Kinship terms around the world

March 31, 2017

It’s often assumed that when babies say mama or papa (or similar) they are addressing or referring to their mother or father explicitly. Not so. In a 2012 post on mama/papa words around the world, I wrote:

Before I knew anything about language acquisition, I assumed that babies making these utterances were referring to their parents. But this interpretation is backwards: mama/papa words just happen to be the easiest word-like sounds for babies to make. The sounds came first – as experiments in vocalization – and parents adopted them as pet names for themselves.

These pet names, or nursery forms, in turn gave rise to our grown-up terms like mother and father – or rather, their ancient predecessors – according to Roman Jakobson’s 1959 paper ‘Why “Mama” and “Papa”?’ (PDF). The striking correspondence of nursery forms cross-lingually can be seen in a table from Larry Trask’s ‘Where do mama/papa words come from?’ (PDF):

The Great Language Muster is a project collecting data from hundreds of languages in an effort to update our knowledge of these and other kinship terms – how we address and refer to parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. It’s being run by UCL linguistics professor Andrew Nevins, whose research assistant Evan DeFrancesco emailed me about it.

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Siblings with identical names

August 4, 2016

I don’t know a family personally that has siblings with identical names. But I know of some anecdotally, and the phenomenon occasionally appears in the news or discussion forums for one reason or another. George Foreman famously has five sons named George (‘so they would always have something in common’). In my culture it’s unusual, but it happens.

Toni Morrison treats this familial anomaly with comedy and flair, albeit with non-biological siblings, in her acclaimed novel Sula (1973). In Medallion, Ohio, in 1921, when Sula is eleven years old, her grandmother Eva – ‘operating on a private scheme of preference and prejudice’ – takes in three boys and disregards their given names:

They came with woollen caps and names given to them by their mothers, or grandmothers, or somebody’s best friend. Eva snatched the caps off their heads and ignored their names. She looked at the first child closely, his wrists, the shape of his head and the temperament that showed in his eyes and said, ‘Well. Look at Dewey. My my mymymy.’ When later that same year she sent for a child who kept falling down off the porch across the street, she said the same thing. Somebody said, ‘But, Miss Eva, you calls the other one Dewey.’

toni morrison sula book cover triad granada owen wood‘So? This here’s another one.’

When the third one was brought and Eva said ‘Dewey’ again, everybody thought she had simply run out of names or that her faculties had finally softened.

‘How is anybody going to tell them apart?’ Hannah asked her.

‘What you need to tell them apart for? They’s all deweys.’

It’s as if Dewey had gone beyond the conventional function of a name (if it ever really had it, here) and become the word for a certain category of people. The first Dewey is a dewey, the second is ‘another one’, and by the third even Morrison is lowercasing them on Eva’s behalf.

And yet:

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Inheriting grandparents’ names

November 11, 2014

There’s an interesting passage about child-naming customs in Éamon Kelly’s autobiography The Apprentice (Marino Books, 1995). Kelly is recounting his childhood near Killarney in southwest Ireland, and the time he spent in his father’s workshop playing with pieces of wood:

I sat in the shavings and listened to the men who came with jobs for my father. They all spoke to me and those who knew my grandfather were surprised that I wasn’t called after him. The custom then was to call the first son after his father’s father and the second son after his mother’s father. The same rule applied to the first two girls. They were called after their grandmothers. If you walked into a house at that time and there were two boys and two girls in the family and you knew their grandparents, you could name the children. Both my male grandparents, who were inseparable friends, objected to my father’s and mother’s marriage. They claimed there was a blood relationship, though fairly far out, and the slightest trace of consanguinity had to be avoided. My mother was very upset by this attitude and called me after my father to annoy the old man. My father’s Christian name was Edmund, Ned to everybody, and so was I.

The name Éamon came later, when Kelly was a carpenter’s apprentice (hence the book title) working with his father. Since both were called Edmund/Ned, confusion arose when either was hailed, so someone took to calling the son Éamon. He remained Ned to his family and neighbours, but Éamon was the name by which I first knew of him.

I’ve written before about Éamon Kelly in his seanchaí (storyteller) guise, after coming across a couple of clips of him on YouTube. That post has additional resources on Kelly’s life, for anyone interested.

The custom he describes lives on but seems much less prevalent than it was a century ago – though my sister was named after our maternal grandfather, in a nice inversion of the tradition. I was named after my uncle, who was (I think) named after my granduncle. I’d be interested to hear who you were named after, if anyone, or what other naming traditions are in your family or area.