#59: Dygging Ye Olde Rootes

59.1  Last week I left you with a conundrum. We all know what a “word” is. It is a compact way to refer to a specific thing or express a specific concept. Phrases are short groups of words, and together words and phrases can be termed “expressions”…as opposed to “descriptions,” which fully define a thing or concept. For example, the description “the thing that controls the functions of an electronic devise at a distance” is given the word remote, and we use such phrases as TV remote, cable box remote, DVD remote, universal remote,  etc. The key point here is, as we say, “why isn’t there a word for it”? As the example of “remote” demonstrates, if we need “a word for it,” one comes into being. Further distinctions can be easily assembled as phrases, and indeed if one of these comes to have predominant importance, it too may “get its own word.”

59.2  Last week I wondered why the description “father’s 1st cousin” was expressed in English as 1st cousin once removed ascending, hardly a simplification in the usual sense, as outlined above. Did the solution to this seeming contradiction occur to you? It has to do with the fact that 1st cousin once removed is not an “everyday” expression, to the extent that many speakers of English do not even understand what it means. The expression father’s 1st cousin is sufficient, and indeed that person is not an important person in one’s family generally speaking…certainly not as important as those relatives that have specific words, like uncle, aunt, cousin, grandfather, etc.

59.3  In fact, 1C1R is a genealogical term, used when speaking of one’s ancestors…remember, most people are at most part of 5 living generations…you will see in the local paper a photo of a baby, its father, grandfather, great grandfather, and great great grandfather. But this is unusual. Based simply on average lifespans, when the baby is an adult, he is likely to have few cousins 3 times removed who are still living…that is, his great grandfather’s cousins…and as he approaches middle age, few of his grandfather’s cousins will still be alive, his cousins twice removed…at best, a person who is 40 would have a parent who is 60 and a grandparent who is 80. Thus a cousin 6 or 7 times removed is an ancestor, and surely not a living one…and that’s ascending, since descending haven’t been born yet!

59.4  Of course, over long periods of time, chronological ages and genealogical generations can get out of sync…for example, it is said that Richard Nixon and George Bush (“43”) are 9th cousins 5 times removed, and certainly they were both alive for a large portion of their respective lives. But here is the solution to the conundrum: 9th cousin 5 times removed is certainly a simplification of great great great grandfather’s 9th cousin…imagine if it were 10 times removed, instead of 5 times. What’s more, “9th cousin” itself is a far more practical expression than someone with whom I share a great great great great great great great great grandparent, but not a great great great great great great great grandparent, wouldn’t you say?  But still, hardly something that would pop up in common conversation, unless you were comparing family trees.

59.5   Now when we compare English kinship terms with those of other languages and cultures, we might notice we lack words for certain relatives that other systems do have words for. I would recommend you read this discussion: Paucity of words for relationships. It is very illuminating, if only to show that on the internet, everybody is convinced they know what they’re talking about. But it begins with this observation:

59.6  …and ends with the interesting revelation that despite being seemingly “kinship-term poor,” English does have generic words, grandfather and uncle for instance, that Hindi does not. As Sherlock Holmes would say, these are deep waters indeed, and this leads into what I said last week I was going to do, that is, begin to examine the origin of English kinship words and expressions. Well, I’m going to take a stab at it…I can’t guarantee I’ll kill it, or even wound it to any great degree…it may just jump up and run off again.

59.7  But to begin, the origin of English kinship expressions lies in the origin of English itself, and that can be boiled down rather easily, if in a very generalized way. Linguists trace what we use today, Modern English, back thru 2 distinct periods, Middle English, then Old English, as outlined in Chart 196. 

59.8  Today, Anglo-Saxon is commonly synonymous with “English” or “British”…an Anglophile admires all things associated with the Brits, and in geopolitics we speak of Anglo-American relations. But “Anglo” traces back to a tribe called the Angles, who together with the Saxons, invaded the British Isles in the 5th century, after the departure of the Roman legions, in the wake of the collapse of the Roman Empire. The languages they spoke belonged to a family called Germanic or Teutonic…a group distinct from the Romance languages of French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian, which are all derived from Latin.

59.9  These new languages overlaid the native Celtic tongues and lingering Latin influence to form the basis of what is called Old English. Thru sheer proximity, what we would today call Scandinavian languages, including that of the Jutes from what is now Denmark, also contributed to the mix. And while it is strictly speaking called “English,” you would be unable to read it, altho you would notice many words that seemed familiar. Thus in Chart 197, you can readily recognize father, mother, sister, brother, son, daughter, niece and nephew.

59.10  The big difference you’ll notice is the 4 words used for paternal and maternal uncles and aunts, and therein lies a fascinating tale. I have also left out cousins, for the simple reason that the word, or perhaps as many as 8 different words based on familial distinctions, does not seem to exist in the root Anglo-Saxon language. Here’s a quote from an article by the late Professor of Old English Stephen Glosecki, of the University of Alabama at Birmingham:

59.11   Which is not to say of course that people didn’t have cousins…they just found no need, or so it appears, for a specific word for cousins. You must understand that for a long period of time the Anglo-Saxons were pre-literate…the earliest writing consists of runic symbols like those at the left. In the 7th century, Christian missionaries reintroduced the Latin alphabet…and much of what was written down was in what was evolving into the churchly form of Latin we have today. Thus, the number of surviving Old English documents is rather small, around 400, ranging from actual works of literature to wills and laws to mere lists of names and places. There is still much that is not understood about Old English, much that has only been guessed at or “reconstructed,” and even when specific words are known, their precise meaning is not certain. In Chart 197, for example, nefa is given as the probable equivalent of nephew. Yet it is found contemporaneously with the phrases brothor sunu and sweostor sunu, as well as the word suhterga, which contextually seems to refer to the son of one’s brother. What connotation might be intended by using one of these words or phrases and not the others is not clearly known, and, short of time travel, may never be.

59.12  But to complete our brief sketch of the overall development of Modern English, the Norman Invasion of 1066 AD brought the tremendous influence of the French Language…indeed, for centuries the British Isles could have been considered bilingual…or trilingual if one counts Latin. And it is from the French that our words uncle, aunt, and at long last cousin are derived.

59.13  I mentioned in 59.10 the use of different words for paternal and material siblings. This is done in many unrelated languages around the world and down thru history…indeed, it is what is found in Latin. And it is closely associated with a way of reckoning relatives that is simply alien to us. It is one thing to say, well, they do things differently in China, or Africa, or Polynesia, but that our own cultural as well as linguistical ancestors had another way of organizing kinship and social connections may seem a bit jarring. Nevertheless, early English kinship was in a state of flux, and was not always based on the “nuclear family” as we think of it today…indeed, the ultimate push in that direction came from the Normans, as a reflection of their feudal, rather than tribal, French society.

59.14  Simply put, the ancient Anglo-Saxons, as was typical of the Germanic tribes, appear to have been primarily matrilineal. Now this is not the same as matriarchal. Women weren’t in charge…they weren’t the movers and shakers, the decision-makers of the community. What matrilineal means is that kinship ties were organized around women…in fact, you were not technically a member of your father’s family, but only of your mother’s! This certainly seems strange to us today…our system is bilineal…for example, if your father is Arch Adams and your mother was Zoe Zollo, you consider yourself an Adams and a Zollo. In a unilineal system you would be one or the other, but not both…an Adams if it were patrilineal, a Zollo if matrilineal.

59.15  But as I said, Anglo-Saxon kinship norms were in a state of flux, a patrilineal system slowly replacing the mother-based system of their antiquity.  (And with the arrival of the French, this then began to move toward the bilineal system we have today.) This can be seen the the epic poem “Beowulf”…only one manuscript exists, written in Old English. It is believed to date from the 9th century, altho estimates range a century either way, such is the lack of precise knowledge. And it tells the story of a hero of an earlier age, and of a kinship system largely irrelevant by the time the old tale was written down…seen at best as a quaint anachronism, “old-fashioned,” in other words.

59.16  And that system was matrilineal…the focus of the clan, the tribe, the family group was a mother, and the “alpha male” was her brother, usually her oldest brother. She was, as Prof. Glosecki puts it, the “figurehead,” while her brother was the “enforcer.” You were a member of her family, not your father’s family, and the adult male you had the closest ties to was your eam, or maternal uncle. Indeed, as Old English evolved into Middle English, the term for uncle, on either side of the family, became simply eam, until it was supplanted by the French oncle as uncle. And as can be seen in the story, the adult Beowulf has a close relationship with and allegiance to Hygelac, his mother’s brother. His own father is distant and in terms of familial bonds, almost equivalent to a step-father…the man married to one’s mother.

59.17   This archaic pattern, while changing into something we’d recognize as more modern, is seen in much of the existent Anglo-Saxon writing…in wills for example, sons being passed over in favor of nephews. And when you look at Chart 198, you’ll notice that the words for paternal uncle and aunt seem to group them together as “father’s relatives”…indeed “faedera” literally means “another father.” And that’s because your father was not of your clan, but of his sister’s, with closer social ties and obligations to her children than to his own. In a strange sense, he was a “biological necessity”…certainly head of his own household, but when push came to shove, of your kith but not of your kin. Like I said, it seems odd to think of it, but when you look at where we came from, their ways were not ours, pure and simple. Next week, we check the old mailbag for more goodies…see ya in 7…


Copyright © 2012 Mark John Astolfi, All Rights Reserved


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