Posts Tagged ‘vocabulary’

Selfie: Stuga40.
Because English is limited in the realm of relationships, I refer to Stuga40 as “my son-in-law’s mother.” But if we spoke Yiddish, I could use the handy word machatainista.

I wish the English language had more words to describe our extended-family relationships. My friend Jeanne laughed at me when I referred to Charlie as “my sister’s widower” instead of as “my brother-in-law.” But I have more than one brother-in-law. The other one is my husband’s brother.

At a senior community where Erik’s mother joined us for a tour, I caused the marketing director a puzzled moment until she translated for herself that “my son-in-law’s mother” meant “my daughter’s mother-in-law.”

A Yiddish word for that connection exists, machatainista, but if I were to use it, few people would understand me. (And I am not sure how to pronounce it.)

At the online magazine Slate, Jason Feifer digs into the subtleties.

“My parents and my wife’s parents have a good relationship,” he writes. “It’s nice. It’s rare. And they use a word to describe each other: machatunim. We hear it a lot. My wife’s dad, at home: ‘I spoke to the machatunim today.’ My wife’s mom, in an email to my dad: ‘I’m so glad we’re machatunim.’ My wife and I roll our eyes at this. Here we have a classic case of secular American Jews deploying a Yiddish word as a little secret handshake, sharing their delight that both their kids married Jewish. …

“But there’s another, more pragmatic reason they use this word: It’s super convenient. The word means ‘the parents of my child’s spouse.’ There’s no English equivalent, which makes describing this relationship otherwise kind of challenging. What else would they say? Co-in-laws? That barely makes sense. My parents would have to say something clunky like, ‘our son’s wife’s parents.’ …

“Why doesn’t English contain a word for this very common relationship?

“English actually lacks lots of familial concepts that other languages have. Consider Croatian: Ujak means an uncle on your mother’s side, and stric means an uncle on your father’s side. This kind of distinction is common around the world, but in English, we just have one word: uncle. Urdu goes deeper, with words for people three degrees away from you. Your husband’s elder brother’s wife, for example, is jethani, and your husband’s younger brother’s wife is devrani. A Pakistani friend of mine learned Urdu as a child, then picked up English by watching TV, and our vague language drove her nuts. …

“But English is highly detailed when compared with, say, many languages in the Pacific. In some cultures there, no version of words like uncle exists at all. ‘They work on a system of generations,’ says William Foley, a linguistics professor at the University of Sydney. If your dad has brothers, you just call them all ‘father.’ …

“Why do we have words for different kinds of relatives at all? ‘There’s a biological bedrock to it,’ says Foley. Societies want to avoid incest, and they want to establish lineage so they know how property and land gets passed down. When a constellation of relatives is given titles, the people in those societies are drawing a map — this person is good for marrying, this one isn’t, these folks get my money when I die, and those folks are out of luck. There are countless ways of accomplishing this, of course, so societies just develop the words that meet their needs. Are multiple generations of a family living together, say? Then they might need more specific words to identify each other. …

“ ‘The relationship you have to in-laws has an awful lot to do with the mating practices and the locality practices after marriage,’ Foley says. The more time someone is likely to spend with their in-laws after marriage, the more complex terms a culture is likely to have for them.

“In Yiddish-speaking cultures — particularly ultra-Orthodox communities in prewar Europe — marriages are arranged, and the bride and groom only meet a few times before their wedding. ‘The goal is to get matched with a family that is equal to or above one’s own family in terms of lineage, money, success, popularity, etc,’ says Ayala Fader, an anthropology professor at Fordham University who studies Jewish ethnography. That means the in-laws are developing a relationship just as purpose-filled as the bride and groom’s. They need a word to use to refer to each other, and they got machatunim. (Yiddish isn’t the only language with a word for this. Spanish has consuegros, for example, which likely developed for different reasons.) …

“English once contained other words about the families of married couples. In early medieval society, a beef between two people could easily spark a generations-long Hatfield-and-McCoys-style feud. So, some families tried to solve things with a high-drama union: One family’s daughter or sister was married off to the other family’s son or brother, and she was called a freoðu-webbe (translation: ‘peace weaver’). 

“What happened after that is a little fuzzy; the records aren’t totally clear. But [Andrew Rabin, a professor of old English at the University of Louisville in Kentucky] says this is how it possibly went down: ‘Peace-weaving relationships are almost always depicted as ending in failure, often because my sister has stabbed you in the marriage bed — sorry!’ And so, to keep everyone alive, a second trade was put in place: When the freoðu-webbe gave birth to a son, that son might be handed over to be raised by her brother. The boy was called a ‘sweostor-sunu,’ which literally means ‘sister’s son,’ but the relationship between an uncle and a sweostor-sunu is different than it is today: The uncle was a patron, godfather, even a foster father, but could also represent a threat. ‘In some sense, what we’re looking at resembles an exchange of hostages: My female relative goes off to live with your family, but then the son of that union is returned to be fostered by me and my family. Implicitly, if an accident happens to befall my sister, your son might end up being equally accident prone.’ …

“So, let us all be thankful we no longer have freoðu-webbes and sweostor-sunus. Those words can die off with the traditions that necessitated them. But we still do have both sets of in-laws in our lives, and an English word for them might be nice. Then again, maybe it’s not necessary: English, after all, is a notorious word thief. Around the 12th century, we took the words niece, nephew, and cousin from French, and those words have served us well. (Before that, there was no single word for any of those types of relationships. A niece was simply called a bróþor-dohtor, or brother’s-daughter, for example.)

“So why not steal another word now? Machatunim does the job. Machatunim it is. Our parents — and oh, how they’ll love to hear this — were right all along.”

I’m all for it. But I like machatainista better for Stuga40 because it is even more precise. It is not just for Erik’s parent. It’s for his mother.

How about you? Do you have special words for these relationships?

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I confess that although I can see why children adore books by certain illustrators, sometimes I don’t like reading the artists’ words.

Richard Scarry, for example, with his delightful animals and five-seater pencil cars, writes text that can get boring pretty fast. And Beatrix Potter, whom I admire for a multitude of reasons, employs very big words and potentially scary themes.

Christian Blauvelt recently covered that angle at the BBC. He begins with Potter’s first line in a storybook.

“ ‘Your father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs McGregor.’

“Old Mrs Rabbit’s frightful warning to her children Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail and Peter appears on the opening page of Beatrix Potter’s first book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Aside from featuring perhaps the most dramatic use of a semicolon in children’s literature, it sets the tone for her work from the start: that horrors abound in a world of Darwinian struggle, but that these must be faced calmly.

“Your parents, and perhaps your children, may be devoured by a vengeful property owner, or sold for tobacco; you may have your tail ripped off by an angry owl; an invading rat might tie you up in string and include you as the key ingredient in a pudding. But life goes on – disappointments must be faced and tragedies overcome. …

“Potter’s tales have been consistently popular with adults, as well as children, since The Tale of Peter Rabbit was published in 1902 when she was 36 years old. This is not just because they feature adorable creatures in harrowing situations; her talking-animal stories also comment on the era’s class politics, gender roles, economics and domestic life.

“Did she examine British society through animals because she spent more time with animals than children, aside from her brother Bertram, when she was young? Because she wanted to rebel against the bourgeois values and morals of her wealthy middle class family – which had made its money in the textile industry – but only dared do so through furry surrogates? Because she could only publish children’s stories since her true passion, science, was a career field closed to women in the late 19th Century? Because she had a German tutor who introduced her to the back-to-nature ethos of the Romantics?” More.

Hmm. Maybe I’m being too anti-intellectual here, but I’d say Beatrix Potter just got a kick out of telling stories like that.

And maybe she was right that small children could handle the scary parts. My three-year-old grand-daughter for example, has always loved Peter Rabbit and could recite the fancy phrases by heart when she was only two. Reciting fancy phrases is great for language development.

Photo of Beatrix Potter’s art: Penguin
Beatrix Potter, an amateur scientist, was meticulous about representing nature accurately, even if the animals did wear clothes. Here Peter Rabbit gorges on Mr. McGregor’s carrots.

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