stepgrandparents and relational ambiguity

Benjamin Barrett gogaku at IX.NETCOM.COM
Thu Jan 22 09:22:08 UTC 2009

Brother and sister as well as uncle and aunt are ambiguous in some
cultures as you have to indicate younger or older. I think Cantonese,
for example, has a number of these. Japanese has the bizarre case
where "cousin" is pronounced as "itoko" but is written four different
ways depending on whether the cousin is older or younger, male or

-in-law is one I personally am not exactly clear about. Is my sister's
husband's brother my brother-in-law? I tend to think yes, but there
seems to be a pragmatic consideration that comes into play, such that
if you're telling a story, you might use brother-in-law to get on with
the story, but explain it more carefully or use something like
"friend" in other contexts. Kissing cousin probably works, though it's
not very common.

Another sort of ambiguity is "my grandmother," one that implies that
you have only one living, though that's not necessarily the case. My
friend (instead of a friend of mine) also has this problem.


On Jan 22, 2009, at 1:10 AM, Victor wrote:

> I find the term "stepgrandparents" fascinating not because there is
> anything wrong with it, but because it has a built-in ambiguity
> similar
> to brother-in-law. Is the brother-in-law a brother of the spouse or
> the
> spouse of a sister? Is a stepgrandmother a mother of a stepparent or a
> stepmother of a parent? (or a stepmother of a stepparent? ;-)
> There are 490,000 raw hits for stepgrandmother and more than twice
> that
> for stepgrandparent.
> In any case, the word came up today because of an Obama story in
> NYT. (A
> Portrait of Change)
> <
> >
> Very few are wealthy, and some — like Sarah Obama, the stepgrandmother
> who only recently got electricity and running water in her metal-
> roofed
> shack — are quite poor.
> Turns out that the ambiguity is easily resolved in this particular
> case--but not the way a friend expected when I asked.
> <>
> A Palisades Park family’s unlikely meeting with President-elect Barack
> Obama’s step-grandmother in Kenya last month had its roots a year
> earlier in a crowded hockey arena in Manchester, N.H.
> ...
> Sarah Hussein Oyango Obama, who is about 86, was the third wife of
> Obama’s grandfather, but the president-elect calls her his
> grandmother.
> “Mama Sarah,” as she is known, lives in Kogelo, a tiny village in
> western Kenya. Her sparse tin-roofed house has no electricity or
> running
> water.
> Never mind that NYT seems to imply that "Mama Sarah" got electricity
> and
> running water in the past month, if not this week. (The Bergen Record
> story ran Jan. 14.)
> I don't know if this is of any linguistic interest, but *I* am
> interested in other possible cases of similar ambiguity. In fact, I
> have
> more than a passing interest in typology of such structural
> ambiguities.
> (E.g., "cousin", "parent" and "spouse" would be trivial examples of a
> different type; "brother-in-law" would be of the same type.) Any
> ideas?
> VS-)
> PS: Note that these ambiguities are language/culture specific and
> notoriously do not translate well (which is a good reason to analyze
> this--try to run Google Translate on "she is your cousin" into
> Russian,
> then ask a native speaker to verify).

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