“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 ge, jie, 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/cuñada, yerno, nuera, 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.
Things get much more complicated from there. Arabic accounts for which side of the family the speaker’s uncles and aunts come from: an amm or amma is an uncle or aunt on your father’s side, while a khal or khala is on your mother’s. But those who marry into the family do not marry into those titles. Your amm’s wife does not become your amma, but is called a zawjat al-amm, “uncle’s wife”, lest you should forget which of the pair is your father’s sibling. The same goes for cousins, who have no distinct term, but are the son or daughter (ibn or ibna) of your amm, amma, khal or khala, as the case may be.
Chinese makes many of the same distinctions. But its system is even more complex, as in many cases it requires the speaker to remember whether a relative is older or younger than they are, whether relatives of their parents are older or younger than they, and so forth. There are many armchair theories about the relationship between language and culture that do not hold up to scrutiny. The East Asian languages’ focus on seniority, however, is quite plausibly related to the importance Confucianism places on the virtue of respecting your elders and forebears.
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”.
All languages permit you to describe relationships in any amount of detail your listener would like. But those that require highly specific labels for kinfolk, forcing you to recall the details every time you speak, surely etch those facts deep in the mind. That makes an Arabic singer much less likely to croon “can’t remember how I’m kin to them” than an American one.
Read more from Johnson, our columnist on language:
Technology is making it easier to write and learn Chinese (May 21st)
The real problem with dangling participles (May 7th)
On the origin of languages (Apr 22nd)
This article appeared in the Culture section of the print edition under the headline "Family matters"
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