Georgians have more words for family members than we do, and so it is very hard to follow when someone is describing their family or how they are related to someone. For instance, there are three different words for “aunt,” and their use depends on exactly how the aunt is related:
- My father’s sister is my mamida.
- My mother’s sister is my deida.
- My uncle’s wife is my bitsola.
There is just one word for “uncle,” bidza. Not too bad so far, but there are also three words for “cousin,” depending on how the cousin is related (by blood in all cases):
- My uncle’s child is my bidzashvili.
- My father’s-side aunt’s child is my mamidashvili.
- My mother’s-side aunt’s child is my deidashvili.
An odd consequence of this system is that the cousin-relation is not symmetric. That is, while in English it’s always true that I am the cousin of my cousin, this may not be the case in Georgian. Consider, for example, my (American) family. My mother has two brothers, each of whom has a child. Each of those three children (including myself) have two cousins on that side of the family. However, in Georgian we would say that I have two bidzashvilebi, while the two of them each have one bidzashvili and one mamidashvili. So in particular, I am not the bidzashvili of my bidzashvili.
One of my co-teachers here told me that according to a theory she learned in college, the more elaborate a language is, the less developed it is. She concluded from this that, based on features of Georgian like have three words each for “aunt” and “cousin” that Georgian is a fairly undeveloped language. Now, if that theory of linguistic development strikes you as antiquated, you’re in good company. Of course, we can’t blame the professor who told her that; Soviet linguists were ideologically obligated to ensure their theories were at least Marxist-looking, and talk of development fits the bill. (They were also concerned with topics such as the relation between language, economic base, and social superstructure.)
But even if we take this theory to be true, it’s not clear that we should conclude that Georgian is less developed than English. Consider these facts:
- The Georgian word for “mother” is deda.
- The Georgian word for “father” is mama.
- The Georgian word for “sister” is da.
- The Georgian word for “wife” is tsoli.
So the word mamida is actually just a contraction of mamis da, which literally means “father’s sister,” and similar for deida. Bitsola is a contraction of bidzis tsoli, “uncle’s wife.” Further:
- The Georgian word for “child” is shvili (this shows up in many surnames, like Saakashvili and Ivanishvili).
So mamidashvili literally means “father’s sister’s child,” and so on for the rest.
How exactly should we measure how many words the language has? In particular, should we count compound words, or only primitve (i.e. non-decomposable) words? If we count only the primitive ones, then (restricting our view to aunt/uncle words) Georgian has primitive words for father, mother, sister, wife, uncle, and child. English has all of these, but in addition it also has the primitive words “aunt” and “cousin.” So in fact if we interpret the theory this way, it is English which is the more primitive language.
Thus it turns out that although at first glance it looks like Georgian has more words (in this small area), it actually has fewer primitive ones, but more than makes up the difference with compound words. So the difficulty in following all these words is not the result of difficulty inherent in the language, but rather comes from the foreign custom which has it that cousins should be distinguished according to exactly whose child they are.
Objection: You’re talking about the difficulty resting with the language or the customs, as if the two could be separated. But the linguistic and the social are always tightly intertwined.
Response: God it pisses me off when I hear that. It sounds like a profound insight, but it’s completely stupid. Georgians, if they wished, could use a generic word like “parent’s sibling’s child” for cousin instead of being specific, and on the other hand, we, if we so wished, could specify our relations to our cousins instead of using the word “cousin.” Case closed.
Discussion Questions: Take another look at the essay “Marxism and Problems of Linguistics” (which, though attributed to Stalin, was obviously ghostwritten, most likely by Arnold Chikobava). 1) Do you think language is part of the base, part of the superstructure, or both, or neither? Explain.
2) Would the writer of that essay agree or disagree with the objection raised to the conclusion of this post? What about the blogger’s response to that objection? Justify your answer. 3) Ought linguists be concerned with addressing Question 1? What about philosophers of language (analytic or otherwise)? Why or why not?