‘Mommy’ vs. ‘Mummy’ and other familial terms of respect

Maybe it’s a little too soon to be thinking about it (since my adorable daughter has yet to speak a single coherent word), but how is she going to address me once she grows older?

multicultural family handsIn America we use “Mom” or “Mommy,” but my husband grew up in a country colonized by the British, and so “Mum” or “Mummy” tends to be more common there. We’ve started to call each other “Daddy” and “Mummy/Mommy” already.

So far Daddy pronounces “Mummy/Mommy” with an ambiguous vowel in the middle, almost halfway between “u” and “o,” so as to cover both sides of the cultural equation. 🙂

And Mummy/Mommy has started to follow suit!

This made me start thinking about other familial terms that differ from culture to culture. I had never heard of “Mimi” referring to grandmother until I met a woman of Italian origin. Our daughter has inherited an incredibly diverse set of grandparents across the globe – what is she going to call them?

It’s been amazing to me to ponder just how much historical significance can be tied up into these words, and what a deliberate step it is to select terms from one culture above the other. Or maybe she’ll just call her parents, grandparents and other numerous relatives using all the terms from her representative cultures!

Just a few more thoughts I had on this topic recently:

  • “Aunts and uncles.”


So in small nuclear families, aunts and uncles are quite obviously your parents’ brother or sister. Not so in large African and Asian families! “Aunt” and “Uncle” simply mean terms of respect for people older than you.

Hence, the confusion that arises when someone says they have 70 or more aunts and uncles.

  • “Fathers and mothers.”

Along the same vein of the aunts and uncles mentioned above, I found another complexity when visiting my husband’s family in Africa.

Apparently “father” and “mother” can also mean terms of respect for people older than you … so much so, that I called at least 20 women “Ma” during my short time there.

  • “My wife!”

I’ll never forget the time when my father-in-law called me “my wife” during the toasts at my husband’s and my wedding ceremony.

For a moment I just sat there, stunned. Had I misheard him? I was most definitely not his wife, and (no offense to him, of course) I had no intention of becoming so any time soon!

But when I asked my husband whether I was hallucinating, he said he hadn’t thought twice about it. Apparently “wife” in African culture is just a term like “married woman,” and when someone says, “Hello, my wife,” they simply mean, “Hello, married woman!”

This became even more clear to me when I actually visited my husband’s home. Aunties and mothers, women twice my age and older all called me “my wife.”

“How are you doing today, my wife?” a 70-something mother of twins would bellow at me.

“Would you like something to eat, my wife?”

“Did you sleep well, my wife?”

In fact, I got so used to it that it seemed strange, when coming back to the States, that I went back to being only one person’s wife again – my husband’s! 😉

What familial terms do you use in your household? Were there any that you had to add/drop as a result of different cultures coming together?

About multiculturalmarriage

I'm glad to be part of a multicultural marriage! I grew up in the U.S. but am married to an African husband. This makes life challenging, creative and cool - all at the same time!
This entry was posted in Communicating/Relating techniques, Family matters, Ways of life and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to ‘Mommy’ vs. ‘Mummy’ and other familial terms of respect

  1. jvlivs says:

    We all learn something new everyday. The English language was always a “bastardized” language. A word here in the States can mean something entirely different in other English-speaking cultures.

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