Friday, August 24, 2018

Family relations, Part 5: Cousins, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, and grandchildren

[This entry comes from Chapter 7, "Words for family relations", of Part II of the open-source textbook Spanish-English Cognates: An Unconventional Introduction to Spanish Linguistics.]

Cousins, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, and grandchildren

Next, we are going to look at the word for ‘cousin’. In English the word cousin means primarily ‘a child of one’s aunt or uncle’, that is a person who shares a grandparent with you. Strictly speaking, that is also called first cousin, since the word cousin can also be used more generally for someone who shares a more distant ancestor with you. In English, a first cousin is also known as cousin-german, a 13th century loanword from French cousin germain, lit. ‘cousin brother’. Thus, a second cousin shares a great-grandparent), a third cousin shares a great-great-grandparent, and so on. In its most basic use, the word cousin refers to someone of one’s same generation. There exists terminology in English to refer to ‘cousins’ of different generations using expressions such as once removed or twice removed, as seen in Figure 111, though most speakers of English are probably not aware of how that system works.

The equivalent of Eng. cousin in Spanish is masc. primo, fem. prima. A first cousin, who shares a grandparent (Sp. abuelo), is called a primo carnal lit. ‘flesh cousin’ or primo hermano lit. ‘brother cousin’.[1] A cousin that shares a great-grandparent (Sp. bisabuelo) is referred to as a primo segundo and one who shares a great-great-grandparent (Sp. tatarabelo) is a primo tercero. A major difference between the use of Eng. cousin and Sp. primo is that the latter is only used for individuals of the same generation. Relatives of the parents’ generation are tíos ‘uncles’ and of the grandparents’ generation tíos abuelos ‘great-ants and uncles’, as you can see in Figure 112.

The words primo ‘male cousin’ and prima ‘female cousin’ come from the Latin adjective nom. masc. primus and nom. fem. prima, meaning ‘first’. Like in the case of the word hermano, primo came about through the shortening of a longer Latin phrase, namely consōbrīnus primus ‘first cousin’, which in Modern Spanish is primo hermano or primo carnal. Interestingly, consōbrīnus is also the source of the English word cousin.

The Latin word consōbrīnus, feminine consōbrīna, originally meant in a strict sense ‘the child of a mother's sister’, but it was also used more generally for the children of brothers or sisters (L&S). These words are derived by means of the prefix con‑ ‘with’ from the words sōbrīnus and sōbrīna, which are obviously the sources of Sp. sobrino ‘nephew’ and sobrina ‘niece’. Lat. sōbrīnus and sōbrīna originally meant ‘child of a sister or mother’s sister’, male and female, respectively. That is because the word sōbrīnus is derived from Lat. sŏror that meant ‘sister’ (gen. sŏrōris, regular stem sŏrōr; in Early Latin it was sŏsor) by means of the adjectival suffix ‑īn‑, cf. sŏror+īn+us/a ‘of the sister’ > sōbrīnus/a.[2]

The words consōbrīnus and consōbrīna are derived from sōbrīnus and sōbrīna by means of the prefix con‑ ‘with, together’, which in some contexts was shortened to cō‑, and which is the source of Eng. co‑, as in co-worker and co-parent. Originally, these words referred to the children of a mother and her sisters but eventually came to be used for the children of both brothers and sisters.

The shortening of consōbrīnus primus to primo to mean ‘cousin’ is found Iberian Romance languages, such as Spanish and Portuguese. In other Romance languages, descendants of the word consōbrīnus are used instead for this family relation. Thus, French has cousin [ku.ˈzɛ̃], fem. cousine [ku.ˈzin], patrimonial descendants of the word consōbrīnus and consōbrīna. French cousin is, of course, the source of English cousin [ˈkʌ.zən], a word that is first attested in English in the mid-12th century. Other Romance languages too have descendants of consōbrīnus: Italian cugino, Occitan cosin, and Catalan cosí [ko.ˈzi] (pronounced [ku.ˈzi] in some dialects) and cosina.

In Figure 113 below, we can see the major kinship terms in Latin as they were used at one time, including the term consobrinus. Most of these terms have not been passed on to the Romance languages and some of them have changed their meaning somewhat, as has consobrinus.

Figure 114: Summary of Latin family/kinship terms.[i]
The meaning of some of these terms has changed through time.

Although the terms Eng. cousin and Sp. primo are often thought to be equivalent in meaning, as we saw there is a major difference between the use of these two words, namely that, at least in theory, in English we can use the word cousin for relatives that are ‘removed’ from the prototypical same-generation cousin (as in cousin-once-removed), as we can see in Figure 111 above, whereas in Spanish primos can only refer to same generation relatives, as shown in Figure 112 above. We said ‘in theory’ because it is probably safe to say that most English speakers do not typically use the word cousin for relatives of different generations, such as a parent’s cousin.

There seems to have been confusion as to the exact meaning of the Latin word sōbrīnus, and thus this word has changed its designation through the centuries. Latin consobrinus was occasionally shortened to sobrinus though, as we saw. In reality consobrinus was originally used to refer to maternal first cousins and later to all first cousins, also known as ‘true’ cousins or, in Latin, consōbrīnus germanus. The term sobrinus was used also at different points in time to refer to the children of a sister or a mother’s sister (and later also brothers), or other more distant relatives (see Figure 113). The Spanish descendant of this word, sobrino ‘nephew’, feminine sobrina ‘niece’, came to be used to refer to the children of one’s siblings.

The English words for Sp. sobrino and sobrina are, as we just saw, nephew and niece. These words, which English borrowed from French, come ultimately from Lat. nĕpōs, a word that meant primarily ‘grandson’ (gen. nĕpōtis, acc. nĕpōtem), but which also came to be used for ‘a brother or sister’s son’, i.e. nephew (L&S). Eng. niece goes ultimately to post-classical Latin neptia or nepta, which replaced classical Latin neptis ‘granddaughter’, ‘female descendant’ and, in post-classical Latin, also ‘niece’.

As we can see, Lat. nepos and neptis/neptia were ambiguous or polysemous in meaning. Their descendants in English came to have exclusively the later meanings the words acquired, namely ‘nephew’ and ‘niece’. In Spanish, on the other hand, the descendants of these words, nieto and nieta, came to be used exclusively namely for children of one’s children, rather than the children of one’s siblings, or in other words, grandchildren. Thus, nieto means ‘grandson’ and nieta ‘granddaughter’.

The exact source of Sp. nieto and nieta is a big more complicated that it seems at first sight. A patrimonial descendant of Lat. nĕpōs would have come from the accusative form nĕpōtem and it would have resulted in Old Spanish nebod(e). That is why it is thought that the derivation came from the feminine form of the word first, namely that nieta descends from a Vulgar Latin nepta, which would have come from Classical Latin neptis, by regularizing the ending to the typical feminine ending ‑a. That would perfectly explain the form of the word nieta, since we always expect (1) a Latin ‑pt‑ cluster to change to ‑tt‑ in Vulgar Latin and to ‑t‑ in Old Spanish, and (2) a stressed short ˈĕ in Latin to become the diphthong ie in Old Spanish (cf. Part I, Chapter 10).

Classical Latin
Vulgar Latin

Old Spanish

As for the masculine form nieto in Old and Modern Spanish, it would have had to be derived from the feminine form by analogy, by changing the typical feminine inflection ‑a to the typical masculine inflection ‑o.

English borrowed the descendants of nĕpos and nĕptis from French, resulting in the name for different family relations, namely nephew and niece, in other words, the secondary meanings the Latin words came to have. English nephew [ˈnɛ.fjʊ] came into the language in the 13th century from Old French neveu, meaning both ‘nephew’ and ‘grandson’, the same meanings the word had in post-classical Latin. Eng. nephew kept the ‘grandson’ meaning until the late 17th century, when it was abandoned in favor of the meaning it has today, ‘child of a sibling’. Old French neveu goes back to Lat. nĕpōtem, accusative form of nĕpos. This word goes back to the Proto-Indo-European root *nepot- ‘grandson’, ‘male descendant other than son’, and possibly ‘nephew’.[3] Interestingly, Old English had a patrimonial cognate of this word, namely nefa, pronounced [ˈ], which also meant ‘nephew, grandson’, a descendent from Proto-Germanic *nefô (remember that PIE p was replaced by f in the Germanic languages), and which was eventually replaced by its French cognate.

English niece [ˈnis] is first attested in English in the 14th century. It is a loanword from Old French niece, from an earlier niepce, from Vulgar Latin nept(i)a, and finally from Lat. nĕptis ‘granddaughter, niece’, as we saw (cf. Modern Fr. nièce [ˈnjɛs]). The Old English term for ‘niece’ was a cognate of the French word that came to replace it, namely nift, which also meant both ‘granddaughter’ and ‘niece’, as well as, more generally, ‘female descendant or relative’. This nift descended from Proto-Germanic *niftiz, which just like Lat. neptis, descended from Proto-Indo-European *néptih₂ (from *népōts +‎ *‑ih₂).

Thus, as we can see, Sp. nieto and Eng. nephew are cognate words, just like Sp. nieta and Eng. niece are, despite their different meaning. Those different meanings coexisted in the source word going all the way back to these words’ Proto-Indo-European ancestors because of a connection in these cultures between the different familial relationships. Eventually, however, one set of meanings was dropped from each of the word sets in each of the languages, resulting in the different meanings these words have today.

Going back to Sp. nieto and nieta, we should mention that derived from them, Spanish also has the words bisnieto ‘great grandson’ and bisnieta ‘great granddaughter’. This bis‑ is, of course, the prefix meaning ‘two’ (cf. Part I, Chapter 8.5, §, p. 2). The Vulgar Latin original word for great-granddaughter was bisnepta. These words can also be written biznieto and biznieta, which in Spain has a different pronunciation since in this country the letter z is pronounced [θ] in Spain, not [s] like in the rest of the Spanish-speaking world.

There is a pair of learned cognates in English and Spanish that contain the Latin root nepot‑, namely Eng. nepotism [ˈnɛ.pə.tɪ.zəm] and Sp. nepotismo [ne.po.ˈ]. The meaning of both of these words is ‘the favoring of relatives or friends, especially by giving them jobs’ (COED). English nepotism is a 17th century learned borrowing from Latin through French népotism, which seems to have borrowed it from Italian nepotismo. In Italian, this term referred originally to the Catholic popes’ habit of appointing relatives, often ‘nephews’ (actually their illegitimate children), as bishops. Spanish probably got its nepotismo directly from Italian or, else, through French.

There are two other Latinate words in English for close family relations, namely uncle and aunt, which are equivalent to Sp. tío and tía, respectively. The word uncle [ˈʌn.kəl] came into English in the 13th century from Old Fr. oncle (in Modern French, also oncle, pronounced [ɔ̃kl]. This word comes from Late Lat. aunculus, from Lat. avunculus ‘mother’s brother’, but its literal meaning was ‘little grandfather’ (cf. Sp. abuelito), since it is a diminutive of Lat. avus ‘grandfather’. (The word for ‘father’s brother’ was patruus, cf. Figure 113.) The word uncle replaced the native words for ‘uncle’ in Old English, which were eam for ‘maternal uncle’ and fædera for ‘paternal uncle’. (Notice the relation of fædera to fæder ‘father’, which is analogous to the relation of Lat. patruus to pater ‘father’. O.Eng. eam also has a relationship to the word for ‘grandmother’ in Old English, that is, one parallel to the relationship between the analogous Latin words.)[ii]

The English word aunt, pronounced [ˈænt] in most of North America (homophonous with ant) and [ˈɑnt] in British RP and New England English. It is a loanword from Old Fr. ante, from around the year 1300 (cf. Modern Fr. tante [ˈtɑ̃t], from a children’s version of ante). This French word was a patrimonial descendant of Lat. amita ‘paternal aunt’ (see Figure 113), which was seemingly a diminutive of amma, a baby-talk or perhaps even non-Indo-European word for ‘mother’. (As we saw earlier in the chapter, many unrelated languages of the world have words for mother that have the sounds [am] or [ma], as they seem to be some of the earliest sounds that children make, cf. Basque ama ‘mother’.) The words for ‘aunt’ in Old English was either faðu ‘father’s sister’ or modrige ‘mother’s sister’.

We mentioned earlier that Latin avus meant ‘grandfather’ (av+us; acc. avum; pronounced [ˈa.wʊs]) and that this word’s root av‑ is at the heart of the Latin word that resulted in Eng. uncle. We can trace this word all the way to the Proto-Indo-European *awo-s (a more abstract reconstruction is *h₂éwh₂os) meaning ‘(maternal?) grandfather’, but also ‘adult male relative or ancestor other than one’s father’. Cognates of Lat. avus abound in the PIE family, such as Russian уй (uj), Proto-Germanic *awô, Old Irish aue, and Old Norse ái. (The word for ‘grandfather’ in Old English was ealdfæder, lit. ‘old father’, a construction that obviously replaced the original PIE word.)

The word for ‘grandmother’ in Latin was avia (avi+a; acc. aviam), a word derived from the same root as the word for ‘grandfather’. In Late Latin, we also find a simplified version of this word, namely ava, which made the word more analogically similar to masculine avus ~ ava.

The Spanish words for ‘grandfather’ and ‘grandmother’ are related to the Latin words avus and av(i)a, since they come from Vulgar Latin diminutive forms of these words. It is actually thought that the word for ‘grandmother’, abuela, is derived from a diminutive formed with the suffix ‑ŏl‑, namely aviŏla (avi+ŏl+a). (The original word’s i would have been lost after the short stressed ŏ was diphthongized to ue. Remember also that the v, [w] in Latin, came to be pronounced [β] in Old Spanish and merging with the sound of b eventually, which resulted in a few words changing their spelling from Latin 〈v〉 to Spanish 〈b〉. This is one word that the etymologically correct v was not restored in later times.) From this feminine word aviŏla, a masculine parallel (unattested) word *aviŏlus would have been created in Vulgar Latin by analogy, which eventually would develop into Spanish abuelo ‘grandfather’.[4]

Other Romance languages did different things regarding the words for the grandparents. Catalan is one of the few languages in which the words for ‘grandfather’ and ‘grandmother’ are derived from the simple Latin words, not from diminutives. Like in Spanish, however, the word for ‘grandfather’ was derived from the word for ‘grandmother’. In Catalan, àvia is the word for ‘grandmother’, like in Vulgar Latin, and from it Catalan would seem to have derived the word for grandfather, namely avi, which would have been avo if it had come from Lat. avus. In Italian, the word for grandfather and grandmother are nonno and nonna, whereas avo is used for ‘forefather, ancestor’. Italian nonno comes from Late Latin nonnus ‘tutor, old person’, which happens to also be the source of Sp. ñoño ‘drippy, prissy, touchy-feely, shy, wimpish’.[iii]

French also had words for ‘granmother’ and ‘grandfather’ that descended from these Latin words, though they are obsolete now. French had aïeul [a.ˈjœl] for ‘grandfather’ and aïeule for ‘grandmother’, which descend from the same Vulgar Latin aviŏlus and aviŏla that we just saw. In Modern French, however, the words for the grandparents are derived from the words for the parents by adding grand ‘tall, big, great’ to them. Thus, the word for ‘grandfather’ is grand-père (cf. père ‘father’, from Lat. pater) and for ‘grandmother’ is grand-mère (cf. mère ‘mother’, from Lat. mater). The French word for ‘grandson’, on the other hand, is petit-fils, literally ‘little son’ and, analogously, the word for ‘granddaughter’ petite-fille, literally ‘little daughter’.

The English words for grandfather and grandmother were calqued from the French grand-père and grand-mère that we just saw. In Old English, these words were formed much like in modern French, by adding ealde- ‘old’ or ieldra- ‘elder’ to the words for father and mother, i.e. ealdefæder and ealdemōdor or ieldrafæder and ieldramōdor. English kept the same pattern but substituted the first part of the compound with the French ones in the Middle English period, giving us our modern grandfather and grandmother. By the way, in Old English, a great-grandfather was called a þridda fæder ‘third father’ and a great-great-grandfather a fēowerða fæder ‘fourth father’.

As we have seen, much of the Old English kinship terminology was replaced by French Norman terms in the Middle English period (1100-1500).[iv] Figure 115 below has a summary of the major, single-word, Old English kinship terms, some of which we have already seen. As you can see, we do not know of special words for cousin or different types of cousins, terms that were replaced by the French word cousin (from Lat. consobrinus) already by the 12th century. We know, however, that Old English distinguished fæderan sunu ‘father’s brother’s son’, modrigan sunu ‘mother’s sister’s son’, and so on, much like other Indo-European languages did. (Remember that there are eight possible cousin relationships, all of which had different names in Latin: consobrinus ‘mother’s sister’s son’, consobrina ‘mother’s sister’s daughter’, patruelis ‘father’s brother’s son’, atruelis ‘mother’s brother’s son’, amitinus ‘father’s sister’s son’, etc.)
Figure 115: Old English kinship terms[v]

Finally, there is one more major set of words for family relations that we need to look at, namely the Spanish words for ‘aunt’ and ‘uncle’, which are tía and tío. These words are unrelated to any English words, despite the fact that both languages have Latinate words to express the meanings ‘aunt’ and ‘uncle’.

Spanish tío and tía come from Late Latin thīus and thīa, meaning ‘uncle’ and ‘aunt’, which were borrowings from Ancient Greek θεῖος (theîos), θεία (theía), with the same meanings. This Gk. θεῖος is homonymous with another Greek word that meant ‘of or from the gods or God, divine’, among other things, derived from Gk. θεός (theós) ‘god’, whose root can be found in learned cognates such as Eng. theology ~ Sp. teología. The two homonymous words are unrelated, however.[5]

Spanish is not the language that turned these Greek loanwords into the basic words for ‘aunt’ and ‘uncle’. Cognates of Sp. tío are Italian zio and Portuguese tio, among others. The reason these words were borrowed perhaps had to do with the ambiguity associated with Lat. avunculus and the proliferation of Latin terms for one’s parents’ siblings. Other Romance languages, however, such as French, Catalan and Occitan stuck with the original words for ‘aunt’ and ‘uncle’. In Modern French, for instance, the word for ‘uncle’ is oncle, as we have seen, and for aunt is tante, from an earlier ante (from where comes Eng. aunt). As we have already seen, in Spain the words tío and tía are used in today’s colloquial language in Spain to mean ‘dude, guy’, and in some subdialects even use it to refer to a ‘friend, pal, mate, dude’ when calling out to them, as in ¡Oye, tío! ‘Hey, dude!’.


[1] The adjective carnal [kaɾ.ˈnal] is derived from the noun carne ‘meat, flesh’. Actually, it comes from Lat. carnālis ‘fleshy, carnal’, derived by means of the adjectival suffix ‑āl‑(is) from the stem carn‑ of the noun carō ‘flesh, meat; pulp of a fruit’ (gen. carnis, acc. carnem). English has a cognate of this word, namely carnal [ˈkɑɹ.nəl], which means ‘relating to physical, especially sexual, needs and activities’ (COED) and is used in expressions such as carnal desire and carnal world. In colloquial Mexican Spanish, carnal can be used as a noun meaning ‘buddy, pal, mate’.

[2] Lat. sŏsor descends from Proto-Indo-European *swésōr, a word that is also the source of Eng. sister. PIE *swésōr (*su-h₁ésh₂-ōr) possibly formed with the morphemes *swé ‘self’ and *h₁ésh₂r̥ ‘blood’ and was used to refer to a woman of one’s own kin group in an exogamous society. PIE *swésōr became swestēr in Proto-Germanic, resulting in Eng. sister, German Schwester, and so on.

[3] A more detailed reconstruction for this root is n̥pt- or *h₂n̥pt‑ for the stem (nominative: *népōts or h₂népōts). The original meaning seems to have been ‘grandson’ as well as ‘descendant’. The ‘nephew’ meaning is only shared by descendants of this word in central and western Indo-European languages. Lat. nĕpōs descends directly from Proto-Italic *nēpōts, by loss of the root’s final ­t.

[4] We think that the masculine aviŏlus is derived from the feminine aviŏla, among other reasons, because the diminutive ending -ŏl- could only attach itself to masculine stems in ‑ĭus, not ‑us, cf. Corominas ABUELA. Corominas also mentions the fact that the reason that the word for grandmother became the source of the word for grandfather is that children typically had more contact with their grandmothers.

[5] The ‘divine’ θεῖος comes from Proto-Indo-European stem *dʰéh₁s‑yo‑, from *dʰéh₁s ‘god, deity, sacred place’. The ‘uncle’ θεῖος comes from Proto-Indo-European *dʰeh₁(y)‑ ‘to suck’.

[ii] Cf. “Of fæderan and eamas: avuncularity in Old English”, by Andreas Fischer; in Caie, Graham D., Carole Hough & Irené Wotherspoon. 2006. The power of words essays in lexicography, lexicology and semantics: in honour of Christian J. Kay. Amsterdam: Rodopi. (21 November, 2014). pp. 67-78

[iii] Regarding Sp. ñoño: said of a person, ‘que es apocado, melindroso y mojigato’ and of a thing, ‘excesivamente simple y carece de viveza, gracia e interés’ (DUEAE). In parts of Spanish America this word has other related uses, e.g. in Mexico and River Plate, ‘que es cursi, pasado de moda y anticuado’ and in Cuba (colloquial) ‘que es mimoso’.

[iv] Cf. Pfeffer, Georg. 1987. The Vocabulary of Anglo-Saxon Kinship. L’Homme 27(103). 113–128. doi:10.2307/25132516.

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