On Learning Just Enough Bosnian Slang to Toast, Gripe, and Propose Marriage


A lovely Bosnian coffee setup and torso. Photo in Sarajevo by Film Fledgling.
A lovely Bosnian coffee setup and torso. Photo in Sarajevo by Film Fledgling.
A lovely Bosnian coffee setup and torso. Photo in Sarajevo by Film Fledgling.

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?

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”).

2. Niceties

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.

Downtown Sarajevo. Photo by Jaime Silva.
Downtown Sarajevo. Photo by Jaime Silva.

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.

Chatting with a view over Sarajevo. Photo by Semih Hazar.
Chatting with a view over Sarajevo. Photo by Semih Hazar.

7. Toasting

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

8. Liking

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 ženite are quintessentially Bosnian.

Similarly, for example, you can say Hoš doć’? instead of Hoćeš li doći? (Do you want to come?)

10. Sevdah

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.

More?

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.

Notes   [ + ]

1. The first is short for bezveze (“without links”) and the second for ništa posebno
2. A gender-neutral form is: Ka’ćemo se vjenčati? — When will we get married?

38 Comments

  1. Jasmin Jusufovic
    October 9, 2017
    Reply

    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.

  2. Alen
    October 9, 2017
    Reply

    Good job!

    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”.

  3. Duncan Morrison
    October 8, 2017
    Reply

    My Bosnian wife has taught me how to say “thank you” and “shut up, you cow”.
    I’m good to go!

  4. Ode
    October 8, 2017
    Reply

    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’. 🙂

  5. Adnan
    October 8, 2017
    Reply

    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.

  6. Zlaya
    December 7, 2015
    Reply

    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:
    Mujo: Jah!
    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:
    Mujo: Jah!
    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)
    (jah)

    • Mostar
      January 6, 2016
      Reply

      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)

  7. Edi
    December 4, 2015
    Reply

    Best regards from Rajvosa…

  8. Stranac
    December 3, 2015
    Reply

    No one mentioned paša?

  9. Dzana
    December 3, 2015
    Reply

    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.

    <3

    • Edi
      December 4, 2015
      Reply

      Nek si mu napisala, dosta je izostavio.

      • Dzana
        December 4, 2015
        Reply

        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. 😀

    • Edi
      December 4, 2015
      Reply

      Ili dati tacnu definiciju papka po Elvisu Kurtovicu….

  10. Alma M
    December 2, 2015
    Reply

    Great article! But živjeli, živio, živjele, živjela… too complicated, saying Ž! will cover it all 😀

  11. Nermin
    December 2, 2015
    Reply

    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
    or
    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)

  12. Millie
    December 2, 2015
    Reply

    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 🙂

  13. Skenderija
    December 2, 2015
    Reply

    Jos “fale” “sibicari i sminkeri” 🙂 Super napisano ali se ovo mora prozivjeti da bi shvatio u potpunosti car i ljepotu svega toga . Super !

    • December 2, 2015
      Reply

      šibicari = alternative people, and literally hucksters?
      šminkeri = fancy asses, snobs?
      hvala puno!

  14. December 2, 2015
    Reply

    Excellent article ! Love your style of writing and how bang on everything was..

    And oh that Sevdah 🙂

  15. Vesli stroj
    December 2, 2015
    Reply

    To official

    A gender-neutral form is: Ka’ćemo se vjenčati? — When will we get married?

    Binde to the woman – ženiti


    -Wrong translation

    Extra credit: Sve je dobro dok se ne puca — “All’s well as long as no one’s been shot”.

    -Correct translation

    – “All’s well so long there is no shooting”

    • December 2, 2015
      Reply

      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.

      • irena
        February 1, 2016
        Reply

        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 🙂

  16. Ljubicanstvena
    December 1, 2015
    Reply
  17. Keni
    December 1, 2015
    Reply

    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 🙂

  18. Yet another Bosnian
    December 1, 2015
    Reply

    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.

    • December 1, 2015
      Reply

      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!

  19. December 1, 2015
    Reply

    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 🙂

    • December 1, 2015
      Reply

      Cool, I love it!

    • legenda
      December 1, 2015
      Reply

      eh or just long eeee is really cool. it has so many different meanings – depends on questions :))

  20. Mirso
    December 1, 2015
    Reply

    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”

    • December 1, 2015
      Reply

      Thanks, I’ve edited the post to reflect this!

  21. Bosanka
    December 1, 2015
    Reply

    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.

  22. Marina
    December 1, 2015
    Reply

    #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.)

    • December 1, 2015
      Reply

      Ah yes, that makes sense. I think I got some bad info on that declension. I’ve edited the post. Hvala!

  23. legenda
    November 30, 2015
    Reply

    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!

  24. Velija
    November 30, 2015
    Reply

    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

  25. November 30, 2015
    Reply

    “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.

Leave a reply

applications-internet.png

Comments Policy

We read the comments; useful additions and corrections are quite welcome, and articles are frequently updated based on comments from readers. • We do our best to delete ethnocentric, xenophobic, and other useless comments. • Offended? Think we've got your culture all wrong? Nationalism (or regionalism, patriotism, whatever) is an understandable reaction; it’s also boring. Disagree with something? Tell us what you think joking, flirting, drinking, sex, dancing and other debauchery in your culture is really like. If you don't like these things, or want to pretend that your culture doesn't have a unique take on them, you're really in the wrong place. • This site, like any cultural anthropology, deals in generalizations. Of course not each and every person does blah, blah, blah... • And finally, before you go thinking this is all about you, you may want to bounce around the site a bit and learn about the ridiculous ways we screw, drink, and dance in other parts of the world.
 

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.