English may be the most idiomatic of languages, but it’s quite uncomplicated for expressing social closeness or distance. The so called t-v distinction, the sociolinguistic term which refers to second person singular and plural pronouns (as in the French tu and vous), doesn’t even exist in grammar. All you get is ‘you’ in both cases and you don’t even have to worry about different verb endings. Expressing familiarity or politeness boils down to calling someone by their first or last name.
Croatian is way more chaotic than that. Not only are ti (you singular) and vi (you plural) grammatically different, but you also need to learn how to mix and match titles and jobs with first or last names. Combinations are endless, with more exceptions than rules. And each will signal a unique degree of social closeness with your addressee.
You can face your first Croatian sociolinguistic conundrum at your doorstep when it’s time to greet your neighbours.
Let’s examine the confusing options. Imagine Marija Perić walking past you on the staircase. She is older than you so you would greet her formally, with the title + last name.
‘Good morning, Mrs Perić.’
But you see Mrs Perić almost every day. So to signal a degree of closeness while remaining courteous, you would greet her:
‘Good morning, Mrs Marija’.
And if you really like your neighbour Marija Perić, you could fawn on her:
‘Good morning, neighbour [susjeda].’
Vous-ing Mrs Perić corresponds with the English etiquette where courtesy is expressed by title + last name. But vous-ing Mrs Marija or susjeda to express closeness is not only weird to English speakers, it may even sound rude.
Let’s hone our sociolinguistic skills by examining more exceptions. Because the last thing you want is to be either too aloof with your friends or too palsy with your doctor.
Expressing politeness, courtesy and distance
The rule for creating distance in both English and Croatian is simple: title + last name with an added bonus of vous-ing a person in Croatian.
Our Mrs Perić translates into gospođa Perić and so do her husband and daughter: Mr [gospodin Perić] and Miss [gospođica Perić]. But what if Mrs Perić is also your professor at the Croatian language school?
Would you call her Professor Perić? In English yes, but in Croatian, no matter how unpolished it sounds to you, you’d call her just Professor [profesorice].
In this case, professor is not a title but a job. You may be cringing now but we address our teacher, doctor or waiter only by their jobs. It’s not a sign that we forgot their last name but one of utmost respect, as in saying: you are valued for what you know, regardless of the family you come from.
A similar situation, where people are formally addressed by their role and not their name, may shock you even more. If you have married or plan to marry into a Croatian family, you’ll be vous-ing your in-laws. But you’ll also be showing respect for them by calling them Mum [mama] or Dad [tata]; or when the children arrive Granma [baka] and Grandpa [deda].
Rare are Croatian families where in-laws are tu-ing each other. Being on first name terms with one’s mother- or father-in-law is seen as very progressive, if not even slightly anarchic.
Aside from signalling the degree of social closeness, the Croatian t-v distinction also implies hierarchy. For example, a teacher has authority over a pupil, a parent over a child.
This is why older generations may still be vous-ing their parents. My grandfather did so to his father.
At school, a teacher will always be tu-ing pupils. But very often, and to demonstrate their authority, they will be addressing children by their last names.
‘Perić, show me your homework’.
I always felt such sternness was used to put pupils in their place. So whereas a teacher is revered by role-addressing them, a pupil is kept inferior by invoking their earthly genealogy.
Until it’s their time join the ranks.
This shift happens as you become a university student in Croatia. All of a sudden you transform from being simply Perić to being kolega [colleague] Perić to your new professor. Vous-ing will become mutual but you will keep addressing your superior only by their divine role: professor.
Expressing familiarity and closeness
We’re getting warmer on our scale of social closeness, but we need to stick around last names for just a bit longer.
Here’s why. Calling someone by their last name in Croatia can express two things: authority but also extreme chumminess. Childhood and long-term friends often call each other like that.
My two closest friends of 20+ years fall into the last name category. Whenever we do our last name calling in front of other Croatian people, they immediately recognize it as a form of endearment. English speakers may stop short, but now you know better!
Back to the basic rule of closeness, which is the same for both Croatian and English speakers: being on a first name basis, and of course, tu-ing each other.
The tu-ing is such a strong sign of familiarity that it even has a metaphoric meaning. So when you want to point out that you know someone extremely well, you can say:
‘Gospođa Perić i ja smo si na ‘ti’ [Mrs Perić and I are on first name terms; but literally – Mrs Perić and I are tu-ing each other].’
And just like in English, you’d be describing a relationship that is not as formal as it should be. Because, remember, Mrs Perić is older than you, or maybe even your professor.
Now, how do you manouvre the t-v distinction to move closer to people, specifically to Mrs Perić?
‘Is it OK if I call you Marija?’ in English translates as ‘Can we switch to tu-ing each other?’
Simple, isn’t it?
Certainly, but only if Mrs Perić makes the suggestion first.
According to the warming up rule, it’s always the older person who kicks off the tu-ing. If two people of the roughly same age need thawing up, it is more polite to leave the initiative to the woman. In same sex situations, it is usually the more extroverted person who breaks the ice.
Just to make things more complex, let me mention a situation where even a younger person can set the tu-ing in motion. This happens when your relationship with a person changes over time.
Maybe Mrs Perić was your Croatian teacher who first last-name called you. But now you’re a grown up, with the degree in Croatian too, and you see her every day on your staircase. She has been a true mentor, a person who’s influenced your life decisions. This is as good a situation as any to one day ask her:
‘Mrs Perić, can I call you Marija [mogu li vam reći ‘ti’]?’
Believe me, she won’t mind.
Both Croatian and English speakers address people they don’t know formally. Especially if you see them for the first time and you don’t even know their name.
This is the Sir/Madam situation. As in:
‘Madam, do you need help with that buggy [gospođo, trebate li pomoć s kolicima]?’
But here’s the funniest of exceptions:
‘Excuse me Madam/Sir…’ (when you’re trying to get past someone)
translates into Croatian as
‘Samo malo…’ [literally – just a bit]
No one knows how we got to be so impolite and impersonal when trying to secure our personal space in a crowd. Is it the primal instinct that cares little for social norms? Or the fight-or-flight mode in which there is no time for first/last-name and t-v distinctions?
If so, it’s not even rude. Remember that next time you hear it on a Zagreb tram. And remember to not get offended!
About Andrea Pisac
Andrea Pisac is a writer and cross-cultural expert. She writes about everyday ordinary life in Croatia from an extraordinary perspective on her award-winning blog Zagreb Honestly. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.