Meemaw and Pop-pop, Gammy and Gampy, there are a number of cute, original names for grandparents that highlight the special bond they have with their grandchildren. That bond is also on display in the regular words for the relationship. Grandmother, grandfather, granddaughter, grandson — they all have a grand within them. 

But the type of family vocabulary found in English is only one of many possible types found in the languages of the world. In some languages, grandparents and grandchildren are referred to with the same exact word.

In Northern Paiute, a Native American language of California, words for family members work differently than they do in English. There are more words for brothers and sisters, because the word for brother or sister differs according to whether the sibling is older or younger.

In some languages, grandparents and grandchildren are referred to with the same exact word.

There are also more words for grandparents, because a grandmother might be mu’a (mother’s mother) or hutsi’i (father’s mother) and a grandfather might be kenu’u (father’s father) or togo’o (mother’s father). However, there is no separate word for cousin  (cousins are covered by the brother and sister words) or for grandchildren.

Instead, grandchildren are referred to by the grandparent terms. If you are grandma, specifically mu’a, to your daughter’s child, you will call the child mu’a as well.

If you are hutsi’i, the grandfather to your daughter’s child, you will call the child hutsi’i as well. Likewise for kenu’u and togo’o as the children of your son (depending on whether you are the mother or father of that son).

The sex of the child makes no difference to what they are called. Only whether they are born of a son or a daughter of a man or a woman. When you say “I can’t wait to see my mu’a,” you don’t say whether it’s a girl or a boy, only that you are a mother and you can’t wait to see your daughter’s child.

Son’s daughter, and daughter’s son

There are other ways that the different aspects of the grandparent-grandchild relationship can show up in family terms in other languages. Some systems are more specific.

In Mandarin Chinese there are different words for mother’s mother (lao lao), father’s mother (nai nai), father’s father (yeye) and mother’s father (lao ye) as well as for son’s son (sun zi), son’s daughter (sun nu), daughter’s son (wao sun) and daughter’s daughter (wai sun nu).

A very different language, Swedish, represents those relationship terms in a similar way, with mormor, farmor, farfar, morfar and sonson, sondotter, doterson, and dotterdotter. Hindi also makes all these distinctions with nani, dadi, dada, nana and pota, poti, nati, and natini.

Other languages make fewer distinctions in their terms. In Navajo, the maternal grandparents get individual names, shimásáni (grandmother) and shicheii (grandfather) but the paternal grandparents are both shináli. In Malay, grandchildren of either gender or parentage are cucu. In Hungarian, grandchildren of the either gender or parentage are unoka.

The Australian aboriginal language Alyawarr has a complex kinship term system, with not only different terms to be used depending on whether the speaker is male or female but special terms for a relationship between two people, like a mother and child pair, or even three (“husband” when said by a mother referring to her daughter’s husband).

It’s a special, strong bond and humans have found ingenious ways to highlight its importance linguistically.

There are also different words for all four grandparents, but as in the Northern Paiute example, the grandparents share those terms with the grandchildren. A person calls their father’s father arrenge and in turn, a man’s son’s children are also arrenge. Aperle (father’s mother), artartetye (mother’s father), and anyanye (mother’s mother) fill out the rest of the paradigm. 

Systems where grandparents and grandchildren call each other by the same family terms are not the most common type, but they occur in unrelated languages separated by vast geographical distances.

It’s a special, strong bond and humans have found ingenious ways to highlight its importance linguistically.

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