“I saw your sister and your uncle yesterday!” Oh, really? Great, but was it my younger sister or my elder one? Or do you mean my cousin? And, by the way, which of my uncles: my mum’s brother or my dad’s? Actually, it could also be the husband of my mum’s sister! Can you please be more specific? I know, it’s not your fault, the English language is quite limited in its kinship terminology.
Languages use different systems of terminology to refer to the individuals a person is related to, due to their unique classification of kinship relations. Since the topic is too complicated to be explored fully in an article like this, I don’t intend to go into much detail. Instead, I will just pick out a few interesting aspects and compare the way they appear in different languages and cultures.
Let me start with my favourite: siblings. English-speaking societies use the words ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ to refer to this type of relative. As you can see, the terminology distinguishes between genders and generations, but there is no reference to relative age at all. To show you what I mean by this, let us compare the English system to that of my native language, Hungarian:
In Hungarian, any sibling (regardless of gender, relative age etc.) can be referred to as “testvér”. The word, however, is much more commonly used than the English term “sibling”. It has two more variations: “fiútestvér” and “lánytestvér”, which mark the gender of the person – although these are not as popular as the general term. Hungarian can also mark whether the relative is younger or older than the person we are comparing him or her to: a younger brother would be an “öcs”, an older brother is called a “báty”, a younger sister can be referred to as a “húg” and an older one is a “nővér”. These four words are normally used in the genitive case, e.g. “öcsém” (“my younger brother”) or “bátyánk” (“our elder brother”).
And the possibilities are endless. Some languages distinguish between siblings by age, but not by gender. In Thai, for example, an elder sibling is called a พี่ (pii), whereas a younger one is a น้อง (nawng) – according to Wikipedia. So let me try and summarise what we’ve discussed so far. The four Hungarian words could even be placed in a matrix, as the two genders (male and female) and the two relative ages (younger or older) combine to form the four different variations – each one represented by a separate word. English-speakers may add adjectives to mark relative age, while Thai-speakers may find it necessary to use additional adjectives that mark the sibling’s gender, in some circumstances.
Of course, some languages are capable of making this even more complicated. For instance, there are a number of facts you need to be aware of before you can say ‘uncle’ or ‘aunt’ in Bengali. If we go back to the roots we’ll find that the whole system is built on the idea we have just talked about:
An elder brother is Dada (দাদা), elder sister is Didi (দিদি), while the younger brother is Bhai (ভাই) and younger sister, Bon (বোন). (Wikipedia)
And this is the point when it gets extremely hard to follow:
Father’s elder brothers are called Jethu (জ্যাঠা) while younger brothers are called Kaku (কাকু). Their wives are called Jethi-ma (জেঠি-মা) and Kaki-ma (কাকি-মা), respectively. Father’s sister is called Pisi (পিসি), mother’s sister is Maasi (মাসি). Mother’s brother is called Mama (মামা) and his wife, Maami (মামি). English would just use Uncle and Aunt.
So you may now be wondering if the friend “talking” to me at the beginning of this article saw my Didi with my Jethu or my Bon with my Mama yesterday. It could even be my Kaku or my Maasi’s husband, since they count as my uncles too, don’t they?
Some of you may now be thinking that Thai and Bengali are two incredibly strange languages. However, we must also make a mention of German, Danish, Tamil, Punjabi, Turkish, Chinese and so on… their terminology is just as ‘strange’ as that of the languages I’ve talked about so far. With the help of Wikipedia, I can confidently state that they all distinguish between maternal uncle (mother’s brother), paternal uncle (father’s brother) and affinal uncle (parent’s sister’s husband). In Thai, there are separate words for “mother’s younger brother”, “father’s elder brother” etc.
Although it may take forever for a language-learner to become familiar with these, we must admit there’s quite a bit of logic behind it. The level of distinction we apply for uncles and aunts should be the same as what we use for siblings. In English, for example, the words for siblings only indicate gender. And verily, ‘uncle’ and ‘aunt’ are different in nothing but their gender! Regardless of all this, it would be a thoughtless decision to rely on this little observation. The ever so complicated Thai terminology includes only one genderless word to describe all nieces, nephews and grandchildren: หลาน (laan). Anyway, the ‘matrix’ of Thai and Bengali terms is precisely explained on Wikipedia using the example of yet another complicated language, Arabic:
Arabic contains separate words for “mother’s brother” خال (Khāl) and “father’s brother” عم (‘Amm). The closest translation into English is “uncle”, which gives no indication as to lineage, whether maternal or paternal. Similarly, in Arabic, there are specific words for the father’s sister and the mother’s sister, خالة (Khala(h)) and عمة (‘Amma(h)), respectively.
Please keep reading, there isn’t much left! Not long ago I had a conversation with a friend of mine, in which I stated that my grandma speaks three languages. A few minutes later – after the topic had changed – I made a mention of my grandma, saying that she finds it hard to communicate in England as she only speaks Hungarian. At this point my friend declared that I must have made a mistake when I said my grandmother was trilingual. If we were talking in Swedish, I could easily avoid the misunderstanding. I could say that my “mormor” (maternal grandmother) speaks three languages, whereas my “farmor” (paternal grandmother) only knows one. And, by the way, in Norway I’m not simply a “grandson”. If I ever find myself learning Norwegian, I must regard myself as my Mormor’s “dattersønn” and my Farmor’s “sønnesønn”.
The above may be quite difficult for our minds to process. But, believe it or not, some people find it hard to understand that my parent’s mother is a ‘grandmother’ and for her I am a ‘grandson’. In Chiricahua (a language spoken by some tribes in Oklahoma and New Mexico), alternating generations are addressed by the same terms. Wikipedia informs us about the following:
Other languages, such as Chiricahua, use the same terms of address for alternating generations. So a Chiricahua child (male or female) calls their paternal grandmother -ch’iné, and likewise this grandmother will call her son’s child -ch’iné.
Before starting this article I promised myself that I will not make any mention of cousins, nieces and nephews because of their rather complicated system of terminology, so I will gladly keep this promise. Instead, I’ll talk a bit about in-laws. Let me warn you: Russian has over fifteen words to cover relations by marriage – so we’d better start with English! From my father’s perspective, my (affinal) uncle would be a ‘brother-in-law’: his sister’s husband. But how about his wife’s sister’s husband? He calls him his ‘sógor’, which is the exact Hungarian equivalent of the English word ‘brother-in-law’. However, Wikipedia states that, as opposed to American English, British English does not consider this variation strictly correct. So what would my (hypothetical) spouse’s sister’s husband be called here, in England? This problem would not occur in languages such as Serbian, Bosnian, Yiddish and Bengali. Wikipedia tells us the following:
Serbian and Bosnian have specific terms for relations by marriage. For example, a “sister-in-law” can be a “snaha/snaja” (brother’s wife, though also family-member’s wife in general), “zaova” (husband’s sister), “svastika” (wife’s sister) or “jetrva” (husband’s brother’s wife). A “brother-in-law” can be a “zet” (sister’s husband, or family-member’s husband in general), “djever/dever” (husband’s brother), “šurak/šurjak” (wife’s brother) or “badžanak/pašenog” (wife’s sister’s husband). Likewise, the term “prijatelj” (same as “makhatunim” in Yiddish, which also translates as “friend”) is also used. Bengali has a number of in-law words. For example, Boudi (elder brother’s wife), Shaali (wife’s sister), Shaala (wife’s younger brother), Sambandhi (wife’s elder brother/Shaali’s husband), Bhaasur (husband’s elder brother), Deor (husband’s younger brother), Nanad (husband’s sister), Jaa (husband’s brother’s wife), etc.
In Hungarian, one of my grandmothers can refer to my other grandmother as her “nász” or “nászasszony” (son’s/daughter’s mother-in-law). I’m not entirely sure if such term exists in English, but I can confidently say that if it does, I have never heard it being used. I know I relied way too much on Wikipedia when doing my research for this post, but let me share another interesting quote, this time about Yiddish:
If Harry marries Sally, then in Yiddish, Harry’s father is the “mekhutn” of Sally’s father; each mother is the “makheteyneste” of the other. In Romanian, they are “cuscri”. In Bengali, both fathers are Beayi and mothers, Beyan.
Now we know that Hungarian isn’t the only language to have thought of this special relationship. In fact, I’m sure that several cultures have realised throughout the centuries that saying “my son’s wife’s mother” or “my daughter’s father-in-law” is not very convenient. But can we group languages according to their patterns of kinship terminology? You have probably realised that Hungarian and Yiddish have a similar system, and so do Serbian and Bengali. They’re from different families, I know, but there seems to be a pattern.
Lewis Henry Morgan, an American anthropologist and social theorist who was well known for his work on kinship and social structure in the 19th century, performed a survey on kinship terminologies around the world. Eventually, he came up with six basic patterns which fit most known languages: Hawaiian, Sudanese, Eskimo, Iroquois, Crow and Omaha kinship. Languages that belong to the ‘Hawaiian’ pattern of kinship terminology, for example, do not distinguish between siblings and cousins, thus often causing some misunderstandings among speakers. In contrast, Sudanese kinship is the most descriptive, “no two types of relatives share the same term.” (Wikipedia). Each type of cousin, uncle, aunt, nephew and niece has a special name.
I’m finished. I hope that I was able to find the balance between the amount of detail included and the article’s clarity. If not, I blame the fact that I’ve got myself too interested in the subject. And now I have to go because my “Bà Nội” (paternal grandmother, in Vietnamese) said that her “dattersønn” (Norwegian for daughter’s son, or simply grandson) – in other words, my “brat cioteczny” (the Polish word for son of an aunt; a type of cousin) – is expected to return home today.
Anyway, have a good evening!
(Balint – Greek alphabet)