How Languages Signify the Importance of Family to Culture

When you want to know the importance of large families to a culture, take a look at the language.

As we discussed last week about two-generational and multi-generational families, the definition of what constitutes a family differs across cultures.

This week, we’ll talk about how language reflects this.

The Bloodline

Bloodlines are not of much importance to Western culture.

However, they are to others.

The Yanomami – an indigenous people who live in the Amazon rainforest – have four different words for cousin, all dependent on the specific relationship.

  • Amiwa – daughter of a maternal aunt or paternal uncle
  • Eiwa – son of a maternal aunt or paternal uncle
  • Suwabiya – daughter of a maternal uncle or a paternal aunt
  • Soriwa – son of a maternal uncle or a paternal aunt

Each cousin has a distinctive name, because the bloodline is so important to the Yanomami.

Turkey, as well, has familial vocabulary that distinguishes between bloodlines.

Your father’s brother and sister would be called “amca” and “hala,” respectively, while your mother’s brother and sister would be called “dayı” and “teyze.” Both mean “aunt” and “uncle,” but the terms are distinct to differentiate between bloodlines.

Moreover, the Turkish language also designates between younger and older siblings, in this way signifying the respect shown to elders in their culture.

Younger siblings call their elder siblings not by their names, but by either “abla” or “abi,” for an elder sister or brother, respectively. You can even address elder people in informal settings as such.

The Bloodline Loses Importance

The funny thing is Old English once differentiated specific relatives in a similar fashion; the language for such familial relations has simply gone by the wayside, since such distinctions are no longer important to many English-speaking cultures.

For instance, in Old English, a father’s brother was called fœdra, while a mother’s brother was called eam, a word that survived the 19th century through other dialects in the word “eme,” which generally means “friend” or “uncle.”

So, while someone from an English-speaking culture might find all of this specificity about the bloodline to be overkill, know that in generations past, your own culture did the same. As cultures evolve, and values change, so do norms.

This is one of them.

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