Sometimes the speaker (or author) specifies their meaning for the word "uncle", for example:

The gelding was mine, a gift from a great-uncle on my mother’s side. (Educated by Tara Westover)

But suppose that you read about someone's uncle in a certain text and the writer doesn't mention if the uncle is:

  • their father's brother
  • or their mother's brother
  • or their father's sister's husband
  • or their mother's sister's husband

How can you recognize which one is the "uncle"?

Basically, is there any "default option" in the absence of a certain answer?

PS: In some languages like Albanian, Arabic, Persian, and Polish, unlike the English language, no single inclusive term describing both a person's kinship to their parental male sibling or parental male in-law exists. Instead, there are specific terms describing a person's kinship. For example, the Persian language has a special word for the uncle of the father side (amou-عمو) and the uncle of the mother side (daiyee-دایی)

*This postscript was added after some fine answers had been offered.


5 Answers 5


You can't. There is no "default". If it's not clearly stated, you have to ask. Generally, if it's not clarified in the text, it's probably not important.

This may seem odd from the point of view of someone coming from a language where the difference is part of the terminology used but as with many familial terms like grandmother/father, cousin, or nephew, only the direct relationship in English is there without adding modifiers.

  • My mother's mother -> my grandmother on my mother's side or maternal grandmother
  • My father's brother -> my uncle on my father's side or paternal uncle
  • My father's brother's son -> my cousin who is the son of my father's brother

It gets a bit wordy but, there you have it. We don't really have a better way of doing it.

When it comes to aunts and uncles by marriage - the spouse of your parent's brother or sister - one might use "uncle-in-law" but (as a native American English speaker) this seems silly and would likely be something I would only do when joking or teasing that person... and it still doesn't solve the problem of whether it's your father's or mother's sibling's spouse.

  • 37
    I would question your last paragraph. In my idiolect, the word "uncle-in-law" means your spouse's uncle. Your biological aunt's husband is your "uncle by marriage", not your "uncle-in-law". Jun 5, 2018 at 2:53
  • 10
    I think both are possible @DawoodibnKareem and both have the same problem of not defining which parent the person is a sibling of...
    – Catija
    Jun 5, 2018 at 2:56
  • 2
    Catija, for the benefit of @Glen_b, could you make this answer more definitive by mentioning that we do not generally reference our relatives by "father's father" &c. because that implicitly establishes that we do not have a relationship with the person involved. It's not who he is to us.
    – lly
    Jun 5, 2018 at 6:26
  • 4
    @lly why would I say that? It's not true. I've clarified my connection to a family member using just these terms.
    – Catija
    Jun 5, 2018 at 11:40
  • 1
    I'd argue that you can't even be sure if it is any of the above. I call my mother's eldest sister's daughter 'aunt' (she is 20 years older than me) and my mother's youngest brother's daughter calls me 'aunt' (she is 20 years younger than me). Both are technically my cousins.
    – Belle
    Jun 6, 2018 at 10:18

In English and in other languages, unlike the Arabic language (for example) that has a special word for the uncle of the father side (am- عم) and the uncle of the mother side (khal-خال), there are no special words for distinguishing between these two types of uncles (father and mother sides), but both are simply called uncles.

English is not an exception, I mean, not only many European languages behave the same as English - in this case, even Semitic languages such as: Hebrew, Akaddian, Aramic languages, don't make this distinction. (But a few languages in Europe and many in Asia do, as you can see here in the comments).

When talking about the father's sister's husband, or the mother's sister's husband, then it's the same thing.

You can always differentiate between them by saying directly who are you talking about. For example:

"His father's sister's husband (or paternal uncle / maternal uncle) came to visit him and gave him a present."

Later on, you can mention him as an uncle and it will be understood. Another way is to mention their name with their state in the family and later on just mention their names and it should be clear. This is how it's in fact in literature.

  • 13
    East, South and Southeast Asian languages also differentiate different types of aunts, uncles and grandparents, not only Arabic
    – phuclv
    Jun 5, 2018 at 2:53
  • 7
    @phuclv, and Swedish.
    – Carsten S
    Jun 5, 2018 at 5:56
  • 5
    In Polish it's "wuj" (mother's brother) and "stryj" (father's brother). This distinction is present, but over the last 50 years it fell out of use, and the word "stryj" is considered archaic today. It depends on importance of family relations in everyday life. As current culture deemphasizes the importance of family ties, the distinction falls out of use and that may give the impression that it was never there. Even google translate can't preserve the distinction in Polish <-> Czech translation, although both languages have it. ("ujec" and "strýc"). Neither to Swedish.
    – Agent_L
    Jun 5, 2018 at 10:36
  • 4
    Norwegian has a distinction for maternal and paternal grandmother/father, but also has words that do not specify side. Jun 5, 2018 at 10:56
  • 1
    Here is a nice artice about different types of aunts, uncles in Albanian, Slavic and Persian: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncle
    – Peace
    Jun 5, 2018 at 16:16

In cultures where the primary¹ language is English (or any other language that does not make this distinction), the distinction is simply not relevant. There are no distinct social functions/roles for those different kinds of uncles (and e.g. also grandfathers), i.e. in general, there is no behaviour expected from/towards one kind of uncle but not the other. This may of course be different in particular families, but there is no overall societal rule about it.

While constructions like "father's sister's husband" or "paternal uncle by marriage" express the technical relationship, they are not commonly used. Rather, to refer to a particular one of their own uncles, most people would probably use uncle + first name (or nickname) or some other characteristic (e.g. place of residence "my uncle from Arizona").

¹ Note that e.g. in India, there are local languages, many of which do distinguish between different kinds of uncles, and English is learned by most as a secondary language.

  • 1
    It goes back further than just English. The OED isn't much help so far back, but Wiktionary suggests the majority of Indo-European languages need to go all the way back to PIE before encountering terms differentiating paternal and maternal grandparents. Meanwhile, when patriarchy was actually a going thing, children's paternal grandparents were distinguished under the law from maternal ones; that didn't change the fact that there was no single word for them.
    – lly
    Jun 5, 2018 at 9:12
  • 2
    Meanwhile, 'paternal' and 'maternal' are clinical terms but it's common enough to say 'my ~ from my mom's side of the family' and much more common than 'my ~ from Arizona'. 'Who moved to Arizona', maybe...
    – lly
    Jun 5, 2018 at 9:15
  • @lly Swedish, which is really pretty closely related to English, has these distinctions today. They're very handy. Jun 5, 2018 at 15:33
  • 1
    @Bob *shrug* Sometimes you win by having a specific word for "uncle on my mother's side" but, just as often, you lose by having to use two words to say "uncles [on both sides]". Jun 5, 2018 at 15:41
  • 1
    @Bob Dunno why you're being specific with Swedish; it apparently goes back to Old Norse and the terms are shared with Norwegian and Danish. It's funny you don't go into detail; they just started affixing: daddad, momdad, dadmom, and mommom. I think the rest of Germanic languages just agreed that was to silly to bother with.
    – lly
    Jun 5, 2018 at 17:40

In some languages, like Hindi, there is a proper distinction between all of them as they all are assigned different names. In Hindi, we have :

'Chacha' or 'Tau' for Father's brother (depending on whether the brother is younger than the father or not)

'Masa' for Mother's sister's husband

'Fufa' for Father's sister's husband

and 'Mama' for mother's brother.

So, the answer basically depends on the language of choice. I am well versed in both English and Hindi and can confirm that this facility is available in the latter but not the former, and find it impossible to distinguish between them if using English.

  • 1
    I sincerely doubt Hindi is the only language with these sort of kinship terms Jun 6, 2018 at 14:04
  • 1
    @Azor "In some languages, like Hindi....". The "only available" comment in the last paragraph means "of the two languages, English and Hindi, these distinctions only exist in Hindi"
    – mattdm
    Jun 6, 2018 at 15:39

In Anglophone Canada, it's normal to refer to the father's brother as "funcle", mother's brother as "muncle", father's sister as "faunt" and mother's sister as "maunt". In Francophone Canada, the corresponding terms are "poncle", "moncle", "p'tante" and "m'tante". Although the gender neutral "zbibi" is gaining ground.

  • definithing.com/muncle
    – Peace
    Jun 6, 2018 at 20:32
  • 2
    Where exactly in Canada are these terms used? Because I've lived in Canada my whole life (BC, Alberta, and traveled throughout eastern Canada) and never heard those.
    – GreySage
    Jun 6, 2018 at 23:29
  • 1
    Primarily in and around Eyebrow, Saskatchewan and also Crotch Lake, Ontario. Jun 7, 2018 at 0:28
  • 1
    I suspect Chris Johnson is being facetious in a deplorable way. Jun 10, 2018 at 14:48

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