Serbian Teacher Explains: Past Tense in the Serbian Language

a roadsign showing directions for Future and Past

Every language learner knows that grammar can be a real pain in the neck. Of course, Serbian grammar is no exception. Still, whether we like it or not, learning about grammar and tenses is necessary. So, let’s tackle the past tense in the Serbian language.

Since most learners feel like taking a nap at the mere mention of tenses and conjugation, we’ve broken it down into bite-sized portions. So, here’s everything you need to know about the past tense in the Serbian language, of course, with plenty of examples.

Past Tense or Perfekat

The past tense in the Serbian language is perfekat. You can use it to talk about past events, and it covers all the past tenses in English (Past Simple, Past Continuous, Present, and Past Perfect). In other words, it’s the only tense you’ll need to discuss the past.

In all fairness, perfekat isn’t the only past tense in Serbian. In fact, there are three other past tenses. However, these are rarely used in everyday situations. But we’ll talk about them a bit more later.

Now, let’s learn how to form perfekat.

Formation of the Past Tense in the Serbian Language

Before we delve into the formation of perfekat, let’s take a look at an example:

On je pevao. (He sang)

Pevao je. (He sang.)

As you can see, there are two ways to say the same thing in Serbian. Namely, these are the long and the short form of a past tense sentence. Both contain the same elements.

LONG FORM:

Subject + present of TO BE + Past Participle

Subject

Present of TO BE

Past participle

On

je

pevao

SHORT FORM:

Past Participle + present of TO BE

Past Participle

Present of TO BE

Pevao

je

So, both forms contain the Past Participle and present of the verb TO BE. The only difference is the short form omits the subject. In Serbian, this is possible because verbs change according to gender and number, which means you don’t need a subject to know who the sentence is about.

Even though both forms are correct, the short form is much more common. All this makes sense since the economy of language dictates we should use as few words as possible for the sake of clarity. After all, why would you want to waste your time when you can say the same thing with fewer words?

Kevin Malone meme. Captions [So me think Why waste time say lot word when few word do trick]
The economy of words in a nutshell 🤦

The Present of TO BE

Firstly, what’s the verb TO BE in Serbian? The dictionary form of this verb is BITI. It’s an irregular verb, and in its short form, it conjugates like this:

 

Singular

Plural

1.

sam

smo

2.

si

ste

3.

je

su

Past Participle

Now it’s time to learn about the past participle (radni glagolski pridev) of the main verb. The formula for making past participle goes like this:

 Infinitive stem + Past participle endings

You get the infinitive stem when you omit the ending -ti from an infinitive (dictionary) form of a verb.

Past participle endings

Gender

Singular

Plural

Masculine

-o

-li

Feminine

-la

-le

Neuter

-lo

-la

Let’s check how this works in practice. We’ll say – He slept yesterday. So, we need to take the verb spavati (to sleep) and remove -ti, so we get the infinitive stem spava-. And since it’s – he, we need to add the singular, masculine ending from the table, which is -o. Finally, we get spavao. Now, let’s make a sentence.

On je spavao juče. (Long form)

 Spavao je juče. (Short form.)

Let’s use the same verb for more examples:

 

Singular

Plural

Person

masculine

feminine

masculine

feminine

1.

Ja sam spavao.

Ja sam spavala.

Mi smo spavali.

Mi smo spavale.

2.

Ti si spavao.

Ti si spavala

Vi ste spavali.

Vi ste spavale.

3.

On je spavao.

Ona je spavala.

Oni su spavali.

One su spavale.

Now, you’ve probably noticed that not all Serbian verbs end in -ti. Verbs like jesti and ići end with -sti and -ći. So what should we do with these?

The best way is to learn these verbs using examples and memorize them as they are. Here are a few examples:

PEĆI – to bake

Past participle: pekao-pekla

For example:

Pekla je kolače. (She baked cookies.)

Pekao je piletinu. (He baked chicken.)

 

IĆI – to go

Past participle: išao-išla

For example:

Išla je u šetnju. (She  went for a walk.)

Išao je na plažu. (He went to a beach.)

 

JESTI– to eat

Past participle: jeo-jela

For example:

Jela je sladoled. (She ate an ice cream.)

Jeo je sladoled. (He ate an ice cream.)

Negative and interrogative forms

After you get the hang of the positive forms, negative and interrogative forms are a piece of cake.

Negative form

For the negative form, you just need to insert the prefix ni- before the TO BE verb.

For example:

  • On je išao u školu. (He went to school.)
  • On nije išao u školu. (He didn’t go to school.)
  • Ona je radila. (She worked.)
  • Ona nije radila. (She didn’t work.)
A lady in bed, covered over the face with a white blanket
Ona nije radila 😷

Interrogative form

In order to form the interrogative form, place – da li –  before the verb:

  • On je išao u školu. (He went to school.)
  • Da li je on išao u školu? (Did he go to school?)

 

  • Ona je radila. (She worked.)
  • Da li je ona radila? (Did she work?)

How to Use the Serbian Past Tense

Now that we got the grammar out of the way, we can focus on the practical aspect. So how can we use perfekat?

We can use it to talk about:

  • Anything that happened in the past

Padao je sneg. (It was snowing.)

  • An event that occurred before another event

Zaspala sam pre nego što si me zvala. (I fell asleep before you called me.)

  • An event that occurred recently

Upravo sam stigla. (I’ve just arrived.)

  • An event that started in the past and lasted for some time

Živeli smo zajedno 30 godina. (We lived together for 30 years.)

  • An event that started in the past but didn’t finish

Krenula sam na časove gitare pre 3 meseca. (I started the guitar lessons 3 months ago.)

Other Past Tenses in Serbian

As we mentioned at the beginning of the article, even though perfekat is the go-to past tense for every situation, there are 3 other tenses in Serbian. They are:

  1. Aorist (recent past)
  2. Imperfekat (outdated, bookish)
  3. Pluskvamperfekat (distant past, similar to past-perfect in English, also outdated)

 

In addition to being tongue twisty, the second and third ones are bookish, which means you won’t hear them in everyday situations. However, the aorist is worth mentioning.

Aorist

We use this tense to talk about recent events in the past. Although you can use perfekat as well, the aorist is good for building tension, since it sounds a bit dramatic. Let’s take a look at the example of aorist:

Perfekat: Čovek je pao. (A man fell down.)

Aorist: Pade čovek. (A man fell down.)

While the meaning is identical, aorist stresses the drama of a man falling down much better.

Another peculiar way Serbs often use aorist is to talk about the future. Despite being past tense, you can use aorist to talk about what you plan to do in a moment.

Odoh kući. (I’ll go home now.)

A wooden table full of empty cups of coffee, surrounded by people.
Hoćeš još jednu kafu? Neću, odoh kući.

Practice the Serbian Past Tense

As you can see, the past tense in the Serbian language isn’t that intimidating. Although there are four different past tenses, you only need to focus on perfekat, and you’re good to go. With a bit of practice, you’ll be able to discuss past events, memories and tell stories like a pro.

Finally, if you’re not sure where to start or need someone to practice with, check out our individual online Serbian lessons. Our experienced teachers will support you on your journey to becoming a confident Serbian speaker.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *