What in the World: Talking to In-laws Can Be Hard. In Some Languages, It’s Impossible.

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What in the World

By BRYANT ROUSSEAU

In-laws may be universally intimidating, but in some cultures, the deference paid them rises to a whole new level, at least linguistically.

A geographically widespread practice known as avoidance speech, or “mother-in-law languages,” imposes strict rules on how one speaks — or doesn’t — to the parents of a spouse, with daughters-in-law typically bearing the brunt of such limits.

In parts of Africa, Australia and India, some societies restrict the words a person can say after marriage. Some cultures have even barred all direct communication with parents-in-law.

Some married women who speak the Kambaata language of Ethiopia follow ballishsha, a rule that forbids them from using words that begin with the same syllable as the name of their father-in-law or mother-in-law.

This rule can complicate a conversation, but there are workarounds. Certain basic words in the vocabulary come in synonymous pairs. “One is the normal term, used by everybody; one is the term used by women who are not allowed to say that word,” said Yvonne Treis, a linguist at a French research institute, Languages and Cultures of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Euphemisms are another frequent solution: If the word “ox” is taboo for a wife to say, she may refer to “the one that plows” instead. The Kambaata language also has a word akin to “whatchamacallit” in English, useful in a pinch as either a noun or verb when no other alternative is available.

Avoidance speech is also practiced by speakers of some of the Bantu languages of southern Africa, including Xhosa and Zulu. Married women are forbidden from using their father-in-law’s name, or any word that has the same root or similar sound.

Bantu speakers often get around this restriction by borrowing synonyms from other languages spoken nearby. Some linguists think that is how click consonants found their way into Bantu speech: in words borrowed from Khoisan languages, which use clicks extensively.

In parts of India, a daughter-in-law is not allowed to use words that begin with the same letters as her in-laws’ names, requiring her to use a parallel vocabulary.

Avoidance speech was a common feature of many aboriginal languages in Australia. The custom has largely faded in some areas, but it is still widely practiced in the Western Desert region and Arnhem Land, according to Claire Bowern, a professor of linguistics at Yale.

Avoidance speech can be more of a two-way street in Australia, with restrictions applying across genders and generations. There are aboriginal cultures where a man and his mother-in-law are forbidden to directly address each other.

“In my experience, the taboos between a man and a mother-in-law are a lot stronger than between a woman and her mother-in-law,” Professor Bowern said.

As in Africa and India, there are a number of rules in Australian languages about which words one can say in the presence of “tabooed kin,” Professor Bowern said. For example, in the Dyirbal language, spoken in northeast Queensland, water is “bana” in the everyday language but “jujama” in avoidance speech.

Of course, there isn’t a second word for everything, and one avoidance word often has to suffice for many related ordinary words. In the Guugu Yimithirr tongue, spoken in the far north of Queensland, the verb “bali-l,” meaning to travel, is the all-purpose substitute for more specific words like walk, crawl, limp, paddle or float.

Why did the custom of avoidance speech arise? Some experts on its use in Africa and India see it as a way to reinforce the inferior status of daughters-in-law. In Australia, the prohibitions might have been intended to reduce the chance of sexual relations between in-laws.

(Why?)

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