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Some aspects of kinship terms

Sentinel Digital DeskBy : Sentinel Digital Desk

  |  29 Nov 2015 12:00 AM GMT


D. N. Bezboruah

Every language in the world has words for one’s relatives—starting from one’s parents and extending to uncles and aunts and cousins, not to speak of grandparents and grandchildren. In linguistics, the expression one users to refer to one’s relatives are called kinship terms. The richness, the flexibility and the antiquity of a language is often judged by two elements: the number of kinship terms and the number of words in the language for tools and implements of everyday use. I have often been intrigued by the fact that English has so few kinship terms while Assamese has more than twice the number of kinship terms that one finds in English. But when it comes to words for tools and implements, English is probably is streets ahead of any other language in the world. The list of tools of everyday use is long enough starting with adze and ending with wrench—85 of them. Even the list of surgical instruments has 23 items on it. But because I discovered the list of kinship terms in Assamese to be more than twice as long as the one in English, I decided to list the terms in both languages on my own and to try and find out why English was poorer in the number of kinship terms. I am almost sure that I have missed quite a few kinship terms in both languages, and that is why I have decided to place the entire list of kinship terms before my readers so that they may point out what I have missed. One of the reasons for English having a smaller number of kinship terms has been stated by David Crystal in his The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language (second edition). It is that English has no separate words for the siblings (and their spouses) of the father and the mother. The brother of one’s father or mother is uncle in English. Likewise, there are no separate words for their spouses or their children. Assamese has separate words not only for the siblings of the two parents but also for the children of one’s own siblings—nephews and nieces—and their spouses.

The English list is a fairly short one. It has father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister, uncle, aunt, nephew, niece, cousin, grandfather, grandmother, grandson, granddaughter, father-in-law, mother-in-law, son-in-law, daughter-in-law, brother-in-law and sister-in-law—21 terms in all. By contrast, the Assamese list has at least 48 terms. I know I have missed a few, because the last time I had done a mental count, I had 52 terms. I would request my kind readers to point out the ones that I missed. The Assamese kinship terms are: aai/maa/(even bouti in older Assamese usage), deutaa/pitaa/baabaa, putra/loraa, kanya/sowaali, kokaai/daadaa, bhaatri/bhaai, baaideu, bhoni, bardeutaa, khura/dadaai/daaity, maamaa, pehaa, mahaa, barmaa, khuri, jethai, pehi, maahi, maami, xohur/xohur-deutaa/, xaahu/xaahu-aai, barjaa, deor, khulxaali, jetheri, bhinihi, boiai, d, bhotija, bhotiji, bhaagin, bhaagini, bou, bhaai-bowaari, bhotijaa-bowaari, jõwaai, bowaari, kaka/kakaadeutaa, aita, ati, atini, khuri-xaahu, maahi-xaahu, pehi-xaahu, mami-xaahu, zexaahu, taawoi and aamoi. It is possible to add a few more like maamaa-xohur, pehaa-xohur, khuraa-xohur and mahaa-xohur. But they will probably be regarded as coiges rather than as kinship terms actually in use because these relatives would be generally addressed as Maamaa, Pehaa, Khura and Mahaa by the wives of their nephews, just as khuri-xaahu, maahi-xaahu, pehi-xaahu and maami-xaahu would also normally be addressed as Khuri, Maahi, Pehi and Maami. Assamese has a kinship term even for the friend of one’s father. He is called Taawoi while his wife is called Aamoi. I do not know of any other language that has kinship terms for the father’s friend and his wife. I would like to be enlightened on this if any of my readers is aware of any language that also has such kinship terms.

In most languages, especially Eastern ones, there is the obligation of adding a suffix or a word denoting respect to elders. In some of the south Indian languages like Tamil, the linguistic device for connoting respect is to turn the pronoun used for the person into a plural. So nee in Tamil meaning you becomes neengal when addressing an elder. In Assamese the device for indicating respect is the addition of the suffix –deu to a kinship term. So jethai (father or mother’s older sister) becomes jethaideu and pehi (father’s younger sister) becomes pehideu. Even kakaai (elder brother or someone a good bit older) becomes kakaaideu to denote respect shown to elders. However, the addition of deu does not constitute a universal rule and is more a matter of collocation. One can have pehadeu (the husband of one’s father’s younger sister) and mahaadeu (the husband of one’s mother’s younger sister) but certainly not *bardeutaadeu (for the elder brother of one’s father). This is because deu does not collocate with bardeutaa or barma.

Like deu as a suffix to denote respect, there is also a suffix to indicate a relationship based more on affection or endearment than respect. This is –ti. So we can have jethaaiti, pehiti or maahiti but not *maamiti. This is again a restriction imposed by some vague rules of collocation.

In English, the business of showing respect is often done by addressing a person by his surme with the use of Mister. In addressing someone younger, one often sticks to the first me. But even though David Jeremy could be addressed as Mr Jeremy by those younger than him, it would be quite the done thing for the younger lot to refer to him as DJ when talking about him among themselves. Even when addressing someone younger with whom one is not on very familiar terms, it is customary to use the surme but without the prefix Mister. In such a situation, the older person might just say, “Come in Smith,” instead of addressing him as Mr Smith.

It is also important to bear in mind that not all the kinship terms are used in their known form while addressing one’s relations. For instance, the father-in-law is addressed as Deuta or Pita or Baba by the daughter-in-law or son-in-law—just as he is addressed by the son or daughter. I know of a few homes where the head of the family is called Papa by the daughters-in-law or sons-in-law because his children call him Papa. I also know of a family where the daughters-in-law called the head of the family Diti because his sons called him that. Quite often the kinship terms for younger relations are never used at all because people prefer to call younger relatives by their first mes. And while it is perfectly normal to say “Mr Chairman” or “Mr President,” when it is important to show more than the customary respect, one choose to say, “Your Honour, Mr Chairman.” Such are the devices in English to show respect to the person being addressed. Such devices exist in Assamese as well. One can always add Dangoria/Dangoriaani or MahodayMahidayaa to a me in addressing the chairman or president of a meeting.

I am aware that there are other equally interesting or even more interesting aspects of kinship terms and the use of honorifics and devices of showing respect in some of the Asian languages that scholars might be able to tell me about. I would be grateful if they would do so by getting to me on my e-mail link They could also point out to me the kinship terms that I must have missed.

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