Learning to greet people in a new language is one of the first important hurdles for learners.
Since you’re here I assume you are interested in how to properly address people in Serbian. There is no simple answer. Depending on the situation, interlocutors and their relationship, there are many ways to say hello in Serbian apart from Ćao. Which expression we choose depends on the time of day, formality and the speakers’ age.
Before we get to the Serbian greetings, however, I have some tips and explanations that give a bit of context. Read on for a few guidelines on grammar, sociopolitical issues and gestures that accompany saying hello in Serbian.
If you’re here just for the greetings, feel free to jump over to those. Let’s go! Idemo!
Serbian has complex grammar. Let me illustrate. In English there is a single word for “good” and it never changes regardless of the noun that goes with it.
E.g., Good morning. Good dog. Good house.
In Serbian, however, we have grammatical cases. What this translates to is the following:
Dobar pas = Good dog (Masculine case)
Dobra kuća = Good house (Feminine case)
Dobro jutro = Good morning (Neuter case)
So good can be either dobar, dobra or dobro. Now you shouldn’t be too confused that “good day” translates to Dobar dan and “good morning” to Dobro jutro. I hope this clarifies some things, despite it being a mere scratch at the surface.
Countries that speak or understand Serbian
Once upon a time, Serbian used to be part of Serbo-Croatian, the official language of Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia, which comprised Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, and Macedonia, is now long gone. But apart from Slovenia and Macedonia that have very distinct mother tongues, all the other countries still speak fairly similarly. How we call these languages is a political issue, but speakers of Serbian, Montenegrin, Bosnian and Croatian can communicate very easily. Learning Serbian therefore opens more than one door.
However, these are still touchy subjects for most Balkan nations and you should try and avoid making presumptions about your interlocutor’s mother tongue. For example, in my home country Montenegro some will tell you they speak Serbian, others Montenegrin. The actual difference in speech is so slight that communication is effortless. But for historical reasons people might be aggravated if you presume they speak Serbian, and they consider it Montenegrin or Bosnian for instance. To stay on the safe side, ask native speakers what their call their mother tongue and respect their response.
A handshake or a kiss? Or three?
Saying hello in Serbian is usually accompanied by a handshake or a kiss on the cheek. When meeting someone for the first time and in formal occasions, handshake is mostly the way to go. Make it firm, but not bone-crunching.
With friends, young people generally go for a single air kiss. Men are less likely to embrace as a greeting, but it’s fairly common. To play it safe, go for a handshake and later observe what everyone else does.
For older people, especially in formal occasions, such as feasts or family gatherings, three kisses on the cheek are the norm. So if you’re invited over for dinner, don’t be surprised if you get a warmer welcome than expected.
Enough with the prelude. Let’s move on to the main bit – the Serbian greetings!
1. “Hi” in Serbian – Ćao
To say hi in Serbian you just need a simple Ćao. This Italian borrowing is your go-to phrase for greeting friends and acquaintances in informal situations.
There are more ways you can respond to hi in Serbian. If we respond to Ćao with the same greeting, we often double it. So you can respond with Ćao ćao. Another way to go about it is to use an interjection, like for instance, say Ee ćao. This doesn’t change the meaning, but will make you sound more spontaneous. Or often, we respond with a different phrase altogether, like what’s up.
2. “Hello” in Serbian – Dobar dan or Zdravo
Dobar dan is what you will hear the most from noon until sundown. It’s the gold standard and you can’t go wrong with it. Another way to say hello in Serbian is Zdravo – which literally means healthy. In terms of formality, Zdravo comes across as less formal.
3. “Good morning” in Serbian – Dobro jutro
If you work the morning shift, use Dobro jutro to wish your colleagues a good morning. Or any other acquaintance you run into. This is the standard salutation until noon, when most people switch to Dobar dan.
Keep in mind, though, for informal encounters, young people especially are more likely to stick to Ćao at any time of day. If you fall into this category, make sure to adopt this practice with your peers. Otherwise, you might be a bit too formal.
4. “Good evening” in Serbian – Dobro veče
When sun starts to set, switch to Dobro veče. You can use this expression until bedtime.
5. “Good night” in Serbian – Laku noć
Before heading off to bed, you should wish your family or flatmates Laku noć. In response, you might hear the shortened form ‘noć. You can also wish another person sweet dreams with Lijepo spavaj. To respond to Lijepo spavaj say I ti isto meaning “(sweet dreams) to you too“.
6. “What’s up” in Serbian – Šta ima? Or De si? / Đe si?
In most informal situations, you’re likely to have a bit of small talk when you run into an acquaintance or friend. If you spot a person you know and greet them, it’s customary to ask Šta ima? The immediate response is usually Ništa meaning nothing, regardless of your current activities. Then after saying “nothing”, we discuss the news and things that are actually “up”. Weird, I know.
Alternatively you can ask De si? to achive the same effect. Note that this is a less formal of the two. De si? literally means “where are you“, but we use it to ask for news and greet somebody we haven’t seen for a while. In Montenegro you will hear Đe si?, a regional variant with the same meaning.
7. “How are you?” – Kako si or Kako ste?
8. “Goodbye” in Serbian – Doviđenja or Prijatno
Upon departure, greet your interlocuters with Doviđenja, which literally means until we see each other again. In the store, the staff will usually see you off with Prijatno, wishing you a pleasant (prijatan) rest of the day. Respond likewise.
9. “Bye” in Serbian – Ćao
With friends and close ones, fall back to Ćao. Use it in other informal situations as well, with your peers, colleagues or acquaintances.
10. See you (soon) – Vidimo se (uskoro)
If you’re going to see somebody soon, you can say Vidimo se. Literally meaning “we’ll see each other”, this greeting is the equivalent of English “see you soon”. Truth be told, you can use it even when you’re not planning to see that person soon. It’s just a useful expression to end a conversation.
11. It’s nice to meet you – Drago mi je
To express pleasure at having met somebody, use the simple Drago mi je. It works in all situations.
12. “Hello” on the phone in Serbian – Halo?
Once you start responding to phone calls in Serbian, you will need to use Halo? So practice ahead. It’s usually the first thing you hear when the connection is established, followed by another greeting, typically – Dobar dan.
13. “Dear Sir or Madam” in Serbian – Poštovani/ Poštovana
To start your emails formally in Serbian, you need to keep in mind the gender of your interlocutor. For men, write Poštovani gospodine (Dear Mr.) followed by his last name. For ladies use Poštovana gospođo (Dear Mrs.) again followed by last name.
If you don’t know who is at the other end of line, best go for Poštovani which denotes respect to one or more individuals.
14. “Best regards” in Serbian – S poštovanjem or Srdačan pozdrav
For emails in Serbian, go for one of the following: S poštovanjem or Srdačan pozdrav. Both mean best regards and express a degree of formality. For less formal emails, you can use Pozdrav meaning greeting.
Note that Pozdrav is also heavily used online, especially when you greet members of a group on social media. To sound hip, shorten it to Pozz. Teenagers and young adults often turn this into Poyy, and even use it as a spoken greeting. Beware though, it does contain a hint of irony.
15. “Welcome” in Serbian – Dobrodošli
To welcome somebody to your home in Serbian, put a smile on your face and greet your guests with Dobrodošli. Or in turn, this is how you’re likely to be welcomed when a Serb invites you over for drinks or dinner.
16. “It’s been ages since I last saw you” in Serbian – Nema te sto godina
To express surprise and pleasure at seeing somebody after a long time, you can say Nema te sto godina! More often than not, we add an interjection for emphasis. For instance, Pa nema te sto godina. In contrast to English, instead of ages, we keep it precise and say a hundred years (sto godina) have passed since I saw you. You’ll often hear it shortened to – Sto godina!
17. “May God be with you” in Serbian – Pomoz’ Bog or Pomaže bog
If you happen to find yourself at a religious gathering, you might hear people greet one another with Pomoz’ Bog or Pomaže bog. These are close to “may God be with you”, but they are very old and reserved only for special occasions and traditional people. It’s good to know they exist, but you will probably never use them.
18. “I miss you” in Serbian – Nedostaješ mi
The final expression should come in handy if you are apart from the person you love. If you feel the burning need to let them know you miss them and that you care, the words you need are – Nedostaješ mi.
These were the greetings I prepared for you. You should by now know not only how to say hello in Serbian, but also a host of other salutations. I hope they will help you build confidence about speaking in Serbian.
Should you wish to progress beyond Serbian greetings, start with this list 30+ apps, books, podcasts, courses and resources to learn Serbian. Also, learn how to say “thank you” in Serbian!
This isn’t an exhaustive list and if you feel something is missing, make sure to write it down in the comments below. I am especially looking forward to any regional variants you want to mention. I look forward to hearing from you!