Curiouser and curiouser: Family relationships, language, and gender

One of the aspects of language around genderqueerness that doesn’t get talked about a whole lot (at least compared to the amount of attention that pronouns get) is the other inherently gendered words we use to talk about people. The thing is, if someone is talking about me, it’s probably going to be because they have some sort of relationship with me (even if it’s just “this blogger I follow”). And sometimes describing this relationship can become a bit of a gender minefield.

In particular, today I have been thinking about the words we use to describe familial relationships, and how some of those are more easily translatable into non-gendered forms than other.

Here’s a brief over-view:

  • Father/Mother = Parent
  • Daughter/Son = Child
  • Sister/Brother = Sibling
  • Wife/Husband = Spouse (or Partner)
  • Niece/Nephew = … well, there isn’t a “real” word for this, but “Nibling” is a more than adequate solution here.
  • Aunt/Uncle = I really have no good answer to this one. It’s… I just don’t know how to refer to a non-binary person who is someone’s parent’s sibling.
  • Cousin = Cousin. Conversely, the English language actually doesn’t have gendered terms for someone’s parent’s sibling’s kids. I find this amusing and fascinating, especially in juxtaposition with the uncle/aunt dilemma.

I have a lot of theories about these discrepancies in the way we deal with implicitly talk about gender with respect to familial relationships. Having gender neutral terms for relationships that are sometimes described in terms of mixed-sex groups is simply more efficient. (Talking about your “siblings” and instead of your “brothers and sisters”, and your “children” instead of your “sons and daughters” is just easier.) But if efficiency was key, we should have an actual word to talk about “nieces and nephews,” shouldn’t we?

Maybe it’s as simple as the fact that we don’t really talk about our nieces and nephews as much in groups – like, maybe we will brag about the achievement of an individual nibling, but they’re simply not central enough to most people’s lives to make the inefficiency of referring to them much of a problem, I guess.

Alternatively, it could be that gender neutral terms became more common for the kinds of relationships that are legally defined, and have legal implications. For instance, we mostly only hear the term “spouse” in legalistic or other formal contexts. Having non-gendered terms reduces some of the wordiness of legalese, and has the added benefit of making laws equally applicable to both (or rather, all) genders, which is nice.

This would explain why terms for nieces/nephews, and uncles/aunts never developed. But it still leaves the mystery of “cousin” entirely untouched.

I kind of want to make some sort of theory about this that somehow relates to taboos and customs around cousins marrying one another. Something about how it is important to be clear when one refers to one’s closer family members what your relative genders/sexes are, so that people can evaluate whether your relationship has an appropriate level of intimacy. But if that is less of a concern for cousin-relationships, because cousin-sex was considered unproblematic (as I believe it was for a good deal of (Anglo) human history [citation and/or refutation needed]), then this might somehow explain why gendered forms of the word never developed.

All of this, of course, ignores the potential influence of taboos against close same-sex relationships. And I really am not an anthropologist, so I don’t know how strongly these various forces, customs, and taboos I am discussing may have influenced this kind of thing.

So, I don’t know. Maybe this is a lot of navel-gazing. Can you help me come up with a Grand Unified Theory on the Gendered Nature of the Language around Familial Relationships (GUTGNLFR)? Or even just a better name for my theory?

Also, there is a high probability that I will have a nibling within the next couple of years, and I currently have no idea what said nibling will call me? IS there anyone out there who can solve the uncle/aunt conundrum?

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