Accent or stress is emphasizing one syllable in a word. For example, I have highlighted stressed syllables in few English words:
together, American, consequence, insist
It's not seen from the spelling, one must just remember the stress for each word. English vowels also differ by their length: e.g. "keen" vs "kin". In English, it's an important feature, so it's featured in spelling. In Croatian, it's not seen in spelling, we'll see why.
Standard Croatian states that every vowel can be either short or long, and there are two types of stress: rising and falling. The main difference is that the syllable, after one stressed with the rising stress, is pronounced with a higher tone. Such feature is called the "pitch accent": Croatian is similar to Swedish, Slovenian, Japanese and some other languages; it does not go all the way of tonal languages like Mandarin Chinese, but it makes Standard Croatian sound like "singing".
To further clarify what two tones mean, they have been described like this since the 19th century:
In the examples above I have used the following marks:
- a = a short vowel
- ā = a long vowel
- à = a short vowel with the rising stress
- á = a long vowel with the rising stress
There's no need to mark the falling stress, since if there's no rising stress marked, normally, the word is stressed on the first syllable with the falling stress, therefore in riba there's a falling stress on i. (Note: I have simplified marks for various stresses a bit, the Standard system has two additional marks, and one of them is hard to reproduce on some computers...)
There's an additional restriction: a rising stress cannot appear on the last syllable; therefore, in an one-syllable word, there are only falling stresses, and if a word has more than one syllable, the last one is never stressed.
So, far, so good: we need to remember the stress and the lengths for each word, right? No. Here comes another "catastrophe". Let's examine stress and lengths in nominative and genitive of some common words together with more inconspicuous words like lonäc "pot" (I removed by usual marking of the "disappearing a" for clarity), and izvor "source":
nom. sg. lònac sūnce vòda žèna kòlāč ìzvor gen. sg. lónca sūnca vòde žène koláča ìzvora nom. pl. lōnci sūnca vode žène koláči ìzvori gen. pl. lonācā sūncā vódā žénā koláčā izvōrā
Yes, there are rising stresses in the singular, and falling in the plural for some words. Vowels change their lengths in some words. Some others don't change stress at all through cases. The truth is: there are many distinctive stress patterns for various words. It's really, really hard. In fact, I don't really know them either — I had to look in a grammar book to write these examples. You really need it if you want to work as a speaker on the Croatian Radio.
If you're not aiming for that job, here's some relief. I have just described the Standard pattern. But the everyday, spoken Croatian does not always follow the rules. The stress rules are not followed in many places. For example, people from Split have stress quite similar to the one I have shown. But some other folks, for example people from Rijëka or Zagreb, do not. And there are whole regions that have completely different patterns of stress. There are two consequences:
- people in Croatia can immediately, after a few sentences, guess where somebody comes from — everyone uses own regional stress patterns in normal communication;
- if you are trying to learn Croatian just to communicate, you can choose any stress/length rules, and likely the simplest stress/length rules will be good for you.
Incidentally, the simplest rules are from city speeches of Zagreb and Rijëka. These are not the Standard rules, far from it. These are just the rules most people e.g. in Zagreb follow. The rules (roughly) are:
- there is no difference between short and long vowels: all are somewhere in the middle;
- there are no rising stresses; there's only one type of stress, similar to English; there are no tones or anything similar;
- the stress can be on any syllable, including the last one;
- the place of stress is usually the same in all cases of a noun.
Such rules are really much simpler, but remember, these are not the Standard rules, it's just colloquial, everyday speech. But it is often heard in the Croatian Parliament, on TV, radio; most movies and TV series set in Zagreb use it, etc. To illustrate them, and the difference from the Standard, here are some examples (I have marked all stressed vowels with boldface):
Standard Zagreb form meaning kòlāč kolač nom. sg. "cake" koláča kolača gen. sg. govòriti govoriti inf. "speak" gòvorīm govorim pres. òdlaziti odlaziti inf. "leave" òdlazīm odlazim pres.
We see some striking differences. Do you see why the stress and length are not marked in the spelling? Because different regions use different stress and length rules, and everyone uses the same spelling.
To give you some information about the stress, I will mark verbs and nouns I will discuss about with the above system of marks, and also mark the place of stress in the simplified (Zagreb) system with an underscore (except when the first syllable is stressed, then an underscore is implied), e.g.:
riba, sūnce, žèna, kòlāč, pòstavīm, pòstaviti, pòstavljām, pòstavljati
Therefore you can choose to obey the Standard (complex) system using marks above letters, or the simple Zagreb system, with markings below (only an underscore; again, I will not mark it on the first syllable — it's implied then). Of course noone writes like that at all, it's just additional information regarding the pronunciation!
Fixed and Falling-rising Stress
Having said all above, I will nevertheless show you two (simplest) Standard stress patterns for nouns. The simplest one is "fixed" — the stress is always on the same syllable, and is the same for all noun cases. Another one is slightly more complex:
case fixed falling-rising nom. sg. riba žèna národ konj kljūč pūt acc. sg. ribu žènu kònja dat. sg. ribi žèni národu kònju kljúču pútu other cases in sg. (same stress as dat. sg.) voc. sg. ribo ženo nārode konju kljūču pūtu nom. pl. ribe žène národi kònji kljúčevi pūtevi other cases in pl. (same stress as nom. pl.) gen. pl. rībā žéna nárōdā kónjā kljúčēvā pútēvā voc. pl. ribe žene nārodi konji kljūčevi pūtevi
The fixed pattern is very simple: the same stress is on the same syllable in all cases. The falling-rising pattern, which applies to some one-syllable m-nouns, is a bit more complicated: nouns start with a falling stress, but whenever anything is added to them, it switches to a rising one.
Unfortunately, there's no rule which one-syllable m-nouns have the falling-rising stress, they must be learned by heart (others can have fixed stress, and there's one more stress pattern for them that will be discussed much later). The common nouns that fall into this pattern are:
čep "plug, cork"
pūt "path, way"
smijēh "laughter" (*)
strīc "father's brother"
stūp "column, pillar"
štāp "rod, stick"
vrh "top, peak"
The noun smijëh is actually pronounced /smjēh/ and therefore it's a one-syllable noun.
From the table above you can see that something special happens in gen. pl: the ending -a is long, but also the vowel before it gets long if it wasn't. If happens only if the gen. pl. ends on -a:
Genitive Plural Length Rule
If the gen. pl. of a noun ends on -a, then the last two syllables are always long
(the last one includes the ending -a).
Example: žèna – žénā, národ – nárōdā
Of course if the one-but-the-last syllable has a short rising stress, it will have a long rising one in gen. pl: the intonation is not changed, only the length!
Another rule is that vocatives have always a falling stress.
Other case endings are usually short, except for singular of a-nouns, where the -ē in genitive and -ōm in instrumental are always long (e.g. gen. ribē, ins. ribōm).
Stress and Prepositions
There's an additional twist. Whenever an preposition (e.g. na, u, za... etc.) is before a noun, both should be pronounced as one word according to the Standard pronunciation. However, if a noun has a fixed falling stress, or a falling stress in the falling-rising pattern, then (in the Standard system) a new rising stress appears on the preposition:
u ribi pronounce as /ùribi/
na pūt pronounce as /nàpūt/
But, if the noun has a rising stress, the stress does not move:
na pútu pronounce as /napútu/ (not a falling stress!)
u grād pronounce as /ugrād/ (neither fixed nor falling-rising pattern!)
If a noun does have a falling stress (e.g. grād) but does not fall into the two stress patterns described above — something else happens, to be described later.
Let me repeat: if a noun uses one of the two stress patterns described above, and if it's preceded by a prounoun, and if it happens that in the case used it has a falling stress, then a rising stress appears on the pronoun preceding it.
That much about stress for now. I hope this was not too stressful to you.