Bob’s Your Uncle, or Using Kinship Terms for Strangers in Russian Posted by Maria on Jun 21, 2018 in Russian for beginners, vocabulary
Did you know that some words normally reserved for family members can be used in Russian to refer to people you are not related to? This post will look at some of the situations when this may happen.
The primary sense of тётя is “aunt.” This word may also refer to any adult or middle-aged woman, especially when spoken by or to children.
Вбежа́в в зал Рембра́ндта, Ма́шенька прибли́зилась к карти́не «Даная» и гро́мко спроси́ла: «А почему́ э́та тётя лежи́т го́лая, без пижа́мки?»
When she ran into the Rembrandt hall, little Masha came up to the the Danaë painting and loudly asked , “How come this auntie is lying down naked, without her jammies?”
[Лидия Вертинская. Синяя птица любви (2004)]
Тётя is also used by children to address an adult woman more informally, for example, if she is a friend of their parents. For example, I wouldn’t call my parents’ friends by their name and patronymic—I’d address them, say, as тётя И́ра (И́ра is the short of Ири́на) instead. Based on my experience, there may be a bit of an ageist component to тётя in that some young women dread the moment strange children refer to them as тётя. A different of this word, тётка, may be used as a derogatory term for an unsophisticated, uncouth, or rude woman.
Ле́кторша была́ учёная тётка в очка́х и се́ром костю́ме.
The lecturer was a learned woman in glasses and a gray suit. (Note the use of derogatory feminine лекторша.)
[Василий Аксенов. Пора, мой друг, пора (1963)]
Дя́дя, literally “uncle,” is used similarly to тётя to refer to strangers.
И вот уже́ ребёнок идёт от лу́жи, идёт с чужи́м дя́дей, по-на́шему ― с “незнако́мым”.
And next thing you know, the kid is walking away from the puddle with a strange man, or, as we call it, “a stranger.”
[И. Грекова. Знакомые люди (1982)]
This word before someone’s first name can also be used by children to refer to adults in their social circle (not teachers or strangers), e.g. дядя Стёпа (Стёпа is the familiar form of Степа́н). Just as тётка, дядька is a not-too-respectful way of referring to any unfamiliar older adult.
На пути́ встреча́лись хоро́шие дя́дьки и тётки, корми́ли, привеча́ли, пока́зывали доро́гу на восто́к (…).
We would run into kind men and women on the way who would feed us, give us a place to stay, and showed us the way east (…).
[Василь Быков. Болото (2001)]
Have you heard any of these words used for non-relatives? What was the context?
Want to hear more? Sign up for one of our newsletters!
For more language learning advice, free resources, and information about how we can help you reach your language goals, select the most relevant newsletter(s) for you and sign up below.