jump to navigation

Missing Words July 23, 2009

Posted by federalist in Language.
trackback

What is the word for a parent whose child has died?  There seems to be no standard term; the best I have found is “child-bereft” or “bereft parent.”  But researching the question did lead me to this excellent discursion by Arnold Zwicky on “Missing Words:”  Concepts that are important enough to a culture that they should have words to describe them, but that don’t.

In our culture, people’s sex is important, and, for relatives, it’s important whether they are related to us by blood or by marriage (whether they are consanguineal or affine kin, as the anthropologists put it).  Yet, the marking of these features in the ordinary English vocabulary of kinship is a puzzling patchwork.

Ideally, we’d have both more specific words, distinguishing relatives on these dimensions, and also more general words, disregarding one feature so that relatives can be grouped together. Parent vs. mother/father and child vs. daughter/son come close to this ideal situation.   Sibling vs. brother/sister is a more dubious case, since for many people sibling is a technical term.  Then we get to cousin, which is undercoded (there’s a sex-neutral word, but no sex-specific ones), and niece/nephew, which is overcoded (there are sex-specific words, but no sex-neutral one).

And to aunt/uncle, which is overcoded on one dimension (there are sex-specific words, but no sex-neutral one) and undercoded on another (there are no words distinguishing consanguineal aunts/uncles from affine aunts/uncles).

Then there’s sister-in-law/brother-in-law, which are overcoded on the sex dimension, but undercoded in another way.  These words encode both an affine and a consanguineal relationship, but with two different scopings: brother-in-law is either spouse’s brother or sibling’s husband.  Many people feel that these two relationships are not equally close — in marrying, your spouse’s family is joined with yours, but when your sister marries, her husband’s family is not joined with yours in this fashion — so that these people find the use of a single word for them uncomfortable.  (As a result of the familial closeness of spouse’s brother, some people — I am one — are willing to extend sister-in-law to spouse’s brother’s wife.)

Read the whole thing for some good answers to my original question.

Advertisements

Comments»

No comments yet — be the first.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: