Verbs like čitati read have an optional object: you can either just read or read something. However, what you actually do is the same in both cases: it’s just not specified what you read in the first case (is it a book, newspaper, contract...)
However, there are many verbs where it’s not so, where you can either do something to somebody (or something), or you can do it to yourself. For instance, you can shave somebody else, or you can shave yourself. If you just ‘shave’, Croatian treats would such sentences as ambiguous! Croatian requires an object with such verbs.
This is an instance where something is implied in English – if you just shave, it’s implied you do it to yourself – but not in Croatian. (There are few English verbs that have a similar property, e.g. enjoy: you can either enjoy something or yourself – but you have to express always what you enjoy.)
Some verbs like that are:
brijati (brije) shave|
oblačiti put on (clothes)
prati (pere) wash|
svlačiti take off (clothes)
With verbs brijati (brije) and prati (pere) you can shave someone or wash something (or someone, e.g. a child):
Ana pere majicu. Ana is washing a shirt.
Ana pere lice. Ana is washing her face.
(Notice it’s just lice face: it’s always implied that a body part belongs to the subject.)
However, if you shave or wash yourself, you must use a special word – the ‘particle’ se. With these two verbs, it means ‘him/herself’:
Ana se pere. Ana is washing ‘herself’.
Brijem se. ▶ I’m shaving.
Instead of gender specific himself and herself, Croatian has only one word: se. However, the word a bit special, as it cannot be freely moved around, it must be the second word in a sentence, if possible! There are more words like that in Croatian. I will mark them with a small 2 (²), to indicate their strange behavior (e.g. se²). This mark is similar to another mark I’ve already introduced:
¨ — glued to the following word
² — fixed to a position in a sentence
Sometimes two words are counted as ‘one unit’ and occupy the first position together. One example is ne¨ + verb:
Ne brijem¹ se². I’m not shaving.
This applies to all words preceded by a word ‘glued’ to it (e.g. u¨, na¨) – they together count as ‘one unit’. (Words marked with ¨ have a fancy name – proclitics, and ones marked with ² are also called enclitics.)
This can also happen if you have two words that are frequently used together, e.g. skoro nikad almost never – they together occupy the first position:
Skoro nikad¹ se² ne brijem. I almost never shave.
However, you will see sometimes that even such groups are split. Such ‘strict placement’ occurs mainly in formal writing:
Skoro¹ se² nikad ne brijem. (seen sometimes in writing)
Similar verbs are oblačiti and svlačiti. They correspond to two verbs in English. First, you can either put on (or off) something:
Ana oblači majicu. Ana is putting a shirt on.
However, when these verbs get a person (or an animal, Croatian treats them more or less always in the same manner) as their object, they get mean dressing (or undressing) someone:
Ana oblači Gorana. Ana is dressing Goran.
Finally, if you want to express that Ana is dressing herself, you must us a se², as she does it on her own, to herself, not to anyone else:
Ana se oblači. Ana is dressing.
The verb buditi is usually translated as wake (up), but it does not have a meaning be awake, only stop sleeping. You can wake someone up, and in Croatian it sounds like this:
Ana budi Gorana. Ana is waking Goran up.
But if wake up on your own, you must use a se²:
Ana se budi. ▶ Ana is waking up.
Finally, the verb vraćati means that you either return something, or you return yourself, i.e. come back. You must use a se² for the second meaning:
Ana vraća knjigu. Ana returning a book.
Ana se vraća. Ana is coming back.
Next, there are some verbs that must be used with an object, but when used with a se², their meaning shifts a bit. Often used ones are:
|zabavljati entertain||zvati (zove) call|
When they are used with people as objects, they have the meanings I listed above:
Ana zabavlja Gorana. Ana is entertaining Goran.
Zovem Ivana. I’m calling Ivan.
But with a se², their meaning changes:
Ana se zabavlja. Ana is having fun.
Zovem se Goran. ‘I call myself Goran.’ = My name is Goran.
The second sentence, zvati (zove) + se² is the normal way to say in Croatian what your name is. Please pay attention that the name is in nominative, no changes to it are made. (If you know some French or Spanish, such sentences will be very familiar to you.)
Actually, if you consider again the verb return, there was a small change in meaning: it’s not the same to return something and to come back!
There are more such verbs where the meaning changes when they are used without an object. Consider the following:
Goran opens the window.
The window opens.
While in the first sentence, Goran does something to the window, in the second sentence, the meaning is completely shifted, as if the window is a subject that ‘does’ something. For all similar verbs (e.g. break, warm, close etc.) you have to use a se² in the sentences of the second type:
Goran otvara prozor. Goran opens the window.
Prozor se otvara. The window opens.
Another common example:
Ana is cooking the soup.
The soup is cooking, the meat is roasting.
Again, in the second sentence, obviously the soup is not standing by the stove: verbs here are used in the alternative meaning. When these sentences are translated to Croatian, the se² is mandatory:
Ana kuha juhu.
Juha se kuha, meso se peče.
(After a comma in Croatian, word-counting restarts: both se²’s are in the second position.)
This use of se² is common when the action described in a sentence is not performed by the subject (e.g. juha above) but by someone else, or just happens "on its own" (e.g. somebody just left the soup to cook). (Also, this explains why se² is used when someone wakes up on their own.)
This can be summed up as a simple rule: if in English meaning of a verb shifts when used without an object, when you use the verb without an object in Croatian, you have to use a se².
If you know any Spanish, everything so far most likely sounded very familiar to you. There are three important differences, though: while in Spanish the ‘reflexive’ pronoun can be either me, te or se, in Croatian it’s always se²; the second difference is that se² must go to a fixed place in a sentence in Croatian.
The third difference is that in Spanish, the ‘reflexive’ pronoun is often spelled with the verb when it appears after it (e.g. lavarse = ‘wash themselves’), the same holds in Italian (e.g. lavarsi) and some other languages. However, the se² is always a separate word in Croatian.
These are the basics of se². I’ll explain details a bit later, in 64 The Door Opens: Fun with se².
Finally, there’s a rather strange verb that must use an object or a se²:
You can use it with nouns (as objects, of course, put to accusative) meaning games (or sports):
nogomet football (soccer)
Ana igra šah. Ana plays chess.
Ivan igra košarku. Ivan plays basketball.
However, if someone does not play some sport, or a game, but plays on their own (e.g. with toys...) you must use a se²:
Goran se igra. Goran is playing.
The verb igrati is not used for "playing" musical instruments. For that, another verb is used, svirati. This is the same difference as Spanish jugar vs. tocar.
There are more verbs that use the se². Some of them, like nadati hope have always a se² with them, so they are usually listed as nadati se². You will discover them as you go.