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Croatia is rich in cultural and linguistic diversity with three main dialects, each with its own variations. These add complexity when localizing user experiences into Croatian – especially when an informal tone is in order. Read on to learn about the historical origins of the language and how its challenges can be managed in localization.
Even though English is now the world’s lingua franca, many consumers are still not fluent enough to use products with instructions, descriptions, or interfaces in English. Others are simply more comfortable reading in their first language. Statistics have confirmed this many times. For instance, more than 72% of consumers are more likely to buy from sites in their native language, and 87% of global customers wouldn’t buy from a website written exclusively in English (Can’t Read, Won’t Buy Research).
Localization in smaller markets
Linguistic and cultural adaptation is often associated with globally robust economies, such as Germany, France, Brazil, India, or China. But localization is too valuable to overlook smaller markets.
Croatia is one such market – a small country at the crossroads of Central and Southeast Europe. With its four million inhabitants and a large diaspora, this market is small but far from negligible. If you add other neighboring countries such as Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Serbia – who can all understand the Croatian vernacular – you suddenly get around nineteen million speakers.
Thanks to its geopolitical position and education system, Croatia is a country with very high foreign language proficiency. In 2022, the country ranked as the 11th in the world for English proficiency. But people still use localized products. In one of my polls on LinkedIn, I asked professionals and highly proficient English speakers (ninety respondents) whether they have their phone set to English or their first language. To my surprise, the result was around fifty-fifty. If we broadened the demographic structure, this result would certainly grow in favor of localized versions.
A small yet diverse language
With a surface area of only 56,594 sq km, Croatia is six times smaller than Germany. Yet its cultural and linguistic diversity is truly unique. The country has three main dialects, all named after the interrogative word “what”:
Shtokavian (interrogative word “što”): the most widely spoken dialect in Croatia, including in the eastern regions. The standard Croatian language is based on the Neo-Shtokavian subdialect of the Shtokavian dialect. Here, it’s important to note that the Shtokavian dialect also forms the basis of the Serbian, Bosnian, and Montenegrin standards, which makes these languages so similar.
Kajkavian (interrogative word “kaj”): the dialect spoken in the northern and northwestern parts of the country, including – to some extent – the capital Zagreb. Kajkavian is close in the dialect continuum to the Slovene language. A person from the north of Croatia will often feel a greater linguistic connection to a neighboring Slovenian speaker than to the Croatian speaker living in the east or on the Dalmatian coast.
“A person from the north of Croatia will often feel a greater linguistic connection to a neighboring Slovenian speaker than to the Croatian speaker living in the east or on the Dalmatian coast.”
Chakavian (interrogative word “ča”): the dialect primarily spoken on the North Adriatic coast and across the entire Istrian peninsula. Similarly to Kajkavian, it greatly varies from the Shtokavian dialect, and can’t be easily understood by people in other parts of Croatia or other neighboring countries (Bosnia & Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro).
All the above dialects are a source of cultural and literary wealth, and are still very much alive in everyday interactions. Another important thing to notice is that the dialects include rich linguistic variations within themselves with each town or village speaking differently. As a high-school student, I often found myself having trouble understanding what my school peers from different nearby villages were saying.
The language of localization
A standardized version of Croatian developed in the nineteenth century, and it became the favored language of the Croatian elite. It was further codified in the twentieth century, mostly by language institutions and academies such as the Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts and the Institute of Croatian Language and Linguistics. The standardization aimed to overcome dialectal differences and create a language that everyone in the country understands.
“A standardized version of Croatian developed, aiming to overcome dialectal differences and create a language that everyone in the country understands.”
The standard variant is the official language that people can use in different settings, mostly in official and formal settings. It’s used in literature, newspapers, TV, government institutions, business, and education. The standard language is a variant that nobody acquires naturally – its rules have to be learned at school. It is an important tool of national identity and of urban–rural class distinctions, in which people are often labeled as “educated” or “uneducated” based on their control of the standard variant. This can lead to negative phenomena like linguistic prescriptivism, exclusion, and even discrimination.
Because of social changes linked to the Croatian War of Independence against the Yugoslav (but Serb-dominated) army (1991–1995) and its aftermath, proponents of new Croatian standards have ensured the standard has moved away from the Serbian language. In an atmosphere marked by purism and prescriptivism, speakers’ language choices could hint at their relationship with national sentiment and belonging to the Croatian homeland. New words and new rules were introduced, some of which were often criticized as absurd by the speakers themselves.
Nowadays, those negative trends are fading away, as Croatian has become an independent standard language that its speakers use with confidence. Croatia’s joining the European Union in 2013 certainly helped bolster its status.
The standard Croatian language is typically used to localize any product or service that an international brand wants to place on the Croatian market.
Business partners? Friends? Or maybe both?
Croatian society has strong status hierarchies, which is evident in the use of formal and informal address. In very simple terms – people use “ti” (the informal you) only with family, friends, and close people; they use “Vi” (the formal you) with everyone else – when addressing teachers, older people, or anyone else they don’t know (from supermarket cashiers to doctors).
Formal and convoluted language has been popular in Croatia for decades. People use it to show that they’re educated, and that they know how to speak and write properly. When I was a child, all the brands and their commercials used the formal address.
However, globalization and trends of familiarity between businesses and their customers completely disrupted this linguistic and cultural reality. I’d say the lines started to blur from 2010 onwards. Suddenly, brands became intimate friends. This overnight change didn’t resonate well with many people, and they expressed their dissatisfaction loudly. They didn’t feel respected.
“Suddenly, brands became intimate friends. This overnight change didn’t resonate well with many people”
With time and the rise of social media, informal address became a standard for brands that target younger audiences or that want to convey that they’re cool and trendy.
But formal address is still a must for brands that want to grab the attention of people who look for a sense of seriousness, trust, quality, exclusivity, or even luxury in a brand.
IKEA uses informal address to appeal to a large audience who value simplicity and low prices.
In contrast, the regional furniture leader Lesnina formally addresses their customers, who have deeper pockets and who are looking for high-quality products:
In addition, it should be noted that, linguistically speaking, it’s much easier to localize content using the “formal you” as we can completely avoid grammatical gender in the past tense:
Zato što ste gledali (EN: Because you watched; formal address – one form for both male and female gender)
Zašto što si gledao/la (EN: Because you watched; informal address – two forms, one for male, the other for female)
The two forms for two genders in the past tense can be solved by showing only the relevant gender for the signed-up user. However, this would require intervening in the code, and that’s something that companies rarely want to do.
One possibility would be to use the passive form for verbs, which is often not recommended in Croatian. It can sound so impersonal that it’s often better to leave the clumsy two-form verb ending. For example:
Zato što si gledao/la > Zašto što se gledalo
Because you watched > Because it’s been watched
The other, better option is to try and rephrase the sentence in order to change the perspective.
Zaboravio/zaboravila sam lozinku > Ne sjećam se lozinke
I forgot my password > I can’t remember my password
Or we can simply use the verbal adjective “Forgotten password?” (Zaboravljena lozinka?) to completely avoid expressing the subject of the action.
When localizing their content, brands should carefully consider both forms of address, and cultural differences between languages. What works in English may not work in Croatian, and vice-versa. And if a brand opts for the informal version, they should be aware that this will inevitably create linguistic challenges.
Whatever option they choose, consistency is crucial. Otherwise the consumers will be confused, as was the case with Wolt’s website.
Localizing informality – mission (im)possible?
Brands who want to communicate informality all want to be friendly, straightforward, playful, fun, approachable, and innovative. But wait, there’s a slight problem. Standard Croatian language wasn’t made to be any of those things. So, if you want to sound very informal, some rules have to be broken. To sound conversational, we’ll need to take some words that are not standard. But which dialect do we take them from? Whichever dialect we opt for, one thing is certain – some speakers will feel excluded.
When it comes to regional forms, the urban Kajkavian dialect (spoken in the capital Zagreb) is seen as socially prestigious. And this prestige has been heavily criticized (ending in a lawsuit) when the Smurfs spoke the Zagreb slang in a dubbed cartoon shown in cinemas around the country.
I’d argue that some regional Kajkavian forms such as the greeting “Hi” (“Bok”) have become so widespread that other speakers won’t hold their use against you, but regionalisms should generally be used very sparsely. This way, we avoid excluding people and hijacking the product for only one geographical region.
Rather, we should aim to achieve informality through idioms that are part of the standard language, but that are still used across the whole country.
And even though purists like to banish Anglicisms and threaten that they corrupt the language, they are also a better option for achieving informality. As they come from a foreign language, they’re less divisive than dialectal words.
Let’s take a quick look at Apple’s copy, which masterfully combines informal language with authoritative boldness. At times, they’re not afraid to move away from the source, while sticking to the same concept. There were cases where the Croatian copy improved the English copy. Apple’s localization is proof that playfulness can be achieved while staying truly local.
Pro. Beyond. localized as “Probija granice” (Breaks the limits). As the verb “probijati” contains the name of the model “Pro”, this is a really smart solution that feels local.
Photo hasn't been localized as "fotografija", but as "fotka", which is very conversational. It’s also shorter and more impactful.
Brilliant has been rendered as "Sve ti je jasno" (literally: "Everything is clear to you"). It’s an idiom that means "You totally get it". The localized text moves away from the sole idea that the picture is clear, and adds the element of comprehension – because the screen is clear, you’ll won’t have any trouble understanding what you’re reading in the bright sun.
Even though the translation “Uvijek uključen zaslon. Uvijek spreman.” would be a perfectly acceptable solution, Apple decided to play around by keeping an English word that isn’t a noun and that wouldn’t be used in everyday speech as an Anglicism. “Always-On” and “always” have been retained in Croatian for a surprise effect. Good job, Apple.
Because of the rich cultural and linguistic history, localizing into Croatian can be a real challenge. This is especially true when it comes to brands who like to sound informal, playful and fun. Companies should be aware that using informal tone can lead either to inelegant verb endings or complex tech interventions to solve the issue. They should also keep in mind that informality can’t be achieved in the same way as in English. In order to include everyone in the country, slightly more toned-down language is necessary, and creative solutions that are different from those in the source language must be found. After all, that’s the point of localization. If done well, these efforts will most certainly pay off for brands localizing their content into Croatian.
About the writer
Ivan Fosin is a translator, localizer and copywriter with over ten years' of experience working with top global brands. He started his career as a translator in the European Parliament but soon became a full-time business owner. This allowed him more time to bounce creative ideas for copy around and collaborate with like-minded professionals. You can find him on his website and LinkedIn.
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Croatian localization 101: Navigating standard language and dialects
Learn about the historical origins of the language and how its challenges can be managed in localization.