Croatian Mondays - Life and Language in Croatia

If one of your New Year’s resolutions is to learn Croatian, you'll probably realise that Croatian language, as beautiful as it is, can represent quite a challenge and a daily struggle with it’s often unpredictable and various changes. So we asked prof. Mihaela Naletilić Šego, a Croatian language teacher from the Croatian language centre CRO to go, to help us help you out with some of the little secrets of the Croatian language.

Oprostite, koliko je sati? Excuse me, what time is it?

For a lot of people who move to Croatia, after a few weeks of living in their new country, Einstein's postulates on the relativity of time suddenly get a whole new meaning. That usually happens the very first time a newcomer encounters an urgent pipe problem in their household and has to call – the plumber.

That exact thing happened to my friend Anna just a few weeks after she moved to Croatia. It was one warm Sunday evening when she came home from town to find her bathroom completely flooded. Anna grabbed her phone, and quickly found a number on the Internet.

Hitne intervencije / Emergency repairs – it was written. She explained her problem to the man on the other end. He didn't seem overly impressed by her bathroom flood situation. He yawned a couple of times and just mumbled:

''Yes, yes, madam. We'll be there tomorrow morning, no problem.''
''What do you mean tomorrow?'' Anna was confused. ''My entire bathroom is flooded!''
''Gospođo/Madam, it's a holiday weekend. Tomorrow morning is the best I can do,'' the plumber replied indifferently.

''U koliko sati dolazite? What time will you be here? she asked naively.

''Gospođo, odakle da ja to znam? Imamo posla preko glave! Računajte da bi između sedam i dvanaest bi mogli biti kod Vas. Madam, how can I know that? We're up to our necks in work! We should be there between seven and twelve,'' the plumber seemed agitated.

The next morning Anna got up early, dressed up, made some coffee – and waited. And waited. And waited.

At 12:00 she started to suspect that the words between seven and twelve in fact meant between seven and midnight - and she decided to call the plumber once more. The plumber apologised and once again very vividly explained how they are fully booked and up to biiip work and biiip…

''Sutra dolazimo, gospođo, sigurno! Nema problema! We're coming tomorrow, Madam, no problem (or perhaps more accurately in English - no worries)'' he sounded cheerful and promising.

I'm not going to go on with this story, because, to be honest, I have no idea how it ended. Last time I heard from Anna, she was still waiting in her kitchen. I'm sure they will be there tomorrow, though. The plumber promised her just a few days ago!

That Monday, Anna realised that the word tomorrow in Croatia has a metaphorical meaning. It could mean a number of things, such as: later this week, sometime this month, this year, in February or in spring time… but it never, ever means – tomorrow.

Croatian is a really interesting language. You can find at least ten different words for such an ordinary thing as a ladle: grabljača, grabilica, kutljača, kaciola, palj,paljak, šefarka, šeflja, kutal, kačica…

And then you find out that Croats use one word that describes ten different things at the same time!

Let's take a look at the Croatian word SAT, for example. Sat is a word that translates to watch, as in the watch you'd wear on your wrist. Imagine you're going out with a friend in Zagreb. You are all dressed up and have your new watch/sat on your wrist. Of course, you're heading out to the main square, because your friend said:

Nađemo se kod sata! Let's meet by the clock! (Yes, sat is also a clock).

If you're meeting someone in Zagreb, that sentence most commonly means only one thing – that you are meeting by the clock on Trg bana Jelačića (Ban Jelačić square) or the main Zagreb square, or simply - Trg.

Meeting someone by the clock can get a little tricky if the person you are meeting is from Dalmatia. I've had my fair share of experiences freezing under the clock on Trg waiting for my dear friend from Split who promised to be there right on time that windy January evening. U pola sedam (half past seven). I had been standing there for at least forty five minutes until I realised that down in Dalmatia, time goes by a bit differently.

7.30 in Zagreb is pola osam (as in, half an hour to eight), while in Split is referred to as sedam i po (seven and a half). From that time, whenever I set an appointment with my Split friend at, let's say 10:30, I always doublecheck – That’s deset i po, right?

You might have noticed that Croats often say: Vidimo se za sat vremena! See you in one hour!

Although this sentence also sometimes has a metaphorical meaning, the word sat in Croatian also has another meaning – hour.

None of these sentences should create a confusion in your mind. But if you text your Croatian friend and ask him to go to out with you, it might confuse you when you get the reply: Na satu sam! I'm on the clock!

Although Croats can be a bit peculiar on occasions, I assure you that this sentence doesn't mean that that your Croatian friend is currently sitting on that main square clock we mentioned earlier just waiting for you! It does mean that they are currently in some kind of a lesson and cannot answer your question.

Na satu sam. I'm in a lesson.

And of course, if you get lost in time wandering through the many charming little streets of Zagreb while waiting for your friend, you can always ask: Oprostite, koliko je sati? Excuse me, what time is it?

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