47 Of Flowers, Thorns and Counting Children


We 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:

noun mass noun
cvijet flower cvijeće
grana branch granje
grm bush ® grmlje
kamen stone kamenje
list leaf lišće
trn thorn trnje

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 cvijeće. Ana likes flowers.

Bear in mind that cvijeće is a singular noun:

Cvijeće rasterasti. 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:

piće drink(s)
povrće vegetable(s)
oružje weapon(s)
rublje laundry, underwear
smeće garbage
suđe dishes ®
voće fruit(s)

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):

obuća footwear odjeća clothes

Then, there are two important nouns that have completely lost their plural, and collective nouns are always used instead. They are:

noun (no pl.) collective noun
brat brother braća
dijete child djeca

At first, they appear as normal, feminine singular nouns ending in -a:

Čekam djecu. I’m waiting for my children.

Pomažempomagati 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.)

What about collective nouns in I have no... sentences? Is A or G used? It seems the special collective nouns djeca children and braća brothers are used in both G and A with negative sentences, with the same frequency.®

form     hits
"nemam djece" 6470
"nemam djecu" 6310

Finally, how to count children in Croatian? If you have less than 5 children, you can use forms of the singular dijete (djetet-), but what if you have 5 or more? Is there a way to count more than 4 children? What about counting ljudi m pl. people, which has plural only?

Luckily, there’s another set of numbers, used to count plural and collective nouns, usually called collective numbers:

Collective numbers
both  oboje   5 petero
2 dvoje   6 šestero
3 troje   7 sedm-ero
4 četvero   etc.

The pattern for larger numbers is: take an ordinal adjective (e.g. osm-i), remove the final -i and add -ero. You will sometimes hear versions of these numbers with -oro (e.g. četvoro).®

They are used to with nouns in G-pl:

Imam petero djece. I have five children.

Razgovarao sam s troje ljudi. I talked to three people.

(You’ll sometimes also see and hear simply pet djece and like: this is both uncommon and non-standard.)

The collective numbers are secondary: if you can use the normal numbers (as with most numbers) you will not use the collective ones! Therefore, they are mostly used to count the three nouns (ljudi, djeca and braća), but even with braća you will very often hear and read:

Imam dva brata. I have two brothers.

Collective numbers can be used, but for some reason people prefer dva brata to dvoje braće.

However, when you have e.g. two friends or two guests of opposite sex, you have to use collective numbers:

2 friends 2 guests
all-male dva prijatelja dva gosta
all-female dvije prijateljice dvije gošće
mixed (G-pl!) dvoje prijatelja dvoje gostiju

This is the solution to the ‘mixed-sex’ problem in counting. Pay attention that the last form is in G-pl, while the first two are just ordinary forms used with numbers 2-4 (like G for nouns). They coincide with G-pl for the noun prijatelj friend (in writing, not for those who have different vowel length in speech), but not for e.g. the noun gost guest.

The collective numbers can be used on their own, and they imply a number of people, of mixed or unknown sex. They behave as other adverbs, as if in neuter singular, but you’ll sometimes see masculine plural as well:

Oboje je otišlootići
Both left.

Oboje su otišliotići
(sometimes used)

Some collective nouns have shifted their meaning, and are used as nouns independent of the base noun. Common ones are:

grob tombgroblje cemetery
osoba personosoblje staff, personnel

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:

noun replacement(s)
mače (mačet-) kitten mačić
pile (pilet-) chick pilić
štene (štenet-) puppy psić
štenac (štenc-)

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:

noun mass noun
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!

The preposition među among is used when there are more than two things, but it can be also used with collective nouns, e.g. među lišćem among the leaves; alternatively, you can use u¨ + DL (e.g. u lišću).


® 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. Its regular plural sudovi is common in these countries.

Forms like četvoro are very frequent and standard in Bosnia and Serbia.

Using A djecu with negative imati have is much more common in Bosnia, and prevails in Serbia – if you Google™ on the .rs domain for "nemam decu" and "nemam dece", you’ll get a ratio bigger than 10:1.

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5 Easy Croatian: 47 Of Flowers, Thorns and Counting Children N A  DL  G 24 I We learned how to make the plural of nouns. However, if you ask an average Croatian speaker what the plural of li...

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