49 Of Flowers, Thorns and Counting Children


We learned how to make the plural of nouns. However, if you ask an average Croatian speaker what the plural of list leaf is, chances are, he or she will answer it’s lišće, and not listovi, the form you learned so hard! What’s going on?

Also, what is going on with the noun brat brother? How do you talk about brothers in Croatian? Or children?

It turns out that for some words standing for things that exist as individual items, but which often come in hard-to-count heaps, there’s another singular noun that stands for the whole heap. Such noun is usually called a collective noun.

Collective nouns in singular stand for any amount, except for a single item (that is, if you see a single leaf, you should use list). English hasn’t many collective nouns, but has one for leaves – foliage.

Collective nouns are more frequent in Croatian. Actually, they are so often used for any larger amount of some things that regular plurals of certain nouns are used very rarely. Common nouns having often used collective nouns are:

noun collective
cvijet flower cvijeće
drvo tree, wood drveće
grana branch granje
grm bush ® grmlje
kamen stone kamenje
list leaf lišće
pero feather perje
trn thorn trnje

As you can see, all collective nouns above are neuter, and end in either -će or -je. For instance, if Ana likes flowers, you would say:

Ana voli cvijeće. Ana likes flowers.

Bear in mind that cvijeće is a singular noun:

Cvijeće rasterasti. Flowers grow.

The noun list doesn’t mean only leaf of a plant; as in English, it could also mean leaf of paper (list papira), e.g. in a book. For such ‘leaves’, the collective noun is never used – the regular plural noun is used instead.

The noun drvo means either an individual tree, or wood as material (for building or fuel). The collective noun drveće means only trees (you will also hear drveće). Note that for wood, in the meaning forest, the noun šuma is used, not drvo.

There are a couple of collective nouns where the original, individual noun is no longer used; such nouns are used for any amount, but have singular forms only:

piće drink(s)
povrće vegetable(s)
oružje weapon(s)
rublje laundry, underwear
smeće garbage
suđe dishes ®
voće fruit(s)

The noun piće drink is sometimes seen in plural, when it stands for more than one single drink, but it can be used in singular for a number of drinks on a table. The noun rublje stands both for a heap of clothes that needs to be washed, dried etc. and for underwear and other frequently washed items of clothing. (Colloquially, you will often hear another noun, veš – with exactly the same meaning – instead of rublje.)

Two more common collective nouns are similar to the nouns above, but they end in -a. They are feminine (singular, of course, but stand for any amount):

obuća footwear odjeća clothes

Then, there are two important nouns that have completely lost their plural, and collective nouns are always used instead. They are:

noun (no pl.) collective
brat brother braća
dijete child djeca

At first, they appear as normal, feminine singular nouns ending in -a:

Čekam djecu. I’m waiting for my children.

Pomažempomagati tvojoj braći. I’m helping your brothers.

However, when they are subjects of a sentence, verbs come in plural:

Djeca čekaju mamu. Children are waiting for their mum.

Braća su gladna. Brothers are hungry.

Braća su bila gladna. Brothers were hungry.

Adjectives and past forms of verbs have feminine singular forms with these two nouns, even though the verbs come in plural. (This special behavior doesn’t apply to e.g. odjeća, only to braća and djeca.)

However, with the collective noun braća brothers, it’s also common to use past forms and adjectives relating to them in masculine plural:

Braća su bili gladni. (also possible)

Pay attention that with adjectives attached to nouns braća and djeca you have to use feminine singular forms: only N moja braća and moja djeca, DL mojoj braći and mojoj djeci, etc. are possible.

The preposition među¨ + I/A among is used when you have more than 2 things, and that includes collective nouns, despite being formally singular nouns:

Ptica se skriva među lišćem. The bird is hiding ‘among’ the leaves.

What about collective nouns in I have no... sentences? Is A or G used? It seems the special collective nouns djeca children and braća brothers are used in both G and A with negative sentences, with the same frequency (results for the .hr domain):®

"nemam djece" 6470
"nemam djecu" 6310

Finally, how to count children in Croatian? If you have less than 5 children, you can use forms of the singular dijete (djetet-), but what if you have 5 or more? Genitive plural should be used, but neither dijete (djetet-) nor djeca have any plural forms!

Is there a way to count more than 4 children? Is it forbidden to have more than 4 children in Croatia?

What about counting ljudi m pl. people, which has plural only?

Yes, there’s a way. Maybe you aren’t gonna like it, though. It happens there’s another set of numbers, used to count plural and collective nouns, usually called collective numbers:

Collective numbers
both  oboje     5 petero
2 dvoje 6 šestero
3 troje 7 sedm-ero
4 četvero ®   etc.

The pattern for larger numbers is: take the ordinal adjective (e.g. osm-i), remove the final -i and add -ero.

You will sometimes hear versions of these numbers with -oro (i.e. četvoro, petoro, etc.).®

They are used with collective nouns in G and with ljudi people (and many other nouns) in G-pl:

Imam petero djece. I have five children.

Razgovarao sam s troje ljudi. I talked to three people.

(You’ll sometimes also see and hear simply pet djece and like: this is both uncommon and non-standard.)

The collective numbers are secondary: if you can use the normal numbers (as with most numbers) you will not use the collective ones! Therefore, they are mostly used to count the three nouns (ljudi, djeca and braća), but even with braća you will very often hear and read:

Imam dva brata. I have two brothers.

Collective numbers can be used, but for some reason people prefer dva brata to dvoje braće.

However, when you have e.g. two students or two guests of opposite sex, you have to use collective numbers:

2 students 2 guests
all-male dva studenta dva gosta
all-female dvije studentice dvije gošće
mixed (G-pl!) dvoje studenata dvoje gostiju

This is the solution to the ‘mixed-sex’ problem in counting. Pay attention that the last, ‘mixed-sex’ form is in G-pl, while the first two, ‘single-sex’ constructions are just ordinary forms used with numbers 2-4 (like G for nouns).

These forms coincide with G-pl for some nouns (e.g. prijatelj friend – in writing, not for those who have different vowel length in speech); of course, adjectives have always different forms:

2 good friends
all-male dva dobra prijatelja
all-female dvije dobre prijateljice
mixed (G-pl!) dvoje dobrih prijatelja

The collective numbers can be used on their own, and they imply a number of people, of mixed or unknown sex. They behave as other adverbs, as if in neuter singular, but you’ll sometimes see masculine plural as well:

Oboje je otišlootići
Both left.

Oboje su otišliotići
(sometimes used)

Some collective nouns have shifted their meaning, and are used as nouns independent of the base noun. Common ones are:

grob tombgroblje cemetery
osoba personosoblje staff, personnel

The nouns predgrađe suburbia and proljeće spring (time of year) are also historically collective nouns (they behave like regular nouns today, with singular and plural forms). The same holds for many place names, e.g. Zablaće, Zapruđe and for Sredozemlje Mediterranean.

Finally, what about nouns like pile (pilet-) chicken? There are two ways to handle plural for them.

First, you simply avoid such nouns. For most of them, Croatian has other nouns with the same meaning, but completely regular:

noun replacement(s)
mače (mačet-) kitten mačić
pile (pilet-) chick pilić
štene (štenet-) puppy psić
štenac (štenc-)

In fact, people are avoiding such nouns so much that nowadays mačić is much more often used than mače in Croatian.

The second way is to use collective nouns ending in -ad that behave as feminine nouns ending in a consonant. They are not often used in the the spoken Croatian:

noun collective
mače (mačet-) kitten mačad f
pile (pilet-) chick pilad f
štene (štenet-) puppy štenad f

Certain nouns that are taken from English are treated as singular, kind-of collective nouns in Croatian. An example is čips, known in American English as potato chips, and in British English as crisps:

Ovaj čips je stvarno dobar. These potato chips are really good.

Observe how the Croatian sentence uses only (masculine) singular forms of adjectives and verbs!


® Besides grm, in Bosnia and Serbia, another word is used, especially for larger bushes: žbun; from it, there’s a collective noun žbunje.

The individual noun sud vessel, pot is very rare in Croatia, but often heard in Bosnia and Serbia. Its regular plural sudovi is common in these countries.

Forms like četvoro are very frequent and standard in Bosnia and Serbia.

Using A djecu with negative imati have is much more common in Bosnia, and prevails in Serbia – if you Google™ on the .rs domain for "nemam decu" and "nemam dece", you’ll get a ratio bigger than 10:1.

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5 Easy Croatian: 49 Of Flowers, Thorns and Counting Children N A  DL  G 24 I We learned how to make the plural of nouns. However, if you ask an average Croatian speaker what the plural of ...

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