December 02, 2006

Does anybody have a word for this? Probably not.

Here at the Queries Desk at Language Log Plaza, we get a lot of mail about words -- their meanings, uses, pronunciations, spellings, histories, social statuses, and so on.  Often the appropriate response is just a pointer to a standard source (the OED, MWDEU, DARE, whatever); sometimes we are pleased to be offered intriguing data that we didn't know about; and occasionally we're at a loss.  In particular, we're not usually prepared to give informative answers to questions of the form "Does anybody have a word for this?"

A little while back Owen Cunningham wrote us to ask "Is there a known language that has a word for this idea?", quoting an episode of the television show "Six Feet Under" in which the principal female character, Brenda Chenowith (played by the wonderful Rachel Griffiths), muses:

You know what I find interesting?  If you lose a spouse, you're called a widow, or a widower.  If you're a child and you lose your parents, then you're an orphan.  But what's the word to describe a parent who loses a child?  I guess that's just too fucking awful to even have a name.

My answer to Cunningham's question was: probably not, but not because the loss is so awful.  I'll explain.

But first, two clarifications, one about what we're going to mean by "a word" here, one about the concept as described by Brenda.

We're going to have to allow not only simple words but also compound words of several types (crash course, father-in-law, stepmother) and some multi-word phrases (Dutch treat, second cousin).  What we're really after is "fixed expressions", of whatever size, so long as they're not semantically transparent, that is "idiomatic fixed expressions"; that's an awkward phrase, so for the moment I'm going to stretch the meaning of word a bit.  What WON'T count as a word here is an expression whose meaning is compositional, like aunts and uncles or male cousin; English doesn't have a word for aunts and uncles taken together, or a word for male cousins as opposed to female cousins, though of course we have ways of talking about these people.

A second proviso on words in this context is that they should be used in ordinary (as opposed to technical) language and that they should be reasonably widely known.  Yes, there is an anatomical term philtrum for the groove between the mouth and nose, but it is neither an ordinary-language term nor widely known.  Yes, some people have invented the (ordinary-language) expressions elbow pit and knee pit (on analogy to armpit), but these expressions haven't gained sufficient currency to appear in dictionaries, even the OED.

So what we're after is "ordinary-language fixed expressions of some currency".

Now, to Brenda's description of the missing word in English: "a parent who loses a child".  I'm a fan of this series, and I remember being worried a bit about the way she framed things.  For orphan you need to lose both your parents -- English has no word for someone who has lost just one parent, no matter which one (motherless child and fatherless child are too specific, since they cover a particular missing parent; and they are also too broad, since they cover cases in which the parent in question is not known as well as cases in which the parent is not living) -- but Brenda talks about losing A child, which is not parallel to the interpretation of orphan.  Of course, English has no noun for either the single-child case OR the all-children case.

My guess would be a word for the one-child case would be very rare in the languages of the world, not because the loss is so awful, but because until recently it was so very common (and still is, in  many places).   My Swiss grandfather was one of 14 children, only 8 of whom survived past the age of two.  (My great-grandparents, frugally, recycled the names!)

For the all-children case, such a word would only be properly usable when the parent in question is no longer able to bear children, since before then the birth of new children is always possible.  Well, I suppose you could have a noun meaning 'someone all of whose children thus far have died'.   Whether either of these meanings is encoded as a word in any language, I don't know -- but it would require that the status in question be somehow culturally significant in the society, as the status of orphans and widow(er)s (and the childless) is in our society.  Whether there are societies in which one or another of these statuses is significant is a question for anthropologists, not linguists.

But even if the anthropologists find some cultures like this, there's no guarantee that the associated languages will have words for the statuses in question.  The fact is that, though the existence of a word (in the sense I'm using here) in a language indicates that the associated concept is significant in the society in question, languages don't get anywhere near the number of words that they need: a great many culturally significant concepts are not lexicalized.  (One result of this fact is that anthropologists and sociologists are forever having to invent technical terminology to refer to these unlexicalized concepts.)

In some domains of meaning, there are whole clusters of missing words; this happens when culturally important semantic features are sometimes undercoded and sometimes overcoded.  Take the domain of kinship.  In our culture, people's sex is important, and, for relatives, it's important whether they are related to us by blood or by marriage (whether they are consanguineal or affine kin, as the anthropologists put it).  Yet, the marking of these features in the ordinary English vocabulary of kinship is a puzzling patchwork.

Ideally, we'd have both more specific words, distinguishing relatives on these dimensions, and also more general words, disregarding one feature so that relatives can be grouped together.  Parent vs. mother/father and child vs. daughter/son come close to this ideal situation.   Sibling vs. brother/sister is a more dubious case, since for many people sibling is a technical term.  Then we get to cousin, which is undercoded (there's a sex-neutral word, but no sex-specific ones), and niece/nephew, which is overcoded (there are sex-specific words, but no sex-neutral one).

And to aunt/uncle, which is overcoded on one dimension (there are sex-specific words, but no sex-neutral one) and undercoded on another (there are no words distinguishing consanguineal aunts/uncles from affine aunts/uncles).

Then there's sister-in-law/brother-in-law, which are overcoded on the sex dimension, but undercoded in another way.  These words encode both an affine and a consanguineal relationship, but with two different scopings: brother-in-law is either spouse's brother or sibling's husband.  Many people feel that these two relationships are not equally close -- in marrying, your spouse's family is joined with yours, but when your sister marries, her husband's family is not joined with yours in this fashion -- so that these people find the use of a single word for them uncomfortable.  (As a result of the familial closeness of spouse's brother, some people -- I am one -- are willing to extend sister-in-law to spouse's brother's wife.)

In any case, you can feel a need for a word and quite easily have none to hand.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at December 2, 2006 01:28 PM