Some languages pay closer attention to family ties than others

From The Economist

“Merry christmas from the Family”, a country song by Robert Earl Keen released in 1994, tells the tale of a sprawling festive get-together, replete with champagne punch, carol-singing and turkey. Many listeners will recognise the chaos the narrator describes; even more than that, they may identify with his struggle to recall how he is related to the various guests. “Fred and Rita drove from Harlingen,” Mr Keen croons. “Can’t remember how I’m kin to them.”

That may have something to do with the English language. It is often joked that anyone around your age is a “cousin”, regardless of actual relation, and anyone older is an “uncle” or “aunt”. English is rather bare in its terms for family members. Other languages pay far more attention to the details.

Take “brother” and “sister”. Societies that value age-order highly often have different terms for older brother, older sister, younger brother and younger sister. These are gejie, di and mei in Mandarin (usually doubled in speech, as in didi), or ani, ane, ototo, imoto in Japanese. Though generic alternatives exist for certain situations (like the abstract concept of “siblings”), not specifying a specific person’s seniority in these languages would be odd.

Then take marriage relations. English just adds the rather cold -in-law to refer to a relationship through a spouse. French has the rather warmer beau- or belle- (belle-mère for mother-in-law, beau-frère for brother-in-law, and so on), but at least it means “beautiful” rather than implying a bureaucratic shackle.

Other European languages have distinct words for the many different relatives by marriage. A Spanish-learner must memorise cuñado/cuñadayernonuera, and suegro/suegra for brother-/sister-, son-, daughter- and father-/mother-in-law (the terms are similar in Portuguese). Spanish even distinguishes cuñado (brother-in-law by blood relation to your spouse) from concuñado, your spouse’s sibling’s husband—something like “co-brother-in-law”. It also has the term cuñadismo, brother-in-law-ism, or talking about things you know little about as though you were an authority—the phrase is akin to “mansplaining” in English.

. . . .

Finally, it is a curious fact that English lacks a word to describe the crucial relationship between the parents of a married couple. Hebrew and Yiddish, though, have mehutanim and machatunim, and Spanish offers consuegros for this critical relationship. Anglophones, meanwhile, are forced to say something awkward like “my son’s wife’s parents”.

The focus that some cultures put on labelling every possible relation with a distinct term does not mean that those who lack those terms do not pay heed to familial networks. Every English-speaking family seems to have at least one armchair genealogist who can tell you that Henry Ford was a great-great-great uncle or fourth cousin five times removed. But each family also has members who couldn’t care less, waving a hand and saying “uncle” or “cousin”.

Link to the rest at The Economist

9 thoughts on “Some languages pay closer attention to family ties than others”

  1. Heh. Reminded me of Heinlein’s Citizen of the Galaxy, and the Suomish culture he invented (or possibly borrowed). One word for every possible relationship, that specified their seniority, gender of both people, degree of consanguinity, and source (blood, marriage, adoption). It’s been a while since I read it – corporeal status may have also been in there.

    I wouldn’t want to deal with it, but it always fascinated me, especially when I realized that I am one of a minority with no first or even second cousins.

  2. The specificity in names for particular relationships is always based on the cultural specificity that drives it. Differences between “in-law” terms for maternal vs paternal links are generally tied to inheritance linkages (children raised by mother’s brother vs mother’s husband). We are used to inheritance-claim-by-father, but since (short of modern science) true inheritance is only certain for mothers, lots of cultures take the maternal relation path, even if it’s still the male connection (mother’s brother vs mother’s husband) that counts. Naturally, this doesn’t affect just the immediate family, but all the cousins accordingly.

    Sibling seniority is also inheritance based — the most senior being the most important. So proper deference among the family members is just as important as deference to parents (mother, father, mother’s brother(s)).

    Cross-cousin marriage cultures (historic for the Muslim world) seem to descend from the desire to retain consolidated family agricultural lands intact. Hunter/gatherers have different inheritance priorities.

    There are lots of cultural arrangements out there in human societies, past and present, and the rules of each are embodied in their languages.

    • Does your argument not suggest that English should have a special word for the eldest son (given the rules applying within the aristocracy to the inheritance of property and titles)? “Heir” almost plays this role, but not when there are no male children, though in that case there is no need for a word anyway.

      Mind you, to this speaker of English English the excerpt seems a bit odd anyway when saying that it is often joked that anyone around your age is a “cousin”, regardless of actual relation, and anyone older is an “uncle” or “aunt”. I’ve always known exactly who my aunts, uncles and (first) cousins are with no inclination to add random individuals to these groups. Is this an American thing? English does, of course, have the words to identify these relationships, the only problem being that I’ve never met anyone who understands them: any takers to explain who your third cousin once removed is (without aid from Google)?

      • I actually know the third cousin once-removed bit because I used to read the dictionary as a child, and I was fascinated to discover those terms 🙂

        On the “cousins are your age” front, when I was little I really did have trouble understanding that my father’s first cousin once removed was my cousin, too. I called her “aunt” because she was an adult, and I played with her daughters, who are also my cousins. I thought cousins have to be your age so you can play with them, and of course you don’t play with adults, as they’re incompetent at playing with dolls. Eventually I understood that cousins aren’t always relatives you play with.

        How it works is based on the common ancestor. If your grandparents are the common ancestor, then you’re likely first cousins, assuming you’re the same distance apart, i.e., your grandparents are also their grandparents.

        However, in my case the common ancestor is my great-grandmother (“Laura”). For my father she was his grandmother, and for his first cousin once removed (“Glinda”), she was the great-grandmother. “Laura” was the great-great grandmother to the daughters of “Glinda.” This makes it all the more remarkable that they knew Laura. But she was born in 1890 and died in the 1990s so her longevity was impressive regardless 🙂

        Anyway, Glinda and I are second cousins, because we both go back three generations to Laura, the common ancestor. Glinda’s daughters are my second-cousins once removed. Their kids (Glinda’s grandkids) are my second cousins twice removed. Offhand I assume certain people with certain surnames are my third cousins, because my family tree lists great-great grandparents with that surname. Their kids would be my third cousins once removed.

        On your primogeniture front: I thought in England sometimes the primogeniture was based on the eldest child, period, so an eldest daughter is in the running if no males qualify. As opposed to certain European countries where they practice Salic Law, where the idea is: a king has two children, the prince and the princess. The king dies, and the prince dies. Oh no, who shall inherit? Not the princess, and not her son. Only one of the king’s brothers, or an uncle on his father’s side can be the next king. If I recall correctly, the grand duchy of Luxemberg is supposed to be under Salic Law (don’t know if they changed it in the last 20 years). Such laws should also influence kinship terms, I imagine.

        • Your description of your relations only serves to confirm my preference for such information to be presented in nice geneological charts rather than words. I think I understand your account, though there is of course also the problem that there could even be a transatlantic difference in the definition of a word like cousin.

          Re primogeniture: for England you have to take account of the big difference between the monarchy and the peerage.

          For the monarch the direct line comes first, so it’s first sons all the way down until a first son only has daughters in which case it is the first born of the daughters and we get a queen. Of course, if there is an only son who dies without issue his sisters, in any, are next in line for the throne.

          For example, when Edward VI (who inherited the throne on the death of his father Henry VIII) died at age fifteen , his older sisters, first Princess Mary and then Elizabeth succeeded to the throne. On Elizabeth’s death they worked back up the direct line to Henry VII and, as daughters in the direct line trump males not in the direct line of succession, they followed the line down from his elder daughter, Margaret Tudor, to James 6th of Scotland and 1st of England.

          You could possibly claim that this non-salic law was established back in 1126 when the nobles of England swore to accept Matilda, the sole surviving legitimate child of Henry I, as his heir. They broke their oath of course and the result is known as the Anarchy, but Matilda’s son Henry II ended up on the throne … It also explains the ending of the link with Hanover when Victoria came to the throne, Hanover still being salic it seems.

          For peers though the rules were different – and messier as some titles, particularly Scottish ones, allow the peerage to pass to “heirs general” and thus allow women to inherit. However, the general rule (which applies to all peers in Regency Romances) is that only males can inherit so that an uncle or a male cousin will get the title if the current holder only has daughters. What’s more, most of the estate would typically be entailed so that the property would go with the title. So England did not see estates being divided and re-divided between heirs and nor was there a proliferation of petty nobility (a duke’s son had a courtesy title but his grandson was just a commoner, or his heir). Since entail in the male line was not limited to the nobility we get the plot of Pride and Prejudice…

      • Short version: yes, genealogy is a BIG thing in tbe US. It comes with a fairly broad range of terminology to describe the relationships in a typical family tree.

        Try this:
        “A guiding principle of the historiography of genealogy in Family Trees is the egalitarianism of American genealogy due to the democratic history of the United States. This is unique to the American historical experience.”
        Note, it leads to a PDF.

        https://www2.archivists.org/sites/all/files/77.1Reviews.pdf#:~:text=A%20guiding%20principle%20of%20the%20historiography%20of%20genealogy,realization%20of%20this%20concept%20after%20the%20Civil%20War.

        A bit longer:

        The US isn’t a tribal nation (outside of politics) and most everybody is descended from Immigrants. The body politic is a mix of ethnicities and cultures, spread across the continent and time. Mobility is constant.

        Absent a specific chunk of land to trace the family roots very far to, once the US first became prosperous (Gilded Age) the answer to “where do you come from” gave rise to an entire industry.

        Also, while the US has evolved a culture of constrained family units (the nuclear family) most people still feel a need for kinship. And when a typical family tree is scattered across three thousand miles it takes some serious book keeping to keep track of the relative branches. Hence, the need for ways to describe the exact degree of kinship. And where there’s a need, a business emerges. US$3B a year.

        Longer still, from the book reviewed in the link above:

        “In 2005, a survey indicated that 73 percent of respondents were interested in researching their family trees, a significant increase from the 60 percent revealed by a similar survey taken in 2000. This is only one of many examples of the recent and rapidly growing interest in genealogy cited by Francois Weil in Family Trees, A History of Genealogy in America. According to Weil, the development of a democratic and multicultural society in the United States resulted in a unique approach to modern genealogy research. In Family Trees, Weil provides a structured and detailed account of genealogy as an element of culture in the United States. He lists personal identity, social memory, entitlements, and the commercialization of genealogy as impetuses for researchers, and argues that the concerns and incentives of current genealogy practices were built upon a divisive and conflicted past of exclusive pedigree, racial superiority, and nationalist movements. “

  3. I like the “belle-mère” part; I’ve seen it used in English shows. From what I gather, this what English people say to indicate they like their mother-in-law. Somewhere I read that the French agree with the English that simply saying “mother-in-law” is cold, and in French plain mother-in-law has a negative connotation … which suggests to me that around the world, it’s common to dislike your mother-in-law 🙂 In that case, Ruth and Naomi are not the rule, but the exception.

    Sometimes I do wish English did a better job distinguishing between in-laws. It can get confusing quickly when someone is giving you the run down on their family soap opera, and you’re not sure if the “sister-in-law” is the wife of their brother, or the sister of the husband. Who is who can get confusing really fast.

    But otherwise, I think Karen is correct. Mostly the availability of terms seems tied to culture and legalities within the culture. The ancient Romans distinguished aunts and uncles based on whether they came from the father’s side or the mother’s side. Which is useful for inheritance purposes, since initially mothers weren’t recognized as being part of the family. See how cultures change over time, when now everyone associates Italians with loving their mamas? A mother in ancient Rome had to make a will specifying her children were her heirs. Otherwise it was just assumed her father’s family will get her stuff, since her children “belonged” to their father and she didn’t count.

    Then you can add in patronyms and matronyms for worldbuilding purposes. Matronyms in most cultures seem to signal whether or not a mother was high status compared to the father (good), or whether the child is a bastard (bad). Such cultural practices may also influence how precise people are about delineating relatives.

  4. One last thing I thought of is the “honorary aunt” / “play sister” phenomenon. I don’t know if this cuts across cultures, but in my part of America at least a person can have honorary aunts and uncles, who are friends of your parents you’ve known since childhood.

    Play sisters / brothers are those friends you were especially close to in childhood, whom you think of as a brother or a sister. When an uncle (mom’s eldest brother) came to visit from Texas, he specifically went out one day to meet up with his “play sister,” whom he knew from the time he was a little boy. It would be cool if some language, somewhere had an official term for such a relationships.

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