For my friend Sanja Beketić who played the viola with gusto.
If you ever saw classical sheet music, you must have noticed some Italian words under the notes. Adagio, allegro, piano or crescendo. They tell the tempo (rhythm), dynamics and mood in which music should be played. Without them, all we have are lifeless black dots on a piece of paper.
It’s the same with words. Until we pronounce them, and do so in the right tempo, dynamics and mood, they have little meaning. Sometimes, we can even give them the wrong meaning if we don’t deliver them in the right way.
We should study foreign languages with the same helpful directions that musicians get with sheet music. Directions to make a written word alive. Because in this way, we don’t only communicate its meaning. We bond with other speakers by expressing the right emotions.
English speakers are often baffled with the tempo and mood of the Croatian language. Even when they master the complex word declinations and even worse verb conjugations, they stop short at the feelings level.
Imperatives are most puzzling. Where English uses sweet and languid prelude to direct or demand, Croatian is quick and almost abrupt. It’s hard to even count the number of times the English got their feelings hurt when hearing the imperative verb tense in Croatian.
‘Sit down’, for example, translates as a warm welcome in Croatian. The words may be equivalent, but to the English, the tempo and mood are way off the mark.
Let’s say that a language has both the meaning and the melody. They are different but they work in tandem. Remember how some songs evoke the same strong feelings every time we listen to them? It also happens when we ‘sing’ a language with or to someone. We create that first and lasting impression, which is difficult to rationalise or put into words.
The language melody brings us together, but it can also produce unhelpful stereotypes. I am certain that the commonest stereotypes the English have of Croats, and vice versa, are nothing but out-of-tune songs.
Let’s examine the bars that hurt the ear most:
English are cold and pretentious; Croats are lazy and rude
Situation 1 – saying farewell in Croatian
Imagine a social gathering that unfolds in andante tempo (moderately slow, flowing along). When it’s time to wrap things up, Croats leave the table while still chatting. If they’re visiting someone’s home, they move towards the door only to stop for more heart-to-heart.
The tempo switches to ritardando (talking more slowly), the dynamics to crescendo (they get louder) and the mood to vivace (vivacious). In a word, the party goes back to full swing with everyone loitering by the half-open door. There’s talking at the same time, chirping and giggling, with echoes spreading along the corridor.
To Croats this is bonding. To the English it’s laziness, uselessness, or at best – strange. ‘Didn’t we just decide we’re off?’
The English bid goodbye presto (very fast), forte (strong) and bruscamente (abruptly).
‘Have a lovely weekend. Byeeeee.’
And that’s it. No loitering, no stalling, no bonding. To Croats, the English sing a cold tune.
Situation 2 – customer service in Croatian
Now picture yourself as an English person in a Croatian restaurant. The tempo is back to neutral andante. You’ve heard only praise for the place and your mouth is already watering. There’s a stunning vista to the glittering Adriatic sea. When the waiter approaches you, your heart is still whistling dolce allegro (sweet and fast).
Then he opens his mouth:
‘What do you want?’ he bobs his head upwards.
The staccato of the waiter’s words graze against your ears. They are sharp, cold and detached. You recognise the tempo as mosso (agitated) and affrettando (hurried). And you wonder: what have I done to offend this guy?
If you choose to complain about the service, the tune might even switch to sforzando (strained, sharp). Then you’ll stop wondering and simply conclude: ‘Croats are rude’.
Back on the British Isles, a Croat finds the local customer service too saccharine and fake. To them, the allargando (drawl) and affettuoso (affection) of ‘would you like to see our specials menu, sir/madam’ is a waste of time. And the ‘how are you today?’ coming from a stranger registers as a pretentious pulp of a wannabe pop singer.
Situation 3 – asking for a favour in Croatian
Here’s the coda (tail, ending) to our concerto. A Croat and an English person chat in a cafe. They are moderately close friends, willing to do each other a favour. Here’s how each would ask for it:
Croat: presto e scherzando (swift and playful):
‘I am moving house this weekend. Come round at 10 am to help me out with some lifting.’
(An English person politely hides the shock at the other one’s directness. ‘Don’t they have removal companies for that?’).
English person: adagio e cantabile (slow and singable)
‘I was wondering if I could ask you a favour… Could we please switch places because the cigarette smoke is coming right at me. Would that be OK with you?’
(A Croat barely cuts through the noise of indirectness of such a teeny tiny favour).
Now, our two friends may sometimes get out of step and out of tune. But they’re friends, which is a good sign. A sign that they learned each others’ melodies, even without the explicit music directions.
That’s the thing with sounds. We can fall in love with them even without knowing what they mean.
This happened with me and the English language. I adore its melody even if I sometimes miss the right tempo, dynamics and mood.
So if you’re English studying Croatian, close your eyes and stop reading. Just listen. Feel the rhythm, adjust to its sounds and soon your feet and your heart will be tapping in synch.
About Andrea Pisac
Andrea Pisac is a writer and cross-cultural expert, on a mission to shake up all things humdrum and banal and make them sparkle. Impossible? Read her viral post Zagreb Pee Map: a journey in style through best Zagreb toilets. Follow her Croatian adventures on Zagreb Honestly.