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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