The Cyrillic alphabet might put the fear of God into those who aren’t familiar with it, but the truth is that the Serbian language is actually one of the simplest when it comes to pronunciation. Despite that, there are still some important places that visitors manage to butcher when trying to buy tickets.
Starting with a simple one, the ‘s with a hat on’ trips up far more people than it really should. Niš is the third biggest city in the country, and absolutely isn’t pronounced the same as the French city of Nice. Purse the lips for the final letter, making a sound that is closer to the word ‘niche’. You can make all the niche tourism jokes you like as a result.
One of the most delightful cities in Serbia’s most delightful province, Subotica is another that frequently find itself the victim of anglicised pronunciation. The ‘c’ towards the end absolutely should not be pronounced in a hard manner, and if you find yourself saying something that sounds like ‘Suboticka’ then you are way out. ‘SOO-boh-tee-tsah’ is what you should be aiming for.
Sticking with the northern borders, Šid is one of the most traversed border towns in the region. The city is on the frontier between Croatia and Serbia, and as such it finds itself stamped into the passports of millions all year round. You might have to specify what border you crossed when registering, and if you say something like ‘Sid’ or even the most famous curse beginning with the same letter, you’re in the wrong ballpark. The correct pronunciation is ‘SHeed’, one syllable with emphasis on the beginning.
The Serbian alphabet is full of special characters waiting to trip you up, but it may well be the familiar friends that cause the most problems. ‘J’ is fairly ubiquitous, but the Serbian ‘J’ is actually the English ‘Y’. Kragujevac, the fourth biggest city in the country, is thus pronounced ‘KRAH-goo-yeah-vats’.
Jagodina is a famous town in Serbia for many reasons, not least its controversial politicians and unforgettable Wax Museum. As with Kragujevac (and every other word where the letter appears), the ‘J’ at the beginning is pronounced as an English ‘Y’, giving you the word ‘YAH-go-dee-nah’.
Moving away from the Serbian ‘J’ but towards the English one, the Đ character is one that causes endless problems for non-native speakers. Đerdap Gorge is one of the most memorable natural attractions in the country, but don’t let your fear of incorrect pronunciation stop you from checking it out. The correct pronunciation is ‘JER-dap’. Be sure to roll the ‘r’.
When tasked to list romantic towns in Europe, the usual places like Paris and Barcelona will dominate the list. Has the difficult pronunciation of Vrnjačka Banja held it back? This is where the love lock craze began after all. The lack of vowels might be off-putting, but it isn’t so hard. The correct pronunciation is ‘VERN-yach-kah BAN-yah’.
Another historic town that seems to have lost its vowels, Sremski Karlovci may well be the prettiest town in all of Serbia. Remember that ‘r’ is always rolled, and say it with us — ‘SREM-skee KAR-lov-tsee’.
Vojvodina is full of magnificent small towns waiting to be discovered, and the city named after the leader of the regional Partisans is another one of them. Zrenjanin contains a couple of pitfalls, but ‘ZREN-yah-neen’ will see you on the right path to the city once called Petrovgrad.
If you’re vaguely familiar with the Serbian language then Bač won’t fill you with any trepidation whatsoever. If you are a newcomer, then the assumed simplicity might fill you with worry. Don’t let the nerves take over, remember that the ‘c with a hat on’ is like the beginning of ‘cheese’, and look forward to checking out the fortress at ‘BAH-ch’.
Okay, so Belgrade is a pretty easy one to pronounce. Two syllables, cut apart after ‘Bel’, the combination of a doorbell and a school grade. If you want to impress your Serbian friends then why not start referring to it with its Serbian name, Beograd? It isn’t difficult, especially if you are aware of the story of Beowulf. ‘BEH-yo-grad’ is the correct pronunciation of the finest city in the region.