1984, your uncle’s daughter and Sapir Whorf

In 1984, Orwell describes how the Party purges words of extraneous meanings leaving only one, thereby ensuring that some concepts are simply unthinkable. For example, someone reading “all men are created equal” would be unable to grasp its meaning because in the ideal world of Newspeak, the usage of the word in the sense of political and legal equality has been disappeared, so someone reading that phrase would only be able to think of equality in physical and mental attributes. A Newspeaker trying to read the American declaration of independence would be unable to understand it in any meaningful sense.

This idea that the structure of the language determines cognition is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. I didn’t know the term at that time, but reading about Newspeak*,* I was reminded of the words we use for our uncles, aunts and cousins in Kannada.

Karnataka, like the rest of South India, practices cousin marriage, but strictly among cross-cousins and not among parallel cousins. This norm is reinforced through language. Kannada uses the same word “maternal uncle” and “father-in-law” – mAmA. It is not just this word, every word in Kannada for relationships reinforces this with utmost consistency. Your mama’s wife is atthe, as is your father’s sister and your mother-in-law. Your mama’s daughter, if she is older than you, would be “atthige” and “nAdini” if younger. These are the same words used for your spouse’s elder and younger sisters respectively. Male cross-cousins in Kannada are called “bhAva” and “maiduna” depending on whether they are older or younger than you, and these are the same terms used for your spouse’s older and younger brothers. The word for daughter-in-law, your sister’s daughter (if you are male) and your brother’s daughter (if you are female) is the same – sose. The corresponding male term is aLiya.

We call our father’s brothers “doDDappa” (big-father) or “chikkappa” (little-father) depending on whether they are older or younger than our father. Their wives are “doDDamma” and “chikkamma” respectively, and these are also the words for our mother’s elder and younger sisters. Any children of our doDDa/chikka appas or ammas are our brothers (aNNa/tamma) and sisters (akka/tangi). Like most other Indian languages, Kannada doesn’t have a word for cousin. If you are doDDa or chikka appa or amma to someone, their relation to you is maga (son) or magaLu (daughter).

This norm is maintained for second cousins and beyond as well. The son of my parallel cousin (who is simply aNNa to me) is an aNNa to my son as well. It is also a framework that can extended logically to anyone who is related to you. For example, when my maternal uncle got married, my eight year old self took great pride in working out that his wife’s brother would be a chikkappa to me (you’ll have to work this out, but the idea is that your father’s sister is your atthe, so any brother of anyone who is atthe to you becomes a doDDa/chikka appa to you) When I proudly explained this to my mom, I got a response to the effect of: “Look, you’re right, but just call him mAmA, ok?”

The reason Newspeak reminded me of Kannada cousin-marriage is that it occurred to me that one could argue that the structure of our language reinforces the norm of cousin-marriage in Kannada. So explaining the taboo around cousin marriage by saying “You shouldn’t marry your uncle’s daughter” would translate to “You shouldn’t marry your father-in-law’s daughter”, an absurdity. And if you had to argue for marriage with parallel cousins, you can’t avoid saying that you can marry your brother or sister, because those are the only words available for parallel cousins.

There are different forms of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the strong form arguing that the words available to you entirely determine thought, while the weaker forms claiming that language influences thought in some way without claiming determinism. These hypotheses are not accepted among linguists. When you think a little more carefully about the uncle’s daughter example, you’ll realize why.

I remember when I had to explain Kannada cousin-marriage and names for relationships to a North Indian. He was flabbergasted with the concept. In Hindi, your cousins are all brothers or sisters to you. How do South Indians distinguish between different categories of cousins, was the question he had. That got me thinking. The answer was culture, and the way we were socialized starting from childhood. If a Kannadiga boy, while playing house-house, decides that his mAmA’s daughter was going to be his wife, everyone around him will smile and say “so cute”, but if he did the same with his chikkappa’s daughter, he’d be immediately corrected with “She’s your sister! You can’t make her your wife!” This message is reinforced in every novel and movie involving love affairs between the hero and his mAmA’s daughter.

The incest taboo is quite strong and innate in human beings. There is something in our brain that tells us “If someone is your sister, then treat her as sisters should be treated” and this is something we are born with, and there is also another part of our brain where we put women we consider our our sisters. Our actual female siblings will be represented there, but who else resides there depends on cultural factors and life circumstances. In our culture there is the category of rakhi sisters, that puts women who aren’t even related to us by blood into that category. There is research that shows that women we’ve grown up with tend to get treated as sisters (for example, in Israeli Kibbutzim, it’s been shown that marriage within the Kibbutz is rare) The idea that your Guru’s daughter (whom you’ve presumably grown up with in a gurukula) is your sister brings together both the cultural and life-circumstances reasons.

So, obviously, the idea that it’s ok to marry your mAmA’s daughter comes from something similar, but is that something language or culture? The reason the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is not accepted among linguists is that it is impossible to disentangle language from culture, because after all, language is a part of culture. It is impossible to decide whether Kannadigas are ok with cross-cousin marriage but not parallel-cousin marriage because our language has a certain structure or because our culture reinforces this norm through every instrument available to it, including language.

Another example that is apparently provided in favour of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is that apparently the Inuit have many more words for snow than English does, and because of this, they have a richer and more vivid experience of snow. This factual claim has apparently been discredited (I suspect that the factual dispute turns on what “word” means and what “having” a word means.) But even if it were true, so what? It is not surprising that the Inuit experience snow in many different ways – after all, they see much more of it and many different varieties of it. It is also, for the same reason, not surprising if they had many more words for snow in common use than English does. The stronger case for Sapir-Whorf would have been if the reverse were true – if English had many more words for snow, and therefore the English had a richer experience of snow than the Inuit did.

This post started off with 1984, then it explained Sapir-Whorf, then it went on to explain cross-cousin marriage in Kannada, and ended up with Inuit words of snow. If you are wondering what the real point is, I am not quite sure. Thank you for reading anyway.

(And oh, you can explain familial relationships in Kannada using a 2×3 matrix, which I will draw some day.)

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