64 Something is Heard: Fun with se²


As we have already learned way back, In English, many verbs like open can be used in two meanings: open something and become open. In English you can say:

The window is opening.

In Croatian, you have to use the ‘magic’ word – se²:

Prozor se otvara. The window is opening.

If you know Spanish (or a similar Romance language) it was probably quite familiar to you.

I’m now going to show more uses of se². Again, everything that follows will be more or less exactly like in Spanish – with a difference that Croatian has only one form of se². There are also many of similarities with French, German and Swedish, and – unfortunately – not much in comparison with English. We have already seen sentences like this:

More se ohladilo. The sea has cooled down.

Sladoled se topi. The ice-cream is melting.

Kuća se brzo prodala. The house sold quickly.

Čaša se razbila. The glass broke.

Lopta se probušila. The ball punctured.

Such constructions are sometimes called ‘middle’: the reasons for the weird name will become obvious soon. Now, there’s a construction which looks a bit different in English:

Spanish is spoken in Argentina.

Ice-cream is eaten in summer.

Rice is eaten in Japan.

This is called passive: you say what happens to the subject (Spanish, ice-cream, rice) and passive participles are used (spoken, eaten).

How to say it in Croatian? We could use passive adjectives, but pay attention we speak about processes and repeated activities, not about completions or defined events. Therefore, we have to use impf. verbs. And for most impf. verbs, passive adjectives are not used. Instead, Croatian uses the same construction, with se²:

Španjolski se govori u Argentini. Spanish is spoken in Argentina.

Sladoled se jedejesti ljeti. Ice-cream is eaten in summer.

Riža se jedejesti u Japanu. Rice is eaten in Japan.

This is called se²-passive. You cannot use passive adjectives of perfective verbs in such sentences: these actions are not over, the focus is not on completion or outcome. Note that the words španjolski, sladoled and riža are subjects here. If you compare this to Spanish, you would see it uses the same construction, except for the word order:

(Spanish) Se habla español en Argentina.

Generally, passive adjectives of impf. verbs are rarely used – except for several verbs, such as e.g. kuhan cooked, gledan watched, and so on (check 62 Cake is Eaten: Passive Adjectives). For most impf. verbs, the se²-passive is preferred.

Sometimes such sentences are rephrased with ljudi m pl. people – the same can be done in Spanish, with la gente – e.g:

U Argentini ljudi govore španjolski. People in Argentina speak Spanish.

U Japanu ljudi jedujesti rižu. People in Japan eat rice.

This construction can be used with perfective verbs as well, and then you can use also passive adjectives:

Kuća se brzo prodala. The house sold quickly.

Kuća je brzo prodana. The house was sold quickly.

Observe how kuća house is the subject in both sentences, so past forms (prodala) and passive adjectives (prodana) must be in the feminine gender.

If you speak German, you’ll see that the two forms of passives in Croatian correspond well to two kinds of passives in German, one with werden and another with sein:

Prozor se zatvara. = (Ger.) Das Fenster wird geschlossen.

Prozor je zatvoren. = (Ger.) Das Fenster ist geschlossen.

Since this use of se² covers both middle and passive meanings, I’ll call it mediopassive – like in Spanish grammars.

One use of the se²-passive is when someone/everyone can hear, see or expect something:

Nešto se čuječuti. Something is heard.

Mjesec se vidio. The Moon could be seen.

ekujeočekivati se snijeg. Snow is expected.

Such sentences translate as English passives (is heard). However, they don’t completely correspond to English passives, since in English you can usually add by whom:

The Moon could be seen by them.

This is completely impossible in Croatian: if you want to say this, you’ll have to rephrase the sentence as they could see the Moon, etc. Croatian mediopassive isn’t completely equivalent to the English passive!

Perfective-like verbs verbs of perception, i.e. vidjeti see and čuti (čuje) hear, when used in mediopassive, behave as imperfective verbs – you can express the time period:

Dim se vidio satima. The smoke could be seen for hours.

Buka se čula cijelu noćfem.. The noise could be heard the whole night.

The se²-passive also used when you want to say what is the custom, or how people should do something:

Ruke se brišubrisati ručnikom. Hands are wiped with a towel. ®

The French ‘reflexive passive’ has the same use (se² is often called reflexive particle or even reflexive pronoun):

(French) Ça ne se fait pas.       lit. ‘It’s not done.’
= People don’t do that.
To se ne radi.

The se²-passive is used when something is ‘for sale’, or ‘for rent’, so it’s not sold yet – exactly the same like Spanish se vende:

(Spanish) Se vende casa.       lit. ‘The house is being sold.’
= The house is for sale.
Prodajeprodavati se kuća.

(Of course, the impf. verb prodavati (prodaje) must be used, since the process is obviously ongoing – buyers are invited.)

Often, content clauses are subjects of such sentences; English here uses the dummy it, and passives:

se reći da...
It can be said that...

Vjerujevjerovati se da... It’s believed that...

ekujeočekivati se da... It’s expected that...

se reći da...
It could be said that...

Vjerovalo se da... It was believed that…

Očekivalo se da... It was expected that…

The sentences above look impersonal, but the content clauses are actually subjects. Since the clauses are neither nouns nor pronouns – content clauses always behave exactly as the adjective-used-as-pronoun to – the verb goes to neuter singular in the past tense, as if it were impersonal, so behavior is actually the same.

Now, something unexpected (if you speak only English, that is). The main idea of passive is not talking about who does it: when we say Spanish is spoken in Argentina, we don’t actually say who speaks it – some people there, maybe many, it’s not really important.

In English, sentences like people run cannot be turned into passives, since there’s no object we could talk about:

People watch movies. 
People run.
Movies are watched.
→ ??

However, many languages – including Croatian – are more flexible, as sentences can be truly impersonal, no subject, and this includes passive sentences:

Ljudi trčetrčati. People are running.

Trčitrčati° se. There’s running. (passive, lit. ‘It’s run.’)

Trčalo se. There was running. (passive, lit. ‘It was run.’)

Trčalo se po kiši. People were running in the rain. (passive, lit. ‘It was run in the rain.’)

Any verb typically having a human subject can be used in impersonal passive:

Ovdje se ne puši°. There’s no smoking here. (lit. ‘It’s not smoked here.’)

Nekad se često išloići
u kino.
People were going to cinema often in the past.

Puno se popilo. They drank a lot. (lit. ‘it was drunk a lot.’)

The second sentence is literally ‘it was gone to cinema often in the past’. (Spanish uses again exactly the same construction, the first sentence corresponds to aquí no se fuma, only a different word order.)

Remember such sentences are impersonal in Croatian, i.e. no subject is allowed in them, and neuter singular forms must be used in the past. We don’t talk about anybody or anything here: only about actions.

To illustrate how many languages are flexible – German has the same feature (with the werden-passive), Swedish has the -s passive here, while Spanish behaves like Croatian, except for the word order:

(German)Es wurde die ganze Nacht getanzt.         lit.
‘It was danced all night.’
(Spanish)Se bailó toda la noche.
(Swedish) Det dansades hela natten.
Plesalo se cijelu noć. ®

All four sentences mean, of course, they/people were dancing all night. (Do you see why I wrote that knowing other languages than English would help you learn Croatian?) It will likely take some time to get used to such constructions.

To summarize, there are three main uses of this construction:

  • when something happens “on its own” (so-called middle);
  • when English uses passive (is seen, are expected);
  • in some impersonal expressions hard to translate to English (there was dancing).

For some verbs, when used with se², the meaning depends on the subject. For example, the verb hladiti cool can have both reflexive and mediopassive meaning with se²:

Ivan se hladi. Ivan is cooling himself. (likely reflexive)

Pivo se hladi. Beer is cooling. (mediopassive: something unmentioned cools the beer)

The difference is that mediopassive has a non-living thing as its subject (if it has a subject at all). As usual, it’s useful to use your common sense. Meanings are close – both Ivan and the beer will get cooler, and that’s how the mediopassive construction historically developed from the reflexive.

However, there are some exceptions! Some common verbs can have a passive meaning without se². A common verb with this property is svirati play (music) (the English verb play is used in the same way):

Svirao je neku dosadnu pjesmu. He played a boring song.

Svirala je neka dosadna pjesma. A boring song was playing.

No se² here, the same grammar as in English (word order aside). Another such verb is pisati (piše) write. For instance, if you would like to say that something “is written” in a book, you should not use the se²:

Ovdje pišepisati da... It’s written here that…

Njegova adresa pišepisati na dnu. His address is written at the bottom.

The English verb write has to be transformed into passive, unlike open: in English, a window opens, but an address doesn’t write. In Croatian, it’s the opposite: the second sentence literally says ‘his address writes at the bottom’! The first Croatian sentence has a content clause as its subject, and njegova adresa his address is the subject of the second sentence, so the first will be in neuter in past, and the second one will be feminine:

Ovdje je pisalo da... It was written here that…

Njegova adresa je pisala na dnu. His address was written at the bottom.

Another common verb with this property is trebati need/should; it’s used without se² with infinitives and content clauses (and impersonal meaning):

Trebalo je reći da... It should have been said that...

These exceptions have their limits – if you want to express how something is customary done, you have to use se² with these verbs too:

Ova pjesma se svira polako. This song is played slowly.

Njegovo ime se ne pišepisati tako. His name is not written like that.

We aren’t done – there’s more! There’s a rather surprising use when we add DL to some passive sentences formed with se² – either impersonal or not. With many verbs, it’s possible to say that you feel like doing something, or you have a need to do something (even against your will!). The following examples will illustrate it – of course, instead of mi² and Ani (DL of Ana) you can use any pronoun or noun standing for a person (or animal) in the DL case. The verbs used are almost always imperfective, because such expressions are about activities and states, and not outcomes. The following common expressions stand for unpleasant feelings:

Povraća° mi se. I feel like throwing up.

Vrti° mi se. I’m dizzy. (lit. ‘It’s spinning to me.’)

Ani se povraćalo. Ana felt like throwing up.

The second sentence uses the verb vrtjeti/vrtiti spin. (Bear in mind that the sentences are again impersonal, as the past tense reminds you.) The following expressions are more pleasant:

Pijepiti° mi1 DL se. I feel like drinking. (lit. ‘It’s drunk to me.’)

Puši° mi se. I need to smoke. (lit. ‘It’s smoked to me.’)

Ne plešeplesati° mi se. I don’t feel like dancing.

Ani se spava°. Ana is sleepy.

Ne ideići° mi se na posao. I don’t feel like going to work.

If you express what you feel like drinking/eating, it becomes the subject, so the verb must be adjusted accordingly:

Pijepiti mi se čaj. I feel like drinking tea.

Jedujesti mi se kolači. I feel like eating cakes.

Compare the previous sentences in the past tense:

Pilo mi se. I felt like drinking.

Ani se spavalo. Ana was sleepy.

Nije mi se išloići
na posao.
I didn’t feel like going to work.

Pio mi se čaj. I felt like drinking tea.

Jeli su mi se kolači. I felt like eating cakes.

This is yet another use of the DL case to express feelings. So, you finally know how to sell your house and to express that you don’t feel like dancing!


® In Serbia and most of Bosnia, instead of ručnik (»), the word for towel is peškir (»). In coastal parts of Croatia, a frequent (colloquial) word for towel is šugaman (»).

In Serbia and often in Bosnia, the verb igrati is more common to express dance.

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5 Easy Croatian: 64 Something is Heard: Fun with se² N A  DL  G 24 I As we have already learned way back, In English, many verbs like open can be used in two meanings: open somethin...

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