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, their history and trends of their use.

 

Although today's grammar books state that the standard Serbian language nominally has four Past Tenses,  system of past tenses in Serbian language is characterized by high level of Diglossia1. Because the High Form of the Language uses Past Tenses System imported from Russian language, which contains only one past Tense, only that one is allowed in any form of official and public use. This mandatory Past Tense is officially called either "the Perfect" or “the Past Tense”, 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 part of the Low Form of the Language and are included in the grammar for reasons of backward compatibility, but are officially considered as superfluous, rustic, and undesirable. As such, they are subject to regular removal and replacement with “The Past Tense” from statements of people in courts, newspapers and such, when their statements need to be written down.2 Their use is not outright forbidden, but is strongly discouraged.

 

Important note: as in all Slavic languages, verbs in Serbian 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 (both Low and High forms) 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 (Low Form) 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, because of Diglossia, 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 native Serbian System of Past Tenses (Low Form in Serbian Diglossia). The second is the Yugoslav (Serbo-Croat) simplified System of Past Tenses, which was imported from Russian language (High Form in Serbian Diglossia).

 

The Traditional (native) Serbian Past Tenses System (in Low Form of the Language) has at least four Past Tenses3. 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 (Present-)Perfect Tense (“the Past Tense”) is all­owed, a situation which is inherited from the former standard Serbo-Croat language of the former communist Yugoslavia. All other Past Tenses are deemed obsolete and are de facto banned from any official or public use. The Yugoslav (Serbo-Croat) Past Tenses System (in High Form of the Language) 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 system4.

 

 
 

http://nevgen.org/DesktopImages/Vranje_Diglossia.png

 

In the previous chart you can see examples of both Diglossia and language censorship, in south-eastern serbian city of Vranye (Врање – Vranje) and town Vlasotince (Власотинце), whose populations are well known for use of the native Serbian Past Tenses System. And for city of Kragujevac, situated in the centre of Serbia.

On the left side you can see statistics for five people - natives of those places, of usage of tenses used for describing past events. Statistics was made in 2021 by me, by recording of several hours of their free, casual speech at home for analysis.

On the right side first two columns are statistics of usage of tenses used for describing past events, made on sample of 20 recent articles of local Vranye Newspaper (Врањске новине5), all of them are interviews with people living in the same city.
The Vranye group (A) in chart represents statistics of what was written by journalists themselves (9 of them in total), and Vranye group (B) represents statistics of what reportedly said 20 local people that were interviewed in those articles. As we can see from the first two right-side statistics, it is obvious that the language of both journalists and interviewed people was either censored or self-censored (most probably both), in order to remove (real) past tenses from it. The middle group on the right represents similar statistics, but from the local Newspaper in Vlasotince (where censorship seems to be strongest), and last two are from Kragujevac6. Similar situation, more or less, is in all other places in Serbia.

Interestingly, our language authorities, through media and school system, use term the genuine language of the peoplefor what you see on the right of previous image. What you see on the left, they deemirregular” language, “corrupted” language, or “dialect” at best.

 

Today the (Present-)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, internet sites (like Wikipedia in Serbian), publications by the Serbian Academy of Sciences7...). 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 Yugoslavia8.

 

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 (Low Form) 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 in the Low Form of Serbian Diglossia

AORIST

(not used in the High Form of the Language)

PRESENT- PERFECT

PLUPERFECT

(rarely used in the High Form of the Language9)

IMPERFECT

(not used in the High Form of the Language)

Meaning in the native 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 (High Form of Serbian Diglossia – which I sometimes call “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 (Present-)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 High-Status “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 High Form, simplified standard Serbian language, the use of (Present-)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.

 

In Serbia, not knowing the difference in meaning between (Present-)Perfect Tense and Pluperfect Tense is correlated with higher education. In my research with 92 respondents, those who were not able to differentiate the meanings of those two Tenses are found predominantly among people with high education. Correlation coefficient is 1.57. You can see the results in the next chart. To make things worse, among those not knowing the difference is one of two interviewed school teachers of Serbian language.

 

 

01. Causes of Diglossia in System of Past Tenses

 

In previous chapter, it have been written about Diglossia in Serbian language, and about usage of its both past tenses systems. But there was not a single word said how actually this Diglossia originated. I shall try here to describe how it happened.

 

The story begins in the first half of 18th century in Austrian (Habsburg) Empire, where among other etnicities (Germans, Hungarians, Croats, Czechs, Slovaks, Romanians...) also some Serbs lived (who are Orthodox Christians, like Greeks, Russians, Bulgarians, Romanians, Ukrainians...). At that time, Serbs in Habsburg Empire were not allowed to print books in their own language and in their own cyrillic alphabet (Habsburg Government by that measure wanted to compel them to accept Catholicism and learn from state-supported catholic books).

Serbs in Habsburg Empire then turned towards Russia, asking russian Tzar to send them books, from which their children could be educated. Russians responded by sending many books (written in russian language, ofcourse), but also by sending teachers, which opened several schools in what is now Voivodina region of Serbia (I really do not understand how Habsburg authorities had allowed such foreign-sponsored schools to work in their own territory?).

Serbian children in those schools were taught not in Serbian but in Russian language. The consequence of it was that language of upper classes of Serbs living in Habsburg Empire became mixture of Serbian and Russian languages (both are Slavic languages, and mutually intelligible to some degree, but nevertheless distinct).

Influence of Russian language onto language of educated Serbs was not only in Vocabulary, it was also strong in the Writing system, Grammar and Phonology. And that became the source of today's Simplified Past Tenses System: educated Austrian Serbs, imitating the Russians, thought it fashionable  to use Russian Past Tenses System instead of Serbian one, together with several other grammatical features of Russian Language10. And it soon became the norm in all formal and administative use (primarily in schools and church administration). That way the language of Austrian Serbs became heavily russified, especially of their better educated upper class.

 

Nevertheless, most of Serbs at that time lived just south of the border of Habsburg Empire, on the northwest limits of Ottoman Empire, and, since they were almost all illiterate, the Hi form of language of their educated northern brethern living in Habsburg Empire had no influence on them. Until year 1804, from when big parts of todays Serbia gradually acquired Autonomy from Ottomans. Serbian Autonomy in Ottoman Empire during the first half of 19th Century was slowly building up it's institutions, relying on massive participation of Austrian Serbs, who were due to their education (and ability to read and write, unlike their southern brethern11) heavily involved in their administration, schools and all other newly created institutions. That way, heavilly russified language of higher classes of Austrian Serbs became the norm in new Serbian State12. Official correspondence between all kinds of clerks, civil servants and all other state officials had to be carried out in such language. And that is the way how the native Serbian Past Tenses System became replaced with the Past Tenses System of Russian Language in official use in Serbia, up to this day.

 

Sometimes newly employed civil servants at the beginning of their career used normal Serbian language in official correspondence, but very soon they would have learned how to write (and speak) in the way preferred by their superiors.

I will show here two examples from the same person, Arangel Milosavlyevich, who was one of state officials in town of Yagodina during the first half of 19th century. Next two are excerpts from his official messages to the Ruler of Serbia, Knyaz Milosh Obrenovich. The first is from year 1822, in the beginning of his career, which contains no russian influence of any kind at all, and is written in native Serbian System of Past Tenses (underlined verbs - all witnessed actions are described by Aorist and Imperfect Tenses, which did not exist in contemporary Russian language).

 

“Ја ваш покорни слуга не пропуштам вама покорно јавити како ономад дођоше 8 Арнаута из Голак ишту да иду у Београд. Ја им потражи тескеру нису имали врати ги натраг. Они отишли у Ћуприји казали ћуприском војводе и бинбаше како смо иј вратили натраг зашто нису имали тескеру. Ондак дали им тескеру војвода и бинбаша ћуприски јучер па дођоше код јагодинског војводе и он искаше ди и пусти, ја не дадо но их па натраг врати(с)мо.”

 

The second official correspondence (from year 1837) written by the same man contains numerous russian words13 (in red), beside those which are purely Serbian (in green), and those which can be both, since they are either names or equal in both languages (black). And in it, ofcourse, was not used native Serbian Past Tenses System, but Russian.

 

"Сви житељи с глубочајшим страхопочитанијем светли скут љубећи, всеподанејше благодаре Вашој Светлости на књажеском поздраву и отеческом о њима попеченију и сва је варош као наново оживела сад известивши се да је Ваша Светлост имала заповест издати, да спутник г. доктора Нађа, латов Коста Јовановић у Јагодину поврати се"

 

Nevertheless, during the same time, outside of administrative and official use, spoken and written Serbian was much less influenced by Russian language. Which is visible in serbian Literature and even private correspondence, where russian words were scarce and native Serbian Past Tenses System was ubiquitous. Even Knyaz Milosh Obrenovich, who overwhelmingly used Russian P. T. System in his official correspondence, did not use it in his Memoirs. Those times saw Diglossia at the most pronounced.

 

Partial derussification of Serbian language began in 1860s, when most of Russian words were replaced either by serbian, or western European ones14. Most russian grammatical influences too were gone, except the Russian Past Tenses System, which has been still kept in the official use, up to this day. Despite Serbian officials in state administration used Russian P.T. System, in declarations to the Serbian people, and in school teachings, native Serbian P.T. System was still used up to the communist seizure of power in 1940s, not Russian.

 

02. 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.

 

http://nevgen.org/DesktopImages/Aorist_use_Serbian_Folk_Songs.png

 

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.

 

I have found on internet interesting work (from year 2010, in english language) about language acquisition of small children in Serbia.15 The author noticed that children start using Aorist Tense several months before Present-Perfect Tense – which is in a strong contradiction with official stance that aorist is a “archaic” tense, not used by people.

 

Since the emergence of mass media in the 19th century, the Perfect Tense, being preferred past tense in the institutions of the state, and more neutral than the Aorist, has started gaining ground and gradually became the main past tense in newspapers. 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.

 
 

http://nevgen.org/DesktopImages/Aorist_Tense_on_Serbian_graveyards_before_communism.png

 

The above chart shows statistics of the past tense usage on tombstones between years 1901 – 1942 (immediately before the communists came to power) of seven 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 there (48%) is not even close to be 'archaic'. Villages third and fourth, 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 (near Kragujevac). 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 generally grows in the southern direction.