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.
We continuously update articles based on our lovely readers’ corrections, additions, hooey arguments over the true meaning of minimalism, fantastical travel wisdom, etc. We obviously publish only respectful, relevant commentary.
If you use a real email address it will be held in strict confidence and you can opt to receive automated notifications for replies to your post—or not. You may also opt in to receiving our very occasional, exclusive newsletter with juicy updates on our latest discoveries.
A little tuning must be said…
It is not true that bolan and bona are coming from wanting to inflict pain on someone. That would be insanely awkward and evil.
The term bolan is Bosnian adaptatio of a Turkish word boğlan (silent g, longer o) which means being comfortable, have wide free space. Once it was adapted to bolan it also got its dual gender version.
I assume you’re responding to someone down further in the comments about the pain, though I’m not sure he meant to say that was the origin. In any case your idea of the word origin sounds believable, thanks!
Also, I would like to add, like some other people here, many of these are used only in and around Sarajevo. Sarajevo is a very specific when it comes to slang since some residents in uphill areas speak differently than those who live downhill or a few kilometers away from the downtown area. I moved there in 2008 from central Bosnia and that was the first time i heard words like “paša”, “de ba” and so on. Now I use “de ba” in my daily life although I left the city.
I found slang in Mostar and around quite specific and different than Sarajevo. It would be good to explore it. 🙂
Overall, Bosnian slang is super rich and well recognizable everywhere in the region. Very often our neighbours will laugh at as Bosnians, but sometimes they even don’t understand some of the jokes we make. Or words we throw. Also, we tend to make everything short, so we skip many sounds when we speak 🙂 Also, we use loooong vowels, especially “a” and “o”.
My Bosnian wife has taught me how to say “thank you” and “shut up, you cow”.
I’m good to go!
Actually, ‘bolan’ comes from ‘bolan ne bio’, where ‘bolan’ is read as ‘boolan’ (bol meaning pain). It translates to something like ‘so you may not be ill’. 🙂
BURAZ actually means Brother and is a short from BURAZER. It is a very common word to use for especially your biological brother. So, for example, BURAZ is used when addressing a person directly, your own brother or just a friend (colloquially), but when you are describing something about your biological brother to someone, you would usually say “To mi je burazer” or “That’s my brother”, etc.
Impressive! Now I have to go find out more about you Mose!
But before I do here is my modest contribution:
“jah” or “ja” (pronounced as short a “ya”) is another arguably meaningless, yet profoundly useful Bosnian word. It is used as an affirmative (when someone else is complaining, praising, bullshitting… and you emphatically agree). It is used as a neutral acknowledgement (if you are not sure what someone is talking about, but don’t want to question/argue). It is used – most importantly – when you have nothing else to say.
It is entirely possible to make up a conversation using only “jah”, as the famous joke goes:
Mujo & Suljo (famous Bosnian buddies making up 99.98% of all Bosnian jokes, and 99.97% of jokes from all FY region) are a regular, but certainly not verbose couple of friends, meeting at a pub every Friday night for a beer. Typically the “dialogue” would go:
Suljo (after a long pause): Jah!
They would then finish their beers and go home.
On one occasion a third friend Haso was invited, so on that busy Friday the conversation went:
Suljo (after a long pause): Jah!
Haso (after a long pause): Jah, jah!
Silence ensued as usual, beers were finished and all went home. However, the day after Mujo & Suljo agreed never again to invite Haso, who simply cannot keep his big mouth shut.
(liberal translation, with personal embellishments, apologies)
(and a bit verbose, apologies)
Not to mention a whole conversation between two persons, using just one letter words/expressions:
– O! (hello, surprized to see you!)
– E! (hi, I’m so glad to see you too!)
– I? (What’s up, how you’re doing?)
– A… (Well, I’m holding on)
– E… (Hopefully it will be better soon)
Best regards from Rajvosa…
No one mentioned paša?
Another thing that I think is important to mention is that “seljak/seljanka” being offensive is most likely a bourgeoisie sentiment from the city (Sarajevo). I am from a hillside village near Teslić about 3,5-4 hours drive from Sarajevo, and my family is 110% seljaci and proud to be so! Being called a seljanka is not offensive at all to me, but considering how the city people view countryside people I think the stigma of “uncultured” pertains a lot to the city people perspective, even though the seljaci will claim to be the ones who truly carry on the Bosnian culture haha. I personally do not care too much, but I do use seljanka about myself.
I can’t believe you didn’t learn “Jarane mili” and “raja” vs “papak/papci”.
“Jaran” – old fashioned (left from Turkish and Ottomans) word for “Buddy” or “Friend”, and for female is “jaranica”.
“Mili” – Means “dear”.
“jarane mili” is often part of conversations, emphasizing a story to a fellow buddy of your, whom you are having a coffee with haha 🙂 ex:”Jarane mili, neces vjerovati sta mi se desilo! – You wouldn’t believe what has happened to me!”
“Raja” – also from old Ottomans’ times. “Raja” means circle of friends, a crew.
Another meaning is someone who is friendly, helpful, welcoming etc….
“Papak/papci” (sing/pl) – slang for someone opposite from “raja”, someone who doesn’t know who to live city lifestyle, does’t know how to behave properly with manners and tend to betray people, being rude. Also used for rural people sometimes.
Nek si mu napisala, dosta je izostavio.
Ne moze sve ni on obuhvatiti, ali npr. ovo “zacopala”, mislim da se vise toliko i ne koristi…zavisi s kim se druzio u Sarajevu. 😀
Ili dati tacnu definiciju papka po Elvisu Kurtovicu….
Great article! But živjeli, živio, živjele, živjela… too complicated, saying Ž! will cover it all 😀
Greeting in bosnian can be kind of complicated.
Generally there are two combinations that have a correct answer to the question:
Person A: djes ba (where are you) – question
Person B: evo me (here I am) -answer
Person A: sta ima (what has / what’s up) – question
Person B: nema nista (there is nothing) – answer
However, sometimes a conversation can make no sense whatsoever:
Person A: djes ba (where are you) – question
Person B: sta ima (what’s up) – counter question
Person A: nije lose (not bad) – answer to “kako ide / how is it going” (which wasn’t even mentioned)
Person B: dobar – answer to “kako si / how are you” (wasn’t mentioned either)
Love the article! 🙂 I would just add one more expression that we use here quite often – “Niđe veze”, it means literally “No where connection” and we say that when something makes no sense which means we do use it in the meaning it has 🙂 , but it is definitely used in informal situations so it’s kind of considered as a silly expression, I guess 🙂
Jos “fale” “sibicari i sminkeri” 🙂 Super napisano ali se ovo mora prozivjeti da bi shvatio u potpunosti car i ljepotu svega toga . Super !
šibicari = alternative people, and literally hucksters?
šminkeri = fancy asses, snobs?
Excellent article ! Love your style of writing and how bang on everything was..
And oh that Sevdah 🙂
A gender-neutral form is: Ka’ćemo se vjenčati? — When will we get married?
Binde to the woman – ženiti
Extra credit: Sve je dobro dok se ne puca — “All’s well as long as no one’s been shot”.
– “All’s well so long there is no shooting”
Thanks, good to keep in mind the gender-neutral version, for all gender-neutral marrying needs. And I agree with your literal translation, but I think I’ll keep mine, which sounds better. This is an idiomatic expression, after all.
The translation does sound better but it may help to understand that literal translation is actually more accurate because it refers to the war. “It’s all good as long as there is no war” would be accurate, non literal translation as well 🙂
hahahah great article. do we really complain that much? 😀
FYI you made into local media today, here are the links:
regards from Sarajevo
Great articel. Thanks for sharing this and thanks for the hints. I will try to consider most of this for my next trip to Bosnia 🙂
Well done buraz 🙂
I’d add that the list above is a list of regionalisms, particularly that of Sarajevo. The Bosnian spoken in Sarajevo is quite different than that of Mostar or any other BH city, really. I am from the north-west part of Bosnia (Bihac, Novi, Krupa, Gradiska region) where folks would not use most of the above. We do use “sta ima” (but never “s’a ima ili s’a mai) and the typical response is “evo nista” ili “evo vala nista”. The use of “vala” I believe, comes from Wa-allah-u (arabic for invoking God?). Not sure, but we use “vala” a lot to emphasize the meaning of whatever follows. For toasting “zivjeli” is usually proceeded with “Haj’d zivjeli” meaning “let’s live” regardless of the composition of the group (men and women, mixed or homogenous). We do love to complain – that for sure is a commonality to all – Muslims, Catholics and Orthodox of Bosnia LOVE to complain about EVERYTHING.
Thanks for the info! I’ve edited the intro to reflect this. Many of these phrases are also used well outside of Sarajevo, but I’m sure this post is rather Sarajevo-focused. I can’t wait to head to the northwest someday and discover that version of the language!
The most important word in bosnian language is “eh…” which can be pronounced with long, short, loud, silent, questioning, determined and whatever other accent on the “e” you need to use when responding to a specific comment 🙂
Cool, I love it!
eh or just long eeee is really cool. it has so many different meanings – depends on questions :))
Really great job Mose!!
“ba” is shortcut of both “bolan/bona”, but
“bolan/bona” coming from or is shortcut “bolestan/bolesna ne bio/bila”
For instance originally “đe’s ba” means “gdje si bolan ne bio” ili “gdje si bona ne bila” or full meaning “gdje si, bolestan ne bio” ili “gdje si, bolesna ne bila”
Thanks, I’ve edited the post to reflect this!
If you really want to sound cool, you would ask your friend: “Ješta ma’i” ; meaning”what’s up”. And the answer should be “Mane sta ni” ; means nothing special. This is all using backwards “šatrovački” Bosnian language, particularly used ion Baščaršija- Old part of Sarajevo, used among boisterous young boys.
#8, a man’s name will, in fact, decline: zacop’o/zacopala sam se u Armina, Damira, Ivana, Mirzu (just to throw you off, that last one is a male name in feminine form.)
Ah yes, that makes sense. I think I got some bad info on that declension. I’ve edited the post. Hvala!
actually bolan/bona are coming from bolestan/bolesna (sick).
If you ask someone: gdje si bolan? it means actually where are you? you are not ill?
well done Mose!
As a comment on the last part about language….you just forget one of the most used phrases…. No problems (nema problema) which is used always for anything…and for Bosnian language…the first printed dictionary of Bosnian language is dated 1631….o guess that concludes all discussion on that topic
“Ba” is not a meaningless interjection, it means something like bolan or bona, referring to your interlocutor. I would say that there are no meaningless interjections in Bosnian — every pa!, ma!, e!, and na! means something.