Variations: Colloquial and Formal

If you look into a Croatian dictionary and look for a word for clothes iron (the thing to iron your shirt), very likely, you’ll find the word glačalo. However, that word is extremely rare in real use: a large majority uses another word, pegla (there’s yet another word for that term, which will be explained later).

The word glačalo is considered ‘standard’ and will be used only in formal circumstances, in written formal language; in casual writing, even in newspapers, pegla dominates, it’s more than 20 times more common. We say that the word pegla is colloquial.

But what do ‘standard’ and ‘colloquial’ really mean? The ‘standard’ is a form of Croatian taught in schools, used on Public TV news and in some newspapers, and advertised in style manuals. It’s considered ‘proper’, and some people get angry when anyone uses anything else. However, most people use something a bit different in almost all situations. In reality, there are ‘layered cakes’ of ways people write and speak:

setting ‘standard’ ‘colloquial’
formal news on Public radio
news on Public TV
some Croatian teachers
some professors...
formal occassions
entertaiment shows on TV
TV interviews
lectures at university...
normal some movies
some books
scientific articles
some professors...
at work
most daily situations
local radio stations
partially movies and books
Facebook, portals, blogs...
‘relaxed’ with friends, having fun
dialogues in some novels
Facebook, some blogs...

The ‘standard’ column means using all forms and words considered ‘proper’ – only them – and pronouncing them in the ‘proper’ way. Virtually nobody does that in daily life. Speeches by the members of Croatian Parliament aren’t like that. Judges in courts of law don’t speak like that. But there’s some writing like that, because it’s easier to write in a prescribed way than to speak. And if you don’t really write in the ‘proper’ way, someone can proof your writing and ‘correct’ it. And to assist in ‘correcting’, there are thick style manuals – sometimes approaching a thousand pages – and a zillion web pages, something having simply tables with two columns – ‘proper’ and ‘wrong’.

In this chapter, I’ll focus on the middle and the top cake layers: the ‘relaxed’ way of speaking will be explained later, as you don’t need it to understand most writing and speech, and you likely won’t be able to speak Croatian in a ‘relaxed’ way for a while.

English has also ‘proper’ isn’t and ‘wrong’ ain’t – but the ‘proper’ form prevails completely in writing, on TV, in books, on web sites and in most public situations – and you can safely go to England or US and use isn’t all the time, and never sound odd. You will eventually learn ain’t, e.g. to understand the song Ain’t No Sunshine.

Not so in Croatia. There are many things which are standard – ‘proper’ in style manuals – but almost never used in speech, and you will sound odd if you use them. These standard nouns that are almost never used in speech, for example:

  Std. Croatian colloq.
airplane zrakoplov avion
fridge hladnjak frižider
elevator dizalo lift

If you do a Google™ search on the .hr domain for the phrases u liftu and u dizalu (both meaning in elevator, of course), you’ll get results like these:

u liftu 34600
u dizalu 3480

Such results, 10:1 in favor of the ‘colloquial’ word – in writing! – are common: many colloquial words prevail even in newspapers and fiction books, including translations. However, you will see the rare ‘standard’ word from time to time.

Even worse are some subtle differences between Standard Croatian and ‘colloquial’ forms. One example is the word bol pain: most manuals suggest it ‘should’ be masculine (inanimate, of course) when it means physical pain, and feminine when it stands for emotional pain.

This advice is ignored by almost everyone in Croatia – including medical textbook writers, government agencies, universities, newspapers, pharmaceutical companies, etc. Just check these results for acute pain (24:1 in favor of feminine) and chronic pain (50:1 in favor of feminine):

akutna bol (f) 1400
akutni bol (m)
akutan bol (m)
kronična bol (f) 8500
kronični bol (m)
kroničan bol (m)

(The masculine constructions above have two forms, due to the optional -i on adjectives.)

So, it’s safe to say that masculine bol is today marginal in Croatia, even in writing – except in Standard Croatian grammars and style guides. (Of course, the word bol usually switches its gender in plural to masculine.)

(It’s also interesting that feminine bol has been used in writing in Croatia since 1468.)

Sometimes, Standard Croatian uses a whole phrase, while in everyday use, there is a simple word:

  Std. Croatian colloq.
whipped cream tučeno slatko vrhnje šlag
semolina pšenična krupica griz

It’s interesting that some manuals insist on the spelling gris (see Examples).

Sometimes, standard and colloquial forms happily coexist. For example, the following adjectives are common but colloquial; however standard words are also often used in real life:

  Std. Croatian colloq.
fresh svjež friški
violet ljubičast lila
pink ružičast roza

There are couple of verbs as well, again the standard words are heard as well:

  Std. Croatian colloq.
lack, miss nedostajati (nedostaje) faliti
fry pržiti frigati

There are some nouns that are specific to Croatian, and feel more formal, but they are used alongside other, international-sounding nouns, and there’s even a small difference in meaning (that’s not always observed):

library knjižnica biblioteka
music glazba muzika
system sustav sistem

Then, there are some verbs that are usually used in a form that’s slightly different than in a (Standard Croatian) dictionary. Two common verbs are:

  Std. colloq.
count brojiti brojati (broji)
paint bojiti bojati (boji)

On the internet, colloquial forms are 3-4 times more common than the standard forms (which are basically limited to newspapers, books, and official writings), and the colloquial forms completely prevail in speech. The meaning paint above doesn’t include art, only when you paint a fence, wall, etc.

Many verbs with inf in -jeti also have a standard and a colloquial form. For example, these are standard forms:

smrdjeti (smrdi, smrdio, smrdjela) stink
starjeti (stari, stario, starjela) grow old
svrbjeti (svrbi, svrbio, svrbjela) itch
štedjeti (štedi, štedio, štedjela) save (money, resources)
vrtjeti (vrti, vrtio, vrtjela) spin, turn

Instead of these forms, you’ll very frequently see – especially in casual writing and conversation, but also in some newspapers – the following simplified forms, having just -i-:

smrditi stink
stariti grow old
svrbiti itch
štediti save (money, resources) 
vrtiti spin, turn
quite common

Just compare Google™ statistics for past-f forms on the Internet (.hr domain):

  ...jela   ...ila
smrd... 2100 9700
star... 310 1200
svrb... 2800 2200
šted... 11000 7000
vrt... 14000 24000

Bear in mind that the Internet also includes edited text (laws, newspapers) where colloquial forms are quite rare.

For more information about such verbs, check A3 Verbs.

I will list all those verbs with both forms in the infinitive, e.g.

vrtjeti / vrtiti spin, turn

There are nouns that are used in two forms in real life, one masculine, another feminine – and the feminine form actually prevails – while Standard Croatian insists on the masculine form only. The common ones are:

Standard common (colloq.)
handle, hold držak (dršk-) drška
planet planet planeta
visit posjet posjeta

Some colloquial feminine nouns are much more common, e.g. za dršku is 14 times more frequent (on the Internet) than za držak.

Then, Standard Croatian insists on three-way demonstrative adverbs of place and destination:

Standard loc. dest.
close ovdje ovamo
mid tu tamo
distant ondje onamo

However, the adverb ondje is quite rare in real life – you can find it mostly in books – most speakers use only two-way distinctions, while tamo serves two roles:

colloq. loc. dest.
not close
tamo tamo

For example, on the newspaper site, the adverb tamo is 5 times more frequent than ondje. On the discussion site, it’s 27 times more frequent. The adverb onamo is also less frequent than the others, so I’ve put it into brackets.

Sometimes, Standard Croatian – that is, people who write style manuals and proof text – slowly accept forms actually used. One example is the word kazeta cassette. Style manuals insisted on the form kaseta for decades – which was completely marginal in real life – but it seems the form kazeta has been recently finally accepted.

If you buy a Croatian style manual with an idea to learn Croatian better, use it wisely: they usually list most common ‘mistakes’, so you’ll get a glimpse of how people in Croatia really speak and write. Never take any advices from such manuals for granted – recall the noun bol pain above.

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5 Easy Croatian: Variations: Colloquial and Formal If you look into a Croatian dictionary and look for a word for clothes iron (the thing to iron your shirt), very likely, you’ll find the wo...

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