What’s in a name?

16 Mar

English is very simple sometimes.  We have one word for cousin, one word for aunt, one word for grandmother.  Your father’s older brother and your mother’s younger brother are given the same label – uncle.

Chinese – not so much.

Older and younger brothers (and sisters) both have specific names {哥哥,弟弟 and 姐姐,妹妹}.  In fact, the word for siblings is a combination of all those terms Xiongdijiemei 兄弟姐妹。Siblings are just the beginning though.

Recently we got into quite a long discussion about the word for mother-in-law.  It is different depending on if she is the husband’s mom or the wife’s mother.  For me, my mother-in-law should be called 婆婆 which is easier to remember because 外婆 (waipo) means your mother’s mother.  Li should be calling my mom 岳母- yuemu – where the second syllable is part of the formal word for mother.

Learning all these iterations is tough on a language student.  Even almost seven years in I sometimes flip the words for uncle or grandfather because my head just doesn’t seem to contain enough space.  English is remarkably concise – but we do have to ask a lot of follow up questions, “Is that your mom’s mom or your dad’s mom?  Which side of your family is Matt on? Is your brother older or younger?”

Then there are the questions about siblings because with the one child policy people use old words with new meanings.  Because people don’t have older or younger brothers, they now use those words to refer to their cousins instead of the traditional words.  This leads to questions like, “Is it your brother with the same mother?” The first time I heard that one, I was pretty confused.

With my sister-in-law having a son, there are also the words for nephew and niece – which once again vary by side.  Too many names!

One potential family tree - though Li doesn't agree with all these labels!

One potential family tree – though Li doesn’t agree with all these labels!

The above is a chart we found, but even this has some variations from what I hear colloquially.

So, who are you?  What names do you have and which would you like to know?

I am a daughter, older sister, wife, daughter-in-law, aunt, cousin. That would be 女儿,姐姐,老婆,儿媳妇 and 表妹,表姐 and a couple of other words.


10 Responses to “What’s in a name?”

  1. CrazyChineseFamily March 16, 2014 at 9:30 pm #

    It is just too hard for me to remember, not even my wife knows all the different specific names. Some time ago I found this on youtube about the exact same topic http://youtu.be/nCFRoILS1jY

    • gkm2011 March 17, 2014 at 7:19 am #

      My husband has to think about it too. But I wonder, with aunts and uncles and siblings getting scarcer, will the names exist at all in a generation?

      • CrazyChineseFamily March 18, 2014 at 12:27 am #

        I believe it will continue in the countryside, at least for a while. So far I have met no one from the countryside with at least one or two siblings unlike the people I know from the cities, where all my friends are single children

  2. Every Day Adventures in Asia March 16, 2014 at 11:29 pm #

    It can also get quite complicated in India too! So can completely relate to this. 🙂

    • gkm2011 March 17, 2014 at 7:19 am #

      With bigger families than China, I’d guess it will be even more confusing!

      • Every Day Adventures in Asia March 17, 2014 at 8:50 am #

        Yuppers! That’s the refreshing thing about now being part of an Anglo-Indian family – waaaaay less complicated! 🙂 But then I do get confused about – fathers side, mothers side, etc…

        Like you – I wonder how the impact of smaller families in China will change such terms?

  3. Giovannoni Claudine March 17, 2014 at 12:50 am #

    And this is a valid reason ’cause I’m waiting my next life to learn it…
    🙂 claudine

    • gkm2011 March 17, 2014 at 7:20 am #

      I didn’t mean to scare you!

  4. Naomi Baltuck April 21, 2014 at 1:35 am #

    You can tell a lot about a culture by its language. The Nunavik people have 53 words for snow, and I would guess that family and position is very important to the Chinese. Thank you for another wonderful post!

    • gkm2011 April 21, 2014 at 8:15 am #

      Wow – that many words for snow! Well, when studying Chinese one of the sentences you learn at the beginning is that the US has many trees and China has many people. Same concept!

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