Family words – episode 1

When I learned the languages of neighbors, close or far, from Spain to Russia or Turkey, the words referring to family members are quite similar to English. On the other hand, the relationships between family mmbers seem different when one goes south.

In Swahili, the paternal uncle is referred to as the elder father (baba mkubwa) or younger father (baba mdogo) and the maternal aunt as the elder mother (mama mkubwa) or youger mother (mama mdogo).

A Congolese classmate explained us how in Lingala the paternal uncle is the elder or younger brother and the maternal aunt is the elder or the younger siste. The word for cousin disappears for the benefit of brother and sister.

Through language, we perceive a society where the family is enlarged beyond the nuclear family. I have found the beginning of an answer in the following proverb in the book Aya of Yop city: “When a baby is in the belly, he belongs to his mother. When he is born, he belongs to everyone.” The family welcomes and supports the mother and the child during the first days and then the child is introduced to the neighbors. He grows in a community where the tontons and the tanties watch him when he plays in the street and welcome him for lunch/dinner at theirs.

We find the same system in India, where adults are called auntie and uncle, the embodiement of the proverb “it takes a village to raise a kid”.

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