“An offer he can’t refuse…”

Starting with this quote from the classic movie “The Godfather” by Francis Ford Coppola I want to discuss an interesting topic that I had never thought about until a couple of weeks ago. In one of my English lessons a student was explaining something about her goddaughter, but she didn’t remember the word for this and said it in Finnish: “kummityttö”. Suddenly, all the other students started to say that the word she was looking for was “goddaughter” “because it’s like in “godfather”, like the movie.” This made me think about the difference between Finnish and most of the other languages when referring to these relationships. I have been making a little research and I couldn’t find another language that behaves like Finnish in this.

Most languages refer to the godfather and the godmother including (directly or indirectly) the words for “father” and “mother”, and thus showing the concept of that these people would take over the education of the child should something bad happen to the parents. It would be something like “substitute parents”. Therefore, it is important to include the words for “father” and “mother”. But in Finnish the words that they include are “setä” and “täti”, which mean “uncle” and “aunt”. The godfather is “kummisetä” and the godmother is “kummitäti”.

kummisetä1 kummisetä2

In English we do include the words “father” and “mother”, but this happens in all the languages I have analyzed: In Spanish we say “padrino” and “madrina”, including the root of “padre” and “madre”. Most of the Romance languages also use this method. In Portuguese they have “padrinho” and “madrinha”, similar to the Galician “padriño” and “madriña”. In Catalan, however, they talk about “padrí” and “padrina”, including only the concept of the father. In French they have “parrain” and “marraine”, following the same pattern as their Southern neighbours. In Italian the words are the same as in Spanish: “padrino” and “madrina”, though in the South of the country they also use “compare” and “commare”, keeping the concepts of father and mother but in the end of the words.

German, as Catalan, includes only the masculine concept: “Pate” and “Patin”. But the other Germanic languages follow the most common method, like English. Thus, we have Norwegian, Swedish and Danish that share the terms: “gudfar” and “gudmor”. In Icelandic they have “guðfaðir” and”guðmóðir”, the same roots again. In Faroese the words change a bit as well, but the roots still refer to father and mother: “gudpápar” and “gudmammur”. In Dutch they continue with the Germanic tradition by calling them “peetvader” and “peetmoeder”.

But this trend is not only found in Germanic and Romance languages. In Polish they use a different construction but they include the words for “father” and “mother”: “ojciec chrzestny” (being “ojciec” father”), and “matka chrzestna” (being “matka” mother, and as a funny note: “matka” means trip in Finnish… This is why I love languages!). In Russian they say “крёстный отец” and “крёстная мать”, which makes sense since “отец” means “father” and “мать” is “mother”.

Hungarian, a language of the Finno-Ugric family don’t follow the system of its distant relative, but follow the mainstream path instead: They have “keresztapa” because “apa” means “father”; and “keresztanya”, since “anya” means “mother”.

In Asian languages we have, once again, the same: Chinese children can have a “教父” and a “教母” and, as you can imagine by now, “父” is the character for “father” and “母” means “mother”. Japanese use these same characters but the words change slightly: “代父” and “代母”.

So, why is Finnish so alone in this? Why did they choose to use the words “uncle” and “aunt” instead of “father” and “mother” like the other languages? In my research I haven’t found any other language that behaves like Finnish or even in a different way than the common trend, but there are many languages in the world and there may be other languages that have different ways of expressing this relationship. If someone knows more examples of languages that use “uncle” and “aunt”, or even totally different concepts, I would really like to read about it in the comments. So please, don’t hesitate to share it with us.


4 thoughts on ““An offer he can’t refuse…”

  1. I know next to nothing of languages, but it seems logical for me to have goduncles and godaunts, because in Finland the ‘godparents’ are very often the child’s real uncles and aunts. Is this not so in other countries?

    • That sounds like a very good reason, indeed! In Spain they can be the uncles and aunts, but it’s not always like that. For example, my godmother is one of my aunts, but my godfather is a good friend of my parents. I don’t know about other countries, but in Spain you can choose the person and it doesn’t have to be a member of the family. Thank you for your contribution! 🙂

  2. In Poland it’s an aunt or an uncle very often, my godparents follow exactly this pattern, but sometimes it can be a good friend of a family or a cousin ; ). So it still doesn’t explain why Finland decided to behave differently ; )

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