The Samoan word you use to refer to your brother or your sister depends on your gender. If your sibling is the same gender as you, then he or she is your uso. For example, if I am a girl, my sister is my uso. If I’m a boy, then my brother is my uso. A girl referring to her brother would call him her tuagane, whereas a boy referring to his sister calls her the apple of his eye 🙂 … and his tuafafine.

My brother or my sister: Which of them is my ‘uso‘?

We’ve talked about this lesson sooooo many times, at Notebook Samoana and on our social media, because the Samoan word ‘uso’ is pretty popular and often used…not so correctly.

Like talking about your child, the words you use to refer to your brother or sister depends on your own gender.

If you are male

If you identify as male, then your brother is indeed your uso. But you would refer to your sister as tuafafine – not uso.

If you are female

The wording switches up when you’re a girl. If you are female, your sister is your uso, for sure. But your brother is referred to as your tuagane – not uso.

If not your uso, then…?

Your Gender Your Brother Your Sister
Male Uso
Female Tuagane

When your gender is not one or the other

Thank you to everyone who, like Vigi (in the comments for this post), has pointed out that people don’t always identify as strictly male or female. How would this affect the way you refer to your sisters or brothers? I don’t know that we have a Samoan language ‘rule’ for that situation, but even in English, we’re still working out appropriate pronouns for the gender spectrum, right? Until we reach a language consensus, choose the pronoun that feels correct for you, or check with your non-binary sibling about which pronoun they would prefer.

Bonus Lesson: More than one sibling

In the Samoan language, nouns do not change form to show plurality, so I can have 1 uso or 20 uso. In a sentence, the words around the nouns are modified instead to indicate more than one.

For example:

O lo’u uso e aulelei. | My sister/brother is good looking.
O o’u uso e aulelei. | My sisters/brothers are good looking.

Notice that the possessive pronoun for ‘my’ changed from lo’u (describing 1) to o’u (describing more than 1)?

And don’t forget… if you’re going to give a number to your siblings, because you’re talking about people, you precede the number with to’a.

E to’a fā o’u tuagane. | I have four brothers.


The Samoan Culture around Brothers & Sisters

Samoan culture is still very patriarchal. While women are a lot more prominent and respected these days, men still dominate in our families and our politics. As part of that system, the role of a man is to lead and provide for his family, and the role of a brother is to honour and protect his sister(s) – at all costs, even life.

I’ve heard my elders often say that for a brother, his sister should be the ‘apple of his eye’, to be placed on a pedestal – right next to his mother – above all other women… yes, even above his wife (but, obviously, in a different way). This is why, as you can imagine, it can be difficult for a guy to date a Samoan girl who has brothers.

On the other hand, a brother who disrespects his sister in any way – for example, verbally abusing her in a heated exchange – can invite some serious retaliation from the rest of the family… including your dead ancestors, even, according to the family curses I’ve heard.

These strong beliefs around gender are probably why the Samoan language is so particular about how we label our brothers and sisters.