stepgrandparents and relational ambiguity

Charles Doyle cdoyle at UGA.EDU
Thu Jan 22 12:56:02 UTC 2009

In Elizabethan English (and other dialects), the specifiers "step-," "half-," and "-in-law" can disappear, much to the confusion of present-day students (as in the deadly riddle told at the beginning of Shakespeare's _Pericles_).

Of course, kinship terminology as it relates to conceptions of "family" is a long-standing interest of anthropoligists.


---- Original message ----
>Date: Thu, 22 Jan 2009 01:22:08 -0800
>From: Benjamin Barrett <gogaku at IX.NETCOM.COM>
>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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