27 Body

  You can also read this chapter in French.


Croatian sees body parts and what’s felt in them in a quite different way than English. Let’s check words for body parts first:

glava  ▶  head
jezik  ▶  tongue
koljeno  ▶  knee
kost  ▶  f bone
lakat (lakt-)  ▶  elbow
leđa  ▶  n pl. back
noga  ▶  leg/foot
nos  ▶  nose

peta  ▶  heel
prst  ▶  finger, toe
rame (ramen-, pl »)  ▶  shoulder
ruka  ▶  hand/arm
trbuh  ▶  stomach (belly) ®
usta  ▶  n pl. mouth
vrat  ▶  neck
zub  ▶  tooth

Words leđa and usta we have already encountered: they exist only in plural. Both words are neuter. The noun rame belongs to a small group of neuter nouns with case-base extended with an n.

The word jezik tongue means also language.

It’s interesting that Croatian doesn’t distinguish arm from hand or leg from foot! There’s only one word for both arm and hand.

Now, there are two very useful and often used verbs:

boljeti (boli,...) hurt

svrbiti / svrbjeti itch

The verb boljeti has past forms like živjeti and other verbs on -jeti, so I have omitted them, and wrote only periods. The verb svrbiti has another infinitive form, svrbjeti – it’s more formal – but the present forms are the same; for more, see Variations: Colloquial and Formal.

Now, the English verb itch can be used in two ways:

My leg itches.

The shirt itches me.

Both Croatian verbs are always used in the second way. Something (a body part, shirt...) always does something (itches, ‘hurts’) to someone. In Croatian, the first sentence translates as:

Svrbi me noga.  ▶ The leg is itching me.’ = My leg itches.

One who gets affected is in accusative, and the body part or anything else that causes feelings is the subject of the sentence, and therefore in nominative. What is the source of feelings is often put to the end.

This, a bit unexpected use of cases, is sometimes called inverse assignment. What you expect to be a subject actually isn’t, at least grammatically.

If you use personal pronouns, they of course must be at the second place, but if you use general nouns or names, they are usually put to the first place. They must be in accusative, since they are really objects: legs, shirts, etc. are itching them:

Anu svrbi noga.The leg is itching Ana.’ = Ana’s leg itches.

Such placement is common in Croatian: if you express someone’s feelings or experience, it’s normal to put him or her to the front, regardless of case. Recall this example:

Ani je bilo dosadno. (DL) Ana was bored.

Pain is expressed in exactly the same way:

Boli me zub.  ▶ The tooth is hurting me.’ = My tooth hurts.

Note how in both sentences, the subject (a body part, here noga, zub) comes after the verb. This is the default word order in such sentences; you can tweak it to emphasize the body part by putting it first.

You must bear in mind that leđa and usta are always in plural, despite everyone having just one. Since they are subjects, verbs must be put into plural as well:

Leđa me bole.  ▶  ‘The backs are hurting me.’ = My back hurts.

Usta me svrbe. ‘The mouths are itching me.’ = My mouth itches.

We haven’t learned plural of masculine nouns yet, but for both prst and zub, it’s simply made by adding an -i:

Gorana bole zubi. Goran’s teeth hurt.

All sentences above were in the present tense. Examples for the past tense (keep in mind that the body part is the subject in such sentences):

Anu je svrbila noga. Ana’s leg itched.

Leđa su me boljela. My back has hurt.

Gorana su boljeli zubi. Goran’s teeth have hurt.

There are two more body parts, and both are quite special: their plural form is not only irregular, it’s in different gender:

noun plural noun
oko eye oči f pl. eyes
uho ear uši f pl. ears

For example:

Anu boli oko. Ana’s eye hurts.

Anu bole oči. Ana’s eyes hurt.

The gender switch is visible in the past tense:

Anu je boljelo oko. Ana’s eye has hurt.

Anu su boljele oči. Ana’s eyes have hurt.

If you can’t (or don’t want to) tell what hurts, you should make an impersonal sentence, i.e. without a subject – and consequently, neuter singular in the past tense – but don’t forget the object:

Boli° me.  ▶  It hurts.

Boljelo me je.  ▶  It has hurt.

The next interesting thing is what grows from the body – hair. While English has only one word, Croatian strictly distinguishes these two terms:

kosa human hair growing from the scalp ®
dlaka facial hair, body hair, animal hair

The word kosa is used in singular only – it stands for any amount of hair. Such nouns are called mass nouns. Similarly, English hair can refer to a single hair or any amount of it. The word is reserved for human hair growing from the top of the head. Everything else is dlaka, which can be used in either in singular or in the plural dlake to describe any amount of such hair. It’s interesting that French has the same distinction: cheveu vs. poil – but they both refer to single hair, you have to use plural in most circumstances. Italian does it too: capello vs. pelo.

When talking about body parts, it’s common to express possession somehow. Recall it’s normal, when you use body parts as objects, to express possession by DL:

Ana pereprati Goranu kosu.  ▶  Ana is washing Goran’s hair.

The DL case is also used, usually in speech, to express possession of a described body part as well, that is, when a body part is the subject of the verb biti (je² +) be. We start from these sentences:

Kosa je čista.  ▶  The hair is clean.

Noge su prljave. The feet are dirty.

Lice je prljavo. The face is dirty.

Here the nouns kosa hair, noga leg/foot (in plural noge) and lice face are the subjects. Then we add the person in DL, and change the word order a bit, as usual (but the body parts are still subjects):


Goranu je kosa čista.  ▶  Goran’s hair is clean.

Goranu su noge prljave. Goran’s feet are dirty.

Lice ti je prljavo. Your face is dirty.

We can shuffle words around, e.g. ... čista kosa and so on.

There’s another way: you can usually express possession with the verb imati have. Now the body parts and any adjectives describing them are in A:


Goran ima čistu kosu.  ▶  Goran has clean hair.

Goran ima prljave noge. Goran has dirty feet.

Imaš prljavo lice. You have dirty face.

There’s something very interesting. The way #1 to describe a body part – using DL for possession of it – is limited to temporary properties. Using it to express more permanent properties (e.g. color) is very rare.

The same holds for clothes. If a T-shirt is dirty – and especially if someone is wearing it – you can say:

Majica ti je prljava.  ▶  Your T-shirt is dirty. (The T-shirt you’re wearing)

Prljava ti je majica.  ▶  (the same meaning, emphasis on prljav dirty)

But nobody would use that expression to express that the shirt is red, as this is a permanent property.

Of course, there’s yet another way to express possession: with possessive adjectives, like Goranov or moj my. It can be used for both kinds of properties. However, it’s much less often used in speech, the two ways above are preferred.

Frequency of these expressions is not the same in all regions: the first way is less common in western and northern Croatia, the verb imati have is preferred in wider Zagreb and Rijeka regions, especially in small towns and villages. Using DL in such sentences gets more common further you go to the southeast. This table sums up the three possibilities (using the 1st person):

Ways to say my hair is dirty is it common?
Kosa mi je prljava.  ▶ 
Prljava mi je kosa.  ▶ 
DL yes (for temporary prop.)
Imam prljavu kosu.  ▶  verb have yes (esp. western areas)
Moja kosa je prljava.  ▶  possessive not really

There’s another way to look at this feature. Temporary properties – wet, dirty, clean etc. affect the person. It’s something he or she maybe doesn’t know. Everyone knows he or she has a long or brown hair, or a red shirt. This is yet another example where DL = the affected person. Therefore, the form with the DL is not used to express that something is new.

I admit – this is a rather fine point. If you are going to use possessive adjectives or the verb imati in all circumstances, you will still be understood, of course, and not sound weird. Just be prepared to hear such expressions from native speakers.


® Instead of trbuh, the noun stomak is common in Serbia and Bosnia; it also means stomach.

In parts of Croatia not too far from the Slovene border, you will encounter – specially in smaller towns and villages – lasi f pl. used colloquially instead of kosa.

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5 Easy Croatian: 27 Body →   You can also read this chapter in French . N A  DL  G Croatian sees body parts ...

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