As Our Languages Make Clear, Context Is a Human Specialty
Is Bob your uncle? Probably depends on what language you’re speaking. In Urdu, if Robert’s your father’s brother, he’s your chacha — but not if he’s your father’s older brother (taaya), your mother’s brother (mamu), your father’s sister’s husband (phupa) or your mother’s sister’s husband (khalu).
In the Native American language Crow, your father’s brother is also called your father. So is your father’s sister’s son.
In any language, each kinship system balances simplicity with specificity, according to a study in Friday’s edition of the journal Science. And that principle could potentially be applied to the way we talk about other domains, such as color or location.
Kinship was a good place to start studying this phenomenon, said study coauthor Terry Regier, a cognitive scientist at UC Berkeley, because scholars have collected data on kinship systems in hundreds of languages over many decades.
Theoretically, a language could name all members of the extended family as “relatives.” But this would be vague to the point of uselessness. A language could also have a specific title for every family member, but that would be a lot to remember.