Remember the old riddle: Brothers and sisters have I none… But that man’s father is my father’s son. Who is that man? — Well, the answer to that is easy compared with learning the names for one’s extended family in some languages.

And what does it all signify? asks The Economist’s language blogger, “Johnson”, after comparing English with Spanish and Russian — and, in passing, Hebrew and Arabic.

Going, as usual, on the languages I know something of, in English every child of any of your parents’ siblings is your cousin. But in European languages there are usually two ways to say cousin—male and female. In Hebrew there are four, since you also have to specify whether it’s your aunt’s or uncle’s child. In Arabic, eight, because you also have to specify whether it’s on your father’s or mother’s side. Russian has a host of terms, some of them archaic, not only for all some of these, but also for distinguishing a great uncle based on whether he’s older or younger than your grandparent, or your niece or nephew depending on whether it’s your sister’s or brother’s child. (Correction by the author.)

He goes on to note the multiplicity of names for in-laws in Spanish compared to English, both of which are outclassed by Russian, which distinguishes your spouse’s siblings and siblings’ spouses, depending on whether they are your wife’s or your husband’s siblings. Russians also have different names for a wife’s parents and husband’s parents, for the spouses of your aunts and uncles, for the parents of your children’s spouses…

Johnson guesses that this specialisation indicates that family concepts are very old. But why do they differ so much from one society to another, even within Europe? Do they tell us something about the structure of particular societies — Spanish, as opposed to English, for example?

It will be interesting to see if any linguists can help him out.

Here is my guess. Extended family relationships are more important in pre-industrial societies where people are less mobile and where livelihood depends on inheritance (of land, especially) to a large extent. In such communities, which persisted longer in Spain and Russia than in England, with its early industrialisation, it would be necessary to identify all lines of inheritance, as well as degrees of consanguinity when considering marriage. Maybe English has shed some of these terms over the centuries…

PS — If you don’t get the riddle, just ask below. Someone will certainly help out.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet