Bob’s your uncle

Mar 8, 2012 by

In an earlier post, we have discussed how kinship terminology differs from language to language. Where one language may have an umbrella term for several different relations, another language make have a more detailed network of term. Similarly, what counts as one kinship relationship in one language may turn out to be repackaged differently in others. Here’s an additional example of that: ‘uncle’ (and ‘aunt’).

According to Webster’s New World Dictionary, uncle is a brother of one’s mother or father, or a husband of one’s aunt. Conversely, aunt is a sister of one’s mother or father, or an uncle’s wife. But not all language see the uncle-aunt relation in the same way. For example, in Watam (spoken by 590 people in Papua New Guinea), a brother of one’s father and a brother of one’s mother are not the same thing at all, and each deserves its own term: aes for ‘father’s brother’ and akwae for ‘mother’s brother’.

In Hindi, the side of the family is not the only factor that determines which word one is to use for ‘uncle’ or ‘aunt’, as the relative age matters too. Thus, an ‘uncle’ can be maama if he is a brother of one’s mother, or chaacha if he is a brother of one’s father. But that’s only the beginning of the story. Father’s older brother may be referred to as taauu, and father’s younger brother as caacaa. Additional terms exist for father’s sister’s husband (phuuphaa) and mother’s sister’s husband (mausaa). The proliferation of terms for ‘aunt’ is similar: mother’s sister is mausii, father’s sister is buaa or phoophee, father’s brother’s wife is chaachee, father’s older brother’s wife is taaii, father’s younger brother’s wife is caacee, and mother’s brother’s wife is maamee.

Mopan Maya, a language of 9,200 speakers in Belize plus an additional 2,600 speakers in Guatemala, packages the terms for ‘uncle’ in yet another way. In this language,relative age plays a role, but the side of the family does not. And some ‘uncles’ are not what we’d call uncles at all! The same term — suku’un — serves in Mopan Maya not only for a parent’s (mother’s or father’s) younger brother but also for one’s one older brother. In effect it means a male sibling between one’s parents age and one’s own. In contrast, a parent’s older brother is tataa’, but the same term is also applied to one’s grandfather. Thus, it is a male sibling between one’s parents’ age and one’s grandparents.

And if these languages may seem exotic to you, consider Russian. Here the words for ‘uncle’ and ‘aunt’, djadja and tjotja, can be extended not only to other family members but far beyond one’s family, especially in the language of (and directed to) children and teenagers. Thus, djadja can be applied not only to a “true uncle”, but to any, even distantly related, relative. Moreover, it can be applied (with a name) to one’s parents’ friends, one’s friends’ parents, and even strangers. A famous case in point is the children’s poem by Sergei Mikhalkov Djadja Stjopa, where the titular character is not anybody’s uncle. He is a milicioner, or as they are now called, a policeman (and a former navy sailor). He is particularly known for being very tall and thus particularly able to help people with various unusual problems (see the image at the top of the post). His first name, Stjopa, is a short form of Stepan (a relative of the English Steven). The poem starts like this (below I provide the Russian original, the English transliteration, and my loose English translation of the first stanza):

Кто не знает дядю Стёпу?
Дядя Стёпа всем знаком!
Знают все, что дядя Стёпа
Был когда-то моряком.
Kto ne znajet djadju Stjopu?
Djadja Stjopa vsem znakom!
Znajut vse, chto djadja Stjopa
Byl kogda-to morjakom.
Who doesn’t known uncle Stjopa?
Uncle Stjopa is familiar to all!
Everybody knows that uncle Stjopa
Was a sailor before.

So how would we say and Bob’s your uncle in Russian? I am not sure… Ideas, anyone?


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  • Katya Shilova

    May be ‘Вот и все!’ – although the meaning of this phrase is more narrow than ‘Bob’s your uncle’

    • Kirill2485

      Yes I agree with this

  • “И сам черт тебе не брат”
    that’s quite obvious for anyone with decent knowledge of both Russian and English

    • Katya Shilova

      At the risk of exposing the “indecent” state of my Russian and English, I beg to differ. It seems to me that “И сам черт тебе не брат” describers extreme carelessness, bravery, independence, whereas in modern English ”Bob’s your uncle” underscores the easiness, simplicity of a set of instructions. In my opinion, “И кум королю” or “И дело в шляпе” would be a better fit than “И сам черт тебе не брат”, although I still think that in most cases ‘Вот и все!’ is the adequate translation, although not quite as colorful.

  • I grew up calling my parents’ friends Uncle John and Aunt Mary, but never just Uncle or Aunt, which were reserved for true kin.  My daughter and grandson call my and her friends by their first names, though.

    There’s a good brief comparison of Henry Lewis Morgan’s six classical kinship systems (Eskimo (which includes modern Western cultures),  Hawaiian, Iroquois, Crow, Omaha, Sudanese) at, with links to detailed descriptions.  Apparently there is a seventh, Dravidian.  In addition, some cultures distinguish relative age and others conflate terms for alternating generations.

  • Leslie

    Turkish distinguishes between types of aunts and uncles as well. In standard Turkish, your father’s sister is your teyze, and your mother’s sister is your hala. Your father’s brother is your amca, and your mother’s brother is your dayi. I can’t remember what the spouses of these relations are called, unfortunately. Turkish also uses two of these terms, amca and teyze, in almost exactly the same way that Russian uses djadja and tjotja; for strangers and family friends who are older than you, but not older-enough to warrant being called an auntie or an uncle, the words for older sister and older brother are used (abla and agabey).

    • Thank you for sharing this, very interesting!

    • Ivan Derzhanski

      I gather that either of your parents’ sister’s husband is your _enişte_ (same as your own sister’s husband), and either of your parents’ brother’s wife is your _yenge_ (same as your own brother’s wife).

      The traditional Bulgarian system’s poorly remembered now, and there’s much variation across dialects, but it sums up to something like this:

      FaBr чичо, стрико; FaBrWi чин(к)а, стрина
      MoBr вуйчо~уйко; MoBrWi вуйна, учинайка
      FaSi леля; FaSiHu лелин(чо), свако, ?калеко
      MoSi тетка; MoSiHu тетин(чо), ?свако, калеко

      In most modern usage, however, only _вуйчо_ and _вуйна_ retain their narrow meanings, and _чичо_ and _леля_ are used for everyone else on the list, as well as family friends and strangers.

  • Wordord

    As a translator I’m often frustrated by all those unspecific “uncles”, “aunts”, “grandfathers” an “grandmothers” in English, Russian and Finnish. Because in Swedish there are no generic terms for these, we simply *need* to know if people are related on mother’s or father’s side!

    Uncle = morbror (mother’s brother)/farbror (father’s brother), aunt = moster (mother’s sister)/faster (father’s sister) – as you can see there’s a clear pattern here, so I probably don’t need to translate mormor/farmor and morfar/farfar. 😉
    The equivalent of the Russian “djadja” (when used about distant relatives or any older male person) is “farbror” – but never “morbror”! And when talking about female (non-related) persons we use the word “tant” (ref. French “tante”), not “moster” or “faster”. Strange.

    • Thank you for sharing this! I am particularly fascinated by the fact that the non-relative “uncle” in Swedish is “farbror” rather than “morbror” — even here the feminine gender, or in this case maternal line, seems to be the more marked case…

      • Ivan Derzhanski

        As late as the early 20th century much of Europe (indeed, the world) was dominated by the patriarchal family, where brothers would live under the same roof
         by default, so the children would meet their father’s brothers, their father’s brothers’ wives and their father’s unmarried sisters on a daily basis and their mother’s siblings only occasionally.  This may have to do with the asymmetry between the paternal and the maternal line.

        • That’s an excellent point. Still, I am not sure whether it’s a cultural issue (who lived with whom) or linguistic (masculine being the default).

          • Ivan Derzhanski

            Hard to tell in this case.  But look at the Chinese system.  The language has no grammatical gender, no masculine:feminine distinction (hence no default), but in the kinship terminology there is a privative opposition between the unmarked term, which means a male-line relative, and the same term prefixed by 外 _wài_ ‘outside, external, foreign’, which applies to the corresponding female-line relative; and the explanation is precisely that the former are of the same house as you and the latter aren’t.

          • Great example! Or one would have to look for a culture with a maternal line preference and masculine default in the language’s gender system…

      • Ivan Derzhanski

        On the other hand, on the way from Latin to Romance MoBr _avunculus_ displaced FaBr _patruus_.  (But FaSi _amita_ displaced MoSi _matertera_.  Go figure.)

  • languagehat

    We use “uncle” and “aunt” the same way in English; my parents had a friend named Wolf Ladejinsky whom we kids referred to always as Uncle Wolf.

    • Thanks for sharing the story, languagehat! I think this custom in English-speaking countries is rather outdated: our friends’ children don’t call me and my husband “aunt Asya” or “uncle Vitaliy”… It remains to be seen if in Russia children will shift to calling adults by first names, without “uncle”/”aunt”…

      • Alfia Wallace

         This does seems to be dying out in the U.S. at least.  There are a few non-related “uncles”  and “aunties” from my childhood and even a couple a people who are such to my own kids, but these people are both over the age of 60. We don’t call any of our younger close family friends “uncle” or “auntie”.  Then again, maybe you have to be venerable to earn this title.  I’ll let you know if I or any of these friends become “aunties” or “uncles” once grand-kids come along! ;P

  • Dm

    Wasn’t there supposed to be a стрый / вуй dualism in old Russian, too? Also I don’t think Russian youngsters would really use anything like Uncle Vitaliy; AFAIK these “uncles” and “aunts” always prefix informal short names (perhaps Uncle Vitya) which you’ve extensively covered earlier.

    • languagehat

       Yes, the general Slavic words for ‘father’s brother’ are related to Church Slavic stryi (probably cognate with other Indo-European words like Greek πάτρως, Latin patruus, and so on, related to *pater- ‘father’), and those for ‘mother’s brother’ are related to Church Slavic uji (cognate Lithuanian avynas, Latin avunculus, Old English eam, and so on).

    • Thanks for the comment. Good point on the use of short names with “uncle” and “aunt” — in my case it is the same name though, so I haven’t thought about it.

  • Ivan Derzhanski

    All of this reminds me of an observation I made many years ago when reading a Russian short story.  The first sentence went: «Мой дядя — брат моей матери».  How, I thought, should one translate this sentence into Bulgarian?  The answer is that one shouldn’t translate it at all, one should start the translation with the second sentence, and just remember that «дядя» throughout the text is to be rendered as _вуйчо_ rather than _чичо_.  I thought that was rather remarkable.

  • Adam Abbott

    In Shona, the majority language in Zimbabwe, an aunt on your father’s side of the family is called Tete. An aunt on the mother’s side of your family is called either Amaiguru or Amainini depending upon whether she is older or younger than your mother. In Shona you can also refer to your cousins as your siblings. A lot depends upon cultural background.