One letter, two characters: nj, lj and dž
You might have noticed that some of these weird Croatian letters consist of two familiar letters written together. There are three such letters, namely:
- nj: pronounced like ni in “minion”
- lj: sounds like lli in “million”
- dž: like j in “joy” (only pronounced slightly harder)
It's important to mention that each of nj, lj and dž are single letters comprising two characters and not two individual letters.
Consequently, the word ljeto (summer) only has 4 letters. The same principle applies for example with the words njiva (field) which has 4 letters, or džep (pocket) which has 3 letters.
Spot the difference: č ≠ ć and dž ≠ đ
One thing causes a fair amount of confusion with foreigners learning to speak Croatian (and occasionally native Croatian speakers*) is the difference between č and ć, and between dž and đ.
The letters č and ć
In Croatian, č is referred to as tvrdo č (hard č), while ć is a meko ć (soft ć). The main difference between them is how hard the sound is pronounced.
- Č sounds like ch in “charm” or “match”.
- There’s no exact English equivalent to ć, but the closest would be the sound of t in British English “tune” (pronounced ty)
The letters dž and đ
The distinction is pretty much the same between tvrdo dž and meko đ:
- dž is pronounced like j in “joy”, only slightly harder
- Again there’s no exact English counterpart to đ. It is similar to d in British English “duke” or American English “schedule” (pronounced dy)
And from an anatomical viewpoint ...
- To produce the “soft” sounds (ć, đ) your tongue should be placed right behind your front teeth
- To produce the “hard” sounds (č, dž) your tongue should be further back along the palette
While it's important to get to know the difference when students learn Croatian, in fact nowadays many Croatian native speakers make little or no distinction in their pronunction of č and ć, or dž and đ.
Last but not least: š and ž
In the end, to make your life a little easier, there’s only one version of š and ž!
- Š: sounds like sh in “shoe”
- Ž: equals to s in “measure”. Yes, it’s that simple!
Exercise: Try pronouncing these difficult Croatian words!