This week, a Nepalese coworker mentioned that, in the Nepali language, the word you use to refer to your cousins is the same as the word you use to refer to your siblings, and the words you use to refer to your aunts and uncles are the same you use to refer to your mother and father. So, he explained, he calls all his cousins “brother” and “sister,” and he calls his aunts and uncles “mom” and “dad.”
For parents, aunts, and uncles, there is a qualifier he can use, which he translated as “first dad” for his actual father. For siblings and cousins, there is no available qualifier, so there’s no short way to say “this is my real sister;” all of a person’s sisters have equal status in the language, regardless of if they’re from the same parents.
I’d heard of this language characteristic once before. The 1,000 years old Wendat language from the land now called Ontario works the same way. From The Children of Aataentsic by Bruce Trigger:
The [Wendat]* word for mother (anan or ondoiien) also meant mother’s sister. Sisters referred to each other’s children as sons and daughters (ayein|eyein), and all their children called each other brother and sister (ataquen|etaquen), although there were separate terms distinguishing older brothers and sisters from younger ones. Thus, in an ideal longhouse, all of the women of maternal age would be called mother, and all the children were equally sons and daughters to these women and brothers and sisters to each other.
I told my friend this, and further quoted Trigger as saying that this characteristic of the language “in no sense [obliterates] the identity of the nuclear family,” but “must have encouraged a more far-reaching sense of family unity than is apparent” in the English terms.
“Yes, that’s right,” he told me. He still feels like he has a clear sense of who his nuclear family is, and that they are his closest family. However, by calling all of his cousins “brother” and “sister,” most of the time he doesn’t make any distinction between them and his brothers and sisters who are from the same parents. In practice, they all feel like his brothers and sisters, and his uncles feel like “additional” dads.
One of the things I find fascinating about this is how much language itself shapes our culture and our thoughts without us even realizing it. If I’d been told from birth that all my cousins were brothers and sisters, I’d think differently about my relationship with them, even though the only thing that would have changed would be a few words.
These kinds of differences also underline how much can be lost in translation when we try to understand a different group of people. “The failure of French writers to take note of” this feature of Wendat language, Trigger writes, “creates serious ambiguities in their accounts of [Wendat] life.” And those were writers who were there at the time, not ones trying to understand this civilization as it was from more than 400 years later.
The centrality of language to culture, and specifically Indigenous cultures, is also a common theme in Chelsea Vowel’s writing. “I think Indigenous resurgence is very much rooted in the use of Indigenous languages,” she says in Indigenous Writes.
Confusion and miscommunication can happen across languages even when both languages have similar terms for nuanced concepts like “justice” or “peace,” says Vowel. Even just “recognizing that the way people who speak that language perceive the term is different from the way you perceive it, because of historical and cultural specificities, means you’ve been given a very important insight (even if you do not fully understand those differences).”
*Trigger uses the French word “Huron” instead of “Wendat,” the word used by the people themselves (the French were always renaming everything). By replacing it with “[Wendat]” I’m following the lead both of Trigger himself, who wrote in an updated forward to the book that he wished he could go back and use that word instead, and of Trigger’s friend Georges Sioui, who, when quoting Trigger years later, replaces all instances of “Huron” with “[Wendat]”.