Map of Slovenian Dialects, Slovenski lingvistični atlas II (2016)Fran Ramovš Institute of the Slovenian Language
Slovenia is a country of only about two million inhabitants. And yet there are more than 40 dialects, which differ from region to region, classified in seven dialect groups.
Nevertheless, Slovenes from different regions can understand each other, but sometimes it’s quite a feat to understand every single word.
Variations for the word "grandma" across Slovenia, Slovenski lingvistični atlas I (2011)Fran Ramovš Institute of the Slovenian Language
The richness of dialects makes Slovene one of the most diverse Slavic languages, with an incredible number of varieties and local expressions. For example, there are about 25 different ways to say “grandma” in Slovene!
Otilija Kos from Gorenje Vrhpolje peeling potatoes - a woven basket with potatoes sits in her lap (1952) by Boris OrelFran Ramovš Institute of the Slovenian Language
Since a great part of Slovenia was once under the political and cultural influence of Austria, it is not surprising that many Slovenian dialects have adopted words and phrases from German ... and also some wonderful recipes!
Neighbours help with saving a cow (1951) by Jernej ŠušteršičFran Ramovš Institute of the Slovenian Language
For example, in Styria and Carinthia, oma or omama is used to refer to a grandma. The word comes from the Germanic languages, which have also influenced many other dialect words.
A woman (Neža Kočevar from Podlož 9) has just picked chamomile for medicine (1962) by Marija MakarovičFran Ramovš Institute of the Slovenian Language
Western Slovenian dialects have been in long-term contact with Romance, i.e. Italian, Friulian and Venetian languages and their dialects.
In this part of Slovenia the expression nona, which comes from the Italian word “nonna”, is widely used.
This nona, for example, has just gathered some home-grown chamomile for an ointment or an aromatic tea.
Flax scutching in Adlešiči (1920) by Fran VeselFran Ramovš Institute of the Slovenian Language
In the south of Slovenia, very close to the border with Croatia, people call their grandmother baka, which is borrowed from Croatian. This is another example of how fundamentally the proximity to another culture can influence one’s own.
Mokronog Fair (1951) by Boris OrelFran Ramovš Institute of the Slovenian Language
However, were neighbours really the only reason for the richness of dialects in a relatively small area? Well, not at all. The development of dialects was also greatly influenced by the history of settlements and by geographical and administrative barriers.
However, when travelling around the country, that is, selling traditional products, people understood each other well enough.
A woman from Upper Carniola sitting in front of a farmhouse stove, wearing the peasant attire from the turn of the 20th century (with influence from bourgeois attire)Fran Ramovš Institute of the Slovenian Language
In Upper Carniola or “Gorenjska” you would call your grandmother stara mati (engl. old mother) or mati (engl. mother). Sometimes grandmothers in this region are simply called ta stara (engl. the old one).
Grape harvest in Žerovinci (1973) by Boris KuharFran Ramovš Institute of the Slovenian Language
You will hear the same words in Lower Carniola or the “Dolenjska” dialect group, in the western part of Inner Carniola or “Notranjska” and in the “Rovte” dialects.
Calling one’s grandma old seems to be very popular in the heartland of Slovenia, but in some other areas it was apparently considered somewhat disrespectful.
A Slovenian and a French woman (1951) by Milko MatičetovFran Ramovš Institute of the Slovenian Language
The old Slavic root for grandma is baba. This word is still used in the Slovenian dialect of Rezija. Some other variants of the word baba are also used in other parts of Slovenia, but not as often.
You can call your grandma babej or babi, which is a diminutive form of the word and probably the most affectionate name you can use for your favourite grandma.
Marija Pograjc from Poljane glazes a loaf with eggs so it bakes nicely (1957) by Marija MakarovičFran Ramovš Institute of the Slovenian Language
In Styrian or “Štajerska” dialects and Pannonian dialects, such as Prekmurje, they just formed the word baba (meaning “old woman”) into babica, which is now a nice name for your grandma without referring to her age. Hurray for that!
In Carinthia they shortened the word to bica.
A man talking to two women (1949) by Joško ŠmucFran Ramovš Institute of the Slovenian Language
The most common and geographically widespread expressions for grandmother are still stara mati and stara mama (engl. “old mother”), which occur mainly in central Slovenia.
Do not worry, no Slovenian grandma would take offence at this.
Harvesting flax (1951) by Jernej ŠušteršičFran Ramovš Institute of the Slovenian Language
Slovenes value their language because it is one of the building blocks of Slovene identity. But most of them also identify strongly with the region they come from and are proud of their dialect.
Dušica Kunaver (2021) by Katja ŠkrabarFran Ramovš Institute of the Slovenian Language
Ultimately, Slovenes know that it’s not what you say but how you say it that matters, as the well-known saying “Lepa beseda lepo mesto najde” (literally, a nice word finds a nice place, meaning that politeness costs nothing but earns a lot) shows.
If you ask a Slovene grandmother nicely, she might tell you one of the Slovenian folk stories!