How to call your immediate family members


Today I want to talk about family relationships. Lately I have been watching Comedies based in Ancient China, I know it is very confusing for people of other cultures to understand how Hong Kong people call our relatives. After all, in the English Language uncle is just an uncle, an aunt is just an aunt. How come sometimes you also call a family friend an uncle, or an aunt, and there are so many different variations of calling your cousins in Cantonese. I know it is also like that in some other Asian countries as well. Keep in mind, this lesson is about how Hong Kongers call their immediate family members, in different Chinese cultures they might call them slightly differently.

First, Within your own family unit, how do you call your parents?

- 爸爸媽媽, sometimes ah ba 阿爸, ah ma阿媽 (in hong kong we also call them daddy 爹哋 and mommy 媽咪)

- In the formal written way, we also say 父親 母親,(親 I have explained before, means kinship) in short we call them 父母

- In a less polite colloquial way, some people also call their parents 老豆 (old dad) 老母 (Old mom),老豆 literally means old bean, why? 豆 has the same sound as another word, also called 竇, which was recorded in the famous writing 三字經 - the “Three character classics” or also known as the trimetric classic, in which it mentioned a model father, with the last name 竇. So although, it might sound kind of rude to call your daddy 老豆, but it’s actually in a way kind of raising your father. Now 老母 this word you have to pay attention, 老母 (old mother) is often used when people are cursing. I can talk about cursing another time, keeping this family friendly for now. Just remember this word, so you will know when people are yelling at you.

Now, how do you call your siblings?

Siblings as a group, is 兄弟姐妹, so literally older brother, younger brother, older sister, and younger sister. Interestingly, in churches they call other church members 弟兄姐妹, where literally it reads younger brother, older brother, older sister, and younger sister. So the older and younger brothers are switched.

Back in the days, out of respect, you will call your seniors (not necessarily related, can just be your pals), if male, so like if they have the last name of Chan陳, you will call that senior 陳兄, if they are your junior, you would call them 陳弟 etc. For women, I believe they would go by the first name and add 姐 (older sister) or 妹 (younger sister).

Back to the modern context, in Hong Kong, To call your older brother, you will say 哥哥,if you have a second brother, you will call the oldest brother 大哥(literally big brother),the second brother 二哥,the third brother 三哥, etc, please refer back to the episode on numbers to know more about the counting if you have more brothers.

For younger brothers, we call them 細佬,literally small man, So since younger brothers are called 細佬, sometimes we would refer to our older brothers as 大佬,literally big man. Don’t mistake this word with another very close sounding word 細路 literally means small road, but truly it means kids, or children.

Now for older sister, they are called 家姐, so literally home older sister. I heard some people also call their older sister 姐姐, although, usually we refer to 姐姐 as people who are not in our immediate family, of course, different families have different traditions. This will be good to know, in Chinese restaurants, like dim sum places and stuff, we call those waitresses 阿姐, 阿 has virtually no meaning, it’s just there to add an extra sound. We also call them in a nicer way, 靚姐, literally pretty sister, of course you are not calling them our pretty sister, it’s just a nice way to call them and make them happy.

For younger sisters, we call them 妹妹,阿妹. Sometimes, older people also call younger people on the street, 阿妹.

As for your kids仔囡, For sons, we call them 阿仔,sometimes in a more cute way, we call them 仔仔like i mentioned in one of the previous episodes, when 2 of the same words are stacked together, it sounds cuter sometimes. For your daughters, we call them 阿囡,or 囡囡, same principle as before.

Kinship such a giant topic. Let’s review the vocab.

Parents - 父母

Father - 爸爸, 阿爸,Daddy Formal: 父親,Informal: 老豆

Mother - 媽媽, 阿媽, Mommy Formal:母親, Informal:老母

Kids- 仔囡

Sons - 阿仔, 仔仔

Daughters 阿囡,or 囡囡

Siblings- 兄弟姐妹

Older brother - 哥哥, 大佬

Younger brother - 細佬

Older Sister - 家姐

Younger sister - 妹妹,阿妹