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Nobody is expecting you to rock up in Serbia with an expert understanding of the language, but getting some of the basics down will be the difference between a good time and a great one. As the locals say (translated), ‘speak Serbian so the world understands you’.
Serbs are delightfully vocal, and you’ll hear the most basic of phrases being thrown around from dusk until dawn and beyond. Learn a few yourself to help you stand out from the pack.
Dobar Dan / Zdravo / Šta ima! (do-BAR dan / ZDRAH-voh / SHTA-ee-ma) — Good Day / Hello / What’s up!
Everyone likes to say hello, so learn the basic greetings for extra politeness when entering shops, cafes and the rest. Only use šta ima! around friends though, as it might cause a little consternation in formal circles.
Hvala / Molim (HVAH-lah / MO-leem) — Thank you / Please
Even if you struggle with your hellos and good days, ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ are the bare minimum you should commit to memory. Hvala isn’t a million miles away from ‘et voila’ or ‘koala’, if you’re after a little more reference.
Zovem se… / Drago mi je (ZOH-vem seh / DRA-go me ye) — My name is… / Pleased to meet you
It is unlikely that anyone will expect you to be able to introduce yourself in Serbian, but surprising people is always a nice feeling. Drago mi je will almost certainly win you points with the oldest generation too.
Doviđenja / čao / laku noč (doh-vee-JEH-nyah / CH-ow / LAH-kuh noch) — Goodbye / ciao / good night
You can be excused with the greetings in truth, but you should definitely prep yourself to say ‘goodbye’ in the proper manner after a social adventure with the Serbs. Besides, everyone can say čao, right?
Jutro / popodne / večer (YOO-troh / POH-pod-ne / VEH-cheh) — Morning / Afternoon / Evening
You will likely be able to decipher what time of day it is by the position of the sun in the sky, the drink on the table in front of you or the ever reliable efficiency of one’s internal clock. If not, learn these words.
Dobro / Da / Ne (DOH-broh / DA / NE) — Good / yes / no
The bare minimum. Actually no, whatever is below the bare minimum. If you can’t commit these three words (only four syllables in total) to memory, maybe Serbia isn’t for you.
Izvini / Izvinite (EEZ-vee-nee / EEZ-vee-nee-teh) — Excuse me / Sorry
We all need to apologise from time to time, and Izvinite is the polite way to go about expressing sorrow when in Serbia. These are also the best ways to get someone’s attention, be it a waiter in a cafe or someone on the street.
Kako ste? (KAH-ko steh?) — How are you?
A simple question, and one imbued with more meaning in Serbia than the rest of the world. In many parts of the West, this question will be asked with all the interest of a ‘hello’. In Serbia, it is an invitation to put the world right.
Serbs speak English well enough, but the older generations might not be as willing to divert from their faithful native language. Pay attention to the following phrases to make things a little easier in such situations.
Pričati li Engleski? (PREE-cha-tee lee EN-gles-kee?) — Do you speak English?
There are a number of ways to ask someone if they speak English or not, but this is the most friendly and least stuffy.
Ne razumem (neh rah-ZOO-mem) — I don’t understand
You don’t speak the language, so of course you are going to struggle to understand everything. Don’t be afraid to make that clear.
Gde je… (GD-yeh yeh…) — Where is…
If you’re looking for a particularly building or place, simply add the name of the place to the two words above. Sure, there should be extra grammar involved, but people will get your meaning easy enough.
Koliko je sati? (KOH-lee-koh ye SAH-tee?) — What is the time?
A basic conversation starter at the very least, this is always a useful phrase to pick up. The rise in mobile phone use means it is something superfluous these days but if nothing else it can help you learn the numbers.
Pomoć (POH-mohch) — Help
The chances of you using this word are pretty slim. We’ve spent the better part of a decade in Serbia and haven’t had to use it once, but it is better to be safe than sorry.
Serbia is full of glorious restaurants and energetic bars, and they will likely take up most of your time in the country. Get yourself ahead of the game with a few choice phrases.
Mogu da dobim… (MOH-goo da DOH-beem…) — Can I get…
When ordering things in a restaurant or bar, impress those around you by saying this followed by whatever it is you want to order Mogu da dobim jedno pivo, mogu da dobim jedna rakija etc etc.
Koliko je košta? (KOH-lee-koh ye KOH-shta?) — How much does it cost?
Serbia is a developed state, and as such the cost of everything is almost always going to be on the menus in front of you. Still, it is a good question to ask while you buy time trying to decipher the colourful notes of the Serbian currency.
Račun (RAH-choon) — Bill
This is what you will ask for when you are ready to pay and leave. In fact, you can combine a couple of phrases here to make mogu da dobim račun, impressing all and sundry before relieving yourself of a few hundred dinars.
The Serbian language is a rich and varied tongue that is a joy to learn, if you have the time and the desire. The phrases and words included in this article should sort you out on a brief visit to the state, but we couldn’t recommend a full education more.
Ulaz / Izlaz (OOH-laz / EEZ-laz) — Entrance / Exit
Important words to learn in order to avoid entering through the exit and exiting through the entrance.
Guraj / Vuči (GOO-raye / VOO-chee) — Push / Pull
As with the above, nobody wants to experience the shame of attempting to push a pull door and vice versa.
Otvoreno / Zatvoreno (OHT-voh-reh-no / ZAHT-voh-reh-no) — Open / Closed
If something is open, it is otvoreno. If it is closed, it is zatvoreno. Simple.
Muškarci / Žene (MOOHSH-kahr-tsee / ZHEH-neh) — Men / Women
It seems like most of these are to avoid embarrassment, and this might be the most important. If you’re looking for the male toilets look for the big M, women should look out for the big Ž.
Učim polako / boliglava (OOH-cheem POH-lah-ko / BOH-lee GLAH-vah) — I’m learning slowly / My head hurts
A two-for-one to finish off, with a coupe of phrases that have gotten us out of some sticky situations over the years. Claiming to learn the language shows an interest and appreciation that will be rewarded in spades, although be sure to actually learn the language eventually.
Boliglava is one of the great catchall phrases of the Balkans. Say it once after finishing a meal, and you will express just how good the food was. Say it twice, and your hosts will likely call for a doctor (or bring out the rakija).
We’ll finish off with the numbers, or at least the digits from zero through to 10. That will hopefully ensure that you can’t point out this is an article of 22 phrases, as opposed to 21!
Nula (NOO-lah) / 0
Jedan (YEH-dahn) / 1
Dva (dvah) / 2
Tri (tree) / 3
Četiri (cheh-TEE-ree) / 4
Pet (peht) / 5
Šest (shehst) / 6
Sedam (SEH-dahm) / 7
Osam (OH-sahm) / 8
Devet (DEH-veht) / 9
Deset (DEH-seht) / 10