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I am a native Hindi speaker; Hindi has a plethora of terms referring to relationships. To take a trivial example, the term uncle may refer to father's elder brother, father's younger brother, mother's brothers, father's sister's husband, mother's sister's husband, all of which have specific addresses in Hindi.

I discussed the same with one of my teachers. She had the opinion that the development of language mirrors the cultural moorings of the society that uses the language. Now, since all of the above relationships have distinct status and reverence in the Hindi speaking society, that calls for different addresses. That may well not be the case in English speaking societies.

Is that correct? What other linguistic reasons may account for such a dearth of vocabulary in English in this area?

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One might just as easily say that the fact that "uncle" is applicable to all those different family members is indicative of an inclusive tendency in the culture, where blood doesn't pose an obstacle to true relation, and an uncle by marriage is no less an uncle than your mother's brother. (Note that I don't believe that the phenomenon is indicative of the value English-speakers put on relationships at all; this is just to say that one could argue it either way.) –  onomatomaniak Dec 14 '11 at 14:31
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6 Answers

You have noticed a very peculiar aspect of English vocabulary. As rich as it is in comparison to many other languages, due to its almost creole history, it really is impoverished in comparison to other languages in kinship terms.

But 'why' is always a difficult question, especially when mixed with cultural questions. There are the difficulties with Sapir-Whorf type explanations: both language restricting thought on one hand and the number of Eskimo words for snow on the other.

Does the lack of kinship terms reflect the cultural lack of warmth and caring for relatives among English speakers, that is not caring leads to the loss of the words (which etymologically do exist in the ancestor languages), or did the arbitrary lack of kinship terms contribute to the crumbling of English family values?

Any direction sounds much too tendentious, too judgmental, and requires too much unjustified and biased assumptions to choose.

The comparative lack of kinship terms does ask for an explanation but one backed up by linguistic and anthropological and comparative research. The only source that comes to mind is Levi-Strauss's 'The Elementary Structures of Kinship.' (primarily anthropological but as a by product a number of examples of kinship term systems.

English isn't alone in having relatively few kinship terms. Some other European languages have only a few extra (French, German) and some languages really only have names for their clan and generation (anybody of one's biological parents' generation might be called something like 'uncle' or 'aunt', even one's birth parents).

Having no definite answer to your question, I can only say beware of making cultural inferences based on restrictions to languages. Some languages have grammatical gender and others don't, but that doesn't mean the ones without can't recognize the sex of other people.

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I suspect that the root here is cultural - just as we don't have more words for kinship, we don't have laws or mores governing kin-relations for which we don't have words; further, a lot of our terminology derives from (canon) legal terminology: -in-law derives from canon law deeming that relationship to be equivalent to the natural (e.g. ones brother-in-law is considered to be the same kind of relation as ones brother). This suggests that we have all the terms we need to cover what we're doing culturally. –  Marcin Dec 14 '11 at 14:39
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@Marcin: Yes, and really as far as communicating an idea goes, there's no difference between uncle and parent's brother. And though English doesn't have a specific single word for it, you still can talk about the specific concept maternal brother, or maternal brother's/paternal sister's children ('cross-cousin') or second-cousin once removed. Having a single word might show a high frequency cultural repetition, or one might get away with 'my mom's brother' just fine without any indication that that is a concept that is very common or not common. –  Mitch Dec 14 '11 at 15:58
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According to Wiktionary's entry for uncle, there were distinct terms for maternal and paternal uncles as recently as Middle English. This is certainly consistent with the hypothesis that some cultural change in the early modern era made English speakers less concerned with concise, one-word expressions for specific relationships.

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That's quite interesting and it makes me wonder if there used to be more, and more specific, kinship terms in Old and Middle English. –  Bjorn Dec 15 '11 at 15:05
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It's true. English does not really have a very complete kinship system. But that's culture, not language. We can describe any relationship we need to; but we haven't burdened ourselves with special words for distant relations.

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Burdened? That's debatable. –  Ed Guiness Dec 14 '11 at 9:05
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Are father's brother and mother's brother really "distant relations" in English culture? This is… very odd to me. (At any rate, even if that's true, it would be hard to explain the absence of different words for "younger brother" and "older brother" by saying that one's brother is a distant relation.) –  ShreevatsaR Dec 14 '11 at 14:41
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@onomatomaniak: The explanation given by John Lawler is "we haven't burdened ourselves with special words for distant relations". I am just pointing out that this explanation doesn't hold. If you have a different explanation feel free to post it; I'm just pointing out that this explanation does not apply here. –  ShreevatsaR Dec 14 '11 at 15:22
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Rather than "special words for distant relations", I think a better explanation would be "we haven't burdened ourselves with different words for every possible relationship". In practical terms, I think it's a lot easier to say "my younger brother", "my older brother", "my younger sister", "my older sister", "my father's older brother", "my mother's father's brother", etc, than to have to learn and remember a different word for every such possible relationship. I, like most Americans, I think, have enough trouble remembering just what "second cousin twice-removed" means. –  Jay Dec 14 '11 at 16:04
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Plus, I did link to the Wikipedia article, which is accurate, if not comprehensive. These are ethnolinguistic facts; ask any anthropologist. English uses the Western model; from the article: "The Western model of a nuclear family consists of a couple and its children. The nuclear family is ego-centered and impermanent, while descent groups are permanent (lasting beyond the lifespans of individual constituents) and reckoned according to a single ancestor" –  John Lawler Dec 14 '11 at 18:14
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I find no plausibility in the argument that there's some cross-language principle that different status and reverence calls for different addresses. Absent any evidence or argument why this should be a cross-language principle, it may just be that this is so in Hindi but not in English.

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Well, there's empirical fact: most languages of India, even those not from the same language family (i.e., both Indo-European and Dravidian languages) have different words for mother's brother versus father's brother. I seem to dimly recall that the same is true of many languages of Africa. This does suggest that the existence of separate words is correlated with kinship patterns in that culture. –  ShreevatsaR Dec 14 '11 at 19:04
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I read in an article about Chinese kinship terms that implied the following two reasons for the abundance of specific terms:

  1. Traditionally people prefer living with or near their families and thus family members encounter each other frequently (possibly even on a daily basis).

  2. A distinction is made between consanguineal and affinal relations, which increases the number of terms.

Perhaps these reasons apply to Hindi-speakers in India as well?

I can't say whether the above really holds true and whether all societies that meet the above two criteria also possess a large collection of specific kinship terms but perhaps they could go some way in explaining the relative lack of specific terms in the English language.

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It is surely true that a culture's mores and environment shape its language. To take a trivial example, I wouldn't be surprised if a society that had never seen an ocean and was not in contact with any other society that had would have no word for "ocean". But how far to go with this is highly debateable.

So sure, in English my father's brother and my mother's brother are both called my "uncle". My sister's husband and my wife's brother are both called my "brother-in-law". Etc. Does this lack of special words mean that we care less about family than cultures that have different words for each? Or conversely, I suppose, that we are less stratified and see many such relationships as socially equivalent? It's an interesting speculation, but without further evidence I wouldn't leap to conclusions. After all, if I want to distinguish my father's brother from my mother's brother, I can say "my father's brother" and "my mother's brother". It's not like we're unfamiliar with the concept.

There are theories that language shapes one's thinking. Like in the classic novel "1984", there's a discussion of how a tyranical government limited people's thinking by controlling the language, for example, defining the word "free" to mean only the absence of something, as in "this lawn is free of weeds", so that the idea of political freedom would be "unthinkable". An interesting idea, but would it actually work that way? After all, people throughout history have invented words to express a new idea. Like, when Demosthenes came up with the idea of an atom, that was apparently a new idea that no one had ever thought of before, so there where no words for it in the language. So he invented one, "atom". (If it wasn't Demosthenes who invented the word, feel free to correct me.) Did the lack of an existing word for the idea make it more difficult to think of the concept? Obviously it didn't stop him. Maybe it meant that it took a particularly creative person to think of it, that other geniuses were blocked by lack of a word. Such a thing is very hard to prove one way or the other. Especially given that it's easily proveable that it's not an absolute, we're left trying to prove whether it has any effect, and if so, how much.

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" if I want to distinguish my father's brother from my mother's brother, I can say "my father's brother" and "my mother's brother". The question is not "If". Had there been different words, they would have been implicitly identified. –  Vaibhav Garg Dec 15 '11 at 2:54
    
What I was trying to say was that in English you can say "uncle" and leave unspecified exactly which path on the family tree you are referring to, or you can say "my father's brother" and be more specific. Does Hindi have no words that apply generally? For example, in English people often say things like, "My grandparents were all born in Europe", meaning all four of them. In Hindi would you have to list the four? –  Jay Dec 15 '11 at 14:44
    
Yes, to the best of my understanding, there aren't. You have to list all four. There isn't a term to specify even the pair of one type. Same for uncles. –  Vaibhav Garg Dec 16 '11 at 10:10
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