61 The Friend I Saw: Relative Clauses


It’s nice to be able to say the red apple or my friend, but it’s much more powerful to be also able to say the apple you bought or the friend who called me.

In English, such sentences have basically two forms:

(1) the friend who called me

(2) the apple (that) you bought

In the sentence #1, you are describing the friend by what he did: he’s the subject of called me. In the sentence #2, you are describing the apple by what happened to it: somebody bought it.

In the first sentence, English must use the ‘linking’ word who; in the second one, the word that is optional and is mostly dropped out.

In Croatian, there always must be a ‘linking’ word. It’s the same word – koji – in both sentences, but in different cases (and gender).

Simply said, the word koji stands in for the noun you describe, and adapts to its gender and number but also to its role in the description.

In the sentence #1, prijatelj friend is the subject, therefore we use koji in the masculine singular, nominative case:

(1) prijatelj koji me je zvao

In the sentence #2, jabuka apple is the object of the verb kupiti perf. buy – it’s bought – therefore we must use accusative, but also the feminine form, since jabuka is of course feminine in Croatian:

(2) jabuka koju si kupio

Take a note that jabuka is here in N – and free to change, as we’ll see – while the word after it is in A, describing the role of jabuka in relation to the verb that follows.

The section koji me je zvao or koju si kupio is another type of clause – the relative clause. As in all other clauses, word-counting restarts in them, and the first position is filled by the first word (a form of adjective/pronoun koji):

sam jabuku
[koju¹ si² kupio]. I have eaten the apple [you bought]. {m}

The forms of koji were explained in 59 Whose, What Thing and What Like.

When you describe a noun like that, you can use it in any sentence, but the description must come right after it. For example, that friend who called you could also come to beach, so you would say:

Prijatelj koji me je zvao je došaodoći
na plažu.
The friend who called me came to the beach.

This sounds a bit awkward, but Croatian is flexible and usually nouns with such descriptions attached are moved to the back:

je na plažu prijatelj koji me je zvao.
(the same meaning)

Bear in mind that the description does not change if the described noun change its case:

Vidim prijatelja [koji me je zvao]. I can see the friend [who called me].

Razgovarao sam s prijateljem [koji me je zvao]. I talked to the friend [who called me]. {m}

But if you change the noun to plural, you must also change the description, since you are now really talking about something else:

Vidim prijatelje [koji su me zvali]. I can see the friends [who called me]. {m/mixed}

Vidim prijatelje [koje sam čekao]. I can see the friends [I was waiting for]. {m}

In the first sentence, the adjective/pronoun koji is in N-pl, as the friends are the subject of the clause; in the second one, it’s in A-pl, since they are the object in the clause, while the subject is the first person (expressed by the 1st person verb sam).

It’s also obvious that forms of descriptive (i.e. relative) clauses are the same as questions starting with koji. Therefore, if the role in description involves a preposition, you must place it before koji:

Vidim prijatelja [s kojim sam putovao]. I can see the friend [I traveled with].

smo na plažu
[na kojoj je bilo mnogo ljudi]. We came to a beach [‘many people were on’].

English is full of reduced passive clauses; for example, instead of:

We live in a house [that was built by my grandfather].

The normal sentence is:

We live in a house [built by my grandfather].

Such reducing is impossible in Croatian. Such passive clauses must be actually rephrased in Croatian into non-passive:

Živimo u kući [koju je izgradio moj djed]. We live in a house [my grandfather built].

You can also use relative clauses after indefinite pronouns (somebody, everything...). However, there’s a twist in Croatian. If you use relative clauses after indefinite pronouns, you have to use pronouns tko (k-) who or što (č-) what as conjunctions instead of koji which/what! For example:

Vidio sam nešto [što ne mogumoći
]. I saw something [I can’t explain]. {m}

The pronoun što (č-) what here changes case according to the role in the clause, and prepositions come before it:

Obući ću nešto [u čemu se osjećam udobno]. I’ll put on something [I feel comfortable in].

Here, we have the u¨ + DL combination, and DL of što is čem(u). If we use an indefinite pronoun that refers to a person, we have to use forms of tko (k-) who:

Ovdje je netko [koga poznaješpoznavati]. Here’s somebody [you know].

Here, the form koga is the accusative form of tko (k-) who (review 28 Asking Who and What if needed), but its form coincides with shorter forms of koji; not so in nominative:

Ovdje je netko [tko će ti pomoći]. Here’s somebody [who will help you].

When you append a relative clause to the adjective/pronoun sav (sv- +) all/everything/everyone, normal relative clauses are used with plural forms, but with neuter singular forms (meaning all, everything), što (č-) is used:

su svi
[koje smo pozvali]. Everyone [we invited] came.

Ovo je sve [što imam]. This is all [I have]. ®

The same applies to the past form ostali (check 52 Stand, Become, Exist, Cease), when used as an adjective which is used as a pronoun, and to other adjectives-used-as-pronouns, such as:

prvi the first person
prva the first person (f)
prvo the first thing
zadnji the last person
zadnja the last person (f)
zadnje the last thing
jedini the only one
jedina the only one (f)
jedino the only thing
svaki each person
svaka each person (f)

(Don’t forget these are just forms of adjectives in various genders, so they change like an adjective!) For example:

Ovo je zadnje [što ću kupiti]. This is the last thing [I’m going to buy]. ®

Ovo je jedino [što želim]. This is the only thing [I want].

This table summarizes which form of relative clause is used in various situations:

Forming relative clauses
svi everybody, all
adjectives in masc./fem. used as pronouns
 such as ostali the rest (of people)
 onaj the one (m), ona the one (f)
koji ...
netko somebody ®
nitko nobody ®
svatko everybody ®
tko ® ...
nešto something
ništa nothing
svašta all kinds of things
sve everything, all
adjectives in neuter used as pronouns
 such as ostalo the rest (of stuff)
 to that, ovo this, ono the thing
što ...

There’s something interesting with demonstrative adjective-used-as-pronoun onaj (on-): with relative clauses, it means the one (in masc. and fem. genders) or the thing (in the neuter gender):

To je onaj [koga čekam]. That’s the one [I’m waiting for]. (the one = male)

To je ona [koju čekam]. (the same, but implies the one is female)

To je ono [što želim]. That’s the thing [I want].

English the one doesn’t distinguish gender, but Croatian does. The neuter form best translates as the thing.

Recall the example song Libar from 40 Future Tense, which has three relative clauses:

s onim [što si htjela čut] with the thing(s) [you wanted to hear]

sve [što hoćešhtjeti
] everything [you want]

lice [koje poželiš] the face [you wish for]

Two of them use relative clauses with što attached to neuter pronouns, while the clause with koji is attached to the neuter noun lice face.

Wait a second! How do you know onim is neuter? It could be I of onaj, right? The answer is: we don’t know from the form onim; however, since što follows, and it can only follow a neuter pronoun, we know it’s neuter here, consquently it means the thing(s). So this is worth remembering:

onaj [koji... ] the one [(who)... ]
ono [što... ] the thing [(that)... ]

Other types of questions can be also used as relative clauses, relating to place and time. For example:

Ovo je mjesto [gdje smo se upoznali]. This is the place [where we met for the first time]. {m/mixed}

This scheme shows, in a nutshell, how relative clauses are constructed:

    pronoun, gender, number
Ovo je  jabuka  [koju  želim].          
Želimo  nešto  [čega  nema°].          

After all this, two even weirder things!

First, there’s a colloquial thing you’ll sometimes see and often hear. The adjective/pronoun koji has the same form in masc. inanimate N and A: koji. Nevertheless, you’ll see and hear kojeg(a) in masc. inanimate A – which is the form for masc. animate A – when used to introduce a relative clause. For example:

Film [kojeg svi čekamo: "Pedeset nijansi sive"]. (colloq!)
The movie [we’re all waiting for: "Fifty shades of gray"]. ®

Of course, you would expect koji in this sentence, because film is masc. inanimate, but it’s kojeg instead. You can find this feature on many internet sites and in colloquial writing (Google™ for the headline above: I found it on the internet). Teachers in schools spend a lot of time “correcting” this – obviously, not with a complete success. It’s not required that you talk like that, but don’t panic when you hear or read such a bit weird accusative forms!

Second, you’ll see occasionally a quite different construction of relative clauses: što used after nouns as well, but always in that form, not changing cases. This is rare in speech, at least mine, but it seems more common in poetry.

Since the pronoun što in such construction doesn’t show the role in the relative clause, there’s often another personal pronoun in the clause that refers to the noun as well, so you might see:

Ovo su knjige [što sam ih kupio]. These are the books [I bought]. ®

lit. ‘These are the books što I bought them.’ {m}

Here ih² (the 3rd pers. pl. pronoun in A) serves as the object of the clause, referring to knjige books while the word što serves as a simple conjunction. Such additional pronoun is never added if the role in the clause is being the subject.

Recall also the example song Jugo from 35 Tools and Means, With and Without; it contains two such constructions:

Vjetar [što tučetući u lice i dušu] The wind [that’s beating my face and soul]

Pričam o ljubavi jednoj [što bila je davno] I’m telling about a love [that was long ago]

Wait a second! You first wrote što can follow only a neuter pronoun, and now you say it can also follow nouns?! Can it follow masculine or feminine pronouns, e.g. ona što? Yes, it can. But this construction is uncommon in speech, and you shouldn’t worry about it! You will maybe find this construction in poetry and more ambitious lyrics.®


® Instead of što and tko, forms šta and ko are used in Serbia and most of Bosnia; the same applies to forms derived from tko, e.g. netko is rather neko in Serbia and most of Bosnia.

Using kojeg instead of koji for masc. inanimate A seems a bit rarer in Bosnia, and unknown in Serbia.

In parts of Croatia where kaj or ča are colloquially used instead of što or šta, they are used also after nouns, and don’t change then (and then an additional pronoun is used in the relative clause). However, in Serbia or Bosnia, in such constructions, only što can be used, never šta. Furthermore, such constructions seem a bit rarer in Serbia.

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5 Easy Croatian: 61 The Friend I Saw: Relative Clauses N A  DL  G 24 I It’s nice to be able to say the red apple or my friend , but it’s much more powerful to be also able to say th...

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