It’s all in the family!

Jun 15, 2010 by

In yesterday’s posting we started examining basic vocabulary and discovered that languages differ as to how they divide up the world into “packages” of meaning to be denoted by a single word (or root). Many more examples of lexical divergencies are provided by the area of kinship terms.

With Mom and Dad things are relatively straighforward, but take grandparents. Some languages have a term to refer to both Grandma and Grandpa together (or even the set of all four direct ancestors on both maternal and paternal sides): e.g., the English grandparents. But other languages — for example, Russian — lack such a word: you would have to say ‘grandmother and grandfather’ (or ‘grandmothers and grandfathers’). By the way, it does sound more natural to say it in that order, doesn’t it? We will discuss the order in binomials “X and Y” in a later posting.

Another difference between languages is in whether they have the same term for maternal and paternal grandparents. So in English your Mom’s dad and your Dad’s dad are called the same (well, you might have special terms for them in the family, but both can be called grandfather). But in Swedish — a language closely related to English — there are two terms for the grandfathers on the two sides of the family: farfar and morfar — can you guess which is which?

Think also about how we encode the number of generations back a certain relative is. In English, one generation back is father, two generations back is grandfather, three generations back you add great- to get great-grandfather, and from there on just keep adding great-. In Russian, the word for ‘grandfather’ has a different root from ‘father’ (ded vs. otets), so you start adding prefixes only for the third generation; and it’s the same prefix pra-, so three generations back is your praded, not *pra-pra-otets. And in Hungarian you add different prefixes for each respective generation: szülő is ‘parent’, nagyszülő is ‘grandparent’, dédszülő is ‘great-grandparent’ and ükszülő is ‘great-great-grandparent’.

Counting remoteness, like counting generations, may be structured differently: in English your parents’ other children are your siblings (or brother and sister), while your aunt’s or your uncle’s children are cousins. In Russian, the latter are your ‘siblings twice removed’: dvojurodnye brat’ja/sestry. And the ‘cousins twice removed’ are your ‘siblings thrice removed’: trojurodnye brat’ja/sestry.

Another factor necessary for referring to your siblings correctly is relative age (most languages also care about the gender of the sibling of course). For instance, Hungarian has separate terms for younger and older brother (öcs and báty, respectively) and younger and older sister (húg and nővér, respectively). What if you don’t want to specify whether your brother/sister is older than you are? Use a special term for that: fiútestvér for ‘brother’ (or ‘boy-sibling’) and lánytestvér for ‘sister’ (or ‘girl-sibling’).

But the real fun starts with the in-laws, doesn’t it? While in English all that counts in defining the in-law relations is the generation (father-in-law vs. brother-in-law) and gender (brother-in-law vs. sister-in-law), in Russian the system is more precise (it should be noted, though, that many younger speakers do not know some of the terms, and some terms are just falling out of use now that extended families are less important than before). Thus, a man’s parents-in-law and a woman’s parents-in-law have different designations: a man’s in-laws are test’ and tjoscha (the latter is the butt of many Russian jokes), and a woman’s in-laws are svjokr and svekrov’. What do parents-in-law on both sides call each other? Svat and svat’ja (mercifully, this relation is symmetrical).

Siblings-in-law and children-in-law are complicated too. Thus, a woman might have a dever’ (‘husband’s brother’) or a zolovka (‘husband’s sister’). A man might have a shurin (wife’s brother) or a svojachenica (wife’s sister’). Note that svojachenica may also mean ‘husband’s brother’s wife’ (that is, it’s used for women whose husbands are brothers). And men who are married to sisters are svojaki.

Of course, in English both dever’ and shurin would translate as brother-in-law, and so would also zjat’ in one of its meanings (‘sister’s husband’). In another meaning, zjat’ is a husband of a daughter (i.e., son-in-law). Why such divergency? The Russian zjat’ simply refers to a man in relation to his wife’s whole family, no matter the generation or the relations within the wife’s family. Similarly, a woman in relation to her husband’s family is nevestka (not to be confused with nevesta ‘bride’).

And while we are on the subject of marital relations, let me mention that Russian has two verbs (or rather verbal constructions) for ‘get married’: a man zhenitsja na (literally, ‘be-wifes himself on’) a woman, and a woman vyxodit zamuzh (literally, ‘exits into behind her man’).

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