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Family Trees Around the World

The language of family

The American journalist Jane Howard once wrote “Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.” And in honour of International Day of Families, we thought it would be interesting to discuss the differences in what families around the world call the members of their clan.

For English speakers, this might seem fairly straight forward – mother, father, brother, sister, grandparents and aunts and uncles – the classic components of sitcom families from The Simpsons to Coronation Street. However, for other languages there are a few more possibilities, especially when you start to consider the extended family.  

While English used to have a lot more words for family members, some countries and languages use ‘extra’ terms that we don’t in English. In Puerto Rican Spanish, for example, you have consuegro and consuegra, specific terms for your children’s in-laws, i.e. the siblings of your children’s partners.

Sometimes it comes down to the gender of the person you’re talking about and having to specify it. In Dutch, for example, they don’t have an equivalent of ‘sibling’, so they have to specify ‘brothers and sisters’ (broers en zussen). However, in Dutch, as in French, Italian and many other languages, you can distinguish between a male cousin and a female cousin, so French has cousin and cousine, Italian cugino and cugina and Dutch neef and nicht, whereas English has the rather clunkier male cousin and female cousin.

The other two big ‘trends’ in names for family members are which side of the family they belong to and how old the person is compared to your parents.

For example, in Arabic there are eight different terms for cousin because, in addition to distinguishing between male and female cousins, you also have to specify whether you’re related on your father or mother's side. Arabic is quite precise on this front - you have عم (amm) who is your uncle on your father’s side and خال (khal) who is your mother’s brother. And, of course, you also have عمة (aama) your father’s sister and خالة (khala) on your mother’s side.

In Mandarin and in Simplified Chinese script, like in Arabic, there are totally different titles for relatives from the different sides of families. So, your grandmother is your mother’s mother (外婆 (waipo) or 姥姥 (laolao) depending on where you are in China) or your father’s mother’ 奶奶 (nainai)). The same applies for the rest of the extended Chinese family. 

In Turkish too, you have amca for your father’s brother and dayı for your mother’s brother. Hala is your father’s sister and teyze for your mother’s sister. In Russian the word for your in-laws, depends on whether it’s the husband’s parents or the wife’s parents (свёкор vs. тесть and свекровь vs. тёща).

And then you have languages where the word depends on the relative ages of family members. In Vietnamese, your uncle is either chú, bác, or cậu depending on whether they are your father’s younger brother, the older brother of either of your parents or your mother’s (other) brother. In Japanese the spelling of aunt and uncle in kanji differs, depending on whether they are older (伯母and伯父) or younger (叔母 and 叔父) than your parent, though the romanji (oji and oba) and the pronunciation stays the same. 

In Korean too, the birth order of (male) siblings plays into it. Contrast your father’s older brother 큰아빠 (keun appa) or 큰아버지 (keun abeoji) with your father’s younger brother 숙부 (sookbu). Sisters-in-law are also differentiated based on which brother they married. There’s less precision around women; your father’s sister is simply 고모 (gomo) and on the maternal side, aunt and uncle are simply 이모 (eemo) and 외숙부 (oe sookbu) regardless of age. However Korean also has a specific honorific suffix for (great) grandparents on the maternal (외) side.

It’s a bit of a puzzle as to why one language specifies more than others in this way, but next time you’re talking about your aunt or cousin, take a moment to think about how much information other languages can pack into one simple word and just how many pitfalls there can be when choosing the right equivalent!

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