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I'm a mid-level Chinese student. I have two younger brothers, who are twins. One brother is married to a Chinese woman, and they have a young son.

The son calls me 姑姑 and my husband 姑丈. My sister-in-law's younger brother, his maternal uncle, is 舅舅. So far, so good! My question is, what should he call my other brother, his paternal uncle?

The trick is that we don't know which twin is older. Our parents refused to tell us growing up to avoid fostering (more) power plays, and now claim to have forgotten. We can't be the first family in history to have siblings that aren't fully ordered, but we can't figure out if there's an accepted word for a twin uncle in this scenario, or we should just pick whichever of 伯伯 or 叔叔 we like better.

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How about 伯叔? That is an actual thing when you don't want to specify the age.

See here: https://www.moedict.tw/%E4%BC%AF%E5%8F%94

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Different locations may have different customs. My local custom is:
My father's brothers: 叔叔(younger than my father);小伯(older than my father, youger big bro),大伯、大伯伯(older than my father, elder big bro). To be simpler, just call 叔叔/伯伯。 If you don't know who is older, I think you can just call 叔伯 or 伯伯. Because if you take him as higher 辈分, that won't make too much awkwardness.

My mother's brothers: 小舅、小舅舅(younger),大舅、大舅舅(older). Simpler: 舅舅.

  • Sorry that I made a mistake on 小伯 and 叔叔. Fixed. But it seems that no such name for younger 舅舅... – Bruce Huang Jul 18 '18 at 18:13
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I found a similar discuss on a Chinese forum, their final conclusion is to use 'uncle' while not ordering twins. I agree with them, this is the only workaround.

Because 'order' is very important in Chinese culture, almost all Chinese twins' parents order their children just for avoiding troubles.

For the titles 伯叔 and 叔伯, You should know that they are not a callable title, they are used as 你的叔伯兄弟,所有的叔伯们. So calling someone 叔伯 will sound odd to native speakers.

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How to call father's younger or elder brother differs from place to place. Where I was born, somewhere is Hebei and to the south of Beijing, father's younger is called "叔叔", and father's elder brother is called "大爷". You can see different variations in other answers. You should keep to the version that your sister-in-law uses, but not the ones given in the answers.

In Chinese, who is older is important in calling the relatives. There is no word to use if the order is not known.

However, in your situation, you can decide by yourselves who should be older (maybe with a coin toss), and then keep with it. There would be no problem as long as everybody agrees.

There are situations in China when the age order cannot be determined, though usually not between close relatives. E.g., when two people are born on the same day. Then they just make an order "randomly". When the two of them agree, the order would then be used.

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Unordered siblings is very unlikely to happen in China, where the order matters so much. Brothers never address each other by name, always 哥哥/弟弟.

In your case, probably take what @curiosity said. Another way is to address his own father "爸爸" and his father's brother "X爸爸" where you replace X with one character in dad's brother's name.

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In your unique case, where the twins have no known birth order and most people involved aren't native Chinese speakers, why not follow your instinct and "just pick whichever of 伯伯 or 叔叔 (you) like better"?

In the end, whether 伯伯 or 叔叔, it's the acknowledgement that this person belongs to an older generation (and hence be given due respect) that matters.

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叔父 if he is younger than one’s father 伯父 if he is older than one’s father

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