74 Things Break: It Just Happened to Me


Croatian has an interesting way of expressing that something happened, you were involved, but you weren’t in control, it just happened – to you.

As you can probably guess, it involves the DL case, which usually corresponds to English to + person / personal pronoun:

To mi se dogodilo. It happened to me.

It’s kind of similar to expressions like hladno mi je, but now subjective feelings are not important. Consider the following sentence:

Čaša je pala. The glass fell.

We don’t know why it happened. Just adding a person in DL changes its meaning subtly:

Čaša mi je pala. I dropped the glass (accidentally).

If you know some Spanish, you can notice that’s exactly the same as adding an “indirect object pronoun” (which, of course, corresponds to the Croatian DL case) to sentences like these:

(Spanish) Se cayó. It fell.

(Spanish) Se me cayó. I dropped it.

If you look into an English-Croatian dictionary, you will probably find that there’s the verb pair ispuštati («) ~ ispustiti («) listed having one meaning drop, but that verbs are not the first choice, especially in speech, when you accidentally drop something!

If you want to stress that somebody dropped something intentionally, another verb pair is used:

bacati ~ baciti (A) throw, intentionally drop

A similar difference is expressed with two a bit similar verb pairs that both translate to English as leave:

  ostavljati ~ ostaviti   + A  
  ostajati ~ ostati (ostane)   + DL   (accidentally!)

The case roles in the second pair are “rotated”: what is left is in N, while one who was affected (that is, the person who left something by accident) is in DL:

Jakna mi je ostala u autu. I left the jacket in the car (accidentally).

If we would use the first verb pair, it’s not said whether is was intentional or not, could be either way. Notice how the person affected is now the subject, and what is left is object:

Ostavio sam jaknu u autu. I left the jacket in the car. {m}

With many verbs, the same verb is used for both meanings: unintentional events are expressed using the mediopassive (i.e. se²) and the DL case. Nobody caused the event (at least that’s what we want to say), but the one in DL is somehow involved, or affected. This is a common example:

razbijati («) ~ razbiti (razbije) break
  + A = intentionally :(
  + se² = “on its own”
  + se² + DL = accidentally ;)

For example:

Razbio sam čašu. I broke the glass. {m}

Čaša se razbila. The glass broke.

Čaša mi se razbila. The glass brokeon me’.

The English has a similar thing, but only colloquially: ‘on me’.

Again, in the ‘accidental’ construction, what is broken is the subject (observe how the past form is in feminine).

Hovever, this pair doesn’t exactly mean what English break means. In English, you can break a bone, a branch, a glass, or even a law! Not so in Croatian. There are five different verbs – verb pairs, really – used for different objects (yes, Croatian has a lot of verbs). They are:

English break a... Croatian verbs
branch, bone, leg... lomiti ~ s-
glass, vase, plate... razbijati («) ~ razbiti (razbije)
mechanism, car engine... kvariti ~ po- («)
cord, link, transmission... prekidati («) ~ prekinuti
law, regulation, promise... kršiti ~ pre- («)

Now, it’s likely not obvious when to use lomiti ~ s- and when razbijati («) ~ razbiti (razbije). The first verb is basically about breaking things in two nice pieces, like branches; the second one is about things that shatter or get crumpled. This table summarizes when to use each verb:

lomiti ~ s- razbijati («) ~ razbiti (razbije)
• sticks, branches
• bones, body parts
• ice
• glass, ceramics, doors, furniture
• toys, bycycles, cars
• TV sets, various devices
• heart (metaphorically)
• people (emotionally)
• codes and cyphers
• conspiracies, gangs

Also, the verb pair kvariti ~ po- («) is used for a very specific kind of breaking: for internal damages of machines, while razbijati («) ~ razbiti (razbije) implies a visible damage. For example:

Razbila sam auto. I crashed the car. {f}

Pokvarila sam auto. I damaged the car. {f} (internally, its engine)

The first four pairs in the table above can be used in the mediopassive construction, and then optionally by adding a person in DL with involuntary meaning, for things that break ‘on you’; for example:

Slomio sam granu. I broke the branch. {m}

Prekinuo sam vezu. I broke the connection. {m}

Grana (mi) se slomila. The branch broke (‘on me’).

Veza (mi) se prekinula. The connection broke (‘on me’).

Auto (mi) se pokvario. The car broke. (‘on me’).

The last pair cannot be manipulated like that; you can transform it into mediopassive, but you cannot add the person involved in DL:

Vlada je prekršila obećanje. The government broke the promise.

Additionally, for the first three pairs, there’s a special verb pair where what breaks is always the subject:

pucati ~ puknuti (pukne) break, pop (no object, what broke is the subject!)

For example:

Čaša je pukla. The glass broke.

Grana je pukla. The branch broke.

Veza je pukla. The connection broke.

With it, you can add a person in DL, but it sounds a bit colloquial. So, there are actually six verb pairs covering English break!

The DL case is a common way to add who’s affected – always a person/animal or a group – to anything. Consider:

Grijanje ne radi. The heating doesn’t work.

The sentence above lacks context: what heating. If it’s not working in your house, you would add a possessive in English: our heating. It can be also done in Croatian, but the preferred way in speech is to add DL:

Grijanje nam ne radi. Our heating doesn’t work. (lit. ‘doesn’t work to us’)

Again, if you know some Spanish, this will all be very familiar to you. This usage is so common that some people call it possessive dative.

The accidental construction is really just the mediopassive – that is, using se² to express that we don’t know or don’t want to say who caused it – with a person in DL who was somehow “affected” or “involved”. This is an elegant way to say that what has happened was not intention of that person.

As you hopefully remember, there’s another construction that uses the mediopassive and the DL case: the “feel-like”. However, it’s easy to distinguish them, since the “feel-like" uses impf. verbs (usually, but not always, related to fulfilling needs, like drink, eat, sleep, smoke). Taking the “feel-like” to the extreme, we could say that somebody felt like breaking glasses, but there would be still a difference:

(1) Razbile su mi se čaše. The glasses have broken. (‘on me’)

(2) Razbijale su mi se čaše. also: I felt like breaking glasses.

You can see clearly how the sentence #1 uses an perf. verb, while the sentence #2 uses and impf. counterpart. However, the sentence #2 is ambiguous: it could also mean, depending on the context, that glasses were breaking (e.g. you worked in a bar, and glasses were constantly breaking, but it was not your fault, the dishwasher did it, etc.) This is really an extreme, stretched example, which would be very rare in real life.

Since persons/animals or groups added in DL are just affected by the event, this use of DL is also called dative of interest. Its use extends – mostly colloquially – to sentences where we want somebody to get interested, or when we just emphasize who is/should be interested. So, in colloquial communication, among friends, it’s common to add the DL ti² to many sentences when you say something about yourself or someone else, similar to colloquial English you know:

Ja ti sutra ne radim. I don’t work tomorrow. (you know)

Of course, if you’re talking to a group, you would use another pronoun:

Ja vam sutra ne radim.

On the other side, when you ask a question, the DL mi² is sometimes added to emphasize that you’re interested:

Kako si mi? How are you doing? (I’d like to know)

All these DL’s to express interest are used only colloquially, among close friends and family.

Another way used in colloquial communication is literally the same as in English, adding znaš you know to the beginning:

Znaš, sutra ne radim. You know, I don’t work tomorrow.

(the rest is coming soon...)

5 Easy Croatian: 74 Things Break: It Just Happened to Me N A  DL  G 24 I V Croatian has an interesting way of expressing that something happened, you were involved, but you weren’t i...

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