The Difference Between 外婆 and 姥姥 In Chinese

Do you know how to refer to your maternal grandmother in Chinese?

It depends on who you ask.

One way to say it is 外婆 (waipo). The first character,  (wai), means outside. The second character,  (po), means grandmother. The two characters come together to mean your “outside grandmother”, as in traditional Chinese culture the women goes into the man’s family.

Another way to refer to your maternal grandmother is 姥姥 (laolao). 姥 (lao) alone means maternal grandmother, so when you say it twice it keeps the same semantic meaning.

The larger difference between 外婆 and 姥姥 is that the first is spoken in southern provinces and the latter is spoken in northern ones. However the government prefers 姥姥 to be used in Putonghua, the government’s formally approved Mandarin dialect.

This linguistic difference is another good way to illustrate just how complex the Chinese language is.

In fact, in June of 2018 there was a big uproar on Chinese social media about the Shanghai Municipal Education Committee changing 外婆 to 姥姥 in a school textbook. Shanghainese are, not surprisingly, very protective of their local dialect.

Even though most Chinese should know who your referring to if you use 姥姥, you will be sure to impress some if you can also use 外婆 in the correct situations. There are also other, less common ways, to refer to your maternal grandmother in Chinese such as  阿妈 (a’ma), 婆婆 (popo), 细爹 (xidie), and 家家 (jiajia).

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