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Jul 11 2008

Knowing when to say uncle

One of the advantages of living in more than one country is that one notices interesting differences. One of the differences with Sri Lanka that struck me is that in the US there is no standard system to deal with the question of how one should address elders in the category that can be described as ‘friends once removed’. By this I mean the people who are the friends of one’s parents or the parents of one’s friends.

Take for example, the question of how young Billy should address John Smith, the good friend of his parents. In some households, Billy’s parents encourage him to call him ‘John’ while in other families he is referred to as ‘Mr. Smith’. Some adults find the familiarity of being called by their first name by a child to be acceptable or even welcome, while others find it uncomfortable and may even resent it. But given that there is no system in place to address this point of social etiquette, one simply has to deal with the idiosyncratic choices people make..

In Sri Lanka, there is a system to deal with this. Any male who is of the same generation as one’s parents is called generically ‘uncle’ while females are called ‘aunty’. The use of this honorary title is meant to signify respect for one’s elders, while at the same time acknowledging that the person is not a stranger. This generic term also overcomes the awkwardness of meeting one’s parents’ friends that one has met before but whose name one has forgotten (which happens to me all the time in highly sociable societies like Sri Lanka). One simply refers to them as uncle or aunty and everything’s fine.

If John and Jane are really close friends of the family, then they may be referred to more specifically as ‘uncle John’ or ‘aunty Jane’. Such titles remain the same throughout one’s life, never becoming more familiar, however old you and your ‘uncle’ gets. Even now, I refer to my friends’ parents or my parents’ friends as uncle and aunty although I have known some of them for nearly a half-century, am really close to them, and converse with them as equals. It would never occur to me to call them by their first name alone. Retaining the title is more than mere habit, it is a sign of the respect that I have for them as elders.

In such a system, how does one distinguish between one’s biological uncles and aunts and the honorary ones? Usually the English terms uncle and aunty are reserved for the honorary relatives while the real ones are called by their vernacular equivalents. In Tamil, the term for uncle is ‘mama’ (rhymes with ‘drama’) while for aunt is ‘mamy’ (the same first syllable but the second pronounced as ‘me’.) So ‘Reggie mama’ was how I referred to my father’s brother while ‘Uncle Amaradasa’ was my friend’s father.

It is also the case that within families in the Sinhala and Tamil communities of Sri Lanka, relatives are often referred to not by their names but by a title that specifies their relationship to the speaker. For example, a father’s younger brother would usually not be called merely uncle but the equivalent of ‘small father’ while the father’s older brother would be called ‘big father.’ If your father had two older brothers, the eldest would be called ‘big big father’ while the other would be called ‘small big father.’ If he had two younger brothers, they would be ‘big small father’ and ‘small small father’, and so on. For grandparents, there were different titles for your father’s father that distinguished him from your mother’s father.

Similarly one’s siblings would also be referred to by their titles ‘older brother,’ ‘younger sister’ and so on. If there are a lot of siblings, they would have their names prefaced by these titles. This would extend to cousins as well. Even now, I am called the equivalent of ‘older brother Mano’ by some cousins who are just a few years younger than me. A parallel system exists for female relatives.

Although all this may sound strange and complicated to someone not used to it, it is a very logical system that children easily learn. I am not sure how or why this system arose. It may be the benign byproduct of more class and caste conscious societies where it was important that everyone know their relative position in society.

In more westernized families in Sri Lanka, the awarding of titles to siblings and cousins has disappeared, especially for those younger than you. But the terms uncle and aunty for older adults remain. It is a sign of respect for age and I think it serves a useful role.

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7 comments

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  1. 1
    Edwards

    American black families are apparently related to Sri Lankas. I was raised to call the older friend of my parent “Uncle” and “Aunt.”

  2. 2
    Shruti

    In the US we call our parents friends Uncle and Aunty, but in India we use Mama and Mami. I assumed it was just a language thing, not an actual distinction.

    I think it’s more interesting that there is a level of formality in India (and Britian) that simply does not exist in the US. Everyone is much more class-conscious there than they are here.

  3. 3
    Anonymous

    I don’t know if it is just class, it is probably also a relational thing, here you relate as individuals, in communal cultures as part of a clan. When you call someone aunt or uncle, you are basically saying that they are your parent’s brother or sister because the same convention does not exist for public figures.

    I have told my six year old that he has to call all Indian people by relation and others by whatever their preference is. So he calls all Tamil actors and actresses as uncles or aunties too.

  4. 4
    Lorraine

    Here in the UK we refer to our parents friends often as auntie and uncle. This stays with you regardless of age – I am now in my 40′s and have just sent a birthday card to my mums friend, auntie jean, as she is now 80!

  5. 5
    Heidi Cool

    The Sri Lankan system makes sense. Here I was raised to call my parents friends Mr. or Mrs. X but once I got to college many of them started telling me to call them by their first names. I wasn’t sure what to call those who didn’t request that so I stuck with Mr. or Mrs. but the not knowing felt odd.

    Our family was also close to the parents of my dad’s sister’s husbands, particularly my Uncle John’s mother. I always called her Grandma Josie though she was only related by marriage. When referring to her among my friends I explained that she was sort of my “extra” grandmother.

  6. 6
    kural

    Mano,

    Wouldn’t your father’s brother (assuming you are Tamizh as well) be Chittappa or Periappa? your mother’s brother would be Mama. Right?

  7. 7
    Mano

    Kural,

    A father’s older brother would be Periyappa and his younger brother would be Chinnappa. A Mother’s brother would be Mama.

    In my family, though, we did not follow the rules strictly, which is why all my uncles were called ‘Mama’ whether they were on the father’s or mother’s side.

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