Why do Croats have so many words for their family members?


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If you have a family in Croatia, you probably have noticed that we have quite complex kinship terms. So, you wonder why the word ‘aunt’ is sometimes translated as teta, sometimes strina, but sometimes also ujna? You are in the right place to discover!
Just take a look at no less than THREE sets of uncles and aunts that we have:

stric – uncle (father’s brother)
strina – aunt (wife of stric, i.e. father’s brother)
ujak – uncle (mother’s brother)
ujna – aunt (wife of ujak, i.e. mother’s brother)
tet(k)a – aunt (father’s OR mother’s sister)
tetak – uncle (husband of teta, i.e. father’s or mother’s sister)

If you think that’s too much to handle – wait, we’ve just started! When it comes to the in-laws it only gets more… well, interesting! So, a Croatian term for father-in-law or mother-in-law would depend on whether you are a man or a woman. I kid you not!

svekar – father-in-law (HUSBAND’s father)
svekrva – mother-in-law (HUSBAND’s mother)
punac / tast – father-in-law (WIFE’s father)
punica – mother-in-law (WIFE’s mother)

Now that the warm-up is over, it’s time to get to some real stuff! Let’s take a look at the other in-laws. If you thought this would also depend on the fact whether you’re a man or a woman, well… you’re absolutely right, of course.
So, if you’re a man…

šurjak – brother-in-law (your wife’s brother)
šurjakinja – brother-in-law’s wife, i.e. wife of your wife’s brother
svastika – sister-in-law (your wife’s sister)
svak / pašanac / badžo – sister-in-law’s husband, i.e. husband of your wife’s sister. Yes, we actually have a term for this kind of relationship and yes, there is even more than one word for it!

On the other hand, if you’re a woman…

djever – brother-in-law (your husband’s brother)
jetrva – brother-in-law’s wife, i.e. wife of your husband’s brother
zaova – sister-in-law (your husband’s sister)
zaovac – sister-in-law’s husband, i.e. husband of your husband’s sister

Photo from the wedding of our SpeakCro teacher, Kristina Krpan

If I also tell you that the words for nephews and nieces would also depend on your sex AND the fact if you’re talking about your brother’s OR your sister’s son OR a daughter… before you start screaming in despair, here’s some good news: you don’t have to know all of these words. Most of these are becoming obsolete, especially in urban areas – which means in most of the country. In the Zagreb area and north Croatia, for instance, only šogor and šogorica are used instead of all of the above-mentioned brothers- and sisters-in-law. So, why on earth do we even have all of these words?!

To understand why, we need to go a bit further back in history. Croatia was predominantly rural up until around World War 2, when the city population rapidly grew due to an intense process of deruralization. According to the figures, the proportion of people living in urban settlements was roughly 18% in 1931, 41% in 1971, and almost 54% in 2001 – staying at approximately the same percentage (slightly over 54%) according to the census in 2011.

Prior to WW2, it wasn’t uncommon that 3 (or even more) generations lived under the same roof, frequently organized as agricultural cooperatives (in Croatian: poljoprivredne zadruge). Namely, as in many other countries worldwide, agriculture was the most important branch of the national economy prior to the development of industrialization – which globally started developing at the end of the 18th century. However, „proper“ industrialization never developed to such an extent in Croatia, and it started much later. Croatia was more craftsmanship-and-manufacturing-oriented, and this period roughly lasted from the end of the 19th century until WW2. Croatia saw a bit more intense period of industrialization from the 1950s to the 1970s.

So, up until WW2, the people in Croatia lived in larger communities that weren’t just big families, but also autonomous and more or less self-sustainable associations. If you were a farmer, you needed a workforce to plow all that land. You needed to trade or sell your goods to buy some goods from the carpenter or the tailor. So your parents, your children, your wife, your siblings and their entire families were organized and lived as a cooperative that wasn’t only tied by blood, but also by common economic needs.

Now, I hope that it makes a bit more sense why we have so many words for these insanely diverse kinship relations. When you live with all of these people, it does help to address them all properly other than by their name! So, just as Inuits have dozens of words for snow, because snow is an important aspect of their social reality, Croats have all of these kinship terms. As the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in linguistics would say, language really does reflect one’s social reality!


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