NEW YORK, NY / The Economist / September 3, 2010
My maiden aunt's second cousin's sister-in-law
IN HIS last post my colleague recalled the words of Roman Jakobson: "Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey." And he pondered the variations in how they convey motion. I've always been curious about variation in the words for something else seemingly basic: familial relations.
There are two aspects to this. One is that languages vary enormously in which family members they recognise as distinct. Going, as usual, on the languages I know something of, in English every child of any of your parents' siblings is your cousin. But in European languages there are usually two ways to say cousin—male and female. In Hebrew there are four, since you also have to specify whether it's your aunt's or uncle's child. In Arabic, eight, because you also have to specify whether it's on your father's or mother's side. Russian has a host of terms, some of them archaic, not only for all some of these, but also for distinguishing a great uncle based on whether he's older or younger than your grandparent, or your niece or nephew depending on whether it's your sister's or brother's child.
There are other parts of family that English doesn't even have words for. In Spanish a cuñado/-a is a brother/sister-in-law, but your concuñado/-a is the sibling of your spouse who is also married to one of your siblings either the spouse of your spouse's sibling, or the sibling of your sibling's spouse. This might be rendered as a "sibling-in-law-in-law" in English, but there is no such term. Meanwhile, there is also no word in English for the in-law relationship that occurs when two siblings are married to another pair of siblings (this is what I originally thought concuñado meant), but what about the offspring of such relationships? My father's father and uncle married two sisters, and my dad used to refer to his uncle's son as "my double first cousin".
The second notable aspect of these terms is that they often seem quite sui generis, bearing little relation either to each other or to other words in the same language. English makes do with "X-in-law" for every relation by marriage, but in Spanish, a sibling-in-law is cuñado/-a, a parent-in-law is suegro/-a, a son-in-law is yerno and a daughter-in-law is nuera. Similar differentiation seems to arise elsewhere; in most places "son" and "grandson" have no similarity like they do in English and French, for instance.
And Russian takes the cake again: where English just uses "sister/brother-in-law", Russian has specialised names that distinguish your siblings' spouses (zyat', yatrov') from your spouse's siblings, which in turn are distinguished depending on whether they're your wife's siblings (shurin, svoyachenitsa) or your husband's (dever', zolovka). There's a similar distinction between a wife's parents (tyest', tyosha) and a husband's (svyokor, svekrov'). A concuñado is svoyak and a concuñada is snoshennitsa. There are words for the spouses of your aunts and uncles, words for the parents of your children's spouses, and more besides, each apparently with its own unique etymology.
I assume this specialisation just means that family concepts are, as one might expect, very old. A glance at the online dictionary of the Real Academia Española reveals that the Spanish in-law words all derive from Latin forms. But why do different languages have such differing levels of description? It's tempting to conclude that it tells us something important about the original structure of the societies that speak them, but it's hard to imagine what. Can any linguists help me out on this one?
In this blog, named after the dictionary-maker Samuel Johnson, our correspondents write about the effects that the use (and sometimes abuse) of language have on politics, society and culture around the world
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