mass nouns above are neuter, and end in either -će or -je. For instance, if Ana likes flowers, you would say:
Ana voli cv
ijeće. Ana likes flowers.
Bear in mind that cv
ijeće is a singular noun:
ijeće raste. Flowers grow.
The noun list doesn’t mean only leaf of a plant; as in English, it could also mean leaf of paper (list papira), e.g. in a book. For such ‘leaves’, the mass noun is never used – the regular plural noun is used instead.
There are a couple of mass nouns where the original, individual noun is no longer used; such nouns are used for any amount, but have singular forms only:
rublje laundry, underwear
suđe dishes ®
The noun piće drink is sometimes seen in plural, when it stands for more than one single drink, but it can be used in singular for a number of drinks on a table. The noun rublje stands both for a mass of clothes that needs to be washed, dried etc. and for underwear and other frequently washed items of clothing. (Colloquially, you will often hear another mass noun, veš – with exactly the same meaning – instead of rublje.)
Two more common mass nouns are similar to the nouns above, but they end in -a. They are feminine (singular, of course, but stand for any amount):
Then, there are two important nouns that have completely lost their plural, and mass nouns are always used instead. They are:
|noun (no pl.)||mass noun|
At first, they appear as normal, feminine singular nouns ending in -a:
Čekam djecu. I’m waiting for my children.
Pomažem tvojoj braći. I’m helping your brothers.
However, when they are subjects of a sentence, verbs come in plural:
Djeca čekaju mamu. Children are waiting for their mum.
Braća su gladna. Brothers are hungry.
Braća su bila gladna. Brothers were hungry.
Adjectives and past forms of verbs always have feminine singular forms with these two nouns, even when the verbs come in plural.
(This special behavior doesn’t apply to e.g. odjeća, only to braća and djeca.)
Finally, what about nouns like pile (pilet-) chicken? There are two ways to handle plural for them.
First, you simply avoid such nouns. For most of them, Croatian has other nouns with the same meaning, but completely regular:
|mače (mačet-) kitten||mačić|
|pile (pilet-) chick||pilić|
|štene (štenet-) puppy||psić
In fact, people are avoiding such nouns so much that nowadays mačić is much more often used than mače in Croatian.
The second way is to use mass nouns ending in -ad that behave as feminine nouns ending in a consonant. They are not often used in the the spoken Croatian:
|mače (mačet-) kitten||mačad f|
|pile (pilet-) chick||pilad f|
|štene (štenet-) puppy||štenad f|
Certain nouns that are taken from English are treated as singular, mass nouns in Croatian. An example is čips, known in American English as potato chips, and in British English as crisps:
Ovaj čips je stvarno dobar. These potato chips are really good.
Observe how the Croatian sentence uses only (masculine) singular forms of adjectives and verbs!
® Besides grm, in Bosnia and Serbia, another word is used, especially for larger bushes: žbun; from it, there's a collective noun žbunje.
The individual noun sud vessel, pot is very rare in Croatia, but often heard in Bosnia and Serbia.