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In general English doesn't seem to cater well for identifying relationships between people, and the classic example seems to be the term 'cousin' because you can't really work out whether it is someone from your father or mother's side, and you can't even work out if they are male or female. Is there a reason why these words don't exist in English whereas in a language like Chinese this is well established? I thought it might be because back then there are larger families in China and it is difficult otherwise to identify people specifically, but then in English we do have words like uncle and aunty (without specifying the side of the family they are from), and we do have words like brother-in-law or mother-in-law to identify other types of relationships.

marked as duplicate by FumbleFingers, John Y, tchrist, anongoodnurse, Chenmunka Nov 4 '14 at 12:31

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    TBH, growing up with English and learning French / Chineese I think "What is the point in knowing if they're male or female? Just more verbs to change the gender and get wrong in my tests!" – Tim Nov 3 '14 at 20:32
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  • I was going to post an answer saying that the term "Kissing Cousin" would indicate a cousin of the opposite sex (without making clear whether this was through the paternal or maternal line). But the definition is a little unclear to me, so I have posted the term as a new question. However, the OP is quite correct that English does not make extended familial relations clear in ways that are quite common in other languages. – WhiskeyPapa Nov 3 '14 at 20:55
  • The simple answer is that in most situations, the added information really isn't all that useful so we haven't felt a need to preseve/adopt words that distinguish these cases. In the few situation where it is needed, and can't be inferred by simply giving the relative's name (If I say "Aunt Lily" everyone in my family knows I'm actually speaking about my mother's aunt), we take a moment to explain the context. Premature optimization is the root of all evil... – keshlam Nov 3 '14 at 22:01
  • Because language isn't predictable! – curiousdannii Nov 3 '14 at 22:16

English is essentially a gender-free language (which is odd for a Germanic language; most have three genders). We still have some vestiges of a time when gender was important, and it is an unfortunate fact that the "genderless" versions of many words have defaulted to the something that looks masculine, but for the most part anything that was indicated using affixes (prefixes or suffixes/endings) has vanished, leaving us with only a few words that were completely different. (Yes, you can still find some usage of feminine terms ending in "ess", and much more rarely "ix", but they are the exception rather than the rule today.)

That said, the only difference between the word for male cousin and female cousin in older versions of English was the vowel in what is now the unstressed final syllable and an almost imperceptible final "e" (which has gone on to become silent in most English words, leaving only the remnants of its umlaut behind — with allowances for the Great Vowel Shift, of course). In the French pronunciation of the cognate words cousin and cousine, the final syllable is stressed, which makes the difference between them durable in speech (even if we ignore writing). Unstressed vowel changes, on the other hand, are difficult to perceive at all in speech (there are many things that will have a greater effect on the subtle nuances of a minimal schwa than conscious use of gender, such as talking with your mouth full or being a little yawny), and are naturally headed for deletion. When you are hardly pronouncing the final syllable, the isn't a whole lot of difference between ku'zun and ku'zin. This is not the case, though, with distinctly different words; you have to mess up the pronunciation of aunt pretty badly before it starts to sound like uncle.

English has a strong resistance to gender anyway, largely because it has been an exoteric language for most of its existence. Apart from the distinct dialects one can find in written Old English (resulting from various mixtures of Frisian, Anglian, Saxon, Jutish, and a few borrowings from the native Celts), half of the country was occupied by Norse people (the Danelaw) speaking a similar but different language with its nouns classified into slightly different gender categories (once obvious sex correspondence is taken out of consideration), and there was a significant population of people who were either native Celtic language speakers or Celtic/Englisc bilingual — and that's before English became a language of conquest. As Tim pointed out in a comment, it's easier just to drop the whole gender thing than it is to worry about whether your spoon is a man, a woman or something else entirely (in this part of the country, on a Tuesday in May). Combine that with the Principle of Least Effort (that'd be a fancy term for "laziness of the mouth" in linguistics), and you wind up with complicated things like gender only showing up where there is no way to avoid it easily.

  • German also has specific words for male and female cousins: der Cousin (male) and die Cousine (female). (I added the gender just to further clarify.) – Arradras Nov 3 '14 at 22:27
  • I was already aware of that when writing; German also retains gender elsewhere in the language, often in non-obvious ways (that is, the word itself carries no signs of gender, but articles and modifiers do). It is, therefore, not germane to the gender in English question. – bye Nov 3 '14 at 23:28
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    +1 not only for informational content, but for being entertaining and witty. – Erik Kowal Nov 4 '14 at 1:28
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    English spends way too much time on tumblr to try to assign gender to words. – corsiKa Jan 7 '15 at 21:10

The word 'cousin' may be gender-neutral, but you can refer to both a cousin's gender and direct relation by referencing their mother or father.

Example: My uncle's daughter.

Alternately, you can have a less precise but nonetheless gender-referenced usage by referencing their relation to your own parents.

Example: My mother's niece.

Also, you have to take into consideration of the fact that there is no central English dialect that is considered the gold-standard, if you will. For example, if you were speaking English in India or Pakistan, you could say the phrase 'cousin-brother', and it would refer specifically to a male first-cousin. Although it is not part of English's common nomenclature, the translated phrase would be a direct one in those regions.

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    That seems pretty convoluted to me. If you really need to make the distinction you should say "female cousin" or "male cousin." Saying "my mother's niece" sounds to me like one of those trick questions about who is my grandfather's uncle's great grandson once removed. With respect to the Indian approach, I haven't heard it, but it is interesting if that is common in India. – Fraser Orr Nov 3 '14 at 23:49
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    @FraserOrr, please: who IS my grandfather's uncle's great grandson once removed? – Cyberherbalist Nov 4 '14 at 0:21
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    It is convoluted :) However, it does side-step direct gender labeling (male/female) -- I'd have to ask my father's brother's step-niece's uncle to make sure, though. – kayleeFrye_onDeck Nov 4 '14 at 15:20
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    @kayleeFrye_onDeck, thanks for that. Made me laugh out loud, causing consternation in the office, them trying to figure out who told a joke. :-) – Cyberherbalist Nov 4 '14 at 17:30
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    @FraserOrr very very common here. My friend asked me to stop saying it cause it's wrong English and that brought me here. – Aditya Jan 1 at 10:48

It is quite acceptable to use "cousin" and "cousine" in English, without a pronunciation distinction. Also, cousinage.

I'd also endorse the above comment re "my mother's niece", etc.

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    I'll be happy to reverse my down vote if you can give an English dictionary reference that allows for "cousine" as a spelling for a female cousin. – Fraser Orr Nov 3 '14 at 23:47
  • I checked Webster's Tenth and the small OED by my desk. No "cousine". As a literate native speaker, I stand by what I've said, as I'm certain I've encountered it in print, in an otherwise neutral English sense. Citations? I'm at a loss just now. – smaines Nov 4 '14 at 1:45
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    @FraserOrr The OED has a 1350 citation with a funny spelling: “Þer-for, curteise cosynes, for loue of crist in heuene, Kiþe nouȝ þi kindenes.” A cousiness (as we would now spell it) was common in Middle English, lingered into Modern English (or at least Modern Scots) through the 16th century, and then appeared as an infrequent nonce-word in the 19th century. It has seldom been seen since. – tchrist Nov 4 '14 at 2:22
  • Hm, I like "cousiness", tchrist. I say we bring it back :) But yeah, I've never even seen "cousine" before. – kayleeFrye_onDeck Nov 4 '14 at 15:23
  • Actually, I thought you (@smaines) were making a joke! I thought it was pretty funny. It's a good thing StackExchange doesn't allow for reputation to go below 1! – Cyberherbalist Nov 4 '14 at 17:43

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