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 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. Another one 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 Serbian language is allowed only use of Perfect Tense, which has been inherited from former 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, 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 Yugoslavia. This may sound strange to foreigners, not used to communist regimes. But existence of such things was normal in communist states. For example, in communist Yugoslavia, going to church was never de jure prohibited. But it was prohibited de facto, especially in 1940-s and 1950-s. Police and secret services monitored who visits churches, and those who did, could had faced severe punishments and harassments, the most benign to be fired from job, or to be imprisoned by secret police and labeled as "enemy of state". Even those who celebrated in their own homes religious holidays like Easter or Christmas (or their patron saints, which is common custom of Serbian people called 'Slava') could had faced consequences.

 

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 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, 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 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. Such example is Serbian State Television's series "White Ship" (“Бела лађа”) from 2006-2012, where two main characters are natives of southeastern Serbia and they speak with exaggerated accent and dialectal features of their region (except three past Tenses, although all three of them are ubiquitous there in native's vernacular to degree that for perfective verbs Aorist is probably 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 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.

 

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).

 

On the other side, majority of Croatian dialects at the same time had no Aorist at all (for example, all of Kajkavian and the most of Chakavian dialect groups), and in most of the rest Aorist was not much frequent. Major Croat population centers like Zagreb (capital), Rijeka, Varazdin, Bjelovar, Split, Sibenik, Zadar and even Dubrovnik were in aorist-free areas. Only places where Aorist was common among Croatian population were parts of Herzegovina and central Bosnia.

 

With creation of Yugoslavia in 1918, Serbs were not alone any more. Serbs and Croats became two dominant nations in new state. Heavy use of Aorist in Serbian population became obstacle for linguistic  unification of Serbs and Croats. To solve this problem, Serbian linguist Aleksandar Belic in his grammar of wanna-be-unified Serbo-Croatian language in 1933 for the first time restricted meaning of Aorist to actions which happened "immediately before the moment of speech". In the same paper he explained his plans to restrict meaning and usage of Aorist because of "existence of great part of people in Yugoslavia who rarely use Aorist, or does not use it at all". He did not mention Croatian people, but it is obvious they were reason for such restrictions. In his time few Serbo-Croatian dialects, if any, used Aorist in anything close to such manners. Aorist neither has such meaning in closely related Macedonian and Bulgarian languages.

But Belic's advocacy to officially restrict use of Aorist was not widely accepted by linguistic circles in pre-communist Yugoslavia (subsequent pre-communist-era grammars did not follow his intentions), until communist regime was established in Yugoslavia in 1945. For communists, especially for those from Croatia's aorist-free areas, Aorist was deemed reactionary, churchly, and reminded them of Serbian peasantry, which was deemed conservative and backward. Under rule of Communist Party, whose leader was comrade Josip Broz Tito (Croat from aorist-free area in Northwestern Croatia), deaoristization of language became systematic, but silent, and dramatically accelerated. Use of Aorist officially became restricted in all grammars to actions which happened "immediately before the moment of speech", despite opposition of some Serbian linguists, like Petar Sladojevic. Even in such highly restricted domain Aorist was not mandatory, communist-era grammars did not state that Aorist should be used for such actions, they stated that it only could be used. Under communists, even in such circumstances use of Aorist was undesirable. That way Aorist had been dumped and sacrificed for sake of Serbo-Croatian language unity.

 

Another problem with such definition of restricted meaning of Aorist was it's ambiguity. How many seconds, or minutes is long the time period "immediately before the moment of speech"? Communists did not offer answer to that question. Majority think it was intentionally left ill-defined, in order to be easily excluded from any use.

 

Under communist rule, Aorist became undesirable as well in books about History (in pre-communist Yugoslavia Aorist was regularly used in such genre) as well in all other academic works. With advent of Television, Aorist was banned from foreign movie translations, where it's use could make it to sound more natural than with mandatory 100% Perfect Tense use. Aorist was even considered undesirable in comic strips.

 

 

In previous picture we can see Past Tense usage statistics of three books of the same genre, depicting three wars, each written by participating army officers. The first two were written in pre-communist era, the third was written during the communist era, and published by communist Yugoslav People's Army. The third book has about 7,000 instances of Perfect Tense on 420 pages, 23 instances of Pluperfect, and 0 (zero) instances of Aorist and Imperfect Tenses. Five people took part in editing of book's context after author's death, so I believe possible Aorist and Imperfect usage was censored.

 

 

Being banned from mass media, and any formal and public use, Aorist found his refuge in rural and semi rural small-town areas of Serbia, mostly among uneducated, older or unemployed part of population, which were less affected by modern ways and policy of deaoristization.

 

Today Aorist, together with Pluperfect and in some places even Imperfect has the greatest frequency of use in villages, and among less educated people who moved from villages to cities. It is important to note that they use Aorist in such frequency because they do not conform to newly introduced restriction "immediately before the moment of speech", but use it regularly for non-recent actions, as Aorist was used for centuries. They use them mostly in colloquial speech, with family members and other well-known people with who they feel more relaxed. When speaking in more tense and formal situations, for example with doctors, teachers, clerks, or with people they do not know, they avoid use of Aorist, since they instinctively know that use of Aorist and two other Tenses is undesirable, or even shameful and is a sign of lower social status (in fact, in such situations they try to copy the way of speech of persons of higher social status).

 

In Serbia it is normal that siblings, raised in the same home, have different patterns of Aorist use, depending on their education and employment. Siblings which are high-educated, employed and had moved to big town, try to show their higher social status and therefore regularly use fewer Aorist or Pluperfect in their speech. But their low educated brothers and sisters, who keep on living in their homeland village, tend to use undesirable Past Tenses more regularly, just like they had learned from their parents, especially in family and close friends circle. I know many such cases, one of them is case of my mother and her brother.

 

In Macedonian language, standardized in the 20th century, Aorist was by no means restricted. In contrast to former Serbo-Croatian language, Aorist in Macedonian has been regularly used in mass media, schools and state institutions, and it has been allowed to retain status of main Past Tense with verbs of perfective aspect. Until communists rose to power in 1945, Macedonian was considered as Serbian dialect. In today's Serbian mass media, when citing statements from North Macedonian politicians, Aorist which they spoke is always substituted with Perfect Tense. Serbian journalists do not allow use of Aorist to anyone, not even to Macedonians, whose language is similar to Serbian and mutually intelligible.

 

Should be noted that today some linguists and teachers of Serbian language are not satisfied with policy of deaoristization and would like to stop and reverse it, but the mainstream supports it. Today, Serbian Orthodox Church is the only institution of Serbian people which supports use of Aorist (together with Imperfect and Pluperfect) and does not follow the communist-era prescribed rules.

 

 

02. Perfect Tense


In English language, use of Present Perfect Tense sometimes might be incorrect, just like in this sentence: "I have written to him yesterday." But in today's official Serbian, use of Perfect is always considered correct, whichever way it is used. According to modern Serbian language authorities, Perfect Tense has every imaginable meaning: state in present, action in past (whether it is witnessed or non-witnessed), state in past, action before another action in past, frequent or repeated action in past, even state in future is considered OK. That is the reason why it's use cannot be wrong; whichever way you use it, it is always correct. They consider it as some kind of cure for every illnesses or key that opens every doors. The only way you can make mistake is not to use Perfect but to use another of three undesirable Tenses instead.

 

The most problematic issue with "Perfect" Tense is it's name. If we take a look at imperfective verbs, even in this Tense they are used for continuous actions, which contradicts it's name. So, naming this Tense "Perfect" for imperfective verbs is ridiculous, and has as much sense as asserting man is woman. For perfective verbs in Serbian, there is another problem. Majority Serbs feel it as Present Perfect.

 

In 2018 I have performed research whether native speakers of Serbian language associate next sentence with Present or with Past.

 

Next simple sample sentence is in Perfect Tense, and contains pefective verb:

 

"Дете је се уморило."

 

"The child has got tired."

 

74.7% respondents (62 of 83) associated this sentence with Present (they feel as Child is tired right now), not with Past (way our school system teaches us). Sentence was associated with Present by 100% of people with low education (6/6), 87.5% of people with Secondary School (21/24) and 66.04% of people with high education (35/53). Speakers of three dialects very distant one from another (dialects of southern Montenegro, south-eastern Serbia and Sumadia region, just south of Belgrade) almost exclusively associate this sentence with Present (100% = 11/11, 100% = 8/8, 90% = 9/10). This percentage falls to 41.18% (7/17) among high-educated people born in Belgrade (capital of Serbia), but rises again to 80.95% (17/21) among high-educated people who had moved to live in Belgrade from other places.

 

As we can see, default meaning of this Tense is Present (more precise state in Present, as the result of unspecified past action), just like many pre-communist-era grammarians pointed out. If we want to change the meaning to Past, we need some Time determiners, like 'yesterday', "months ago", "last year". Due to that way the sentence becomes:

 

"Дете је се уморило јуче."

 

"The child has got tired yesterday."

 

That way Time determiner 'yesterday' overrides meaning of grammatical Tense and new sentence by all people now becomes associated with Past. As we can see, in Serbian language we need some Past Time determiners attached to the sentence with perfective verb in so-called Perfect Tense to be associated by people to state in past. The same thing counts also for Present Tense in Serbian. If we add Past Time determiner to sentence in Present Tense, it's default meaning shall be overriden and people will start to associate it with Past, more precisely with actions in Past. Let see next example:

 

"Јуче идем улицом и видим два човека како се свађају и вичу један на другога."

 

"Yesterday I am going down the street and I am seeing two men arguing and yelling on each other."

 

This literally translation in English is incorrect, but in Serbian it is normal, it is even ubiquitous in story-telling in colloquial speech, especially in Belgrade (but not in mass media or in formal use, that is exclusive domain of so-called Perfect Tense). It seems that Present Tense is the Great Winner as it fills gaps left by forced removal of Aorist, Imperfect and Pluperfect, although Perfect had been intended to replace them on the first place.

This kind of use of Present Tenses for Past with time determiners is norm in some languages, like  Chinese, which has no grammatical Tenses at all. And as result of policy of deaoristization, Serbian language is moving fast into the same direction, and is firmly on road to lose grammatical Tenses and to solely convey meaning by Time determiners, like Chinese language.

 

In the next sentence, taken from Yugoslav WW2 movie "Sutjeska", Perfect Tense is used for state in Future.

 

"Ако се појaви и четврти тенк, најебали смо."

 

Literally translation into English:

 

"If the fourth tank shows up, we screwed up."

 

And in another, also.

 

"Када будете стигли на железничку станицу, прво проверите је ли воз стигао."

 

"When you will have arrived to the rail station, first you check if the train has arrived."

 

 

03. Past Tenses in Yugoslav movies


In Yugoslav and later Serbian movies and TV Series Aorist typically has not been used much, but when it has been used, characters who use it are mostly peasants, or illiterate, low educated or stupid people, or somehow problematic in another way, even cutthroats. That way movies convey message that use of Aorist is not worthy for any educated and decent man and associate it with backwardness, stupidity and illiteracy. In TV Series about Serbian medieval Nemanjic Dynasty from 2017, characters speak Tarzan-style, not the dialect they really used in medieval time.

 

Here are some samples of movie statistics.

 
 
 
 

Educated and other high-status characters in movies and TV Series, if they use Aorist at all, use it almost exclusively in recent contexts, restricted to actions which happened "immediately before the moment of speech". Peasants, illiterate or low educated people, snobs, and other low status characters might use it for non-recent contexts too.

 

Aorist has been sometimes used in TV, movies and translations from foreign languages for mocking peasants and their way of speech. For example, in Serbian translation of "SpongeBob SquarePants" animated Television Series, Aorist was used in only one episode, and was spoken by several guest peasant characters, in mocking way.

 

 

Author: Aco Nevski, 2019.

 

 

1Traditionally, grammars of Serbian language state it possesses four past tenses. In fact, one of them, Past Perfect Tense, has two different forms, which in many dialects has slightly different meanings, so it can be certainly assumed that Serbian language in fact has up to five Past Tenses.

2My friend who writes papers for them have confirmed me that their language Editors do not allow use of Aorist or other two undesirable Tenses.