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Marriage Intro Same-Sex Divorce History Family & Language

Language Differences

About Marriage & Family

By Molly Kalafut

Many people don't realize how much language can say about people's family and marital relationships. This page is probably most interesting to native English-speakers.


Chinese

"MoMo" means "mother's mother". In English we just say "Grandmother" or "Maternal Grandmother".

"FaMo" means "father's mother". In English we just say "Grandmother" or "Maternal Grandmother".

"FaFa" means "father's father". In English we just say "Grandfather or "Paternal Grandfather".

"MoFa" means "mother's father". In English we just say "Grandfather" or "Paternal Grandfather".


Danish

"Onkel" - means the same as uncle in English and is very close phonetically.


Dutch

Dutch does not have a term for "step-grandparent", so in some cases may use the term for "aunt" or "uncle" instead.


French

"Belle-fille" in French can refer to either a daughter-in-law, or a step-daughter.

French does not have a term for "step-grandparent", so it uses a long description like "my grandfather's second wife" or "my grandmother's second husband".


German

In German, a person may distinguish between their maternal and paternal grandparent by using the word for "grandmother" plus their last name.


Greek

"Yiayiades kai papoudes" means "grandmothers and grandfathers", because they don't have one term for "grandparents" the way English does.

In the United States, naming a child after a grandparent or family member may occur either because the parents like the name or to honor a particular relative. But in Greece, there are far more formalized rules about how children are named after grandparents. If the first-born is a boy, he is named after the paternal grandfather. If the first-born is a girl, she will be named after the paternal grandfather has a feminine form of the name or else named after the paternal grandmother. If the first-born was a girl and the next child is a boy, he will also be named after the paternal grandfather (but of course using the masculine name, not feminine name). There may be more complex rules that vary by region, or also if the maternal grandfather has died.


Hawaiian

"Kaikaina" means "younger sibling of the same sex as the person referred to". The kaikaina of a man is his younger brother, the kaikana of a woman is her younger sister.


Hungarian

In Hungarian, there isn't a distinction between the sex of your sibling, just the age. There are words for "older sibling" or "younger sibling"...but not "brother" or "sister" the way English uses.


Italian

Italian does not have one word for "grandparents".


Japanese

Japanese words convey both words for sibling, and birth order. Also, there are separate words for "my relative" and "your relative".

"ane" means "older sister"

"ani" means "older brother"

"oto/to" means "younger brother"

"imo/to" means "younger sister"

"mago" means "my grandsom"

"omagosan" is "your grandson"


Latin

"Avunculus" means "mother's brother". In English we just say "Uncle".

"Patruus" means "father's brother". In English we just say "Uncle".


Malay

In Malay, there are distinct terms for "elder brother", "elder sister", "elder cousin" and also "younger brother", "younger sister", "younger cousin". In English we just use "sister", "brother" or "cousin".


Njamal

(Australian Aborigine Language)

"Maili" means "any relative two generations distant". In English that would include "grandparent" or "grandchild".


Polynesian

The same word is used for "cousins" as "siblings".


Spanish

"Abuelos" translates to "grandfathers", but is the term also used for "grandparents". Similarly, the word for "aunts and uncles" is the plural word for "uncles".


Swedish

Swedish does not have one word for the term "grandparents".

"Mormor" means "mother's mother". In English we just say "Grandmother", or "Maternal Grandmother".

"Farmor" means "father's mother". In English we just say "Grandmother" or "Maternal Grandmother".

"Farfar" means "father's father". In English we just say "Grandfather" or "Paternal Grandfather".

"Morfar" means "mother's father". In English we just say "Grandfather" or "Paternal Grandfather".


Yiddish

"Mekhuteneste" is the word for "my daughter-in-law's mother" or "my son-in-law's mother".

"Mekhutn" is the word for "my daughter-in-law's father" or "my son-in-law's father".

"Mekhutonim" is the word for "my daughter-in-law's parents" or "my son-in-law's parents".


English

After reading all the other languages, English seems straight-forward in comparison - and really general. "Aunt" can refer to four people; "father's sister", "father's brother's wife", "mother's sister", "mother's brother's wife". "Cousin" is a very confusing term in America. In the strict sense it refers to someone "with whom you share a common ancestor". For example, you and your cousin share the same grandparents. But just to make things fun, some people mean "cousin" as "anyone who I have a blood relationship with".


Assorted Languages

Many languages, particular in Holland, Finland, Germany, Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spanish traditionally have two different ways to say "you". One is singular or used in familiar way to a friend. The other is plural or used in a polite and formal situation. Prior to 1968, the plural/polite form was used more often for grandparents, but these days it is more common for family to use the singular/familiar form with grandparents.


For More Information

Model Languages by Jeffrey Henning

Kinship and Relationships by Kristina Kellam

Relationship Terms by Stan Brown

The Mavens' Word of the Day by Anna McColl

Naming Grandparents by Elizabeth Mestheneos and Antonia Svensson-Dianellou


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Copyright 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 and beyond! By Molly Kalafut