Thomas F. Magner, Introduction to the Serbo-Croatian Language

THOMAS F. MAGNER, Introduction to the Serbo-Croatian Language. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1956. XII + 205 pp. lithographed.


The manual is an outstanding achievement and innovation in the Serbo-Croatian field. The type is clear and easy to read. The size makes for easy handling with two detached loose-leaf glossaries (one in Cyrillic, and another in Latin characters) which reduce bulkiness and eliminate time-consuming thumbing of pages. In this in-expensive format, the appeal is enhanced by clear reproduction of drawings and photographs, mostly dealing with folkloric motives of the Croatian and Serbian cultures.


As the author himself says, this book consists of four parts: a section on pronunciation, twenty seven lessons, a very short reader and a detached vocabulary of all the words used in the sentences or conversations and reading selections.


Following the general practice in Europe and America, Mr. Magner refers to the language he is concerned with as Serbo-Croatian. Yet, aware of the fact that Serbs speak Serbian and Croatians, Croatian, he gave "careful attention to the distinctive features of Croatian as against Serbian" (2)[1]. Every educated Croatian and Serb knows that there is a Croatian and a Serbian standard language re-cognizable at the very first page of a book or at the very first group of sentences uttered by a speaker of the language. At the same time every Serb and Croatian knows that it is rather difficult to explain these differences to non-initiated people. In spite of the fact that these differences cannot be readily explained, they determine inevitably every book and every speaker as Serbian or Croatian, or as a hybrid mixture of the two. According to that linguistic reality, in his made-up conversations, Mr. Magner has two S-Cr.2[2] equivalents for each English sentence. Thus the Serb, in Cyrillic writing, says: "I speak Serbian and came to America from Serbia." The Croatian, in Latin writing, says: "I speak Croatian and came to America from Croatia." The Slovene, in Latin writing, says: "I speak Slovene but understand Croato-Serbian" and, in Cyrillic writing: "I speak Slovene but understand Serbo-Croatian" (89). In the first five lessons the Latin alphabet only is used, while the Cyrillic one is introduced in the sixth lesson.


Mr. Magner made another courageous attempt in using the accent markings. While the natives are usually unable to distinguish une accent from the other, to the foreign student these markings are indispensable for correct pronunciation. In this book, individual vocabularies within the book and the two separate glossaries that go with the book have accent markings on each word, whereas reading selections are as a rule without them, because neither Serbs nor Croatians use accent markings in their writing.


The content of this, book corresponds exactly to its title. This is not a complete treatise of the S-Cr. grammar; it is an introduction to the language, especially written for Americans of Croatian or Serbian descent desiring to learn the language of their fathers. However, it can be profitably used by any American or English speaking person wishing to be initiated into S-Cr.


In writing his book Professor Magner encountered many difficulties. He had to deal with a language which does not have a normative dictionary as yet. The existing grammars of this language are usually based on a thesaurus taken from a very rich folk literature and not on the vocabulary of the everyday language. The Western influences (German and Italian) and one Eastern (Turkish) have affected the area of the Serbo-Croatian to such an extent that each part of this area has a different nomenclature, let us say, for kitchenware: teča in Dalmatia (Italian influence), rajndla in Zagreb (German influence) and šerpenja (Eastern influence) denote the same thing, a pan. Even in their respective areas these three words are felt as local or provincial, so that the "correct" form tava has a stilted connotation in the mouth of a native. Thus the compiler of a book like this is left only the choice between a local and a stilted term for an object as common as a pan. Or another example, how many Croatians or Serbs will be able to give a living equivalent for the word "bed-spread" (46)?


Really there is not such a thing as a Serbo-Croatian language but two large areas covering most of Yugoslavia, where Croatians speak Croatian and Serbs, Serbian, both very proud of their different cultural heritages and specific linguistic expressions.


Instead of choosing the language of the folk songs and folk tales, following the footsteps of the greatest Serbian linguist Vuk Karadžić and the greatest Croatian grammarian Toma Maretić, the author of this manual endeavored to bring forth the everyday language. This is why we find in his book the so-called foreign borrowings already naturalized in the language, like: ciment, oficir, kaos, cigareta, repeticija, adresa, tref, pěk, partner, televizija, pidžama, studirati, sendvič, etc. The official Croatian grammars usually shun such words as if they should not enjoy the full-fledged citizenship of the native words even when they are fully naturalized. Only a few words taken from the folk literature crept into this book, like: neznan[3] instead of nepoznat (4); ćelo instead of ćelavac (5); ćorda instead of sablja (5); brodar instead of mornar (21); bradva instead of sjekira (21). It seems to me that such words, even when found in folk literature, should be given the standard equivalent. To a learner of English we shall make clear that for "calvities" everybody says "baldness." Here and there some unnecessary dialectal words crept in, like špirit for alkohol (77), špag for džep (77), škrabica for ladica (77), škver for brodogradilište (77).


In connection with this problem of vocabulary I like to mention another fact, the author's happy rendering of deceptive cognates, like: tehnika for engineering (69); pastor for minister (in religion) (61); instalater for plumber (61). One feels that the author passes from one language to the other with ease. In accordance with it he could have said "college" or "school" for the S-Cr. fakultet but he preferred to render it with "faculty" in quotation marks (72).


To my knowledge, Mr. Magner's book is the first constantly applied attempt to show what Serbian is and what Croatian is. Usually in other S.-Cr. grammars, one of the two variants is given; thus Arturo Cronia in Italian gives the Croatian variant mentioning only the main Serbian characteristics, and Milan Rešetar in German gives in one edition the Serbian (Cyrillic) script, in another the Croatian (Latin) script insisting on the complete oneness (vollständige Einheitlichkeit) of the S-Cr. language. In his book Mr. Magner adopts the Croatian variant and doubles it continuously with the Serbian variant. Moreover, he does not say that the main difference between the two languages consists only in two different scripts, but he stresses the differences in vocabulary, and mentions some syntactic peculiarities. As a matter of fact, on page 50 he summarizes these differences under "broad categories." That way he pays the due respect to the linguistic and national realities of Serbs and Croatians. As most writers do, he does not insist on what the S-Cr. language should be, but on what Serbian and Croatian really are. Although Mr. Magner draws a clear-cut demarcation line between the Serbian and Croatian variant, one can find "Serbisms" in his Croatian. To mention a few: suv instead of suh (25); kašika instead of žlica (24); tanjir instead of tanjur (4); igra instead of pleše (8); sedeti instead of sjediti (6); bakalin instead of trgovac mješovitom robom (61); njen instead of njezin (passim); biće instead of bit će (129); šerpa instead of zdjela or tava (113); ćuretina instead of puretina (149); ćureći instead of od pure (149).


If we read carefully Mr. Magner's masterly grammatical and other explanations, we shall observe that he insistently points out how the differences between Croatian and Serbian are really slight, and one might say, negligible. Thus on p. 31 he speaks of "these slightly differing varieties", and again on p. 49 he says that Croatians and Serbs "have slightly different ways of expressing it in writing." On the other hand, if we glance at any page of the book we shall be overwhelmed with double forms and parentheses, i.e. Croatian forms followed by their parallel Serbian forms in parentheses. Why list so many forms if differences are so slight? Why so much ado about nothing? Changing somewhat Mr. Magner's words to the American student on p. 31, we might say: "Yugoslavs will understand you with ease, regardless of whether you speak Serbian or Croatian, but they will be greatly annoyed if you mix together forms from both varieties." The conclusion is obvious: behind the two variants of the same language there are two different minds that want to be separated. There is no use in passing the usual moral judgement stating that it would be better and wiser to make a compromise, since each side distrusts the other and does not have any desire to compromise. Mr. Magner aptly concludes on p. 50: "Though the differences are neither very great nor very many, they have for many speakers of Serbian and Croatian an importance not to be measured on a linguistic check-list, since they are associated with the political and religious rivalries fomented during the turbulent history of the South Slavs."


The four headings under which the author summarizes the main differences are: Pronunciation, Vocabulary, Use of the Infinitive, Alphabet. Under the chapter of Pronunciation he says that the (i) jekavski aspect of the language is Croatian and ekavski, Serbian. One might add also that in many words the accent is different. The very name of the capital of Serbia is Beógrad in Serbian and Béograd in Croatian. As for the alphabet it is true that both alphabets have been taught in schools throughout Yugoslavia, yet many Yugoslavs have difficulties in passing from one alphabet to the other. It seems to me that the third heading should read "Syntax" and not only "Use of the Infinitive," because the student will come across several syntactic differences. For instance a few pages later, the vocative case is studied and it is stated that Gospodine Popoviću and Gospodin Popoviću (54) are interchangeable. The second variant can be heard only among Serbs. In this very book there is a sentence on p. 60 where a Croatian uses the active voice and a Serb the passive one. Croatian: Ali treba vrlo dobro znati matematiku. Serbian: Ali treba da se vrlo dobro zna matematika. To mention one more. It is not difficult to find tvoj and moj instead of svoj even in the writings of Aleksandar Belić, the greatest living Serbian grammarian. On page 95 of this book Branislav Nušić, a Serbian playright, starts his selection: Sećam se mojih muka ... instead of svojih muka and he ends the same selection by using mojih osobina instead of svojih osobina. In those cases a Croatian would insist on svoj. There are other syntactic differences listed in P. Guberina and K. Krstić: Raziike izmedju hrvatskoga i srpskoga književnog jezika. (Zagreb: Matica Hrvatska, 1940), pp. 37 to 44.


In his selection of reading, the author has followed a very sound principle: variatio delectat. Every lesson has a Croatian and the corresponding Serbian conversation made up of common and frequent topics, like "Days of the Week," "Introduction to an Unknown Person," "Some Occupations and Professions," "The Room," etc. After a grammatical discussion, a little story often brings a touch of warm life, or a folk saying summarizes Serbian or Croatian wisdom. Thus a lesson is usually composed of a conversation, a folk saying, a story, the grammatical explanation, sometimes the short biography of a noted Croatian or Serb, and an appropriate picture or drawing.


I imagine that the making up of these "conversations" must have been one of the most difficult tasks the author had to meet. Since he did not want to give a series of disconnected sentences and, on the other hand, he could not find literary selections suitable for grammatical purposes, he had to figure them out himself. I have the impression that the author tried to transpose the American way of thinking into Croatian and Serbian garments. Then the American student will retain his frame of mind even in speaking the language of Miroslav Krleža and will hardly enter the arcana of a different culture. One receives that impression from both the English and the S-Cr. part, because the former sounds more idiomatic than the latter. Now, if the Serbian and Croatian way of thinking is the objective of the course, it seems to me, the opposite procedure would have been more appropriate. As a matter of fact, the author had that intention, but things worked out differently.


On the very first page Mr. Magner says: "It is not enough to learn rules and then try to apply them in speech; a far better way is to imitate the way in which the speaker says certain things ... and then to consider the rule in helping to classify and extend what you have already learned by imitation" (1). In spite of the excellency of that statement the very example given to illustrate it betrays English and not Serbian or Croatian spirit. An American will say: "Do you see my room? Do you see my picture?" A Croatian or Serbian will say: "Vidite li moju sobu? Vidite li moju sliku"? And not: "Vidite li vi moju sobu? Vidite li vi moju sliku"? S-Cr., a language with flexion, usually does not express the subject pronoun of a verb (Cf. Latin laudo and English "I praise."). The same observation could be made about the examples on page 16: "Što radite? Koga vidite? Vidim šešir. Vidim grad. Vidim tramvaj. Vidim pod." In other words the author does not follow the rule he gives on p. 19. This redundant personal pronoun constantly appears throughout the book and gives the impression of being commonly used in S.-Cr. as it is in English. On the other hand, to a native it sounds heavy and artificial, like in this sentence: "Čim vi pišete?" instead of "Čime pišete?"


Judging from the following examples: "On je moj prvi sin. Ona je moja prva kćerka. Ono je moje prvo pero." (10) and "To je moj šešir. To je moja knjiga. To je moje selo. On je moj brat. Ona je moja sestra." (15), the student does not know when the pronoun subject agrees with the predicate noun, and when it does not. In all those cases the neuter pronoun is used as a rule, like in French or in German: C'est ma mčre. Das ist meine Mutter. The agreement between the subject pronoun and the predicate noun occurs only when the stress is on the pronoun and not on the predicate noun. However, stress is regularly on the predicate noun.


To present the different variations of S-Cr. verbal forms the author successfully systematizes these forms into very easily Understandable patterns. It is worthwhile mentioning his clear presentation of the four present-tense terminations (19), his presentation of the S.-Cr. dialects (30) with a very appropriate selection "Hey! Any hay?" built on the "quiproquo" sino (hay) and sin (son). Čime što radimo? Oćima gledamo, ušima slušamo, nosom mirišemo," etc, it is a series of very well chosen examples for the so called instrumental of means; its English translation is very natural.[4] The selection "Učeni sin" (51) is characteristic from the sociological point of view; it brings forth an important aspect of the' social conflict called grad i selo (city and country), common to all Yugoslav nationalities. The idea of 'proposing the pronunciation of consonant clusters is excellent because there are "mańy combinations of consonants which normally do not occur in English" (77). In every language there are sound combinations within individual words or groups of words pronounced as one unit, which occur frequently and are "natural" to that language. The learner of a foreign language should get acquainted with these phonetic units because in his own language they are usually strange. Imagine a Croatian studying English, where a "th" can precede an "s", and pronouncing "months" and "loathsome," if for him the "th" sound is practically "a kind of s". The pronunciation practice contrasting the long and short accent with rising tone in accented syllables: vŕljati (to be valid), váljati (to roll) etc. or the vowel length in unaccented syllables: nőgu (leg, acc. sing.) nőgū (of the legs, gen. pl.); ůčitelja (of the teacher, gen. sing.) ůčitēljă (of the teachers, gen. pl.) conveys the importance of differences produced by the musical variation of syllables under the same accent as well as the differences in vocal quantity. The enclitic forms (109) are very well explained. They are appropriately compared with English and then gradually used in Croatian. Every student of S.-Cr. knows how the use of these enclitics is bewildering in the mind and the mouth of a foreign learner. At the bottom of the same page Mr. Magner adds the sentence: "On je se vratio" giving it as an alternative for: "On se je vratio." Although the former word order might exist in some dialect, it sounds strange to a contemporary Croatian.


The author rightly thinks that the difference between the short rising and short falling accent should not be insisted upon, since the natives themselves are not aware of it (8). Should he not give the same warning for sounds č and ć, dž and d (dj), since most natives have no way of distinguishing one sound from the other? S.-Cr. has a triple form for the demonstrative, while English has only a double form. (French has only one form!). Mr. Magner was very skillful in finding the third English equivalent: ovo "this", to "that", ono "that over there."


On p. 12 we find an enigmatic little paragraph called "Zdravo". It reads: "A word which was formerly used very frequently in greetings is zdravo. Some speakers of S-Cr. in Yugoslavia still use it extensively both with the meaning "hello" and also with the meaning "farewell, goodbye," while other speakers avoid its usage". It would be interesting to know more about this greeting which was so common among Serbs and Croatians. Who are those "other speakers" who "avoid its usage?" It reminds me of the fascist era in Italy when Lei (the polite "you") was condemned by the government and everybody was supposed to use Voi instead. Does Communism have anything to do with this "zdravo"?


In spite of the fact that the German way of telling time (Viertel (auf) neun for 8:15) is widely spread in Zagreb and the environs, I would not have introduced it in this book, except in a note. And that for three reasons: (1) It is not admitted among all the Croatians, (2) it is against the spirit of the Croatian language, (3) an American will be really confused when reading that "eight and a quarter" and "a quarter of nine" is the same time. (55).


In accordance with many other text books Mr. Magner tried to reduce grammatical concepts to the minimum in order not to repulse the student who decided to embark on the study of such an unusual language as S-Cr. Moreover, even some basic grammatical concepts are explained in the course of the book to provide the student with clearer ideas. The author follows, the principle of frequency in his choice of words. As we have already mentioned, his "conversations" are built on the everyday language. Only in pronunciation exercises and among grammatical examples, a few unusual words are found, like: hrakati (56), kitno (56), skvačen (56), rosopas (62), ozim (63), mrknuti (63), tiganj (70), žiđi, (92), lasteks (107), and čpag, crepar, čmavati, čkalj, gnjat, gvod, žganica, all on p. 77. Still speaking of frequency one could say that in many nouns conjugated like stvar the instrumental singular simply is not used. No native speaker will ever use or hear the forms examplified on pages 62 and 63: siluzju, varošju, rosopasju, zelenju, kaplju, pliješnju, ozimlju, smržlju, bojažnju. Even stvarju, obitelju, lažlju, solju sound unusual.


In a work of this kind errata are inevitable. Yet if their number is reduced in a subsequent edition, the student will feel more confident. We shall mention some of the misprints that struck our eyes: (14) hrvatosrpski instead of hrvatsko-srpski; (24) ćerka instead of kćerka; (25) fez instead of fes; (27) dodem instead of dođem; (39) the capital I instead of the capital J; (39) prestavim. (Cyrillic) instead of pretstavim; (70) and (43) Braon instead of Braun; (44)... "the longer accented forms are to be used." This statement implies a shorter, unstressed form, which is really frequently used but it was omitted here by inadvertence. On p. 46; prekrivač is given as Croatian in the text (46) and as Serbian in the General Vocabulary (225-L). It is a "blanket" in the Vocabulary and a "bed-spread" in the text (47). On p. 26; prid rivu puštaje does not make sense; (38) pripisati does not mean "to note" but "ascribe," "attribute"; (56) krakati instead of krakat; (61) nošac instead of nosač; (72) oni instead of ona; (72) poznati instead of poznata; (76) irskog-norveškog instead of irsko-norveškog; (27) spag instead of špag; (87) and (93) lepši instead of ljepši; (130) onabi instead of ona bi.


The author of this book should be especially commended for three good reasons: (1) His insistence on Serbian and Croatian variants shows that he faces a complicate linguistic and national reality as it really is. Such an approach will give the learner a genuine picture of the language and culture he desires to get acquainted with. (2) As an experienced teacher, he handles the subject very skillfully and presents it clearly. (3) He courageously pioneers in a field where so many preliminary monographs are wanting.


Christopher Spalatin



[1] Numbers in parentheses refer to the pages of the book.

[2] Following Mr. Magner we shall use this abbreviation for the adj. Serbo-Croatian.

[3] As a matter of fact for "unknown words" on p. 53 the author says nepoznate because nobody would say neznane riječi.

[4] Note the facetious misprint "We walk with out legs."