2 Spelling

For an alternative explanation, with sound clips, check: Easy Croatian.

Usually, basic language courses give pronunciation rules. I find that somewhat strange — after all, a language is primarily spoken, writing can vary. If fact, over centuries, Croatian writing system did vary, but nowadays it settled to a quite simple one. Roughly, there is a rule: one sound = one letter. However, some "letters" are actually "double". But they are really considered as true letters, and have own entries in dictionaries and like.

Croatian has 6 vowels. They can be either long (like English feel) or short (like sit) but difference is not really big and not much important. They are pronounced as in Spanish or Italian (except for one). Here are vowels with approximate English sounds (for completeness, there are IPA symbols in square brackets as well). Courtesy of Brandon Bertelsen (thanks again!), you can hear these sounds as well.

letterIPAEnglish correlate
r[r̩][listen]somewhat like her, but clearly pronounced

Consonants are more complex. Since you are not probably aiming for a speaker job at the Croatian Radio, it's OK if you don't distinguish č from ć, and đ from . Many people in Croatia don't distinguish them either!

letterIPAEnglish correlate, and some others
c[t͡s][listen]somewhat similar to cats; also in Russian tzar, German Zimmer, etc.
ć[t̠͡ɕ][listen]softer than č (don't worry too much)
đ[d̠͡ʑ][listen]softer than (don't worry too much)
h[x][listen]similar to Scottish loch, rougher than English hat
lj[ʎ][listen]somewhat like million; also in Portuguese olho, Italian figlio
nj[ɲ][listen]somewhat like onion; also in Spanish señora, Italian bagno
r[r][listen]it's hard to match; it's somewhat "clearer" than English rough
v[ʋ][listen]between very and wave (don't worry too much about this one)
ž[ʒ][listen]vision; Portuguese jogo; Turkish jale

Croatian spelling does not use letters q, x, y, and w, except in foreign names and like.

How to know when an r is used as a vowel, and when as an consonant? Well, if it's in an "impossible" position, then it's surely a vowel, e.g.:

prst "finger"
trg "square" (in a city)
smrt "death"
svrha "purpose"

I took some liberty to introduce "matres lectionis" — symbols I have personally invented, that are never used in the real life, or by anyone else — but indicate important letters that are not distinguished in ordinary writing at all.

First, on some e's I have placed two dots (ë) to indicate that it's somewhat special. It's because the sequence ijë is by most people not pronounced as /ijë/, but much closer to /je/ (that is, not as two syllables), except when it's at the end of the word, then it's pronounced just like /ije/. But when an e is not marked, it means that everybody pronounces it as /ije/:

prijë "before" — pronounce just as written, because it's at the end
nijedan "no one" — pronounce just as written, because the e is not marked
uvijëk "always" — pronounce actually much closer to /uvjek/ (two syllables, /u-vjek/), since the e is marked

If an i is not pronounced, why did I mark the e following it!? One reason is that it can change in plural of some words — i is just dropped:

cvijët "flower" — most people pronounce it much closer to /cvjet/
cvjëtovi "flowers" — (mind the spelling!)

I must confess that spelling of ije (and its mutation to je) was responsible for 90% of my spelling errors in primary school. It's a nightmare for many people. It's impossible to learn for many, since it's pronounced as if spelled as je, so many people are guessing all the time where to spell ije and where je. It's frequently called "the infamous ije".

Second, on some a's I have placed the dots (ä) to indicate "inconstant a". It's that in some words an a is "automatically" inserted in consonant clusters at the end of the word. Now, nobody makes mistakes with this, but you will — because you'll like learn the forms with an inserted a, and will be unsure where it disappears! For instance, let's see the word "dog":

psi "dogs" — you'll see later, plural of some nouns is made by adding an -i
päs "dog" — the singular cannot be ps, an a is automatically inserted

That's how it looks from the standpoint of the plural, but from the standpoint of singular, the a was dropped. Now, there are words ending on -as (e.g. pojas "belt") where nothing is dropped (pl. pojasi "belts") — how are you going to know which a's are dropped? Hence the notation. Of course, the ä is pronounced just like another a.

If an ä is found in the middle of the word, then it's not dropped at all, it means something completely different, e.g. mägla "fog". Just pronounce it as any a until it gets important!

Finally, I have added two dots on some i's (ï) — just disregard them and treat is as any other i until it gets important.

Special notation

There's a special notation invented for this course. It consists of two dots (¨).

Most people actually pronounce sequence ijë when not at the end of the word as /je/

Otherwise, pronounce an ä, ï, or ë just if there were no dots.

The notation ä signifies an a that likely disappears in some forms of the word, but only if it's the last vowel. If it's not, it never disappears.

The Baška Tablet, one of oldest Croatian writings, not written in the modern alphabet

A short video on letters and spelling (not my creation, found it on the net):


David said...

Hi! You have a nice blog! Can I have one question? How do you give the records into the text? Thank you!

Marin said...

Is it me or...

"uvijëk "always" — pronounce actually much closer to /uvjek/ (one syllable), since the e is marked"

I think this pronunciation has TWO syllables (u-vjek). If all the sounds/letters in uvijek were pronounced (u-vi-jek), there would be three.

Thanks for all the hard work! This is the only resource I could find that goes into such depth.

Anonymous said...

Dear Daniel...
I already got some (very) basic knowledge in Croatian and as I studied Phonetics at university, I'm always making comparison between languages in anyway possible. Well... it seems to me that your consonant "r" it is pronounced as our "r" in "parecer" [as you didn't have an example to mention].
And I have to say... this vowel deslocations gave me nightmares! I wan't able to understand why it was 1 pas, 2/3/4 psi, 5/... pasa. In Portuguese you just add the final -s to the word and you make plural for 2 or more nouns. My luck was to find a Croatian who is very good at her own grammar [and who indicated me your blog too, by the way].
I'm trying to learn Croatian on Live Mocha and I have to say it doesn't help that much as it doesn't give any grammatical explanations, so learners have to deduct how it works.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your help!
I admit I just started reading your "submissions". By I'm doing well the homework. =)
I'm doing effort to try to communicate (at least basic things) in Croatian until April, 2012, when I'm moving out to Bosnia. I hope I'll succeed in doing so.
Daniele Jackson.

Anonymous said...

I listened to Croatian songs, I'm uncertain whether kao is pronounced as cow or kah-oh.

Proeski is pronounced as troy-ski in this song. Are all oe prounced as oy? How about au in auto?

Mati said...


The "lj" digraph is not as "million", "olho" or "figlio", but is way much more exactly like Catalan "llista", "castell" or even "agulla". It's also analogous to Hungarian "ly" in "kíraly"... who is EXACTLY the same as "kralj" (king).

Great site, Daniel. Awesome!
A big hug and... hvala na svemu, prijatelj.
Matias Barmat (Buenos Aires, Argentina)

TZanks said...

Just a suggestion, I read in my Croatian book that "ć" is pronounced like "tch" as in "gotcha"
This site is great! Way easier to understand than my book!

Daniel N. said...

Perhaps. The pronunciation of /ć/ varies. I myself am not pronouncing at "as it should be" pronounced.

Thanks for the kind words, much work is needed...

Don't hesitate to comment on ANYTHING.

br Daniel

bugatxu said...

The difference betwen "ć" and "č" kills me :(

Brandon Bertelsen said...

The difference between "ć" and "č" is tongue position. For "ć" the tounge touches bottom teeth and hard pallete (commonly referred to as the "roof of your mouth"), the sound comes from the point of contact between tongue and hard palette, mid mouth. For "č" touch your tongue to your hard palette and directly behind your teeth, the sound comes from the point of contact between your tongue and your teeth further forward in your mouth.

Sorry, I moved these files a long time ago not knowing that people were using them. I'll put them back soon.

Daniel N. said...

Hi Brandon, I will produce my own files in a short while, no problem. This is an old blog anyway, no longer maintained.

What you said is true for those speakers that are close to the Standard pronunciation. But they are likely a minority today, at least in Croatia. Many people (likely a majority, since it includes almost all bigger centers, Zagreb, Split, Rijeka, Dubrovnik...) pronounce /č/ = /ć/.

There are other pronounciations as well, some pronounce /ć/ as softened t [t'].


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