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According to some early Hebrew grammarians, the Biblical Hebrew word דוד (dod) specifically means "paternal uncle," while the term מסרף (misraf) means "maternal uncle" (for example, see Ibn Ezra and Kimhi to Amos 6:10). These two words for what in English we would simply call "uncle" are totally different from one another and even have different roots. Does this phenomenon occur in other languages as well? Which languages have different words for "maternal uncle" and "paternal uncle"?

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    I could never remember the exact words correctly so a comment instead of an answer. The Thai language also makes the distinction (and I suspect a whole number of languages derived from pali/khmer origins will make the distinction as well). – Hoki Mar 12 at 15:09
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    Turkish does. Amca stands for paternal uncle, and dayi stands for maternal uncle. – SpiderRico Mar 14 at 5:22
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    Korean can make this distinction, but it's in the form of a modifer, and so is more "paternal-uncle" and "maternal-uncle" than separate words. The same modifiers are also used for grandparents, aunts, etc. Hence this comment, rather than an answer. – IronEagle Mar 15 at 2:56

12 Answers 12

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As @YellowSky pointed, a very large number of languages make this distinction. The Wiktionary lists don’t even scratch the surface, since most languages are not in Wiktionary, and the real number will be in the high hundreds at least, probably thousands. See the Wikipedia page on kinship terminology for an introduction. Note that out of the 6 types of kinship system in the traditional clssification, 4 would call a mother’s brother something different than a father’s brother. The "Sudanese" system, for example, includes not only Arabic and Turkish but even older versions of Romance languages (Latin mother’s brother avunculus, father’s brother patruus) and English (Old English mother’s brother ēam (from which 'eme'), father’s brother fædera). With Chinese languages also making this distinction (Mandarin: father’s older brother bófù, father’s younger brother shūfù, mother’s brother jiùfù), probably more humans speak languages with this trait than without.

Notice that the traditional classification in 6 types is very limited and fails to account for the diversity of indigenous languages worldwide, but even with that simple model you can already intuit how many ways of conceptualising kin there are in human languages.

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  • Arabic: khaal ("kh" is IPA /χ/, "aa" being one single, long "a" as in "father" for the maternal uncle and "3am" ("3" is IPA /ʕ/) for the paternal one, which interestingly is also the respectful way to address a strange or any male person who's name you can't remember right now and who's your senior. – Sixtyfive Mar 14 at 18:52
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Another concrete example to extend upon these already excellent answers is the Swedish language. Here, the terms are "farbror" for a paternal uncle (literally: "father-brother") and "morbror" for a maternal uncle ("mother-brother"). This principle extends to many other family relations, however; the terms for paternal and maternal aunt are faster (shortened from "fars syster", father's sister) and moster (from "mors syster", mother's sister), respectively, and for paternal grandparents it is farmor/farfar vs mormor/morfar for the maternal case. For cousins, however, the term is the same regardless of family connection, or even gender, unlike in languages like French and German.

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    Worth adding is that that spouse of the farbror/morbror/moster/faster colloquially also is called farbror/morbror/moster/faster although that person obviously not is a sibling of one's parents. In more formal contexts you prefix such a person "my 'ingifte' farbror" = "my 'by marriage' paternal uncle". In other words, someone that is married to your parent's sibling and kind of inherit that person's "title". – d-b Mar 12 at 15:16
  • This is true for all Scandinavian languages, so I hope it's okay I edited that in. – Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Mar 12 at 20:21
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    This is true for all Scandinavian languages, except that Swedish is the only one to conflate male and female cousins: Norwegian and Danish have fetter/fætter for male cousins and kusine for female ones. Also, there are more specific compound terms for cousins, though they are rarely used and somewhat archaic: Sw. mosterson, Nw. mostersønn, Da. mostersøn ‘mother-sister-son’ and so forth. (For some reason, SAOB has fader-syster-son, but not fasterson, even though the latter would be the expected modern form.) – Janus Bahs Jacquet Mar 13 at 12:43
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In the Western variety of the Ukrainian language, maternal uncle is вуйко (vujko) [ˈʋui̯kɔ], and paternal uncle is стрий / стрийко (stryj / stryjko) [strɪi̯] / [ˈstrɪi̯kɔ]. Also, by analogy, maternal aunt is вуйна (vujna) [ˈʋui̯na], and paternal aunt is стрийна (stryjna) [ˈstrɪi̯na]. The Standard Ukrainian which is based on Central Ukrainian dialects doesn't make those distinctions, though. Most probably these words are borrowed from Polish, which has wuj and stryj as common words.

This question asks for a list of languages, but that would be difficult to put actual lists into an answer, since lots of languages make the maternal vs. paternal uncle distinction. Moreover, there are even more detailed distinctions, for example, Tamil distinguishes between பெரியப்ப (periyappa) “father’s elder brother”, சிதப்ப (citappa) “father’s younger brother”, அத்திம்பேர் (attimpēr) “father's brother-in-law”, that is Tamil distinguishes uncle's relative age and blood vs. in-law relationship.
Actually, rather long lists of those uncle varieties in different languages are there on Wiktionary:

paternal uncle
maternal uncle

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    One note about the Wiki list, it lists the word one would use for MBro and FBro and if they are the same word, it's listed twice. Often the word is literally "maternal uncle" and "paternal uncle". It's not very common to find cases like خَال vs. عَمّ‎ where the words are different and neither is simply "father" as is the case of "paternal uncle" in many Bantu lgs. – user6726 Mar 11 at 21:50
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    @user6726 - Yes, you're right. But note that those lists are translations of the English phrases “paternal uncle” and “maternal uncle”, that's how Wiktionary is devised. Still, it's better than nothing, easily accessible and lets you do your own little research by comparing the two lists and going further into the semantics of the translations listed there. – Yellow Sky Mar 11 at 21:57
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    Bulgarian language (pretty much related to Ukrainian) has the same distinction in its standard variety (and regional dialects differ in words but keep the distinction). The words are "вуйчо" and "чичо" respectively. "вуйна" and "стрина" are used for aunts. Similar words are used in Macedonian and Serbian as well. – fraxinus Mar 12 at 7:21
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    Old Czech made the same distinction. Some Slovak dialects still do although in the standard language these words are now synonymous (strýc, strýko, ujo, ujec) – Vladimir F Mar 12 at 8:34
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    @VladimirF Same goes for Old Russian (вуй, стрый) but it's lost now. – tum_ Mar 12 at 9:28
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As melissa_boiko and Yellow Sky have already mentioned, the number of languages with this distinction is likely to be in the thousands. Here are some concrete examples from the Indian subcontinent.

Most languages spoken in South Asia make the distinction between MBro and FBro. Some further distinguish between FBros who are younger than one's father, and those who are older. "Father's sister's husband" and "Mother's sister's husband" also have distinct names. Here's a table of three South Asian languages. Transliteration follows iTrans:

Relationship Hindi Marathi Bengali
Father's elder brother taau ताऊ kaakaa काका jeThu জেঠূ
Father's younger or twin brother chaachaa चाचा kaakaa काका kaakaa কাকা
Mother's brother maamaa मामा maamaa मामा maamaa মামা
Father's sister's husband phuuphaa फूफा aatobaa आतोबा pisu পিসু (pronounced "pishu")
Mother's sister's husband mausaa मौसा mavsaa मावसा meso মেসো (pronounced "mesho")

Interestingly, Marathi makes no distinction between one's father's elder and younger brothers. Also, none of the languages makes a distinction between one's mother's elder and younger brothers. The asymmetric degree of specification between paternal and maternal relatives in Hindi and Bengali is probably attributable to the fact that one's father's brothers are often part of the household in the way that one's mother's are not. It is still not unusual in South Asia for brothers, along with their wives and children, to share a home.

Yellow Sky also mentions similar distinctions in Tamil. It's probably worth noting that in Tamil, the terms for female relatives are blurry by contrast: both "mother's younger sister" and "father's younger brother's wife" are referred to as chitti, சித்தி. The term is also used for "stepmother." (The word "chitti" became briefly famous in US political discourse when then-Vice Presidential nominee Kamala Harris used it to thank her "aunts" in her nomination acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention.)

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Southern Sami (Finno-Ugric) has several words for distinguishing maternal and paternal uncles by relative age and blood relation:

  • jyöne, maternal uncle
  • jiekie, paternal uncle, but only when he's older than your father.
  • tjietsie, paternal uncle when he's younger.
  • maake, the man married to your father's sister (any age) or your your mother's older sister.
  • vïjve, the man married to your mother's younger sister.

A similar set exists for aunts.

The reverse relation (uncle child) can be formed with the suffix "-uve", as can any other kinship term.

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    Probably useless info: Robert A. Heinlein used Sami as a base when writing about the fictional kinship system in Citizen of the Galaxy, where literally every relationship between every pair of people on board (all related) was given a separate word defining that relationship. (The local language of the ship Sisu is based on Sami. The lingua franca between ships is based on Church Latin.) – Ross Presser Mar 12 at 18:06
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    @RossPresser: no information about RAH is useless. :-) – Bob Jarvis - Reinstate Monica Mar 12 at 23:27
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Pashto (Indo-Iranian) also has separate words for maternal uncle and paternal uncle:

  • paternal uncle: تره
  • maternal uncle: ماما

And Urdu:

  • paternal uncle: چچا
  • maternal uncle: مامو (or ماما)
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German has (well, had, not in common usage any more, respectively the use changed for some to describe the cousins, though even then not that common) separate words for some cases:

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Croatian/Bosnian has different words for it.

"ujko" - maternal uncle, and his wife "ujna" "striko" - paternal uncle, and his wife "strina"

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Armenian: Keri for mother's brother and Horeghpayr for father's brother.

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Arabic has separate words for:

  • paternal uncle: 'Amm عَمّ
  • maternal uncle: Khal خَال
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In Finnish:

  • Paternal uncle: setä
  • Maternal uncle: eno
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In different dialects, accents, and languages of Iranian peoples:

English
انگلیسی
Standard Persian
فارسی معیار
Tehrani dialect
گویش تهرانی
Kabuli dialect
گویش کابلی
Shirazi dialect
گویش شیرازی
Mashhadi dialect
گویش‌ مشهدی
Paternal Uncle عمو عمو کاکا عامو - حاج عامو عمو
Maternal Uncle دایی دایی ماما دُوی خالو
English
انگلیسی
Herati dialect
گویش هراتی
Luri language
زبان لری
Kurdish language
زبان‌ کردی
Dezfuli dialect
گویش دزفولی
Paternal Uncle عمو - کاکا آمو - تاته مامه - آپو - تاته اومو
Maternal Uncle خالو - ماما - دایی هالو خالو - هالو خلو
English
انگلیسی
Mazanderani language
زبان مازندرانی
bandari dialect
گویش بندری
Gilaki language
زبان گیلکی
Balochi language
زبان بلوچی
Paternal Uncle عامی عامو آمو ناکو
Maternal Uncle دایی عامو خالو دایی

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