The Family Tree

Tolstoy wrote that ‘All happy families are alike. Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way‘. What he could have written is ‘All families are alike. Each language describes families in its own way…unhappily for a language learner.’

Naively I assumed that learning Polish words for family members would be straightforward, just a question of substituting English terms for Polish ones. A family is just a family, right?


Question#1: How do Poles perceive their in-laws?

In English, the family that you marry into are your in-laws, and to define the relationship, you simply add the suffix -in-law to mother, father, brother, sister etc.

I once had the following conversation with a Pole who got confused by the pronunciation of the word ‘law’:

Pole: I’m going to visit my mother-in-love.

Me: Who? Your mother-in-love?…Oh, your mother-in-law! it sounds a little like ‘love’, but actually it’s ‘in-law’.

Pole: I always thought it was ‘in-love’.

Me: Nope, it’s primarily a legal relationship. Love is secondary.

But on second thoughts, in-love might be a better suffix? After all, it’s because I love her daughter that she became my mother-in-law in the first place! Maybe mother-through-love would be the best version!

I was surprised to discovered that’s there was no Polish suffix for describing in-laws. What I can’t just say siostra prawna or ojciec prawny? Teść, teściowa, szwagier, szwagierka…all these new words to learn, that’s extra effort!

This made me wonder how Poles view their in-laws.

English can be coldly pragmatic sometimes, and the in-law suffix is a good example. If my sister marries, then I gain a brother….but only in the eyes of the law. The in-law suffix suggests it’s only temporary. If my sister divorces, then he’s not my brother anymore.

How do Poles perceive szwagier and szwagierka? Is it like getting a new brother or sister?

Question#2 – Do I need to learn these words for maternal and paternal relatives?

One day, I came across the word stryj. I checked the dictionary and found the translation ‘uncle’. Strange, I thought the Polish word for uncle was wujek? What’s going on? I checked another dictionary and found that the translation of uncle was both wuj/wujek and stryj / stryjek.

Sometimes I trick myself by thinking that words that look the same have similar meanings. So my first thought was that the word stryj was connected to strych (attic). So maybe wujek is your normal uncle, while stryj describes the crazy uncle who lives in the attic?

Apparently not.

I learned that the Polish language has two words for uncle – wuj/wujek (on your mother’s side) and stryj/stryjek (on your father’s side) – and it was the same with aunts, nieces and nephews.

I did some research and it felt like I was opening a can of worms: stryj, stryjna, wujna, pociot, wnuk wujeczny or stryjczny, szurzy and szurzyna… even strange Turkish terms like paszenog!

For a moment I despaired. Do I really need to learn all of these words?

Question#3: Are the stryj’s dying out?

I’ve heard or read the word wujek thousands of times, but only once came across the word stryj. Is it still used? Is the term dying out and being replaced by wujek? Do young Poles have a stryj and a wujek or just two wujeks?

I’m starting to worry about the stryj’s in Poland.

I have this image of the last group of Polish stryjow who are hiding in the wilderness of the Bieszczady mountains. Living on berries and mushrooms, they cling to survival away from civilisation that has forgotten them. Will they survive?

Maybe they’ll soon go the way of the paszenog, the last of whom probably passed away in Świętokrzyskie mountains in 19th century.

family tree4

Question#4: Is the Polish language becoming more streamlined?

Modern English is very streamlined when it comes to describing family relationships. Father, mother, brother, sister, aunt, uncle, husband, wife, daughter, son, grandfather, grandmother, grandson, granddaughter, niece and nephew. Everyone else is a cousin or in-law.

The prefix grand- is a convenient shortcut. To describe a relationship two up or down in the family tree, we just add the prefix grand: grandfather, granddaughter etc, but Polish has separate words for all of these people – dziadek, babcia, wnuk, wnuczka.

Linguistically, the Polish family tree is much more bushy than the English one. But is the tree being trimmed?

  • Has the word kuzyn/kuzynka (cousin) completely replaced wnuk wujeczny and siostra cioteczna?
  • Is Polish losing some of its linguistic richness when describing family relationships?
  • Do modern, smaller families still require these words?

Additional Questions

Besides the above, I also have other questions and thoughts about Polish families, just little things that puzzle me:

  • Why are grandparents called dziadkowie and not babkowie?
  • Can you call a family friend aunt or uncle even though they’re not related?
  • Why isn’t a sister called a bratka?
  • Whenever I see the word ‘teść’ (father-in-law) I think of Robert De Niro’s character in Meet the Parents – a disapproving father-in-law who wants to prove that Ben Stiller isn’t a suitable spouse for his daughter. Am I the only one who worries about failing a lie detector teść?
  • Grand in English means both big and magnificent, so great-grand mother can be considered a compliment. Wouldn’t you like to call your mother’s mother’s mother: wspaniała-wielka matka rather than the one who came before (prababcia)?


And that’s the challenge facing a language learner – you’re not learning a static thing. A language is always in the process of evolution. When a word isn’t in the dictionary, you’ve got no idea if it’s because the word is too old or because it’s too new.

And then there are other problems…

Like what to buy my paszenog for Christmas?

And if he even exists!

7 thoughts on “The Family Tree

  1. “Why are grandparents called dziadkowie and not babkowie?”
    Because of patriarchy?

    “Can you call a family friend aunt or uncle even though they’re not related?”
    I’ve done it, I’ve seen people doing it. Probably depends on specific family.

    “Why isn’t a sister called a bratka?”
    Because “siostra” is such a beautiful word.

    “Am I the only one who worries about failing a lie detector teść?”
    No, you aren’t.

    “Wouldn’t you like to call your mother’s mother’s mother: wspaniała-wielka matka rather than the one who came before (prababcia)?”
    I would have to ask my prababcia how she would like to be called, but I can’t for obvious reasons.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. In my family we never use stryj, always wujek. And ciocia i wujek are also friends of my parents, o matter if they are related or not.
    Regarding kuzyn/kuzynka and siostra/brat cioteczny/steryjeczny it’s also a matter of the region where you come from. In the Silesia we use kuzyn/kuzynka (maybe a German influence), but all my friends from Masovia they say siostra/brat cioteczny/steryjeczny. Even very often avoiding cioteczny/steryjeczny. So when keep telling me a story and saying “my brother did this and that” then I’m usually surprised: “I never knew that you have a bro”. So the clarification comes: “oh, brat cioteczny”.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. On the other hand, I often got confused by english “in-law”. Father-in-law? That would be someone who is your father legally, as opposed to biologically, right? Ojczym – a step-father? Wrong!

    Polish indeed gets simplified in this matters. I don’t even know who is “szurzy” supposed to be, and I do like rare and old-fashioned words. Stryj is getting rarer, as you pointed out. I especially mourn paszenog, it’s a kick-ass word.

    Calling family friends “wujek” or “ciocia” is pretty common. I believe we have it from Russians. I find it quite annoying – for a big part of my childhood I believed that my mom’s best friend is somehow related to us.

    Teść might be a lie detector, but it could also be someone you drink with on various occasions. Teściowa on the other hand has much more negative connotations, as we have a long tradition of “kawały o teściowej”, depicting man’s conflict with his mother-in-law as something universal. Biblical Adam lived for a thousand years, because he had no teściowa 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

      • “I find it quite annoying – for a big part of my childhood I believed that my mom’s best friend is somehow related to us.”

        Yeah, it’s kinda crazy for a kid, especially when your mom has a lot of siblings AND a lot of friends. I had some problems with counting – “My mom has three sisters, aunt Kasia, aunt Basia and aunt Zosia. but what about other aunties?”.
        – Mom, is aunt Krysia your sister?
        – No.
        – And aunt Magda?
        – No, we’re not relatives.
        That sounds disturbing, like discovering that half of your family was taken by aliens.
        – … But aunt Zosia IS your sister, right?
        – Yes.
        Ooof. Good. But there was another problem: not-relative aunties had children. And because I was a kid, it followed us to the more questions:
        – Is Jacek my cousin then?
        – No, he’s not.
        – (nearly panicked) Then who is he!?

        Yeah, “bushy” is the best word for polish family tree. 😉

        PS: Seems that you know more polish words than Poles. Where the hell you get the paszenog?
        PPS: I never get it: why English bothers with sooo long form like “mother-in-law”? “Teściowa” is more economic 😀

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Stryj is brother of your father, only, “Żona stryja jest stryjenką.” (
    Your father’s sister’s husband is still Wuj.

    “Why are grandparents called dziadkowie and not babkowie?”

    Heard about Wujostwo? Stryjostwo? Or “Leszkowie z rodziną”?

    I heard about paszenog and szurzyna, but have no idea who they are. Noone uses it this days.

    Teść was once called cześć 🙂 And it does not mean ‘hello’ but ‘respect’ in this situation.

    Liked by 1 person

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