Variations: Traditional NW Dialects #1


If you would really like to learn dialects in Croatia, a separate course or textbook would be needed. So far, nobody has written something like it, but it can be done. (Maybe I’ll find some time one day?) Consider this a lightweight overview.


On a Sunday morning back in 1967, Ana Bešenić, a 15-year-old high school student from Varaždinske Toplice, a small town north from Zagreb, rang on the door of the home of composer and singer Zvonko Špišić in Zagreb, and shown him some verses she wrote. .... He decided to write a tune, and the song was performed on the festival. Her song starts with these lines:

V jutro dišeče gda bregi su spali

a mesec još zajti ni štel

potiho sem otprl rasklimanu lesu

i pinklec na pleča sem del

It’s hopeless to look into standard dictionaries. You can ask someone who natively speak that dialect, or someone who at least understands words in this song. Luckily for you – everyone in Croatia understands these words, as the song became very popular and almost became a folk song. We can start understanding it by explaining the verbs from the lines above:

deti (dene) perf. put
dišati (diši) smell (pleasantly)
otprti (otpre) perf. open
spati (spi) sleep
šteti (hoče) want

Note that spati (spi) sleep is archaic in most parts of Croatia today, but the verb zaspati (zaspi) inch. fall asleep was clearly derived from it many centuries ago.

The verbs corresponding to standard doći (...) perf. come, naći perf. find, zaći perf. ??? etc. have a bit different forms:

dojti (dojde, došel, došla) perf. come
najti (najde, našel, našla) perf. find
zajti (zajde, zašel, zašla) perf. set (Sun and Moon)

The adjective dišeči is the present adjective of dišati (diši), so it means pleasant-smelling, i.e. fragrant.

The lines above translate as:

In a fragrant morning, when hills were sleeping
And the Moon was still unwilling to set
I quietly opened the rickety gate
And put the bag on my back

This song, Suza za zagorske brege, is usually considered one of the greatest Croatian songs, and by many people the greatest. Many people found it resonated with their life – having to leave their home, looking for work, going to school, army duty, for other reasons – we never learn why from the song, so everyone can fill in parts of their life, but we’re sure it wasn’t for vacation with friends. And it was written by a 15-year-old girl.

The song continues:

Stara je mati išla za menom
nemo vu zemlu gledeč
Ni mogla znati kaj zbirem vu duši
i zakaj od včera nis rekel ni reč

In that dialect, instead of lj, there’s l: zemla ground, earth, country instead of zemlja, prijatel friend instead of prijatelj.

This song, like others in this chapter, is fully examined in the Examples section below.

biti be this dialect standard
pres-1 sem² sam²
neg. pres-1 nis nisam
neg. pres-3 ni nije

Dobro mi došel prijatel
vu stari zagorski dom
budi kak doma vu vlastitoj hiži
tu pri pajdašu si svom

Vre je stara hiža ova
al još navek tu stoji
nemreš srušit ovog krova
taj se ničeg ne boji

The fourth line has an interesting construction:

pri + DL = std. kod¨ + G

You’ve probably noticed interesting stress in present tense forms of some verbs: stoji he/she/it stands and boji se² he/she/it is afraid. Such stress is impossible in standard Croatian, but it can be guessed from it.

Verbs which have an underline – i.e. the fixed stress – in present tense forms in the standard stress scheme will have fixed stress one one syllable to the right in this (and many other) dialects:

verb standard “old” dialects
be afraid of boji se² boji se²
hold drži drži
stand stoji stoji

Why the form sem² instead of sam²? Why e in rekel vs rekla? To answer these questions, another bit of history.

Roughly 1100 years ago, before any of the today dialects (and languages) in the Slovenia-to-Serbia area were differentiated, there was yet another vowel, which can be written as ə.

For example, the pres-1 of biti be was səm², while the word for wind was větər. Many words had this vowels: pəs dog, məgla fog, stəza path etc. The past-m of reći perf. say was rekəl. We don’t know how ə was exactly pronounced (and it likely varied by region) but we’re sure it existed, since old writings have a special letter for it.

And then, in many dialects, the system got simpler. The vowel ə merged with other vowels, but it happened differently in different regions. In most dialects, it changed to a, but in the area around today Zagreb it changed to ě.

So after ə was gone, we had ě left, precisely the vowel that changed into either a plain e (giving rise to the Ekavian prounciation), or i (in Ikavian areas), and even into either ije or je. The last option happened in many parts of Croatia and most of Bosnia, and that was taken as the basis of Standard Croatian.

But something else happened in most Kajkavian areas: there, the ě usually remained a separate vowel to this day. The word for wind there is actually větěr (the unstressed ě is pronounced often like e in English the), while e.g. the e in the word pet five is pronounced somewhat like a in English bad or e in English bed.

To illustrate this, here are these two words pronounced by a native, Kajkavian speaker from a village near Zagreb:

pet  ▶  five
devet nine
pěs dog
větěr  ▶  wind

Unfortunately, these two sounds are often spelled the same, and that gives the impression that Kajkavian is Ekavian, but it’s not. (Kajkavian in towns such as Zagreb, Samobor and Varaždin was really Ekavian, but villages kept the older system.)

But these were all songs in traditional styles, often sung by people in traditional costumes (of course, it was all dress-up: both songs were originally sung on the Krapina Festival by Vice Vukov, who was born in Šibenik, where a completely different dialect is spoken, and local folk costumes look completely different).

There was the Krapina festival, but it had a very local... MIK... even more local... Only Split festival.

TV series Mejaši, broadcast 1970, 7 one-hour episodes, followed by Gruntovčani, broadcast 1975, 10 one-hour episodes, and that was it.

↓ Examples (click to show)

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