01 Alphabet and Pronunciation

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Croatian alphabet is simpler than English and much more similar to German or Spanish.

Letters b, d, f, h, k, l, m, n, p, r, s, t, v, z are pronounced more or less as in English. The letter g is pronounced always as in English go or get.

The following letters have a special pronunciation in Croatian:

Specific letters in Croatian
cas tz in tzar
čas ch in child
ćsimilar to č, a bit ‘softer’
đas j in joke
jas y in you
šas sh in ship
žas s in pleasure

Sequences of letters , lj and nj are considered single letters in Croatian; they are pronounced as follows:

Specific two-letter sequences
similar to đ, a bit ‘harder’
ljlike an l fused with a j
as Italian gl (e.g. in figlia)
or like English million
njlike an n fused with a j
like Spanish ñ (e.g. in señor)
or Italian gn (e.g. in bagno)
or like English onion

The 7 letters listed above (c to ž) and these two-letter sequences are Croatian-specific letters and have a somewhat special role in grammar. (You can remember them as consonants having ‘hooks’ on them, including j, having a ‘dot’ + letter c.)

Croatian vowels are quite different than English vowels: they should be pronounced basically like Spanish vowels or roughly as Italian vowels, as rather ‘flat’. Vowels can be either long or short (similar to English fit vs. feet) but in some cities (notably, Zagreb, Rijeka and Pula) that distinction is lost.

Here are some Croatian words to illustrate pronunciation. Press  ▶  to listen to them pronounced by a native Croatian speaker:

čaša  ▶  glass
džep  ▶  pocket
jež  ▶  hedgehog
ljudi  ▶  people
noć  ▶  night
svinja  ▶  pig
vođa  ▶  leader
zec  ▶  rabbit

You can hear that the vowel o in noć is pronounced longer in clips above (compare it with vođa), as is e in jež and zec (compare it with džep). The same goes for the first vowels in ljudi and svinja. Many people (including myself) don’t pronounce such differences.

Therefore, I have decided not to mark long vowels, as it would be too complicated for beginners: the rules are really complex and not respected in real life in many parts of Croatia anyway.

Also, most people in Croatia pronounce today ć the same as č, and the same as đ. This feature includes most cities.

In the Standard pronunciation of č and , the tip of tongue is pressed against the palate (top of the mouth) right above teeth, the teeth are separated, and there’s a gap between lips and teeth; it’s called apical pronunciation.

Since the two letters č and ć have a similar or identical pronunciation (depending on the region of Croatia) people have invented colloquial names for them, used e.g. when you have to explain over the phone how a name is spelled:

č = „tvrdo č” ć = „meko ć”

There’s a vowel ə (pronounced as e in English the) that’s never spelled; it appears in the following situations:

1. in seemingly impossible words like čvrst  ▶  rigid, hard and krv  ▶  blood: they can be approximately pronounced with the vowel ə (at least by some Croatian speakers) as čvərst and kərv. Actually, krv is pronounced a bit like English curve.

2. the same goes for e.g. bicikl  ▶  bicycle, which is rather pronounced as bi-ci-kəl (three syllables).

3. when talking about letters, Croatians often pronounce names of letters with that vowel (e.g. the letter "b" as ).

Although words should be pronounced as spelled, a great majority of Croatians pronounce the sequence ije (when not at the end of the word) as just je, for example:

lijepo  ▶  beautifully is usually pronounced as lje-po

prije  ▶  before is pronounced as written (pri-je), since the ije comes at the very end

Some people pronounce lijepo as l-j-e-p-o (that is, l and j are separate sounds; this is regarded as standard), others as lj-e-p-o. To help you with the pronunciation, I’ve marked such normally written, but not pronounced i’s like this: lijepo. In the words like prije, where all vowels are normally pronounced, nothing is marked.

There are very few other situations where something is written but not pronounced in Croatian, they will be specially emphasized.

Croatian spells the foreign names and places how they are originally spelled, if the original spelling uses the Latin script (e.g. New York, Chuck Norris), but some words are sometimes respelled; this happens sometimes in Bosnian, and as the rule in Serbian – respelling according to an approximate pronunciation is used (Njujork, Čak Noris).

Letters such as W, X etc. are sometimes used in abbreviations taken from other languages, such as WC for toilet, and in some last names in Croatia, of originally foreign origin (for example, 43 Croatians have the last name Winter, according to the 2011 census results).

Stress (pronouncing one syllable a bit louder, as in English together) has quite complex rules and varies in colloquial speech in different parts of Croatia. Stress is never indicated in writing (similar to the practice in English, but unlike Spanish or Italian), and you are simply supposed to know it.

There are two common ways (or schemes) of stressing words used in speech:

The standard stress is used in Standard Croatian, and in cities of Split, Osijek, Dubrovnik, and surrounding countryside; the area extends to Bosnia, and most of Serbia. This is what you hear on the Croatian Public Radio and TV (this is the pronunciation you will find in language manuals and good dictionaries).

Furthermore, the Standard Croatian has two kinds of stress (ways that one syllable in the word can be stressed): with the rising tone and the falling tone. It’s a bit similar to tones in Swedish or even Chinese. The stress in the Standard Croatian is virtually identical to stress in the Standard Serbian or Bosnian, but many people in Croatia don’t use standard stress in everyday communication. Rules governing standard stress are very complex (the stress changes in various forms of one word) so I think it would be too complex to introduce tones in a course intended for beginners (this approach is followed by most language schools that offer Croatian; I will describe details later, in A7 Stress).

Therefore, I decided just to mark what vowel is stressed, when the stress is not on the first syllable (that’s the default place of stress). This map shows roughly (the shaded area) where the standard stress scheme (or something quite similar to it) prevails in Croatia and neighboring countries, at least in public settings:

The ‘western stress’ is used colloquially, very often heard in Zagreb, surrounding areas and some other cities, including Rijeka and Pula. You can hear it on local radio stations. This is the pronunciation I personally use in everyday life, at work, in school, etc. (It’s sometimes, confusingly, called ‘urban stress’; you will find virtually nothing about it in textbooks.)

There are more stress schemes and ways to pronounce words in various dialects, but they are more or less limited to small areas and villages. They will be briefly described in the section on dialects.

I won’t describe the stress schemes used in unshaded areas of Serbia and Montenegro. For some words, they are a very similar or identical to the ‘western’ stress, for others, quite different.

I will also mark the stressed vowel in the ‘western’ stress, when it’s different from the standard stress position. For many words, there’s little or no difference, and for others, there’s an obvious difference, as demonstrated with words ponekad sometimes and kolač cake (I have underlined the stressed vowels):

word standard‘western’
ponekad ponekad  ▶  ponekad  ▶ 
kolač kolač  ▶  kolač  ▶ 

As you can see, some people pronounce the words ponekad and kolač with the stress on the first syllable, and some others with the stress on the second syllable. You would never know it from the normal spelling, since stress is normally not marked.

Therefore, I marked the word ponekad and similar ones with two stress positions (that is, I have underlined two vowels). The first mark (from left) is always the standard position and the second mark (if indicated) the ‘western’ stress position.

  the first mark (if present):
  standard stress
  the second mark (if present):
  ‘western’ stress
p o n e kad

The word kolač and many others are marked in the same way. (Such markings are my invention. There are also standard stress symbols, but they are quite complicated and used only in specialized books. You can find more in Wikipedia and elsewhere.)

Bear in mind, if nothing is marked, the word is stressed on the first syllable. If there’s only one mark, practically everyone pronounces the stress on the same syllable.

There are a few words where the standard stress is not on the first syllable, but the ‘western’ stress is; one of them is the word for binoculars:

standard: dalekozor
‘western’: dalekozor
=   dalekozorʷ¹

For such words, I’ll underscore the standard stress position, and write in small superscript letters ‘W1’ after the word (i.e. ‘western’ stress on the 1st syllable), as shown above.

Besides the place of stress in some words, the main difference between the two common ‘schemes’ are stress shifts. They are typical for the standard scheme. These examples will illustrate common stress shifts:

form standard ‘western’
cake kolač kolač
cakes kolači kolači
I’m speaking govorim govorim
I’ll speak govorit ću govorit ću

These were just examples – other words don’t have shifts, and there are other kinds of shifts as well. Various shifts will be explained gradually through this ‘course’.

A suggestion. I have to admit, the standard stress scheme is quite complicated, even in my watered-down version. Try learning the standard stress scheme only if you want to speak roughly as news presenters on Croatian Public TV, or you really want to imitate speech from the shaded area. Otherwise, don’t bother with it, and go for the ‘western’ scheme. You’ll sound roughly like someone from the unshaded regions, which is not bad if your main goal is to communicate. Keep in mind, stress is not marked in normal writing at all.

There are only couple of words that differ only by their stress, for example:

frizer freezer
frizer hairdresser

(Again, pay attention that both marks, for stress, and for i’s usually not pronounced are just my inventions: nobody uses them in writing.)

Through this small ‘course’ there will be here and there sound clips with pronunciation of selected words and sentences. When pronunciation varies, the sound clips will be marked like this:

 S▶  play a clip with the standard pronunciation
 W▶    play a clip with the ‘western’ pronunciation

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