64 Something is Heard: Fun with se²


Imagine you stand in front of a door, and the door starts to open. You don’t see who is opening the door, and it could be some automatic mechanism anyway. You would say:

The door is opening.

As we have already learned way back, In English, many verbs like open can be used in two meanings: open something and become open. This is not possible in Croatian for almost all verbs (you’ll also see few exceptions). If you want to express ‘get open’, you have to use the ‘magic’ word – se² (In Croatian, the noun vrata door exists in plural only.):

Vrata se otvaraju. The door is opening.

If you know Spanish (or a similar Romance language) everything below will be probably quite familiar to you. Actually, everything that follows is more or less exactly like in Spanish – with a difference that Croatian has only one form of se². There are also many of similarities with French, German and Swedish, and – unfortunately – not much in comparison to English.

I’m going to call this use of se² the mediopassive, like in Spanish grammars – I’ll explain the term below – it’s often also called se²-passive. This is what se² does to meaning of many verbs. (Of course, such se² can’t be replaced by sebe.) As we have already seen, it’s used when something happens ‘on its own’ (of course, the real cause of ice-cream melting is the heat from the environment):

More se ohladilo. The sea has cooled down.

Sladoled se topi. The ice-cream is melting.

Then, you should use it when you don’t know who is doing something, it seems as if nobody caused it, or it’s not important:

Kuća se brzo prodala. The house sold quickly.

Čaša se razbila. The glass broke.

Lopta se probušila. The ball punctured.

Observe how kuća house is really the subject here, so past forms must be in the feminine gender. This can also be expressed with passive adjectives in Croatian:

Kuća je brzo prodana. The house was sold quickly.

However, you have to use the mediopassive construction if you express something ongoing: here the implied meaning is that people buy yogurt all the time (imperfective), not that all the yogurt has sold (perfective):

Jogurt se dobro prodajeprodavati. Yogurt sells well.

Generally, passive adjectives of impf. verbs are rarely used – except for several verbs, such as e.g. kuhan cooked, gledan watched, and so on (check 61 Cake is Eaten: Passive Adjectives). For most impf. verbs, the se²-passive is preferred.

The kinds of passives in Croatian (one with se², another with passive adjectives) correspond well to two kinds of passives in German, one with werden and another with sein:

Prozor se zatvara. = (Ger.) Das Fenster wird geschlossen.

Prozor je zatvoren. = (Ger.) Das Fenster ist geschlossen.

German has also the third possibility: passives with sich, that basically translate word-for-word into Croatian se²-passive, word order aside; for example, compare translations of this Latin phrase (which uses the passive, having here ‘on its own’, i.e. “middle” meaning):

(Latin)Omnia mutantur.       Everything changes.
(German)Alles ändert sich.
(Swedish)Allting förändras.  
Sve se mijenja.

Swedish has again the suffix -s appended to the verb förändra.

The se²-passive is also used to express how easy (or hard) something can be done (without expressing who is doing it, since it’s not important anyway):

Prozor se lako otvara. The window opens easily.

This again corresponds exactly to e.g. French reflexive passive – this example is almost word for word:

(French)La fenêtre s’ouvre difficilement.         The window opens ‘difficultly’.
= The window is difficult to open.
Prozor se teško otvara.

The mediopassive is also used when something is ‘for sale’, or ‘for rent’, so it’s not sold yet:

Prodajeprodavati se kuća. The house is for sale. (lit. ‘being sold’)

The mediopassive is also used when someone/everyone can hear, see or expect something:

Nešto se čuječuti. Something is heard.

Mjesec se vidio. The Moon could be seen.

ekujeočekivati se snijeg. Snow is expected.

Such sentences translate as English passives (is heard). However, they don’t completely correspond to English passives, since in English you can usually add by whom:

The Moon could be seen by them.

This is completely impossible in Croatian: if you want to say this, you’ll have to rephrase the sentence as they could see the Moon, etc.

Perf-like verbs verbs of perception, i.e. vidjeti see and čuti (čuje) hear, when used in mediopassive, behave as imperfective verbs – you can express the time period:

Dim se vidio satima. The smoke could be seen for hours.

Buka se čula cijelu noćfem.. The noise could be heard the whole night.

Next, you should use it when there’s a group of people that does something, maybe even everybody, at least in some area:

U Argentini se govori španjolski. Spanish is spoken in Argentina.

U Japanu se jedejesti riža. Rice is eaten in Japan.

Such sentences also usually correspond to English passive sentences (is spoken), and to the same construction in Spanish (se habla español en Argentina). Sometimes such sentences are rephrased with ljudi m pl. people, e.g:

U Argentini ljudi govore španjolski. People in Argentina speak Spanish.

U Japanu ljudi jedujesti rižu. People in Japan eat rice.

(The same rephrasing can be used in Spanish, with la gente.) This is also used when you want to say what is the custom, or how people should do something:

Juha se jedejesti žlicom. Soup is eaten with a spoon.

Again, such sentences usually correspond to English passive sentences (is eaten). Some sentences are ambiguous, for example the following sentence could be a part of recipe or simply a statement what’s going on in the oven:

Meso se pečepeći dva sata. Meat is roasting for two hours.

The French ‘reflexive passive’ has the same use:

(French)Ça ne se fait pas.    lit. It’s not done.
= People don’t do that.
To se ne radi.

Sometimes, such sentences don’t have any subject (as some verbs, e.g. go don’t permit an object), so English sentences must use people, they or some other way. Such sentences are impersonal in Croatian, so neuter singular forms must be used in the past:

Ovdje se ne puši°. There’s no smoking here. (lit. ‘It’s not smoked here.’)

Nekad se često išloići
u kino.
People were going to cinema often.

Puno se popilo. They drank a lot.

(Spanish uses again exactly the same construction, the first sentence corresponds to aquí no se fuma, which has only a slightly different word order.) For example, this sign on a small diner in Zagreb says lit. ‘at our place it’s eaten the best’ = people eat here the best:

German again has the same feature (but with werden-passive), while Swedish has the -s passive here:

(German)Es wurde die ganze Nacht getanzt.         lit. ‘It was danced all night.’
(Swedish)Det dansades hela natten.
Plesalo se cijelu noć.

All three sentences mean, of course, they/people were dancing all night. Please remember such sentences are impersonal in Croatian, i.e. no subject is allowed in them.

Often, content clauses are subject of such sentences, English again uses the dummy it, and passives with some verbs (content sentences behave as neuter singular subjects, exactly as to):

Čini se da… It seems that…

se reći da…
It can be said that...

Vjerujevjerovati se da… It’s believed that...

ekujeočekivati se da… It’s expected that...

Činilo se da… It seemed that…

se reći da…
It could be said that...

The sentences above look impersonal, but the content clauses are actually subjects. Since the clauses are neither nouns nor pronouns, the verb goes to neuter singular in the past tense, as if it were impersonal, so behavior is actually the same.

Why do I call this mediopassive? Because it covers both middle and passive, as visible from this comparison of English and Croatian structures:

English Croatian
active he ate the pizza pojeo je pizzu
middle the pizza has cooled pizza se ohladila
passive the pizza was eaten pizza se pojela
pizza je pojedena

To summarize, there are two main uses of this construction:

1. when something happens “on its own” (so-called middle);
2. when English uses passive (is seen, are expected).

For some verbs, when used with se², the meaning depends on the subject. For example, the verb hladiti cool can have both reflexive and mediopassive meaning with se²:

Ivan se hladi. Ivan is cooling himself. (likely reflexive)

Pivo se hladi. Beer is cooling. (mediopassive: something unmentioned cools the beer)

As usual, it’s useful to use your common sense. Of course, meanings are close – both Ivan and the beer will get cooler, and that’s how the mediopassive construction historically developed from the reflexive.

There’s another, a rather surprising use when we add DL to such sentences. With many verbs, it’s possible to say that you feel like doing something, or you have a need to do something (even against your will!).

The following examples will illustrate it – of course, instead of mi² and Ani (DL of Ana) you can use any pronoun or noun standing for a person (or animal) in the DL case. The verbs are almost always imperfective, because such expressions are about activities and states, and not accomplishments. The following common expressions stand for unpleasant feelings:

Povraća° mi1 DL se. I feel like throwing up.

Vrti° mi1 DL se. I’m dizzy.

Ani se povraćalo. Ana felt like throwing up.

The second sentence uses the verb vrtjeti/vrtiti spin. (Bear in mind that the sentences are again impersonal, as the past tense reminds you.) The following expressions are more pleasant:

Pijepiti° mi1 DL se. I feel like drinking.

Puši° mi1 DL se. I need to smoke.

Ne plešeplesati° mi1 DL se. I don’t feel like dancing.

Ani se spava°. Ana is sleepy.

Ne ideići° mi1 DL se na posao. I don’t feel like going to work.

If you express what you feel like drinking/eating, it becomes the subject, so the verb must be adjusted accordingly:

Pijepiti mi1 DL se čaj. I feel like drinking tea.

Jedujesti mi1 DL se kolači. I feel like eating cakes.

Compare the previous sentences in the past tense:

Pilo mi1 DL se. I felt like drinking.

Ani se spavalo. Ana was sleepy.

Nije mi1 DL se išloići
na posao.
I didn’t feel like going to work.

Pio mi1 DL se čaj. I felt like drinking tea.

Jeli su mi1 DL se kolači. I felt like eating cakes.

This is yet another use of the DL case to express feelings.

So, you finally know how to sell your house and to express that you don’t feel like dancing!

What about exceptions to use of se²? There are couple of common verbs that sometimes behave as English open. A common verb with this property is svirati play (music) (the English verb play is used in the same way):

Svirala je neka dosadna pjesma. A boring song was playing.

Another verb is pisati (piše) write. For instance, if you would like to say that something "is written" in a book, you should not use the se²:

Ovdje pišepisati da… It’s written here that…

U knjizi pišepisati istina. The truth is written in the book.

Njegovo ime pišepisati na dnu. His name is written at the bottom.

The English verb write has to be used as passive, it’s unlike open. Note that istina truth is the subject of the second sentence, while the first one has a content clause as its subject. Therefore, the first is in neuter in past, and the second one is feminine:

Ovdje je pisalo da... It was written here that…

U knjizi je pisala istina. The truth was written in the book.

Njegovo ime je pisalo na dnu. His name was written at the bottom.

Yet another very common verb with this property is trebati need/should; it’s used without se² with infinitives and content sentences (and impersonal meaning):

Trebalo je reći da... It should have been said that...

If you want to express how something is customary done, you have to use se² with these verbs too:

Njegovo ime se ne pišepisati tako. His name is not written like that.

↓ Examples (click to show)

↓ Exercise (click to show)

5 Easy Croatian: 64 Something is Heard: Fun with se² N A  DL  G 24 I Imagine you stand in front of a door, and the door starts to open. You don’t see who is opening the door, and it ...

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