26

In Swedish, there are different words to refer to grandparents which explain whether they are on your mother's side or your father's side. The words are (and literally translate to)

  • Mormor - Mother's mother
  • Morfar - Mother's father
  • Farmor - Father's mother
  • Farfar - Father's father

Google Translate just says "grandmother" and "grandfather" for each when translated in English. But that doesn't seem to keep the same intent of referring to the specific grandparent I am talking about.

How can I express these words similarly in English and have it sound right? I thought something like this:

I visited my mother's mother today in hospital

But it doesn't sound natural to me.

  • 3
    Lucky you! In some languages (Thai), "mother's|father's younger|older brother|sister" are eight different words. – bytebuster Feb 15 '13 at 10:05
  • 3
    Nope. English is not that precise. I like the distinction made in Swedish language. – EnglishLearner Apr 1 '13 at 13:22
28

You can specify which is which by saying maternal grandparents (your mother's parents) or paternal grandparents (your father's grandparents). I know of no single word in English that makes the distinction.

Some families get around this ambiguity by referring to both sets of grandparents with different terms of affection (for example, the mother's mother might be "Nanny", while the father's mother might be "Grandma", so, when one parent says, "We'll be going to Grandma's for Christmas," the children know where they are going).

I should note that the terms maternal and paternal are seldom used. For example, in your sentence, I would simply say:

"I visited my grandmother today in the hospital."

Sometimes, though, maternal and paternal can be used for clarification:

"After the fire, Emily went to live with her grandparents for awhile, while her parents recovered in the hospital."
"Which grandparents?"
"Her maternal grandparents."

although the speaker is probably just as likely to respond with:

"Her mom's parents."

One other way this is often communicated in English is by using the phrase "on my mother's side" (or "father's side"). So, in the conversation about Emily, one might hear:

"Her grandparents on her mother's side."

Or, to use your original example:

"Today in the hospital, I visited my grandmother on my mother's side."


Credit and thanks to mcalex for mentioning on my mother's/father's side.

  • Referring to each set of grandparents as Nanny/Grandma and Pops/Granddad was quite common to me as a child. The difficulty is that there is no convention (that I'm aware of) to establish which side of the family gets what title, so unless you know the person involved quite closely, hearing "I visited my Nan today" won't tell you whether it's their mother's mother or or father's mother. – Will Appleby Aug 3 '18 at 14:37
10

J.R. has answered your question quite well, so I want to approach it from another angle:

Sometimes the most natural translation leaves out information from the original or adds information that was missing.

As a translator, you have to make a decision. Do you try to say the same thing you would in your mother tongue as faithfully as possible? Or do you instead say something slightly different because it's more natural in your target language?

In this case, I think saying "mother's mother" is only strange because it's unusually specific. It's not so much a matter of the words themselves. If I want to talk specifically about my mother's mother, I'll use those exact words. It's simply that, in English, it's more common not to be that specific.

So, can you say "mother's mother"? It might not be what a native speaker would say in the same situation, but there's nothing wrong with it. It's up to you.

  • When I say "my mother's mother" or "my father's mother" I'm usually referring to my parents' relationship with their own parent. If I'm referring to my own relationship with the same individuals, I'll most likely say "my grandmother". – CJ Dennis Aug 4 '18 at 5:24

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