Croatian is a Slavic language. It's almost the same as Serbian or Bosnian, and similar to Czech and Russian. Its grammar resembles Old Greek and Latin, so it's quite complex.
Relation to Serbian, Bosnian and Montenegrin
Basically, you can say that you almost learn 4 languages with one effort: Croatian, Serbian, Bosnian, and Montenegrin. Yes, there are some differences, but they are mostly in vocabulary. And you can get by with Croatian in Slovenia and Macedonia as well, so that's all together 6 countries!
It's incredible that some web sites offering (costly) language courses say:
'Not surprisingly, Croatian vocabulary has much in common with Serbian and Bosnian. In many cases, speakers of these languages can even communicate between one another.'
On Croatian TV and in cinemas, Serbian or Bosnian films are shown always without any subtitles or dubbing. Statements by people from Serbia (politicians, etc.) are shown on TV also without any dubbing or subtitles! "Much in common" is a terrible understatement. To "even communicate" is laughable. I have read many books in Serbian without any difficulties...
We will also see that 'Croatian' is a standard language, and spoken variants have considerable variation, much more than e.g. in English. We will see later that there's no simple way to describe relations of Croatian to similar languages (a similar situation exists in Scandinavia), but for now let's just say that Croatian has internal diversity and also a lot in common with surrounding languages, even with more distant ones like Russian.
Let's take a dive and look at some basic features of Croatian. Maybe it's best to see how some simple sentences in English translate to Croatian.
English: John has a big house. John's son came to visit him. John's house has three bedrooms.
Croatian: John ima veliku kuću. Johnov sin je došao posjetiti ga. Johnova kuća ima tri spavaće sobe.
This is almost a word-to-word translation, except:
- Croatian has no articles like English a, the (now you see why I miss articles sometimes — my native language has no articles!)
- English form to visit corresponds to one Croatian word posjetiti
- English verb came translates to the two-word Croatian form je došao
- English bedroom translates to Croatian phrase spavaća soba (literally, "sleeping room")
John has a big house. John ima veliku kuću. John's son came to visit him. Johnov sin je došao posjetiti ga. John's house has three bedrooms. Johnova kuća ima tri spavaće sobe.
Have you noted that some words look somewhat similar (sin "son", and tri "three")? You can read something about reasons for such similarities here.
Now, if we take a closer look, we see that kuća "house" (we don't worry about pronunciation for now) has a different form when it's in the sentence where it's possessed (kuću). We say that it's in a different case.
So, Croatian has cases.
Next, we see that "John's" translates to Johnov and Johnova. This is so-called possessive adjective. And it has a different form (as every adjective has) depending whether is describes a male noun (sin "son"), female (kuća "house" is female in Croatian), or neuter! Therefore, gender is much more pervasive in Croatian than in English: all adjectives and words similar to them must change according to the gender of nouns. Also, adjectives can and do change case.
So, the bulk of Croatian grammar will be just cases of nouns and adjectives.
Note that English has a very limited case system, for pronouns only. So him is "object case" of pronoun "he". Likewise, Croatian ga is "object case" (more commonly known as "accusative") of pronoun on "he".
I once saw someone wrote 'I don't know cases in English for start, I should learn them first'. No, you should not: cases are simply a concept that some languages have a some do not. In a similar fashion, Croatian has no articles: there's no way to learn articles in Croatian before trying to learn English ones. Even better, the 'accusative' case in one language is not really the same as 'accusative' in another! German and Latin also have cases, but those cases are a bit different than Croatian ones (there are a lot of similarities, of course) — even their number do not match (e.g. neither German nor Latin have any equivalent of Croatian instrumental case).
There's one feature that you will probably find quite weird, since it has no equivalent in German or English. In many languages, nouns have basically two forms: singular ("room") and plural ("rooms", "big rooms"). If you want to say exactly how many rooms there are, you just use plural forms ("five big rooms"). It's a bit more complicated in German.
It's a lot more complicated in Croatian, as you can see:
English German Croatian "room" Zimmer soba "big room" großes Zimmer velika soba "big rooms" große Zimmer velike sobe "five big rooms" fünf große Zimmer pet velikih soba
So please, be prepared that things very simple in English or German are sometimes complex in Croatian. Of course, there are also things that are simpler in Croatian than in English or German...
You will probably note that my approach to some issues is a bit different than in other books and internet sites. That's intentional.
Updated 2014-11-07 (v. 0.4)