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How relationships differentiate from one language to another

How relationships differentiate from one language to another. Photo: Getty Images - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

In English, the word can be frustratingly imprecise. As PETER TRUDGILL reports, other languages have gone to greater lengths to ensure exactitude.

A few years ago, the Greek translator of a book I had written got in touch to ask if a “cousin” I had referred to in the text was a man or a woman. I didn’t know, which was inconvenient because in Greek, as in many other languages, you do need this information: a Greek cousin can be either a ksadérphi (female) or ksáderphos (male), but there is no gender-neutral term which covers both possibilities.

We might have the same problem with translating from Turkish into English: While we distinguish between male nephew and female niece, Turkish has a single term for both sexes: yegen. Finnish translators encounter the same issue the other way round with our English words: a niece can be either a ‘sister’s daughter’ or a ‘brother’s daughter’ – and Finnish makes a linguistic distinction between the two: veljentytär is your ‘brother’s daughter’ and sisarentytär is your ‘sister’s daughter’.

There are many difficulties like this when translating kinship terms from one language to another.

For English speakers, the word aunt is a perfectly simple, everyday word which we are all entirely familiar with. But if we look at it more closely, we can see that the concept behind this word is actually complex. Aunt can apply to no fewer
than four different types of biological-social relationship: your father’s sister, your mother’s sister, your father’s brother’s wife, or your mother’s
brother’s wife.

Occasionally that can be confusing, and speakers do sometimes find themselves having to use explanatory phrases such as ‘my mum’s sister’ or ‘an aunt by marriage’.

It is no surprise, then, that there are languages in the world which have four different words for ‘aunt’, labelling each of these relationships in an unambiguous way.

Many European languages draw a three-way distinction. In Danish, your moster is your ‘mother’s sister’, your faster is your ‘father’s sister’, and your tante is either your ‘father’s brother’s wife’ or your ‘mother’s brother’s wife’.

Turkish makes the same distinction: your mother’s sister is your teyze, your father’s sister is your hala, and an aunt by marriage is a yenge.

In older forms of Polish, there was also a system with a three-way contrast, but it worked the other way round from Danish and Turkish.

Older Polish made a difference between the two different types of aunt by marriage: stryjenka was ‘father’s brother wife’ and wujenka was ‘mother’s brother’s wife’.

The third word, ciocia, meant ‘parent’s sister’, regardless of whether the parent was the mother or the father.

So between them, Polish and Danish pick out each of the four different relationship possibilities, even though neither of them recognises all four.

But that is not the end of the story. Many languages have different words for siblings depending on whether or not they are older or younger than the speaker. In Turkish, agabey is ‘brother older than me’, while in Hungarian öccs means specifically ‘younger brother’ and húg is ‘younger sister’.

In the North Saami language of northern Scandinavia, this older-younger dimension extends across generations into words for ‘aunt’ and ‘uncle’: siessá means ‘father’s sister’, but goaski and muotta mean respectively ‘mother’s older sister’ and ‘mother’s younger sister’. Some languages – the Turkic language Uighur, for instance – extend the Saami-style system by also distinguishing between ‘father’s older sister’ and ‘father’s younger sister’.

So there are not simply four possible relationships inherent in the English word aunt, but six.

Individuals in any group of human beings anywhere in the world can potentially have the same range of biological relationships with one another: Everybody has, or has had, a father and a mother; and anybody could in principle have a son, or a daughter, or a brother, or a sister. But the way in which these relationships are differentiated from one another, or grouped together and labelled using single words, can vary very considerably, and fascinatingly, from one language to another.