Formal/Informal Terms of Address

Discuss word origins and meanings.

Formal/Informal Terms of Address

Post by Siana » Thu Mar 05, 2009 3:31 pm

I am doing some research for my A-Level English Language coursework, and I am trying to find information of the use of "Mother", "Mummy", "Mother", "Father", "Daddy", "Dad", "Uncle" and "Aunt" as part of it. With the mum and dad terms, I'm trying to learn about the development of the words and when each came into common usage and things like that. With aunt and uncle, I am wondering when people began to use people's first names following the title, and how all of this is related to formality. I'm also wondering whether people still use just "Aunt" and "Uncle" (with no first name) to address people.

I'm finding it very difficult to get any information about this, as mostly all I can find is about the use of these terms in other cultures. Any help you can give me would be greatly appreciated! I have already found this forum very useful when research "Hallo" and "Hi", so thank you for that!

I've searched the site and can't find anything on this topic anywhere else, but if I've missed it, please just point me there. Also, I wasn't sure whether this was Usage or Origins, so sorry if I decided on the wrong one!
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Re: Formal/Informal Terms of Address

Post by PhilHunt » Thu Mar 05, 2009 5:22 pm

Hi Siana,
Firstly, I would go to this website: http://www.etymonline.com and type in each word to find out its origin. Aunt, for example is from Anglo-French, entering the English language around 1297, and originally derives from a Latin word 'amita' which meant paternal aunt and was a diminutive of 'amma' which was once baby talk for 'mother'.
If you play around on there you should find some interesting information.

Regarding mummy (mum) and daddy (dad). These words are mainly British. I've always understood that in the US they use mammy (ma, mam) and pappy (pa), though I don't know if this is universally true.
Another word you may want to include could be 'nanny' (grandmother) which contains a lot of possible derivatives. Nanny state, for example.

I think PhilWhite mentioned something in the thread you looked at 'Hullo/Hello/allo' about 'mama' & 'dada' universally being the first words children tend to say as the baby is reproducing the lip movements of the mouth when they feed. They also don't contain any hard to produce sounds like 'th', 'p' etc...

Coincidentally. my son is going to be 1 year old in 5 days. His full vocabulary of words are 'mamma', 'mummy', 'dadda', 'daddy', tiger' and various sounds which only my wife and I can translate. He started saying 'mama' at 3 months.
Last edited by PhilHunt on Thu Mar 05, 2009 6:09 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Formal/Informal Terms of Address

Post by Phil White » Thu Mar 05, 2009 6:01 pm

Hi Siana,

First, thanks for giving the world a lesson in how to ask for help with school work on a forum like this. Most students just seem to ask us to do the work for them!

There are two places to start for the bare bones of what you want for "mum" and "dad".
  • The Online Etymology Dictionary (http://www.etymonline.com) is a mammoth piece of work done by a word lover and drawn from a number of reliable sources. You will be able to access this from your machine. It will give you the dates of the first recorded uses of all the words you are looking for (although you will have to look at "mamma" to get some that you want). A little lateral thinking around the words you need will always help. Also, make sure you check the abbreviations, such as "I.E." used in the etymologies on the abbreviations page (http://www.etymonline.com/abbr.php).
  • Much more extensive etymologies can be found in the big dictionaries that are only available as subscription services (Oxford English Dictionary for British English, Merriam Webster for US English, Macquarie Dictionary for Australian and New Zealand English). Your local library should have an Oxford English Dictionary (I mean the 13-volume dictionary, nothing less) and most public libraries in the UK provide access to the most recent online version.
Always remember with etymological research, the earliest dates we have are only ever the earliest written record. In particular the terms you are looking at will in fact be much older in spoken language.

As far as your questions about "aunt" and "uncle" are concerned, these are far more difficult issues that are more difficult to pin down.

I wouldn't know how to start looking for early usages of "Aunt" or "Uncle" with a name, but our tame researcher Ken is very good with things like that.

Even if you do find very early uses of "Uncle Ebenezer" or whatever, it is very difficult to assess from written record only whether or not this usage was formal. Something you may wish to think about for modern British English is the relative formality of "Aunt Ermintrude" vs. "Auntie Ermintrude". I suspect that you will only get answers by asking as many people as you can.

So, to kick off, I would say that "Auntie" is less formal than "Aunt" if you are directly addressing the person. Most diminutives are less formal then their non-diminutive counterparts. When we are talking about a person rather than talking to them, I would also say that we tend to prefer "Aunt" if we are speaking to people outside the family, but "Auntie" if we are speaking to people who know her.

And, as to your last question (whether people still use just "Aunt" and "Uncle" (with no first name) to address people), again, the only way is to ask as many people as possible. And as a first answer, I would suggest "no". In my 50 years on this planet, I don't believe I have ever heard it spoken by a real person. In Jane Austen costume dramas, yes; in modern real life, no.

The rest of the crowd here will undoubtedly disagree with me, but always remember to look at whether they are from the UK, US or Australia (or Canada - sorry, trolley!).
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Re: Formal/Informal Terms of Address

Post by Phil White » Thu Mar 05, 2009 6:16 pm

The discussion of baby sounds Phil H mentioned was here. Good God! I can be a tiresome old git at times!
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Re: Formal/Informal Terms of Address

Post by PhilHunt » Thu Mar 05, 2009 6:19 pm

The only time I hear 'uncle' being used is reproachfully by my sister in front her sons when she wants them to know that 'uncle' (me) has done or said something that he shouldn't have. Parents often use 'mother' or 'father' to talk to each other in front of the children or to talk about each other in front of the kids, and the children probably use 'mum' or 'dad'.
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Re: Formal/Informal Terms of Address

Post by Phil White » Thu Mar 05, 2009 6:25 pm

My sister, when she was alive, only ever used "mother" when speaking to our mother and "dad" when speaking to our father. I suspect that it was a sign of the strained relationship she had with our mother. Having said that, I often use "mother" when I am taking the pi mick.
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Re: Formal/Informal Terms of Address

Post by trolley » Thu Mar 05, 2009 6:52 pm

I would never use the titles "Uncle' or "Aunt' without adding thier given names. It seems something like calling someone Mr. or Mrs. and just leaving it there. I gather, from watching American television, that it is more common down there. You often hear things like:
"go and ask Auntie" or "Auntie will give you a lift to the pool"
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Re: Formal/Informal Terms of Address

Post by trolley » Thu Mar 05, 2009 7:07 pm

Somehow, in our house it was considered rude or disrespectful to refer to our mom as "she". She (oops, I mean Mom) would become guite indignant and ask if we were talking about the cat's mother. I never understood the insult or the connection to the cat, but like most rules in my house, you were much better off just rolling with them.
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Re: Formal/Informal Terms of Address

Post by Phil White » Thu Mar 05, 2009 7:32 pm

On the topic of "Uncle xxx", "Aunt yyy":

To see whether there are any early examples, you can download old texts from http://www.gutenberg.org and then search them.

I just did that with the complete Shakespeare and the Canterbury Tales that live on my desktop and found some surprises there (but I won't ruin them for you)!

One thing that did cross my mind is that "Uncle Humphrey" is not the same as "Uncle Humphrey".

If I say to somebody "There's my uncle Humphrey," the word "uncle" is not really part of his name. I am saying "oh, look, there is my uncle. His name is Humphrey." Or perhaps "there is one of my uncles. It is Humphrey, not Tristram."

This is not the same as saying "Hello Uncle Humphrey!" In this case, the "Uncle" is really part of the name I call him (and I quite intuitively capitalized "Uncle" in this case, where I didn't in the first case).

I'd be interested whether you think the cases of "uncle + name" or "aunt + name" that you find in old texts are really names.
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Re: Formal/Informal Terms of Address

Post by Bobinwales » Fri Mar 06, 2009 10:30 am

"This is my uncle, Humphrey." - lower case u, and a comma
"This is my Uncle Humphrey."
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Re: Formal/Informal Terms of Address

Post by Phil White » Fri Mar 06, 2009 11:14 am

Bobinwales wrote:"This is my uncle, Humphrey." - lower case u, and a comma
"This is my Uncle Humphrey."
Doesn't help with old texts as punctuation was not fixed. As usual, there is probably a continuum of closeness between the two words that would determine whether we write and punctuate and capitalize it the way you suggest (in modern English).
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Re: Formal/Informal Terms of Address

Post by Erik_Kowal » Fri Mar 06, 2009 11:35 am

If my Uncle Humphrey had given me the hump, I'd be inclined to spell it ∩ncle H∩mphrey.
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Re: Formal/Informal Terms of Address

Post by Siana » Fri Mar 06, 2009 11:48 am

Thank you for the help!

I have already been to Etymology Online (I love that site!), but although it's given me some useful pieces of information about the terms, it's not exactly what I want. The reasons I am looking at these terms of address is a part of my analysis of language in Enid Blyton's The Secret Island, so really I want to compare use of the words in the 1930s to use of the words now, though I a general etymology is uesful too. Any pointers about what to do to research the development since 1930? In the novel, the characters use "Mother" and "Dad" as well as "Mummy" and "Daddy", and use "Uncle" on its own as well as with the first name.

In my research for other parts of my coursework, I've come across references to the Oxford English Dictionary, with other people quoting it (on this forum too) and used that. My college library doesn't have the proper dictionary, and I really wish it did! I think I may have to pay a visit to my local library this weekend to see if they have it there, but it's not exactly the greatest library... They should probably have it though.

Phil White - I like your point about "Aunt" and "Uncle" being used with no first name not being used by "real" people, just in costume dramas and such... that is very useful! I think I can make the point in my coursework that to not use the first name is found more often in written texts than in spoken language...

I have come across the discussion about "mama" and "papa" here before, as the use of "Hallo" is another thing that I have been researching... and "Hi" as well - thank you to Ken (I think) for the wonderful information about that!

Your comments about how each of use the different terms are helpful, thank you. I think I will be able to reference this topic and talk about how the words are interpreted and used today, and the connotations and things, and compare that to their use in The Secret Island. One thing I wanted to discuss in my coursework was how readers today could interpret the story differently and have different views of the characters because of how language has changed, so thank you for that.

I went to that Gutenberg site on your suggestion, but I don't understand how to use it at all! How do I search for what I want, and what is it exactly?

Thank you so much for all your help so far!
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Re: Formal/Informal Terms of Address

Post by Phil White » Fri Mar 06, 2009 12:47 pm

I'm impressed by the scope of what you're doing for an A level project!

Gutenberg is an attempt to place as many texts as possible on the internet in freely readable format. All the texts there are out of copyright, so most are more than 70 years old. You will find many classics there, and the real advantage is that you can search the texts.

On the main page, you can just enter an author's name in the search box in the top left and you will see a list of works by that author that have been placed in the Gutenberg archives. Click on the work that you are after and at the bottom of the page, there is a section "Download this ebook for free". Unless you have a palm reader, download the plain text version (zipped is quicker) from the main site or one of the mirror sites.

Just store the text file on your computer and open it (in Word or in Notepad).

With Shakespeare, for instance, they have the complete works as well as the individual plays.

There is also the Anacleto search engine that searches all of Gutenberg's books for phrases etc.

That said, they don't have many "modern" works at all, so you may have trouble tracing usage after the 1930s. Not only that, searching for "mummy" in all of Gutenberg lists 1625 books, which is a lot of reading!

And the final problem is that you can't narrow your search by publication date.

Ken has a lot more resources available to him and uses a lot of clever search techniques to dig out the sort of information you want. Perhaps he can give you some more pointers.

None of it is exactly well-founded research, but you can at least see some other people's opinions in some of the following discussions:
http://www.digitalspy.co.uk/forums/show ... p?t=703082
http://www.digitalspy.co.uk/forums/show ... p?t=895381
http://uk.answers.yahoo.com/question/in ... 610AAFCD8I
http://forums.nasioc.com/forums/archive ... 43870.html

(I found those by looking for the exact phrase "call my father" in Google.)

Likewise "call my aunt" dredges up these
http://in.answers.yahoo.com/question/in ... 459AAVAH2X
http://www.digitalspy.co.uk/forums/show ... p?t=664717

As I say, none of it well founded research as such, but all of it real people talking about how they speak.

You could also look in the personal ads pages of your local newspapers for ads like
"To Mummy on her 80th birthday..."
Again, real people using real words.

And talk, talk, talk to as many younger and older people as you can! Some of us were brought up on Enid Blyton.
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Re: Formal/Informal Terms of Address

Post by trolley » Fri Mar 06, 2009 4:55 pm

I was thinking that a comma was required, too. Now that I read it, it seems to change the statement completely. Now it seems like you are introducing your uncle to someone named Humphrey.
"this is my car, Joe"
"this is my wife, Peter"
"that is my thought, Bob"
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