New relationships; new names

Michael Cook
9 March 2015
Reproduced with Permission

In our brave new world of sex and gender experimentation, the English language is teetering on the edge of a lingusitic precipice. We lack names for the new relationships which are being created.

Take, for instance, 24-year-old Kyle Casson , a gay supermarket worker in England. He was desperate to have a child (but not, obviously, a wife). His mother Anne-Marie volunteered to be a surrogate mother for his baby. So Kyle shopped around for a donor with the right hair and eye colour and organised fertilisation and implantation at an IVF clinic. Eight months ago 46-year-old Anne-Marie gave birth to Miles by C-section. It is believed to be the first time that a single man has had a baby through surrogacy in the UK.

The relationships of the three people are tangled, to say the least. Anne-Marie is the mother of Kyle, and both the mother and the grandmother of Miles. Miles is both the half-brother and the son of Kyle. Kyle is both the son and the "husband", or at least partner, of Anne-Marie, who is already married to Alan Casson, who is Kyle's step-father. We have no words for these relationships and they are becoming more and more common.

The knee-jerk response has been a conservative one: reduce the number of nouns and pronouns.

This is the course taken by the University of Vermont, as the New York Times reported recently. In an effort to accommodate the frustrations of transgender students, it has created a new pronoun, ze, for students who do not want to identify as either male or female. Students can now choose their preferred pronoun in dealing with the University bureaucracy: the traditional he or she, ze, they, or "name only".

But is this really the way forward? No doubt it will meet stiff resistance from people who remember that the aim of Newspeak, the language of George Orwell's 1984, was to have as few words as possible:

"Relative to our own, the Newspeak vocabulary was tiny, and new ways of reducing it were constantly being devised. Newspeak, indeed, differed from most all other languages in that its vocabulary grew smaller instead of larger every year. Each reduction was a gain, since the smaller the area of choice, the smaller the temptation to take thought.

"Ultimately it was hoped to make articulate speech issue from the larynx without involving the higher brain centers at all.

So I think you will agree that ze simply won't cut the mustard.

I am possibly working above my paygrade here, but over the past 20 minutes I have done exhaustive research in Lewis Henry Morgan's classic text, Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family . Back in 1871 he identified six fundamental systems that languages have for classifying relatives: Hawaiian, Sudanese, Eskimo, Iroquois, Crow and Omaha. (English is regarded as an Eskimo-type language.)

Of these six systems, the simplest is Hawaiian. There are only two distinctions: gender and generation. All older women are called "mother"; all older men, "father"; all women of your generation are called "sister"; all men, "brother".

But English is already more complex. If we were to use ze, we would end up losing all of our aunts, uncles, and cousins. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to lose one aunt is a tragedy, to lose all of them would be extremely careless.

The most complex descriptive system is the one used in southern Sudan. Every possible relationship has a unique word, from "mother" to "mother's brother's first son's youngest daughter".

If you have got this far, you are probably getting a bit impatient. But I do have a point to make. It is that instead of reducing all pronouns to ze, which leads to the sterility of Newspeak, we need to invent new words for relationships created by assisted reproductive technology. Job opportunities ought to be blossoming everywhere for entrepreneurial linguists.

However, in comparison with Sudanese-style languages, English is already poor in kinship terms. Can it possibly cope with the pressure of surrogacy and gamete donation or even gamete creation -- not to mention divorce, blended families, and co-habitation?

We have reason to hope.

The roots of modern English are in Anglo-Saxon and (remotely) Latin. Both of these defunct languages followed the Sudanese system, with different names for each relationship. Anglo-Saxon, for instance, had eight different terms for cousin. And the differentiation in Latin is mind-boggling. It had a different word for nearly every relationship. In fact, when it comes to aunts and in-laws, Latin is the Real Madrid of kinship terminology.

So we stand on the shoulder of giants. There is no need to capitulate to ze and down-size the English language. We have an historic opportunity to enlarge and enrich it. What the Anglo-Saxons did and the Romans did, we can do.

Any suggestions? What, for instance, should we call the relationship between Anne-Marie's husband Alan and Kyle's child?