The 3 Croatian dialects: Što, Kaj, and Ča

The Croatian language is nuanced and each županija, city, island, and village has its own linguistic characteristics. Differences between local speech are obvious to those who know what to look for, but Croatian dialects can be hard to discern for those new to the language. Misunderstanding or not understanding someone who comes from a different place than you within Croatia isn’t unusual at all.

While Croatians may have trouble understanding each other, it is an even bigger problem for foreigners who have moved here and are learning the Croatian language from scratch or for diaspora whom have spent their whole lives outside Croatia.

The language can vary in several ways from dialect to dialect:

  • Some things are called something different depending on the location.
  • The way something is described can vary greatly.
  • Some dialects skip over the middle of words (Split, we’re looking at you!).
  • Syllables can be swallowed or slurred or sped through.

While this may make the Croatian language seem even more intimidating, it can actually be very interesting and you can learn a lot from another person.

A dialect is a term used for the group of specific linguistic characteristics spoken by residents of a specific geographical area. The Croatian language includes 3 main dialects and every one of them includes more specific local dialects. The main Croatian dialects are named after the interrogatory pronoun for “what”.

The 3 Croatian dialects are:

  1. Shtokavian, Stokavian or Štokavian dialect (Štokavsko narječje, štokavski or štokavština)
  2. Kajkavian (Kajkavsko narječje, kajkavščina or kajkavski)
  3. Chakavian or Čakavian (Čakavsko narječje, čakavica or čakavština)

You can check the map of the Croatian dialect usage below:

Croatian Dialect Language Map
Image by Wikipedia

Štokavian dialect

The Shtokavian dialect is used as the basis for the Croatian standard language. It is called after the interrogatory pronoun “što” which is also often used in the form “šta”.

Shtokavian is used in Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and a southern part of Austrian Burgenland. In Croatia, it is mostly used in Slavonija, Lika, Kordun, parts of Dalmatia, Dubrovnik, Konavle, Srijem, and Ilok.

Shtokavian dialect is the most used Croatian dialect and approximately 55% of Croatians use the Shtokavian dialect. During the Ottoman conquests in the 15th century, the usage of Stokavian expanded significantly. It became an official Croatian dialect in Croatian literature in the late 15th and early 16th centuries.

The Shtokavian dialect is further divided as follows:

  • Old-Štokavian
    1. Prizrensko-timočki (Timok-Prizren or Torlakian)
    2. Sjeverni ili slavonski (Slavonian)
    3. Istočni ili istočnobosanski (East Bosnian)
    4. Zetsko-sandžački (Zeta–Raška)
    5. Kosovsko-resavski (Kosovo–Resava)
  • Neo-Štokavian
    1. Zapadnohercegovačko-dalmatinsko (zagorsko)-bosanski (Bosnian–Dalmatian)
    2. Novoštokavski ikavski (Dubrovnik)
    3. Vojvođanski or novoštokavski ekavski (Šumadija–Vojvodina )
    4. Južni or novoštokavski jekavski (Eastern Herzegovinian)

Shtokavian dialect’s main characteristics are:

  • Interrogative pronoun “što” or “šta”
  • The letter H is often lost (hajde → ajde)
  • The emphasis is shifted from the back syllable
  • Inserting the -ev and -ov ends in declination of short masculine gender nouns:
    • Putovi (roads)
    • Krajevi (ends)
    • Sirevi (cheeses)
  • Some grammatical cases are the same in plural

The first Croatian version of the Bible and the first Croatian grammar were written in Shtokavian.

Kajkavian dialect

Kajkavian dialect is named after the interrogatory pronoun “kaj” (“kej”, “kuoj”) meaning “what”. It is mostly used in Central Croatia:

  • Krapinsko-zagorska županija
  • Zagrebačka županija
  • Varaždinska županija
  • Bjelovarsko-križevačka županija
  • Međimurje
  • Gorski Kotar
  • Nothern Istria

Outside of Croatia, it is used in the Austrian Burgenland, as well as in parts of Slovakia and Hungary.

A fun fact is that the Kajkavian dialect is more similar to the Slovene language than to the standard Croatian language, and also isn’t similar to the other 2 Croatian dialects. Therefore, there are some opinions that it should stand as an independent language.

Kajkavian dialect was more widespread before the Ottoman conquests when the population started to move to the northwest of Croatia. Approximately 35% of Croatians use the Kajkavian dialect.

Kajkavian dialect’s main characteristics are:

  • The vocative case is never properly used
  • Zero continuation in the plural genitive of feminine or neuter gender (ptica → ptic)
  • Continuation -of in masculine gender is added (muž → mužof)
  • Letter -l at the end of the verb is added (pjevao → pjeval, čuo → čul, rekao → rekel)
  • Very often there’s no distinction between -č and -ć (noć → noč, sreća → sreča)

The Kajkavian dialect can be divided into several subdialects:

  1. Plješivičkoprigorski
  2. Samoborski
  3. Gornjosutlanski
  4. Bednjansko-zagorski
  5. Varaždinsko-ludbreški
  6. Međimurski
  7. Podravski
  8. Sjevernomoslavački
  9. Glogovničko-bilogorski
  10. Gornjolonjski
  11. Donjolonjski
  12. Turopoljski
  13. Vukomeričko-pokupski
  14. Donjosutlanski
  15. Goranski
Croatian dialect differences across the country
Image by Srednja

Čakavian dialect

Chakavian dialect is called after the interrogatory pronoun “ča”, the third way to say “what” in Croatia. It is the least used Croatian dialect and only 12% of Croatians use it. Chakavian is mostly in use near the Adriatic coast – from Istra to Pelješac, between Zadar and Vodice, in Senj, Istria, Gorski kotar and on Croatian islands.

Outside Croatia, it is used in Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, and Montenegro. Sometimes “ca” instead of “-ča” is used.

Chakavian dialect hasn’t changed a lot over the years so it is often considered to be an archaic dialect.

Chakavian dialect’s main characteristics are:

  • Old accent (pre-Slavic)
  • Pronoun -ča
  • Pronoun -zač
  • An absence of letter -dž
  • Specific chakavian pronunciation of letter -t’

Chakavian dialect can be divided to several subdialects:

  1. Buzetski or gornomiranski (Buzet dialect)
  2. Jugozapadni istarski or štakavski čakavski (Southwestern Istrian)
  3. Sjevernočakavski or ekavski čakavski (Northern Chakavian)
  4. Srednjočakavski or ikavsko-ekavski čakavski (Middle Chakavian)
  5. Južnočakavski or ikavski čakavski (Southern Chakavian)
  6. Lastovski or jekavski čakavski (Southeastern Chakavian)

Croatian Dialects In Use

ENGLISHSTANDARD CROATIANSHTOKAVIANKAJKAVIANCHAKAVIAN
freebesplatnodžabazabadavbadava
to leavenapustitiostavitiprejtibandunat
small bagtorbicacekertaškicaboršeta
to kisspoljubitipoljubitikušnutibušat
holeruparupaluknjabuža
dadotacćaćaotecćaća
to talkrazgovaratirazgovaratispominatićakulat
rainkišakišadežđdaž
grandpadjeddjeddedaded
boydječakdječakdečecfantina
beansgrahgrahbažuljfažol
ovenpećnicašporetšparetforan
ladlezaimačašefljašefljakacarijola
sometimesponekadkatkadnegdarkadagod
snakezmijazmijakačakačka
sockčarapačarapaštumfkalceta
to singpjevatipivatipopievatikantat
kornerugaokutvugelkantun
laterkasnijekasnijekesnešekašneje
chairstolicahoklicastoleckatrida
pillowjastukjastukvanjkuškušin
crazyludludnormunjen
tomatorajčicaparadajzparadajzpomidor
to throwbacitibacitihitatirashićevat
to remembersjetiti sesjetiti sezmisliti sespamećevat
birdpticapticaptičtić
cornkukuruzkukuruzkuruzaturkinja
whyzaštozaštozakajzač
mirrorogledalošpiglošpigeljzrcalo

Want to read more about the Croatian language?

Here are 5 happy reasons to learn Croatian and 5 kinda harsh reasons to learn Croatian.

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One thought on “The 3 Croatian dialects: Što, Kaj, and Ča

  1. Anastasia Kingsley
    September 24, 2019 @ 11:15 am

    Dear Marija,

    You are right. When we go to Zagreb, we hear “KAJ” (kaii) which means “what?!” whereas here in Dalmatia the same word is pronounced ŠTO (shtoh). I have heard of people who went to bars and didn’t dare say a word like ŠTO that would give away their cultural region as cross-town and cross-country rivalry is still strong, particularly during the football playoffs.

    I also find it very interesting, though at first it was intimidating. For example: Question “what is the Croatian word for chair?” Answer “in the north it’s stolica, in the south it is sjedalo and on the islands it’s katrida” OMG. But now it is somehow better to know all three. I think it’s safe to say that with a little time and patience and you will too.

    Thanks for another great and very detailed post.

    {reply}

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