In Russian and English (and as far as I know Chinese) it's customary for kids to use honorific "uncle" when addressing elders by name (as a kid, you'd rather call an adult "uncle John" than "John", even if he's not your uncle).

In Russian, kids would also refer to a male stranger as "uncle".

Is is common across the languages of the world?

As a side question, is it ever used in languages which don't have a generic word for "uncle" (as opposed to "father's brother" and "mother's brother")? If yes, which "uncle" would they use?


Just to clarify, I'm not expecting a hundred of answers for each language separately. An ideal answer for me would be a reference to something like Greenberg's book which would already have aggregated the world's data.

  • 2
    It seems common. It happens in Spanish and Arabic too. (Note though that many languages, including Arabic, distinguish between a father's brothers and a mother's brothers, so there is no word uncle per se.) Jan 30 '16 at 7:06
  • @AMBlittingmayer: duly noted!
    – Quassnoi
    Jan 30 '16 at 10:08
  • 1
    To those voting "too broad": this questions is answerable with a single "yes, it is common" or "no, it's not common". A question like "please list all languages which have honorific uncle" would have been to broad indeed; and that's not what I'm asking.
    – Quassnoi
    Jan 31 '16 at 9:55
  • In Italian I think Jovanotti the singer popularized the term ("zio") with the meaning of "pal" or "old sport". I'm not sure if the word is nowadays still used in such way so much. Jan 31 '16 at 17:38

In Thai, calling people as they were your relatives, is a linguistic norm. Here are some details first:

  1. There are two distinct words for "brother/sister":

    1. พี่ [pʰîː] — elder brother/sister;
    2. น้อง [nɔ́ːŋ] — younger brother/sister;

    One can also use ชาย or สาว suffix to clarify brother vs. sister, e.g., น้องชาย = "younger brother"

  2. There are four distinct words for uncle/aunt:

    1. ลุง [luŋ] — elder brother of either your mother or father;
    2. ป้า [pâː] — elder sister of your mother/father;
    3. อา [ʔaː] — younger brother/sister of your mother;
    4. น้า [náː] — younger brother/sister of your father;
  3. There are also four distinct words for paternal/maternal grandmother/grandfather:

    1. ปู่ [pùː] — paternal grandfather;
    2. ย่า [jâː] — paternal grandmother;
    3. ตา [taː] — maternal grandfather;
    4. ยาย [jaːj] — maternal grandmother;

As I said, using family member pronouns is very common in modern Thai. It is also considered pretty much polite (politeness is an important aspect of the language).

  1. If a stranger's age and social status looks like he/she could be your elder brother/sister, call them พี่ [pʰîː]. If their age is equal to yours, use the same word for politeness.

    Note, however, that in Russian, calling a stranger "brother" is somewhat excessively vulgar. Unlike in Thai, where people effectively use "brother/sister" instead the word "friend".

  2. If a stranger is certainly younger than you, use น้อง [nɔ́ːŋ];

  3. If they are in the age of your parents, use ลุง [luŋ] for males and ป้า [pâː] for females.
    1. Sometimes, people use constructs like คุณลุง [kʰun luŋ] "mister uncle".
    2. The same applies if you are talking to an official (e.g., a police officer). It is polite to call them "Mr. Name" or "Mr. officer", not "brother".
    3. You can also use แม่ [mɛ̂ː] "mother" or พ่อ [pʰɔ̂ː] "father" to show some warmness if your friendship lasts longer.
  4. If they are in the age of your grandparents, yet again, they use paternal word for "grandfather" ปู่ [pùː] and maternal word for "grandmother" ยาย [jaːj].
  5. Addressing someone who is in age of your children in not an exception, either. Use ลูก [lûːk] "child".

For further details, I would recommend this great lesson by Stuart Jay Raj: Not Just You and Me - Getting past Khun คุณ Phom ผม and ดิฉัน DiChan in Thai (Youtube)

Other languages. There are many dialects of Thai, and all they have dialectal forms of family member pronouns. And they do use them just the way I described above. So I suppose that many languages from Asian/Pacific region take similar approach for addressing strangers. I haven't checked specifically, however.



We have the same thing in Turkish as well. We have separate words for paternal and maternal uncle. In this context, children use the word "amca" which stands for paternal uncle. For example, "Uncle John" means "John amca". Just like in Russian, the word "amca" can be used alone when children address strangers. Sometimes, the word "amca" is also used by adults to address elder people. Also, the word "dayı" which stands for maternal uncle is occasionally used by some adults to address elder people even though these two words are not accepted forms of address in formal situations. For addressing ladies, children likewise use the word "teyze" which means "maternal aunt". Its usage is in the same way as that of "amca". Likewise, adults can also use the word "teyze" in rather informal situations just like when they use the word "amca". One can sometimes even hear some adults using the words "anne" or "ana", both meaning "mother", for addressing elder ladies.

However, Turkish does not have a honorific alternative for these words.

  • Wouldn't the honorific alternatives be bay/bayım, efendi, ağa, hoca, usta...? Jan 31 '16 at 11:25

This has more to do with particular communities and less with languages as such.

In certain socio-economic strata within certain communities a 'child' may use a word for a blood relative for an otherwise unrelated elder; but not for someone outside the class( conditioning, loss of innocence?) eg The child may not call a household help uncle but may adress a shopkeeper this way.

There may be different relations used for different people eg the taxi driver may be called brother in some communities.

The language used may vary eg uncle relationship may be expressed as 'uncle' in English. But brother in native dialect.

To answer then yes it is not only uncle ( which could be expressed in multiple indian languages ) but specifically 'Uncle' (english) which is used within a specific class ( I can vouch for the so called middle income group) in Pakistan and Sri Lanka and India. subject to above constraints.


The same holds for Brazilian Portuguese. We often use "uncle/aunt" generically for some older family members and their friends.

  • This seems to have changed in time. When I was a kid, we used "tia" mostly for fundamental education teachers. Nowadays it is common to use it for any adult/older person. It isn't really "honorific", though, and in some contexts it can sound rather derisive. It is also informal; you wouldn't do that addressing someone in court, academy, press, etc. Jun 24 '17 at 14:49

Yes, in arabic too. "3ami" is used to adress the paternal uncle; "3amti" the paternal aunt, "khali" the maternal uncle and "khalti" the maternal aunt.

People usually use this the same way that they do in Turkish.

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