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.
In English, many verbs like open can be used in two meanings: open something and become open (this is sometimes called ‘causative alternation’).
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:
Vrata se otvaraju. The door is opening.
(In Croatian, the noun vrata door exists in plural only.) If you know Spanish (or a similar Romance language) this is 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 a lot of similarities with German, and – unfortunately – not much in comparison to English.
I’m going to call this use of se² the mediopassive (like in Spanish grammars); it’s often also called se²-passive.
First, you should use the mediopassive when you don’t know who is doing something (e.g. who is opening the door), 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. The following sentences are examples of ‘anticausative’ – nobody causes the ice-cream to melt, it melts ‘on its own’ (of course, the real cause is the heat from the environment):
More se ohladilo. The sea has cooled down.
Sladoled se topi. The ice-cream is melting.
All these examples correspond to English passive. 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: in the following sentence, the implied meaning is that people buy yogurt all the time (imperfective), not that all the yogurt has sold (perfective):
Jogurt se dobro prodaje. 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 in Latin):
(Lat.) Omnia mutantur.
Sve se m
(Ger.) Alles ändert sich.
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.
The mediopassive is also used when something is ‘for sale’, or ‘for rent’, so it’s not sold yet:
Prodaje se kuća. The house is for sale. (lit. ‘being sold’)
You can often see notices like prodaje se or iznajmljuje se for rent, for example:
Again, this is completely the same as Spanish se vende and se renta, except for the word order.
The mediopassive is also used when someone/everyone can hear, see or expect something:
Nešto se čuje. Something is heard.
Mjesec se vidio. The Moon could be seen.
Očekuje se sn
ijeg. 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.
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.
Such sentences also usually correspond to English passive sentences (is spoken). Sometimes they are rephrased with ljudi people, e.g:
U Argentini ljudi govore španjolski. People in Argentina speak Spanish.
This is also used when you want to say what is the custom, or how people should do something:
Juha se jede 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 peče dva sata. Meat is roasting for two hours.
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 išlo u kino. People were going to cinema often.
Puno se popilo. They drank a lot.
For example, this sign on a small diner in Zagreb says lit. ‘at out place it’s eaten the best’ = people eat here the best:
German again has the same feature (but with werden-passive):
Plesalo se c
ijelu noć. = (Ger.) Es wurde die ganze Nacht getanzt.
(Latin also uses passive impersonally, e.g. in Virgil Sic itur ad astra.)
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…
Može se reći da… It can be said that…
Vjeruje se da… It’s believed that…
Očekuje se da… It’s expected that…
Činilo se da… It seemed that…
Moglo 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.
To summarize, there are two main uses of this construction:
1. when something happens "on its own";
2. when English uses passive as well (is seen, are expected).
Finally, there’s a rather surprising use of DL in 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° mi se. I feel like throwing up.
Vrti° mi 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:
Pije° mi se. I feel like drinking.
Puši° mi se. I need to smoke.
Ne pleše° mi se. I don’t feel like dancing.
Ani se spava°. Ana is sleepy.
Ne ide° mi 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:
Pije mi se kava. I feel like drinking coffee.
Jedu mi se kolači. I feel like eating cakes.
Compare the previous sentences in the past tense:
Pilo mi se. I felt like drinking.
Ani se spavalo. Ana was sleepy.
Nije mi se išlo na posao. I didn’t feel like going to work.
Pila mi se kava. I felt like drinking coffee.
Jeli su mi 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 piše da… It’s written here that…
U knjizi piše istina. The truth is written in the book.
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.
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 piše tako. His name is not written like that.