Learning Croatian is Easy, It is the Dialects that Kill You

Although people say that Croatian is impossible to learn, I actually find it the most logical language I have ever been confronted with.


My favourite (true) story about language learning concerns a school in Siberia which had planned an excursion to Paris, but nobody in the school spoke French. They advertised for a teacher, and the one applicant, a Mengralian from the mountains in the Republic of Georgia, got the job.

The Mengralian was good, and the students were diligent, and after several months of learning, he declared that their French was good enough for Paris, and he headed home to the mountains in Georgia. And if they had been learning French all those months, they might indeed have been ready for Paris.

The confusion at passport control over what language they were speaking was such that the French authorities had to call a linguistic expert from the Sorbonne to identify what language group their mutterings belonged to. Speaking fluent Mengralian, it seems, did not amuse the Siberians, who tracked down the ‘teacher’ and had him imprisoned.

I tell the tale as something similar happened to me when I first came to Jelsa. Determined to learn the language, I immersed myself in the local language, picking up words here and there and generally coming to terms with it, so that I could have a conversation with most people. Although people say that Croatian is impossible to learn, I actually find it the most logical language I have ever been confronted with. Having the benefit of a Slavic background after my days in Russia, the actual rules and pronunciation of Croatian are entirely logical, almost without exception.

So where then is the problem?

I discovered I was in some trouble on a business trip to Zagreb with my nascent real estate business. A Zagreb client wanted to buy a stone house on Hvar, and we met at a cafe in the capital to discuss options, and he finally found one he wanted.

“Koliko kosta?” How much?

“50 mejorih.” I replied. He looked totally confused. 50 what???

Mejorih, I repeated, as he looked all the more confused. Eventually I took out pen and paper and wrote down the price – 5 0 0 0 0.

“Ah 50 tisuca!” It was the first time I had ever heard the official Croatian word for ‘thousand’.

As I told the story to various Croatian friends on the mainland, they all looked at me with incredulity. They had never heard of the word either, and it transpired that it is only used on Hvar, and nowhere else.

Like a lot of other words I had learned when I thought I was learning Croatian… It was my Mengralian moment, and I had to laugh when I learned over lunch the next day that there were EIGHT different words for ‘chisel’ on Hvar. EIGHT! The big joke being you can’t find a chisel for sale at all.

Having adjusted my language learning towards the mainland, I came home from Split one day and had a coffee with my mother-in-law, proudly telling her I had learned a new word that day, after an inexplicable conversation about clothes pegs and hanging out washing.

“Stipunica,” I declared triumphantly, raising my glass and waiting for a positive acknowledgement, only to be met with a 50 mejorih frown. Frustrated, I went into the bathroom and showed her a clothes peg. +

“Ah, stipaljka.”

I mean, what is the point? Croatian really IS the most logical language in the world, and the dialects really WILL kill you.