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


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

 

Although today's grammar books state that the standard Serbian language nominally has four Past Tenses, only one of them is allowed in any form of official and public use. This mandatory Past Tense is officially called the "Perfect", although its name is to a great extent misleading and wrong, as shall be explained in more detail later in this article. The remaining three – the Aorist, the Imperfect and the Pluperfect – are included in the grammar for reasons of backward compatibility, but are officially considered as superfluous, rustic, and undesirable. Their use is not outright forbidden, but is strongly discouraged.

 

Important note: as 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 the Slavic languages is more important than any Tense, so several Tenses in Serbian have different meanings for verbs of different aspects (for example, the "Present Tense" of perfective verbs has nothing to do  with the Present, it has more to do with the Past or Future). The aorist has a preference for the verbs of perfective aspect, and Imperfect for the verbs of imperfective aspect, although in the traditional Serbian System of Past Tenses they can be used with the opposite aspect as well, but with a slightly different meaning.

 

When we analyse the system of Past Tenses in the Serbian language, we must distinguish between today's modern official and public use, and the traditional and colloquial use. In this regard, there are two competing Past Tenses Systems in Serbia. The First one is the Traditional Serbian System of Past Tenses. The second is the Yugoslav (Serbo-Croat) simplified System of Past Tenses.

 

The Traditional Serbian Past Tenses System has at least four Past Tenses1. Their meanings are very similar to the Past Tenses System of the Macedonian language, which up to 1945 was considered as a Serbian dialect.
In the simplified modern standard Serbian language, only the Perfect Tense is allowed, a situation which was inherited from the former standard Serbo-Croat language of the former Yugoslavia. Any other Past Tense is de facto banned from any official or public use. The Yugoslav (Serbo-Croat) Past Tenses System thus contains only one Past Tense. It should thus be no surprise to anyone that, since the communists took the power in the former Yugoslavia in 1945, the terms "Perfect Tense" and "Past Tense" (“прошло време”) have tended to be used as synonyms, especially in the school system2.

 

Today the Perfect Tense is de facto mandatory in any official, formal or public communication (newspapers, television news, subtitles for foreign movies, other mass media, institutions of the state, schools, professional use at workplace, product tutorials, school and academic textbooks, history books, publications by the Serbian Academy of Sciences3...). Although the other three Past Tenses are not prohibited “de jure”, they are prohibited de facto. And all this is just a continuation of the practices from the former communist-era Yugoslavia4.

 

For most native Serbian speakers, the meanings of the four Past Tenses lay somewhere between these two extremes, depending on their education, social status, employment, age, dialect, and place of residence (city/countryside). The older, less educated, rural living, lower status, religious, unemployed (simply said, more conservative) people tend to use them in a way closer to their traditional meaning, since they usually use much more of the three undesirable Past Tenses in colloquial speech (that way, they form some kind of “linguistic underground”).

 

The following table contains short explanations of their meanings, including small examples.

 

Past Tense

AORIST

(PRESENT-) PERFECT

PLUPERFECT

IMPERFECT

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

A past action, taken as completed and performed at a specific point in the past, which was witnessed or experienced in some way by the speaker.

Mostly used for verbs of perfective aspect.

1. A state in the present after an action has occurred at a non-specific point in the past (the result of a past completed action).

2. An action in the past, whether completed or continuous, which was not witnessed by the speaker.

1. A state in the past, after an action in the past (a result of a past completed action, which has no effect in the present).

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

 

(has two forms, one for the non-witnessed contexts, the other for the witnessed ones)

For the verbs of imperfective aspect, a continuous incomplete action in the past.

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

 

Used for witnessed actions only.

Mostly used for verbs of the imperfective aspect.

Equivalent English Tense

Past Simple Tense

Present Perfect Tense

Past Perfect Tense

Past Continuous Tense (for the verbs of imperfective aspect)

An example in Serbian, in both scripts (Cyrillic and Latin)

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

The window broke.

 

(Emphasis on an action in the past, whether the window is broken right now is not known nor relevant)

The window is broken. /

The window has broken.

The window was broken. /

The window had (been) broken.

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

The window had been breaking.

 

(Action was repeated several times in the past)

Translation into the 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.)

Literal English translation from the modern Yugoslav-era one-Tense Past System

The window is/has broken at that particular point in time.

The window is broken. /

The window has broken.

The window is/has broken, but now it is not broken any more.

The window is/has broken several times.

 

The table shows how circumlocution can be used to render the meaning of the three undesirable tenses when substituting them with the mandatory Perfect.

 

On the Serbian State Television, even the subtitled foreign movie translations use the Perfect Tense always and exclusively; no translator wants to be branded 'illiterate', and will not risk losing his job or reputation by using any of the 'inappropriate' Past Tenses.

 

The other three tenses are tolerated in the colloquial speech, fiction literature, song lyrics, and to an extent in movies and TV series. In fact, they are tolerated only in the contexts where features of Serbian dialects are tolerated. This is yet another proof that the Aorist, Imperfect and Pluperfect are de facto treated as dialectal features, although they are officially part of the Serbian grammar (and that of the former standard Serbo-Croat language). In fact, in many instances they are treated even worse, e.g. in some TV series where dialectal features are commonly used, the three Tenses are completely absent, so as not to remind the TV viewers that they even exist. An example is "The White Ship" (“Бела лађа”) from 2006-2012, a comedy show by the Serbian State Television, whose two main characters are natives of a town called Vlasotince in the southeastern Serbia. They speak with an exaggerated accent and dialectal features of their region, except for the three past Tenses, which are absent from their speech, although all three are in fact ubiquitous in the local vernacular to such a degree that, for the perfective verbs, Aorist is even more frequent than the 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 their use of Aorist, Imperfect or Pluperfect, forcing them to speak Tarzan-style. It is a well-known fact that rural and small town children use Aorist less frequently once they start going to school. I have noticed several such cases, as have many other parents.

 

An example from Serbian newspapers:

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

 

Literal translation to English: "Petrovic was murdered because he has started to inconvenience the mafia."

 

This must sound odd to a native English speaker. This is because in the modern, simplified standard Serbian language, the use of Perfect is mandatory, although the Pluperfect 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 as a dead man starting to do something right now, and they wonder, how can a dead man start doing anything? This is an excellent example of what the mandatory simplification of Past Tenses System leads to.

 

 

01. The Aorist Tense


The Emphasis of the Aorist Tense is exclusively on a past action, unlike the Present Perfect, which describes a state. To be more specific, the Aorist in Serbian denotes an action performed at a specific time in the past, which was witnessed or experienced in some way by the speaker. Among the Past Tenses, Aorist had been the mainstay of the Serbian language for centuries, both in colloquial and literary use. For example, the Aorist comprises 63% of all Past Tense occurrences in Vuk Karadzic's Serbian Folk Songs collection from the first half of the 19th Century.

 

It is worth noticing that the Aorist is shorter than the Perfect (because the former is inflected and the latter is periphrastic), and therefore more economical both in speech and writing.

 

Since the emergence of mass media at the turn of the 20th century, the Perfect Tense, being more neutral than the Aorist, has started gaining ground and gradually became the main past tense in formal use, both in newspapers and institutions of the state. But even then the Aorist retained its status as the main Past Tense in the colloquial and literary use with perfective verbs in most parts of Serbia. In the first half of the 20th century, the Aorist was used in all Serbian dialects in Yugoslavia, and was very frequent in most of them (in most of Serbia south of the Sava and Danube rivers, in Montenegro, Herzegovina, and in most of Bosnia). To this day, this is evident in Serbian graveyards, where tombstone inscriptions up to 1945 (mostly verbs like "died", 'killed", "lived"...) were mostly in the Aorist, rather than the Perfect Tense.

 

 

 

The above chart shows statistics of the past tense usage on tombstones between years 1901 – 1942 (immediately before the communists came to power) of four village graveyards in Serbia. The first village is just 15 km away from the centre of Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. And we can see that the incidence of Aorist (48%) is not even close to 'archaic'. Villages second and third, with an overwhelming use of Aorist (over 80%), are located about 103 and 110 km south of Belgrade, and about 10 km from the geographical centre of Serbia. On this chart we can see something that is an already known fact, namely that there is a north-south cline, where the use of Aorist grows in the southern direction.