Croatia and Croatian: A Primer

The Country

I no longer have a sense of what, if anything, might come to mind for the average person when thinking about Croatia. I imagine that people with some knowledge of foreign affairs are aware that Croatia is a relatively new country and that its first few years were, to put it mildly, not the easiest. You might also know that Croatia became the newest member of the European Union last July.

Here’s my very abbreviated history of Croatia:

Croatia became an independent country in 1991 after it became the second Yugoslav republic to secede from Yugoslavia. (What was the first? Slovenia.) Although Tito placed a lot of emphasis on promoting “unity and brotherhood” during his time at the helm of Yugoslavia, any such cultural unification began to break down swiftly after his death in 1980. Longstanding ethnic rivalries and spirited nationalism that Tito had kept in check began to gain momentum again, and by 1990 Yugoslavia was essentially a powder keg moments away from explosion. The horrible fighting that took place in the former Yugoslavia during the first half of the 1990’s was, at its core, about each of the three big ethnic groups (Croats, Bosniaks, and Serbs) trying to fortify its claim on particular territories. I highly recommend watching “The Death of Yugoslavia,” which is a BBC documentary/mini-series that is available on YouTube, for a very in-depth look at this recent history.

As someone who’s driven across five former Yugoslav republics, I can tell you that Croatia is both distinct and indistinct from its neighbors. Where you are will heavily influence your impression of the country, and even though Croatia is a relatively small country, you can have a different experience in each of its regions. Zagreb, for instance, is visible proof of the former Austro-Hungarian dominance in the region, while Split and its magnificent Diocletian’s Palace is much more Roman in character, both physically and culturally. Dubrovnik, so close to the Bosnian border, reminds me more of Mostar, a Bosnian town that, like Dubrovnik, was hit very hard during the war.

On the whole, what I’ve seen in Croatia makes me feel like it’s more a part of Western Europe than its neighbors to the east. This is partially because the Austro-Hungarian influence was concentrated more heavily in Croatia and partially because I think there has been some effort among the Croatians (not just since independence) to reinforce those western ties. Many people in Croatia speak German, Italian, and/or French (and I really mean and/or – I’ve met many people who speak at least two foreign languages, in addition to English), and Croatia’s gorgeous coast has long been a source of tourism that eclipses what Bosnia and Serbia can attract as landlocked countries. Perhaps the main reason I see Croatia as more “Western” is simply because I haven’t spent much time in the big cities of Bosnia or Serbia, so it’s difficult for me to compare. The moderately-sized Serbian city of Novi Sad also looked and felt more Austro-Hungarian despite being much further east.

Still, to the extent that one equates “Western” with “modern,” Croatia has retained a very “old country” feel. If you’re not in a major city, you quickly get the feeling that you’re in the middle of nowhere. As someone who grew up on the east coast of the US in a capital city, I’ve always marveled at the rural nature of Croatia. Whether you’re driving or on a train, you’ll pass through lots of villages. That’s not a word I would ever apply to anything in the US (partially because “village” also seems to imply a sense of antiquity), but it’s definitely the right word for the tiny collections of homes scattered throughout the Croatian countryside. You can go for miles and miles without seeing any signs of civilization other than the occasional cluster of five or ten small houses together. And when you consider that there are over 1000 islands along Croatia’s coast, you really start to understand how many micro communities there are in this small country. And in that way, Croatia is indistinct from its eastern neighbors; Bosnia and Serbia are also largely rural and dotted with tiny villages. Other than the change in alphabet on the road signs, it’s impossible to tell where you are once you’re outside a big city.

Now, I’m someone who really loves big cities, and I’d probably go crazy if I lived in anything small enough to qualify as a “town” let alone a “village,” but I adore all of those “old country” features of Croatia. I love that you can drive along a two-lane road and find people roasting lamb in their yards. I love that there are still people playing the music and instruments that came over to the US with my grant-grandparents’ generation, and I love that the scene in Zagreb’s central market is almost identical to what Rebecca Black observed on her trip in 1937 and described in her 1100-page memoir Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (which I’ll be working through in the next two weeks). Croatia seems to be one of those truly timeless places.

I’m looking forward to many interactions on this trip that will help me to further distill my understanding of the country and people of Croatia. The nation’s history is so long, rich, and varied that describing it in any meaningful way requires both extensive knowledge and excellent writing skills, both of which I’m still pursuing. Perhaps I shall seek to adopt Ernest Hemingway’s goal of writing “one true sentence” each day during the trip in the hopes of being able to string together one true paragraph by the time I return.

The Language

I’m going to be including accurate spellings in my forthcoming blog entries (and perhaps a few vocabulary lessons!), so it will be helpful for anyone who plans on following along to have a basic understanding of the pronunciation in Croatian. Many words in Croatian look unpronounceable to native English speakers, but it’s not that difficult once you know the rules:

  • č and ć both sound like “ch”
  • c without an accent sounds like “ts”
  • š sounds like “sh”
  • ž sounds like the s in “measure”
  • đ sounds like the j in “judge”
  • h is pronounced, hence Hrvatska (the word for Croatia) is Her-VAT-ska
  • j sounds like a y (which explains why it’s actually spelled Jugoslavija), unless it’s on the end of a word, in which case it’s essentially silent.

The emphasis usually falls on the first syllable, which is the hardest thing for me to put into practice (mostly because this is not an absolute rule, and I have no idea when the emphasis goes elsewhere). We pronounce Dubrovnik wrong; we all say Du-BROV-nik when it’s actually DU-brov-nik. Same with Sarajevo: it’s actually SA-ra-yay-vo.


  • Goran Višnjić (the Croatian actor from ER)is GO-ran VISH-nyitch
  • Ćevapčići (very delicious small sausages) is CHAY-vap-chee-chee
  • Hajde (“come on”) is HIGH-day or HIGH-da (I hear both)
  • Doviđenja (“good-bye”) is do-vi-JEN-ya
  • Ožujsko (a brand of beer) is O-zhoo-sko

Croatian is technically a separate language, but it is essentially the same language as that spoken in Bosnia and Serbia. From what I can tell, it’s like American vs. British English. We generally understand each other, but occasionally there’s a different word for something. At the Tribunal, we called the language BCS (Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian). Some might take offense to that, but it really does simply things and makes any language discussion more politically neutral. It’s my understanding that after the disintegration of Yugoslavia, each new country made an effort to differentiate its language, so there’s some nationalism attached to the name of the language. The major difference is that Croatian uses the Latin alphabet while Serbian uses the Cyrillic. When Yugoslavia still existed, children learned both alphabets in school, but now most Croatians don’t learn Cyrillic (hence the utility of my knowledge of that alphabet while working with Croatians at the ICTY).

And unfortunately, that’s the end of the “easy” part of the Croatian language. As I went through my big Croatian grammar book last night to make copies for the trip, I realized that the odds of my being able to put together any grammatically correct, semi-complex sentence without a teacher are slim to none. It appears that Croatian is like Latin and that, among other things, you have to decline nouns. I don’t really even know what that means because it’s not something I’ve ever had to deal with in my study of Spanish, French, Italian, or Portuguese! And unlike the Romance languages, Croatian verbs seem to fall into lots of categories, not the usual three root families (like -ar, -er, and -ir in Spanish). So… we’ll just have to see how this goes. I might just become a walking recitation of my Lonely Planet phrasebook!


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