Tuesday, 20 December 2005

Naming the relatives

I often reflect on the richness of our language compared with others, and enjoy irritating those who do not have it as their mother tongue by going on about it. Not only do we have vast numbers of synonyms which aren't really synonyms at all because they have subtly different connotations, but we have many words (nice, home...) the precise meanings of which simply cannot be conveyed in some world languages.

But the sociologist and columnist Anne Karpf, in an essay entitled "What do you call your step-grandson's ex?" reminds us that some languages of less than world stature are, in one field at least, ahead of us:
[People] talk of the nuclear or minimal family...but our sphere of connectivity has widened rather than contracted with the increase in divorce and second marriage. Even if the bonds are mainly dutiful (the guilt-tripping great-aunt, the first cousin's sulky teenage daughter) or even negative, in some sense they're how we position ourselves in the world.
The trouble is that, compared with other cultures, we lack the words to describe them. [The Sudanese have] eight different terms for "cousin" depending on how you're related. Nor will plain old "uncle" do. Instead, they distinguish linguistically between the father's brother and the mother's brother...
... Latin has a word for living with a mother's brother (which translates clumsily as avunculocality), and another for living with a father's sister (amitalocality). In India your husband's brother's wife is charmingly called your co-sister...
...To my mind the most serious absence is a word describing the relationship between two sets of in-laws... Here Yiddish comes into its own with mekhuteneste... It's no accident that the cultures that have a term for your son or daughter's in-laws (the Greeks call them symbetheros, in Spanish consuegros) are those that recognise this as a significant relationship extending beyond an annually shared sherry trifle.
So when I next complain about the length of my Christmas shopping list I shall remind myself that it expresses bonds and affinities without which I would be the poorer (although, at this time of year, obviously also the richer). Yiddish, naturally, has a word for it, one that expresses both affection and resigned irritation. Mishpokhe means family, including the most remote kin.

Anna McColl, in a piece on the Random House website covers similar ground in more detail, saying that English is notoriously poor in kinship terms:
...In English, the sex of nearer kinfolk is important: mother/father; sister/brother; aunt/uncle. In Malay, however, the age is the primary distinction; there are different terms for elder (brother/sister/cousin) and younger (brother/sister/cousin), but there's just one generic word for a sibling or cousin. Likewise, until the nineteenth century Hungarian had terms for older sibling or younger sibling but no word for 'brother' or 'sister'... ...Latin had separate terms for 'father's brother', 'father's sister', 'mother's brother', and 'mother's sister', but modern Romance languages have reduced this to two terms for 'aunt' and 'uncle'. In Njamal, an Australian Aboriginal language, a man can use the same term for 'father's father' and 'daughter's son's wife's sister', the important distinction being that both are two generations away. Some Native American languages have different words for 'sister (of a man)' and 'sister (of a woman)'

[And in Japanese, men's speech is different from young women's speech, while in Greek, the sister of the father of Carlos is the translation of what they called their production of "Charlie's Aunt". However, I'm not at all sure that these footnotes are relevant to this topic. Or to anything, really]


Minerva said...

And aren't there something like 58 words for snow in Inuit?

Tony said...

No, I think that's a myth, though they do have several.