Past Tenses in Serbian language, and modern trends of their use


Serbian language, as one of South Slavic languages, belongs to the larger Slavic group of Indo-European languages. Because of ongoing controversy about usage of it's system of past tenses, I have decided to explain it in detail. Beware that this article is not intended to explain morphology of Serbian Past Tenses in detail, it's main objective is to explain their meanings and trends of their use.

 

Although today's grammar books state that standard Serbian language nominally has four Past Tenses, only one of them is allowed in any form of official and public use. That mandatory Past Tense is officially called "Perfect", although its name is to great extent misleading and wrong, which shall be explained in more detail later in this article. Other three, Aorist, Imperfect and Pluperfect are included in grammar for reasons of backward compatibility, and are officially considered superfluous, rustic, and undesirable.

 

Important note: like in all Slavic languages, verbs are divided in two classes: verbs of perfective aspect (for finished actions) and verbs of imperfective aspect (for continuous actions). This division in Slavic languages is more important than any Tense, so several Tenses in Serbian language have different meanings for verbs of two aspects (for example, "Present Tense" of perfective verbs has nothing to do  with Present, it has more to do with Past or Future). Aorist has preference for verbs of perfective aspect, and Imperfect for verbs of imperfective aspect, although they can be used in traditional Serbian System of Past Tenses with other ones as well, but with slightly different meaning.

 

When we analyse system of Past Tenses in Serbian language, we must consider today's modern official and public use separately from it's traditional and colloquial use. That way, there are two competing Past Tenses Systems in Serbia. The First one is Traditional Serbian System of Past Tenses. The other is Yugoslav (Serbo-Croat) simplified System of Past Tenses.

 

Traditional Serbian Past Tenses System has at least four Past Tenses1. Their meanings are very similar to Past Tenses System of Macedonian language, which was up to 1945 considered as Serbian dialect.

In simplified modern standard Serbian language only use of Perfect Tense is allowed, situation which has been inherited from former standard Serbo-Croat language of former Yugoslavia. All the other Past Tenses are de facto banned from any official or public use. That way, Yugoslav (Serbo-Croat) Past Tenses System contains only one Past Tense.

 

Use of Perfect Tense today is de facto mandatory in any official, formal or public use (newspapers, television news, subtitles for foreign movie translations, other mass media, state institutions, schools, professional use at working places, product tutorials, school and academic textbooks, history books, editions of Academy of Sciences2...). Although use of other three Past Tenses is not de jure prohibited, it is prohibited de facto. And all of this is just continuation of practice from former communist-era Yugoslavia3.

 

For most native speakers of Serbian language, meanings of Serbian four Past Tenses lay somewhere between those two extreme points, depending on their education, social status, employment, age, dialect, and place of living (city/village). The older, less educated, rural living, lower status, religious, unemployed (simply said, more conservative) people tend to be closer to use traditional meaning since they usually use much more of three undesirable Past Tenses in colloquial speech.

 

Next table contains short explanations of their meanings, together with small samples.

 

Past Tense

AORIST

(PRESENT-) PERFECT

PLUPERFECT

IMPERFECT

Meaning in traditional Serbian Past Tenses System, for verbs of perfective aspect

Past action, taken as completed and performed in specific time in past, which was witnessed or experienced in some way by speaker.

Mostly used for verbs of perfective aspect.

1. State in present after action in non-specific time in the past (result of past completed action).

2. Action in the past, whether completed or continuing, non-witnessed by speaker.

1. State in past, after action in the past (result of past completed action, which has no effect in present).

2. Action in the past, before another action in the past, or state during another action in the past.

 

(has two forms, first is for non-witnessed contexts, second is for witnessed)

For verbs of imperfective aspect, continuing uncompleted action in the past.

For verbs of perfective aspect, repeated completed action in the past.

 

Used for witnessed actions only.

Mostly used for verbs of imperfective aspect.

Most similar English Tense

Past Simple Tense

Present Perfect Tense

Past Perfect Tense

Past Continuous Tense (for verbs of imperfective aspect)

Simplest possible example in Serbian, in Cyrillic and (Latin) scripts

Прозор се поломи.

(Prozor se polomi.)

 

Прозор је се поломио.

(Prozor je se polomio.)

Прозор је се био поломио.

(Prozor je se bio polomio.)/

Прозор се беше поломио.

(Prozor se beshe polomio.)

Прозор се поломијаше.

(Prozor se polomijashe.)

English Translation

Window broke.

 

(Emphasis is on action in the past, whether window is broken in this moment is not known or irrelevant)

Window is broken./

Window has broken.

Window was broken./

Window had broken.

(window was broken in some moment in the past, but right now it is not, it has been repaired in the meantime)

Window used to break.

 

(Action was repeated several times in the past)

Translation into modern Yugoslav-era one-Tense Past System (sometimes called “Tarzan-style”)

Прозор се поломио у том тренутку.

(Prozor se polomio y tom trenutku.)

Прозор се поломио.

(Prozor se polomio.)

Прозор се поломио, али сада више није сломљен.

(Prozor se polomio, ali sada vishe nije slomljen.)

Прозор се поломио више пута.

(Prozor se polomio vishe puta.)

Literally English translation from modern Yugoslav-era one-Tense Past System

Window is/has broken in that moment.

Window is broken./

Window has broken.

Window is/has broken, but now is not broken any more.

Window is/has broken several times.

 

In previous table we can see how circumlocution might be used to render meaning of three undesirable tenses when substituting them with mandatory Perfect.

 

On Serbian State Television even subtitles of foreign movie translations are always and exclusively in Perfect Tense; no translator wants to be branded 'illiterate' and will not dare to risk his own job or reputation using any of 'inconvenient' Past Tenses.

 

Three other tenses are tolerated in colloquial speech, fiction literature, song lyrics and to some degree in movies and TV series. In fact, they are tolerated only in uses where features of Serbian dialects are tolerated. It is another proof that Aorist, Imperfect and Pluperfect are de facto treated as dialectal features, although they are officially part of Serbian grammar (and grammar of former standard Serbo-Croat language). In fact, in many instances they are treated even worse, in some TV series where dialectal features are commonly used, those three Tenses are completely absent, in order not to remind TV viewers that they even exist. Such example is Serbian State Television's series "White Ship" (“Бела лађа”) from 2006-2012, where two main characters are natives of town Vlasotince in southeastern Serbia and they speak with exaggerated accent and dialectal features of their region (except three past Tenses, which are excluded from their speech, although all three of them are ubiquitous there in native's vernacular to degree that for perfective verbs Aorist is even more frequent than Perfect Tense).

 

In Serbian schools (especially in rural areas and small towns, where Aorist is more frequent) children are regularly corrected and in many instances rebuked for use of Aorist, Imperfect or Pluperfect, forcing them to speak Tarzan-style. It is known fact that rural and small town children use Aorist less frequently after they start going to school. I have noticed several such cases, and many other parents too.

 

Let see next sample from Serbian newspapers:

"Петровић је убијен зато што је почео сметати мафији."

 

Literally translation to English: "Petrovic has been killed because he has started to annoy mafia."

 

English literally translation, I suppose, sounds odd to English speakers. That is because in modern simplified standard Serbian language use of Perfect is mandatory, although use of Pluperfect Tense would sound more natural ("Петровић је убијен зато што је био почео сметати мафији."). To many Serbian speakers this newspaper sentence also sounds odd, even to some living in Belgrade. They understand it like dead man is right now starting doing something, and they wonder, how dead man can start doing anything? This is excellent example what mandatory simplification of Past Tenses System brings to.

 

 

01. Aorist Tense


Emphasis in Aorist Tense is exclusively on past action, not on state (like in Present Perfect). To be more specific, Aorist in Serbian language denotes action performed in specific time in past, which was witnessed or experienced in some way by speaker. Aorist among Past Tenses has been mainstay of Serbian language for centuries, both in colloquial and literary use. For example, Aorist comprises 63% of Past Tense occurrences in Vuk Karadzic's Serbian Folk Songs collection from the first half of 19th Century.

 

It is worth to be noted that Aorist is shorter than Perfect (because the first is inflected and the second is periphrastic), and therefore more economical both in speech and in written text.

 

From emerge of mass media at the end of 19th and beginning of 20th century, Perfect Tense, as more neutral than Aorist, started gaining ground and gradually became main past tense in formal use, both in newspapers and state institutions. But even then Aorist retained it's position of main Past Tense in colloquial and literary use with perfective verbs in the most parts of Serbia. In the first half of the 20th century Aorist was used in all Serbian dialects in Yugoslavia, and was very frequent in majority of them (in most of Serbia south of the rivers Sava and Danube, in Montenegro and in Herzegovina, and in the most parts of Bosnia). That is even today evident on Serbian graveyards, where inscriptions on tombstones up to 1945 (mostly verbs like "died", 'killed", "lived"...) are in majority in Aorist Tense, not in Perfect.