Tuesday, February 25, 2014

My Cory Bernardi-style Nightmare



Meet my… bond mate? shadow daughter? love niece? significant other? clone? daughter’s mother’s daughter?

I’ve been thinking about English language kinship terms and their woeful inadequacy when describing contemporary family relationships.

Wife, husband, mother, father, son, daughter, brother, sister, niece... Even if I list them all, including the gradations of cousins and the step and in-law equivalents, I’m still left high and dry when I go to introduce some of my family members. The trouble is the kinship terms I’m reaching for don’t exist.

My closest familial term problem is Will. Will is my…

My what? My him? The one I live with? Not my partner or boyfriend because that underestimates the seriousness and longevity of our relationship (28 years and children). Lover? The notion makes me think of French cinema, which is no bad thing, but it suggests that we spend all of our time in bed and have nothing else in common. And as for the very Australian descriptive: my de facto, the term makes me cringe and giggle at the same time. Cringe, because I’m forced to admit that my mother wasn’t the only snob in the family. Giggle, because, de facto is such a silly, needless term outside the particulars of legislation and the judicial system. If Will is my husband in fact but not in law, then then he’s clearly my husband.

Maybe I should just get on and call Will my husband: keep things simple. And I do, quite frequently, but only because English doesn’t offer me anything else that seems to fit. The problem is we’re not married for a reason. We don’t want to be husband and wife. Ugh! Trivial but ugh.

I have other familial term problems that worry me more.

Esther is my ex-sister-in-law’s daughter from a relationship subsequent to her mother’s divorce from my brother. Mouthful? Absolutely. Too much detail for a casual conversation? Yes.

I’d really love to be able to speak about Esther without taking my listener into that sort of guerrilla territory. Generally, I call Esther my niece. Sometimes, when I want to clarify that descriptor and show a little of the subtlety of our kinship, I reach for something else. I’ve tried my almost niece and my niece-in-law – sort of. Recently, I asked sister-in-law, Maryse (I don’t refer to her as my ex-sister-in-law because the term reminds me of Monty Python’s ex-parrot) what familial term she’d suggest for describing my relationship to Esther. She said that Esther could be my love niece.

At first I was really excited about love niece and thought I could apply it universally. But my next conundrum makes it pretty plain that love won’t work as a catchall familial term modifier.

I have an ex-husband, Dror. We have a son, Ari. Dror went on to marry Shiri and they have had four children together. Will and I have had two together. That makes seven children with Ari as a kind of pivotal link. The first lot of familial terms are easy. Shiri is Ari’s step-mother. Ari is a brother to all of his siblings (we don’t use half-brother – too diminishing). Will is Ari’s step-father (ignoring the fact that Will and I aren’t married). Beyond those few, relatively clear kinship terms, things get horribly nameless and invisible.

What is the relationship of Ari’s paternal and maternal siblings to each other? There is no blood, step or in-law relationship between my subsequent children and my ex-husband’s subsequent children and yet they all share a sibling. My brother’s brother? My brother’s sister? Sounds odd. And yet it shouldn’t be so difficult to speak about such common and important relationships.

And what about my relationship to Ari’s paternal siblings: those children Dror had with Shiri after our divorce? For obvious reasons, I can’t call them my love children, which puts a dent in Maryse’s beautiful new familial term modifier. And if those children are introducing me to someone, how should they explain me? Am I their step-mother-in-reverse? Should I be their mirror mother (as in Through the Looking Glass)? Could I be their shadow mother (the nameless and ambiguous one)? All too difficult. My not-quite-step-children should be able to introduce me as, ‘This is my…’ and have everyone understand our important but attenuated kinship relationship.

There are cultures where Auntie and Uncle and Grandma and Grandpa are used for respected older adults – and that’s all you need to know, unless you need to know more. It’s a nice global solution but unfortunately it doesn’t really satisfy me. Apart from the fact it doesn’t solve my children’s sibling of my sibling dilemma, I like a bit more precision in my conversation. When I want to show more, I like to be able to show more.

Kinship terms in Aboriginal cultures in Australia describe genealogical, moiety, semi-moiety and, frequently, skin relationships. These categorisations are much more complex than English familial terms. They describe the kin and cosmological position of all natural phenomena and some spiritual entities in addition to dealing with genetic relationships. In a real sense they cover a person’s relationship to everything and everyone. The existence of such sophisticated systems gives me hope that English familial terms will evolve. (Some links are given at the end of the post).

So I’m looking for new kinship terms that might nudge English along the evolutionary path. If you have some, please share. You might want to make them up, you might know of some interesting ones from historic or existing cultures, you might have read a novel that had something that would suit.

Here is my latest find: odd sister and even sister from Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold.


















The author created the terms for sisters born in a technologically enhanced future. The standard daughter (created from two parents) was the even sister and the daughter who was created from one parent, but and enhanced and modified, was the odd sister. Perhaps the idea could be reworked to suit the existing world. Perhaps my subsequent children and Dror’s subsequent children could be each other’s odd siblings.

Sources in relation to Aboriginal kinship and Aboriginal Languages
The Northern Land Council
The Central Land Council
Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages