I’m just back from an adventure in Bosnia. I found that life there can be much more interesting if you speak the language — and I’m not talking about its literary manifestation, but the amusing informal expressions that are quintessentially Bosnian.
I’ve reduced what I learned into this short guide. It should be particularly useful for those who speak no Bosnian at all, but would like to sound as if they do. But it will also be worthwhile for those with a high level of book-learning in the language, and even for the — rare, I know —Serbians and Croats who might wish to acculturate to their neighboring Bosnians.
EDIT: These phrases are common in Sarajevo and some other parts of Bosnia, but not everywhere! See also our lovely comments section for fun vocabulary if you are heading elsewhere in Bosnia.
This article is part of my Fluent in 20 Minutes series. I have also published short guides to fun, informal Serbian, French, and other languages, and an explanation of this minimally-communicative language concept that is perfect for travelers who seek culturally aware flirting, toasting, socializing, and debauchery.
- 1. Greeting: Đes ba?
- 2. Niceties
- 3. Complaints About Life
- 4. Responding to Complaints About Life
- 5. Addressing People
- 6. Hillbillies and the Hood
- 7. Toasting
- 8. Liking
- 9. Proposing Marriage
- 10. Sevdah
- Go Further with Bosnian
1. Greeting: Đes ba?
Đes ba? is literally “Where are you?”, but really it just means “hello”.
The đes is a shortening of gdje si?, and ba is a very Bosnian meaningless interjection that can be added to the end of any sentence. (EDIT: Some commenters below feel that it is not “meaningless”, and say that it comes from a shortening of bolan/bona — see item five — which in turn they say are a shortening of bolestan, or “sick”. Whatever the lovely and interesting origin, however, it does not currently carry that meaning as used as an interjection in modern Bosnian; it truly is meaningless.)
You can respond to such a greeting with evo me, (literally “here I am”).
To ask how someone is doing say Š’a ima? , which means “What’s up?” (This is a shortened form of, šta ima, which literally means “what has”.)
You can respond with either bezze or niš posebno,1The first is short for bezveze (“without links”) and the second for ništa posebno both of which mean “nothing special”.
However — and this cannot be stressed enough — these are lies and should be contradicted afterwards by at least 20 minutes of complaining about everything special, particularly things that are going wrong with your life, family, job, country, and the world. See the next point.
3. Complaints About Life
In order to have an authentic Bosnian conversation, you should be complaining about life. It’s obviously easier to do this if you actually speak Bosnian, but at the very least you should know how to say Joj jest’ dosadno!, which means, “Damn, this [world/situation/place/life] is boring and/or annoying.”
Extra credit: ubi ova dosada, or, “this boredom is killing me”.
4. Responding to Complaints About Life
But then, when someone else complains about life, your response must of course be to refute their negativity.
You can shrug it off with Nema frke! — literally, “There is no panic!”
A useful phrase for general refutation is Nemoj srat’!, or “Don’t give me that bullshit!”
Extra credit: Sve je dobro dok se ne puca — “All’s well as long as no one’s been shot”.
5. Addressing People
A man should be addressed as buraz (“bro”) or bolan, which means something like “dude”.
The female equivalent is bona.
6. Hillbillies and the Hood
Which are you? To say that you’re from the big city/hood, say Ja sam iz čaršije. And country bumpkin (or someone as uncultured as one) is a seljak/seljanka (male/female). The latter is offensive, but I found it quite useful in explaining my background (Iowan).
For bonus points, use the šatrovački version of “hillbilly”: ljakse/ljankase. It’s even more offensive, and also appropriate for peasants like me who have since moved to the big city and put on an air of sophistication.
Many Bosnians are Muslim but don’t think for a minute that there isn’t a culture of drinking. Hold your rakija high and bellow Nazdravlje! (“Health!”).
There is also a rather more complicated system of toasting, but it’s very important. Wish “life” to your fellow drinkers with:
- živio — addressing one man
- živjela — addressing one woman
- živjeli — addressing men or a mixed group
- živjele — addressing a group of women
Are you totally wild for Marija? Tell everyone with Ja sam se zacop’o u Mariju.
Marija is the greatest woman in Sarajevo, but if your love interest is some otherwise-named Bosnian female, just change the -a at the end of her name to -u.
If a man named Armin is striking your fancy, you can say Ja sam se zacop’o u Armina, and so on, generally adding an -a after the final consonant of the man’s name.
The above is for men; if you are a woman, you say, Ja sam se zacopala u Armina.
9. Proposing Marriage
If Marija is extremely interested, she might ask you:
Ka’š me ženit’? — When you gonna marry me? (Used by a woman, speaking to a man2A gender-neutral form is: Ka’ćemo se vjenčati? — When will we get married? )
This is a great question to know because there is no better way to understand Bosnian culture than to do a wedding, and then raise little Bosnian kids. But I also bring the phrase up because it demonstrates a couple of very typical informal Bosnian contractions. The full form of the question would be Kada ćeš me ženiti? — both the shortening of kada ćeš to k’aš and the elimination of the final vowel from the infinitive ženiti are quintessentially Bosnian.
Similarly, for example, you can say Hoš doć’? instead of Hoćeš li doći? (Do you want to come?)
Once you leave Bosnia you will experience sevdah, a supposedly untranslatable, intense and beautiful feeling of nostalgia (like Brazilian saudades, but usually with a stronger whiff of tragic melodrama). Put on some sevdahlinka music, and revel in it.
Go Further with Bosnian
If you want to learn the thousands of lesser Bosnian words that are not included in this article, I have some recommendations.
These two things (classes and a good book) apply for learning any language, in fact, and are based on my extensive reading on what the language scientists know that most of us language learners don’t. Fortunately there aren’t a lot of silly time-waster apps out there claiming to teach us Bosnian, which tend to be mere distractions.
1. Take Classes with Native Bosnian Speakers
One-on-one classes over Skype are by far the most efficient way to learn any language. My preferred platform for finding teachers is Italki; they’ve got tons of Bosnian teachers too. Trial classes cost next to nothing; find a few different teachers that you click with so that you can get various perspectives and versions of the language.
The Two Best Self-Teaching Textbooks for Learning Bosnian
I have extensively reviewed the book options for learning Serbian / Croatian / Bosnian; unfortunately there are no quality books in English on learning specifically Bosnian.
My recommendation therefore is the very good Complete Croatian, plus, optionally, the top academic textbook covering the language.
An accompaniment to the above book by the same authors is the very good Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, a Grammar.
What am I missing? Useful comments on helping foreigners sound more Bosnian are welcome in the comments.
I will delete any ethnophobic nonsense as well as arguments about whether or not Bosnian is a language; obviously this blog is not concerned with boring ethnic/political hangups.