Most Serbian verbs have two aspects, each indicating whether the action has been completed or if it is ongoing. If you look up the Serbian equivalent of the verb to “read” in a dictionary, you will find two infinitives: čitati and počitati, and probably some more!
These are not merely synonyms. Moreover, to complicate things even further, this holds true for almost all verbs in Serbian. The conclusion is that for one English verb, there are at least two forms of the same verb in Serbian. How nice!!
Let’s take a look at the present tense first:
Imperfective verbs: ongoing, continuous action (raditi, spavati, jesti, piti, trčati, nositi, prati, voziti)
These are the only ones that are used in present tense. The reason is that the present tense indicates the duration of an action, current or continuous, that is ongoing at the moment.
- Ja radim u bolnici: I work at the hospital.
- Deca spavaju kasno: The children sleep late.
- Mi jedemo palačinke: We are eating pancakes.
Perfective verbs: successfully completed actions (uraditi, odspvaty, pojesti, popiti, potrčati, doneti, oprati, dovesti)
These are allowed in the present tense, but only after certain clause connectives that imply that the action has been completed, such as ako (if), kad (when), čim (as soon as) and pošto (after). This aspect can also be translated as the verb “to finish” in English.
- Čim pročitam knjigu, doći ću kod tebe: As soon as I finish (reading) my book, I will come to your place.
- Ako uradiš domaći, možeš ići u diskoteku: If you finish (doing) your homework, you can go to the disco.
- Kad otpevamo pesmu, svi će biti srećni: When we finish (singing) the song, everybody will be happy.
- Pošto popiju pivo, otići će kući: After finishing their beer, they will go home.
After modal verbs such as the verb moći (can), both the perfective and imperfective form can be used with a slight difference in meaning:
- Ja mogu da čitam knjigu na engleskom jeziku: I can read the book in English.
- This is a general action because I speak English well and I understand everything, etc.
- Ja mogu da pročitam knjigu na engleskom jeziku za dva dana: I can read the book in English and finish it in two days.
Both the perfective and imperfective aspect can be used in the future. The difference is small:
- Ja ću pisati pismo sutra: I will be writing a letter.
- Imperfective aspect: It is not said whether or not the action will be completed or not. It probably won’t be right away, instead it will take some time.
- Ja ću napisati pismo: I will finish writing a letter.
- Perfective aspect.
Sometimes using an imperfective aspect in the future implies a repeated and frequent action, which might not have a conclusion:
- Ja ću učiti engleski svaki dan: I will learn English every day (but this doesn’t necessarily mean that I will be good at it or know it well).
On the other hand, using a perfective form implies that an action will be done successfully:
- Ja ću naučiti Engleski: I will learn English (and I’ll know it forever).
- Ja sam čitao knjigu: I was reading the book.
- Ja sam pročitao knjigu: I read the book, and I also finished the book.
- Ti si pisao pismo: You were writing the letter.
- Ti si napisao pismo: You wrote the letter, and you also finished the letter.
Repeated, habitual or periodical actions in the past are expressed by the imperfective form in Serbian. In English, they are very often expressed by using “used to”:
- Išao sam na more svake godine: I used to go to the sea every year.
- Učila sam engleski svakog dana: I learned English every day.
If you want to point out the duration of an action (even if the duration is very short) then the imperfective aspect is used as well:
- Govorio je nekoliko sekundi: He spoke for few seconds.
- Radila sam tamo 2 godine: I worked there for two years.
- Spremala sam ručak celi dan: I was cooking all day.
Let’s summarise everything that has been said above:
The list of verbal pairs is very long and it can be very annoying to learn all of the verbs by heart. In order to make this learning easier, I will try divide them into unofficial groups:
Non-prefixed imperfective and prefixed perfective verbs
These types of verbs are the most numerous. The good thing is that they are highly recognizable, being that all the verbs that have prefixes are perfective. All the other verbs that don’t have prefixes are imperfective. The bad thing is that the prefixes are different (iz, na, u, pro, o, od, etc.). Sometimes the prefixes imply the meaning of the verb. For example, for the imperfective verb trčati, its perfective forms are both dotrčati and otrčati. This verb can mean either “to run to” or “to run from” in English.
- Trčao je okolo: He was running around.
- Dotrčao je do kuće: He runs to the house.
- Otrčao je od kuće: He runs away from the house.
Here are some more examples of these verbs:
- Seći / iseći / useći: To cut / to cut out / to cut into.
- Platiti / isplatiti: To pay / pay off.
Ći (perfective) and Laziti (imperfective)
This is the easiest group because they always follow the same pattern. The verbs ending in -ći are all perfective, while the verbs ending in -laziti are imperfective.
- Doći, dođem / dolaziti, dolazim: To come.
- Izaći, izađem / izlaziti, izlazim: To go out.
- Naći, nađem / nalaziti, nalazim: To find.
- Poći, pođem / polaziti, polazim: To leave, to go.
- Preći, pređem / prelaziti, prelazim: To cross.
- Proći, prođem / prolaziti, prolazim: To pass.
- Sići, siđem / silaziti, silazim: To go down.
- Ući, uđem / ulaziti, ulazim: To get in.
- Zaći, zađem / zalaziti, zalazim: To go down, to settle.
- Došli su juče: They came yesterday.
- Dolazili su svaki dan: They came every day.
The ones with only a small difference between the perfective and the imperfective
This group is the most difficult. There is sometimes only one letter of difference between the two verbs. This is difficult also for natives, but learning them in pairs makes things easier. Plus, there is one small thing that can help: all perfective verbs end in iti, while imperfective ones end in ati.
- Baciti, bacim / bacati, bacim: To throw.
- Oprostiti, oprostim / opraštati, opraštam: To forgive.
The ones that are completely different
These verbs are to be learned in pairs as well. The rule is that there is no rule. They are all different from each other, but most of them can be recognised by the infixes -ivati- / -avati-, which denote imperfective action.
- Desiti se, desi se / dešavati se, dešava se: To happen.
- Dati, dam/davati, dajem: To give.
The ones with one form for both aspects
Unfortunately, there are only a few verbs with the same form for both aspects:
- Čuti, čujem: To hear
- Hteti, hoću: To want
- Doručkovati, doručkujem: To have breakfast
- Imati, imam: To have
- Nemati, nemam: To not have
- Moći, mogu: Can
- Morati, moram: Must
- Ručati, ručam: To have lunch
- Večerati, večeram: To have dinner
- Videti, vidim: To see
Finally, let’s take a look at these sentences. They are given in pairs, and two different verbal aspects should be used for every English verb:
- When I was a child, I ate a lot of candies. Kada sam bio dete, JEO SAM mnogo slatkiša
- This is a repeated action in the past, so the imperfective form is used.
- Yesterday, I ate two pieces of cake. Juče SAM POJEO dva parčeta torte
- The action was finished and completed yesterday, so the perfective form is used.
- I washed my hands before every meal. PRAO SAM ruke pre svakog obroka.
- I have just washed my hands. Upravo SAM OPRAO ruke.
- What were you doing when I called? Šta si radio kada SAM POZVAO?
- While you were calling her, my son broke the glass. Dok SI ZVAO, moj sin je slomio čašu.
- As a child, I read a lot. Kao dete, ČITAO SAM mnogo.
- I read a lot of books when I was at school. PROČITAO SAM mnogo knjiga kada sam bio u školi.
- I was reading a lot of books, but I never finished any of them. ČITAO SAM mnogo knjiga, ali nijednu nisam PROČITAO.
- I felt a strange pain long after my surgery. OSTEĆAO SAM snažan bol dugo posle operacije.
- While I was running, I suddenly felt a strange pain in my back. Dok sam trčao, OSETIO SAM snažan bol u leđima.
- My father fixed our car yesterday, it is working now. Moj otac JE POPRAVIO automobil I sada ponovo radi.
- My father fixed cars all day yesterday. Moj otac JE POPRAVLJAO automobile celog dana juče.
- They have always spent a lot of money on holidays. Uvek SU TROŠILI mnogo novca na odmoru.
- During their holiday last year, they spent a lot of money. Prošle godine na odmoru, POTROŠILI SU mnogo novca.
The verbal aspect is the most difficult part of the Slavic languages. Their use is quite logical, but different verbal forms can be annoying. The best thing to do is to learn them regularly and in pairs. It can be done, and believe me, once you learn them, nothing is impossible for you any more.