No word for father

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Last week I read this article about the Mosuo people of southwest China:   "The Ethnic Group in China That Doesn't Have a Word for Father" (10/13/14).

The Mosuo are indeed famous for having a matrilineal society, and I had long been aware of their unusual marriage customs, but I was innately suspicious of this sensationalist claim that there was no word for father in their language.

Even in a matriarchy, if there are children, someone has to sire them, and it is likely that there would be a word for such an important person.

Tami Blumenfield, who speaks the language of the Mosuo, Naru, writes:

It's 'ada'. There is some village-to-village variation and some people will just use the term for uncle, which can refer to all men of the father's generation (or the mother's, for that matter). I'm sending a link to an article I co-authored with Siobhan Mattison and Brooke Scelza on paternal investment in Na communities. I am working on an article called "We Have Fathers and We Know Who They Are!" So in a word — all those website articles are not too accurate, and they repeat the inaccuracies so they spread and expand.

Here's the link to the article by Mattison, Scelza, and Blumenfield entitled "Paternal Investment and the Positive Effects of Fathers among the Matrilineal Mosuo of Southwest China", American Anthropologist, 116.3 (September, 2014), 591-610, first published online: 26 AUG 2014.

The Mosuo are closely related to the Nakhi / Naxi, who were studied for two decades by the Austrian-American explorer and botanist, Joseph Rock.  The language of the Nakhi can be written with the Geba syllabary, but also with the symbols referred to as Dongba.  Rock collected many texts in Dongba and also compiled a dictionary for the scriptDongba symbols are supposedly pictographic-ideographic, but I doubt that they are a full writing system.  Instead, I suspect that they are probably prompts for priests, but do not directly transcribe spoken Nakhi language.

Bibliography available upon request.

[Thanks to Stevan Harrell, Magnus Fiskesjö, Gene Buckley, and Mark Bender]

(Now added to our "No Word for X" Archive)



31 Comments

  1. Benjamin said,

    October 22, 2014 @ 7:51 pm

    The thing I always find confusing about these sorts of anthro-linguistic issues, like whether something is a full writing system or a set of mnemonic prompts, is can't someone just ask?

    Like, talk to a couple priests or other people and just be like "hey, can you just write stuff down with these or do you just use them to remember / figure out what you / someone wrote"?

  2. MTBradley said,

    October 22, 2014 @ 10:18 pm

    I haven't read Cai Hua's book Une société sans père ni mari, but for what it's worth, Maurice Godelier in his Metamorphoses of Kinship cites it in referring to the Mosuo as having the only known kinship terminology lacking a term for "father." Godelier has a dizzying knowledge and control of the kinship theoretical and case study literature, so I doubt he would make the reference casually. From p. 151 of his book:

    The man is like the rain, a shower that awakens a seed-child in the woman's womb, where it then develops. In Na society, then, there is no marriage, and therefore there are no husbands and no fathers.

    My guess is that there is a theoretical element to the "no word for father" claim that rewriters like those of the Pacific Standard post fail to grasp. It might be that 'ada' is best translated as "genitor." Genitor is a biological role, not a social role, and French kinship theory may define the role of father as social.

    This is just a best guess. I know a lot about kinship theory, but my knowledge of the punctilios of specifically French kinship theory is lacking. I do know that it includes and lacks some terms and concepts that can make direct translation into English a challenge. Sometimes terms are not lacking, but usage is nevertheless distinct. French has the terms descendance and filiation, but French kinship theorists tend to use only the latter where British theorists would use either "descent" or "filiation."

  3. kf8 said,

    October 23, 2014 @ 2:47 am

    Could anybody please comment this passage from Tami's article "The Na of Southwest China: Debunking the Myths" (https://web.archive.org/web/20110720025007/http://web.pdx.edu/~tblu2/Na/myths.pdf): "Their language has no words for "rape" or even for "jealousy"."

  4. Jamie said,

    October 23, 2014 @ 3:37 am

    There is a page on the "Naxi Script" which says that dongba text is often glossed with geba because it may only be intelligible to the original author otherwise (and perhaps only while they remember what it was about):
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naxi_script (there are quite a few overlapping pages on the the scripts, languages, and peoples.)

    This is the thesis of DeFrancis's "Visible Speach" in miniature.

    @Benjamin: I'm sure you can ask the users of the script. But you might not always get an accurate answer. (Some of them might believe it is a full writing system, not realising they are just using it as mnemonic. They might not even understand the difference between a full language system and something else.)

    I know from my experience learning second languages that native speakers can be a poor source of accurate information!

  5. Steve Rapaport said,

    October 23, 2014 @ 4:57 am

    In Patrick Rothfuss' novels there's a fictional matrilineal warrior society called the Adem with little contact with other societies, which sounds much like the Masuo, but with the added twist that they have no belief in fatherhood, or even that sex and babies are causally related. Their society is set up in such a way that no such link would ever be suspected, and although they've heard of the concept from foreigners, they dismiss it as nonsense.

    In a society like that, it would make perfect sense to have 'father' and 'uncle' both be the same word, or even be the same as 'male babysitter'.

  6. MTBradley said,

    October 23, 2014 @ 7:21 am

    In a society like that [in Rothfuss's novel], it would make perfect sense to have 'father' and 'uncle' both be the same word

    There are any number of non-fictional kinship systems wherein this is the case: http://wp.me/p3CBgb-Z

  7. BobC said,

    October 23, 2014 @ 8:37 am

    Maybe Dr. Harrison meant to say they have no word for "farther."

  8. Aaron said,

    October 23, 2014 @ 8:41 am

    Perhaps people are using different definitions of "father". Are we considering the biological or social aspects of the concept to be primary? A language can have words that overlap with some part of the English word "father"'s semantic range, but are either broader or narrower in meaning.

    I'm not sure asking whether a language has "a word for father" is that useful. It might be more enlightening to ask a question like "How does this language talk about parenthood?" and look at how the language maps out that whole semantic field, rather than making comparisons with individual words, stripped of context.

    I guess "The language that divides up the semantic field of parenthood differently from English in certain ways" doesn't make such a snappy headline.

  9. MTBradley said,

    October 23, 2014 @ 9:13 am

    I'm not sure asking whether a language has "a word for father" is that useful. It might be more enlightening to ask a question like "How does this language talk about parenthood?" and look at how the language maps out that whole semantic field, rather than making comparisons with individual words, stripped of context.

    That's certainly been done, as for example in Floyd Lounsbury's 1964 paper "The Structural Analysis of Kinship Semantics" (in Proceedings of the Ninth International Congress of Linguists, Cambridge, Mass., August 27-31, 1962, ed. Horace G. Lunt, The Hague: Mouton, 1964), 1073–93).

    David Schneider (A Critique of the Study of Kinship, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1984, p. 184) favored beginning with an emic approach:

    One of the simplest analytic devices, and the one which I personally favor, is to first establish the units which the particular culture itself marks off.

  10. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 23, 2014 @ 10:32 am

    If a language uses the same word for "father" and "uncle," is it even coherent to talk about whether they "also use the word for 'father' to mean 'uncle'" versus "also use the word for 'uncle' to mean 'father'"? It might be the case that you could figure out via historical linguistics (looking at cognates in related languages that do use different words, for example) which was the earlier sense and which the extended one (loose parallel – according to the internet Latin "nepos" originally meant "grandson" and was only later extended to include "nephew"), but absent some evidence that the speakers themselves understand the word to have two senses of which one is primary/core and the other extended/metaphorical, that's just an invitation to the Etymological Fallacy. (And of course the English word "uncle" itself mushes together at least four different types of relationship that other languages might distinguish lexically, and indeed "uncle" descends etymologically from a Latin word of originally narrower scope, "avunculus" = "mother's brother." But hat narrower scope is not the primary or core sense of the modern English word.)

  11. leoboiko said,

    October 23, 2014 @ 10:57 am

    @Steve and others: The Brazilian Tupi peoples were totally patrilineal, but they nonetheless had no word for "father" exclusively; uba typically denoted the father, but it could also mean the father's brother, the father's nephew etc. The Tupi believed that men created the babies with their seed, and women were just a kind of incubator for this seed (for example, the mother's side of the family wasn't considered "family" as far as the incest taboos were concerned). The word for "son or daughter of a father" (ta'yra) was etymologically "seed", whereas "son or daughter of a mother" was "seed of the husband" (membyra). And the word for "father" was the same as the one for "trunk", the origin of the seed. As a result, other males in the father's lineage could be called "my trunk" in the same way. (This analysis is from prof. Eduardo Navarro).

  12. leoboiko said,

    October 23, 2014 @ 12:03 pm

    And as far as the discussion is drifting to views on parenthood and family… The Brazilian Canela are matrilineal and, before assimilation into modernity, shared everything, including sexual partners. Women had a primary husband (the one who took her virginity) but they openly lied with multiple partners, and William Crocker noted that

    The Canela believe that once a woman is pregnant, any semen added to her womb during her pregnancy becomes a biological part of the fetus. Thus, children usually have one mother but several "contributing" fathers, or "co-fathers." The Canela expression is "other fathers" (më hũm nõ: pl. father other).

    That is, all of the co-fathers are considered to be progenitors just as much as the husband, though the co-fathers didn't live so closely to her.

    Regarding the word for "father", Crocker says that it extends to the father's brother, and to cousins on the father's side. These distant "fathers" didn't do fathery things as often (e.g. providing the child with meat, or making them toys etc.), but they'd pop up from time to time and behave like a father. Further, they all had sexual access to the mother ("at least in theory"), being "classificatory spouses"; and if the primary father died, one of the others would take up the role.

  13. Ray Girvan said,

    October 23, 2014 @ 12:05 pm

    @Jamie: because it may only be intelligible to the original author otherwise (and perhaps only while they remember what it was about)

    That sounds like my handwriting …

  14. Martin J Ball said,

    October 23, 2014 @ 3:05 pm

    "but they openly lied with multiple partners", but did they tell the truth to any of them?

  15. Victor Mair said,

    October 23, 2014 @ 6:32 pm

    From Chas McKhann:

    Traditionally, the dongba script was mainly used for ritual manuscripts, and yes, it was mnemonic. They had them memorized, and since they did a 'text' could be written/represented in any of a number of ways.

    The pictographs are also widely used for their phonetic value, so that it is possible to record everyday speech using them, but this was never the norm.

    Recently, a number of non-ritual uses of the pictographs have come to light — to wit, land deeds and other legal papers from the Republican Period. There are a couple folks at the dongba research academy in Lijiang who are studying these unusual documents now.

  16. Piyush said,

    October 23, 2014 @ 10:09 pm

    Talking of names for relationships, I guess one could say that English has no single word for "maternal uncle", "maternal aunt", or "paternal uncle", or "paternal aunt"). Neither does it have single word descriptors differentiating your paternal aunt's husband from your maternal aunt's husband (or for that matter, your maternal uncle's wife from your paternal uncle's wife). All these words (and more in the same vein) exist in most Indian languages (and I am told, Cantonese as well), and are among the first words a kid becomes familiar with (after all, he or she needs to address all these relatives properly).

    English is not my native language, and the lack of these "common" words was one of the most surprising aspects of the language when I was learning it as a child.

  17. Jen said,

    October 24, 2014 @ 4:02 am

    Or even to distinguish your mother's sister from an unrelated woman who happened to marry her brother – are 'aunt' and 'uncle' the only relationship words in English which don't mark blood relationship or lack of it?

  18. J Hall said,

    October 24, 2014 @ 7:22 pm

    Does any language have a word for "not having a word for"? It would make the meme much more convenient. I'm suggesting "blonk." Rather than saying "The Musuo people don't have a word for father," one could just say " The Musuo people blonk father." Not only is it concise, it makes it clear that you are speaking nonsense.

  19. Piyush said,

    October 25, 2014 @ 2:19 am

    @J Hall:

    In that case, the native English speakers certainly blonk "paternal uncle's wife" as well as "maternal uncle's wife", and there is no nonsense in pointing that out.

  20. January First-of-May said,

    October 25, 2014 @ 4:42 am

    As far as I know, there's no English word for "uncle's wife" in general either (as opposed to "aunt", which is the word used normally).
    No distinction between male and female cousins either, which is something that at least exists in my native language of Russian, which also groups aunts with uncles' wives (though depending on how you count "a word", there might not be any Russian word for cousins at all – a male first cousin would be referred to by a two-word phrase that literally means something like "second-order brother").
    For what it's worth, Russian also uses the same word for inside and outside corners (in fact, it is also used for most of the nearby concept group that comes under the English word "angle").

    On the general topic… I seem to remember an English textbook from the late 1990s that gave a relatively long sentence (don't recall it specifically) and claimed it was the closest thing Russian has to the concept of "babysitter".

  21. Piyush said,

    October 25, 2014 @ 12:28 pm

    @January First-of-May:

    Similarly, in Hindi, there is no single word for "cousin", and cousins are simply referred to as "brothers" and "sisters". A two-word phrase is needed if they are to be distinguished from biological siblings, and depending upon the cultural context, some cousins may find it offensive to be differentiated in this manner from biological siblings.

  22. Jen said,

    October 25, 2014 @ 12:48 pm

    As in the corner you sit in and the corner you go round? Which languages do differentiate them?

  23. Piyush said,

    October 25, 2014 @ 3:41 pm

    In Hindi, there is at least one word (नुक्कड़ /nʊkkaɽ/) which can be used only for the corner on the street that you go around, but not for the corner inside a room (which would be कोना /koːnaː/). But the latter can also sometimes be used for the former.

  24. CThornett said,

    October 26, 2014 @ 1:18 am

    My female Punjabi- and Urdu-speaking adult students would refer to 'sister-cousins'. When I asked for an explanation, in the context of an ESOL class, they struggled to find a definition. I think 'sister-cousin' reflects a cultural and religious preference for marriage between cousins–so a sister-cousin would be the daughter of two paternal cousins, but the term might well include other close cousins as well, such as being a sister-in-law as well as a cousin. I wouldn't rule out the possibility that it can also indicate the quality of the relationship between two female cousins.

    I don't remember ever hearing their male counterparts refer to 'brother-cousins,' but that might just mean they didn't choose to speak so much about family relationships in a class context, or that that particular relationship was less culturally significant.

    ESOL students are quite often amazed or even shocked to learn that English 'doesn't have a word for' specific kinship terms used by their first (or second, or third) languages.

  25. Chas Belov said,

    October 26, 2014 @ 1:39 am

    @Piyush: Mandarin, according to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_kinship, distinguishes six relationships that are expressed as uncle in English.

    father's older brother 伯父bófù
    father's younger brother 叔父shūfù
    father's older sister's husband 姑父gūfu
    father's younger sister's husband 姑丈 gūzhàng
    mother's brother 舅父jiùgōng
    mother's sister's husband 姨父yígōng

    Plus it gives several other terms for addressing them directly as opposed to referring to them when speaking to a third party.

    If I recall my Cantonese studies correctly, it is similar if not the same (only with Cantonese pronunciation, of course).

  26. Piyush said,

    October 26, 2014 @ 2:06 am

    @Chas Belov: Hindi has five words for those six relationships (the words for the third and fourth relationships are the same). In the same order, they are (there are of course regional differences, and I am basing my list on the dialect in Eastern Uttar Pradesh).

    1) ताऊ tāū
    2) चाचा chāchā
    3-4) फूफा phūphā
    5) मामा māmā
    6) मौसा mausā

    The transliteration is based on IAST. Typically, when these relatives are addressed directly, the honorific जी (jī) is suffixed.

    @CThornett: I am not sure about Punjabi speakers, but it is not uncommon among people from Hindi speaking areas to refer to their male and female cousins as "cousin brothers" and "cousin sisters" respectively. This is a direct word-word by word translation of the the Hindi terms. For example, चचेरी बहन (chacherī bahan, literal gloss: "of-uncle sister", daughter of one's father's brother) could be translated as "cousin sister", with the word "cousin" serving as a translation for the "of-uncle" part.

  27. Martha said,

    October 26, 2014 @ 5:55 pm

    Teaching ESOL, I've had students ask me what the English word is for a lady your father is married to when he's still married to your mom. (Well, usually the question is whether you can call such a woman your "stepmom.") The best I've been able to come up with is "my dad's other wife."

    I'd guess that a lot of languages blonk this, but I've recently wanted English to have words for the people who are "uncles" and "aunts" by virtue of being very close friends with the parents of children rather than by blood or marriage. This was never a problem for me until my husband met my family and wanted to know how all of these people were related to me. Most of them aren't.

  28. John Chew said,

    October 26, 2014 @ 10:51 pm

    Drifting a little off-topic here, but Japanese distinguishes exterior corners (角, かど, kado) from interior ones (隅, (confusingly) 角, すみ, sumi).

    And it has many different words for "my father" (including 父, ちち, chichi) and "your father" (including お父さん, おとうさん, otousan).

  29. leoboiko said,

    October 27, 2014 @ 6:13 am

    Brazilian Portuguese has esquina for street corners, and canto for the corner of a room, a box, or a triangle. Esquina is exclusive to street corners; while canto is never used to refer to street corners.

    It occurs to me that there are two kinds of blonking:

    Blonk¹ is when language A has a word, and language B has no single-word equivalent delimitating to the same concept, but nonetheless the concept described by A is quite present in B's semanticscape. For example, English has no single word for Japanese oyu "hot water", but English speakers of course have a semantic category for "hot water"; the stuff you use to make tea or instant ramen is not just "water", but a particular kind of water, which coincides exactly with oyu. Another example are Chinese and Japanese single-word expressions for younger brother, older brother, younger sister, older sister; English needs two words, but speakers do make conceptual distinctions between big sis' and lil bro's (one may argue that these semantic categories are distinguished more sharply in East Asian cultures, but the point stands).

    Blonk² is when language A has a word for a concept that language B doesn't even care about. This is like Tupi uba "trunk; patrilineal older relative" or Canela më hũm nõ "other-fathers", described above. It isn't just that English speakers lack words for those concepts; it's also that the semantic categories of "other-father" or "patrilineal trunk" aren't even present in the English speaker's life. This kind of blonking doesn't even need to be about single words (as shown in the case of më hũm nõ).

  30. CThornett said,

    October 27, 2014 @ 11:42 am

    Thanks, Piyush. I can't be absolutely sure whether these Pakistani students were using sister-cousin with a slightly different meaning, but I'm sure they were translating the phrase as you say. As I've retired and don't often have opportunity to talk to people from that community any more, I can't check. Pity.

  31. Joseph F Foster said,

    October 28, 2014 @ 11:42 pm

    "Even in a matriarchy,…."

    There aren't any, and never were. What I think Mr. Mair means is "a matrilineal descent system". Matrilineal descent is a type of unilineal descemt in which one belongs to your Mother's descent group but not your Father's. A man's children belong to his wife's descent group — not his. A woman's children, her sister's children, and her daughter's children all belong to her descent group.

    In a patrilineal system the men who are in political control are a group of brothers and their sons. In a society with matrilineal descent — Iroquois for instance — the men who are in political control are a group of brothers and their sisters' sons.

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