First of all, you need to understand one thing: one of the facts you hear most often during your elementary school education here is that the vowels in our language are “A, E, I, O, U and sometimes R” (we don’t have the “y” in our alphabet, so it’s not mentioned; well, actually, it wasn’t mentioned years ago when I was in school, potentially the kids today are taught the alphabet differently). The “sometimes R” is extremely confusing both to every thinking eight-year-old in second grade, and to anyone else. How can the very non-vowelly “R” be a vowel?
I don’t know. I’m obviously not a linguist, I’m someone who is very literate and articulate in Croatian, but I don’t know the linguistic details of how that’s possible. But, for our purposes, it doesn’t really matter, all we need to know at this point is that it is entirely legitimate to have a Croatian word that has no *other* vowels, except for a poor “R” in there somewhere.
Words without vowels in Croatian tend to be shorter words, and I’m sure that you’ve heard some of them if you’ve spent any time in Croatia. For a tourist, the first one you come by is trg, as in “Trg bana Jelačića“, meaning square. Like the rest of those words without vowels, it’s difficult to pronounce, as was proven by Google Maps and their voice navigation which struggled with that one for years, until they finally managed to get it almost right.
When I was asked to write this article, I spent maybe 2 or 3 hours actively thinking about how to best explain in writing how those words are easiest to pronounce for a foreigner, and I landed on the “ɜː”. Words that might help you get it right from English are “worth”, “nurse”, and “stir”, but if you were really trying to make that “R” be heard in there. Hey, “heard” is another one!
Then we have the island of Krk. Rt is the shortest one (not really, but the last two are so weird we’ll come back to them later), and you’ll often come across it when sailing – it means “the cape” (in the “Cape Canaveral” sense of the word, not in the magician’s attire sense of the word). Then there’s grb, the coat of arms – our flag has a very fancy and confusing one of those in its center, so it might come up sometimes. While we’re at it, there’s also Grk, which can mean two things: a person from Greece, or, more importantly (especially if you’re on the island of Korčula), the very local white wine variety you should absolutely have when there!
You absolutely don’t want to encounter krv while on vacation here, unless you’re reading some fiction involving blood. Especially not on your prst, which is a finger. Crn is black, brz is fast, grm is bush, grč is a cramp (mostly) in your leg, so you might get some of those while swimming. Hrt is a greyhound dog, krš is karst (see, this one is almost the same in both languages!), skrb is a noun for when you’re taking care of someone, smrt is death, srp you probably also won’t come across, unless you end up somewhere on Hvar harvesting lavender (sickle, as shown on the second image in the linked article).
If you hear strm on your way to the beach, that should worry you: it means steep, and it means that coming back from the beach might be a problem. Trn you also want to avoid as much as possible, it is a thorn (also very similar in the two languages). Trs is a vine, which is coincidentally a word I most often misspelled in English in my entire life, while writing for Total Croatia Wine. Tvrd is really hard to pronounce, which seems only fair, as it means hard or tough. Čvrst is even harder to pronounce, with the infamous “č” at the beginning, but the meaning is very similar to tvrd, so for most basic conversations you can stick to tvrd and pretend never to have heard of čvrst. Vrh is the top or the peak, so if you’re into mountains, you’ll get to some vrh while here, vrt is a garden where your veggies come from (often in Dalmatia called vrtal, with a single vowel graciously given to help), vrč is a pitcher for water, beer (very rarely here will you find beer served in pitchers) or wine.
Zvrk is a spinning top, so unless you’re talking about Inception, I don’t see how you could need that in a conversation, and škrt is a quality of a person who’s cheap and doesn’t want to spend any money. Brk is a moustache (but much more often the word brkovi is used), crv is a worm or maggot, trk is a quick dash and I saved the best for last: krnj. You are absolutely not required to remember or ever try to pronounce this, as it means truncated, is rarely used and my god, not only does it have no vowels, but it also has a “NJ” in there!
The two I promised we’d discuss later are brief and don’t include “R”: s and k. S means with (sometimes it’s spelled “sa”, for very complicated reasons), and k means to, in the sense that you would say “come to me” – “dođi k meni”.
There are several more words without vowels in the Croatian language, but are so rarely used that I had to really think hard to figure out what they meant. I think we’ve had enough of this vowel-less fun for one day and that you’ve learned enough about the strange world of the Croatian language if you got this far.