On the Etymologies and Linguistic Evolutions of “Family”
Marina Manoukian Explores the Communication of a Ubiquitous Idea Across Disparate Cultures
The etymology of a word isn’t necessarily interchangeable with the way the word is used by a culture. But looking at the etymology may reveal the meaning that went into the original creation of the word. And if a seemingly ubiquitous idea is communicated through a variety of meanings across various cultures, how may that plurality affect the resulting representations?
The Modern English word for family is a relatively recent invention. Around the early 15th century, it replaced the Old English words hiwisc/híwscipe and híwrǽden, which were “based on the notion of relationship” as well as being tied to land. But there were also different compounds with hiw- to describe various relationships. Variations included hiwung, which denoted a relationship by marriage, híwgedál, which described a divorce, and híwan, which signified a community or members of a religious house. In comparison, the Modern English word, family, comes from the Latin “familia” and “famulus,” meaning “slaves of the household” and “slaves.” This transformation from the Old English word to the Latin-rooted word shifts the already-existing association of ownership within a family from the land to the people of the family, while simultaneously underlining that that ownership is tied to enslavement.
In The Dawn of Everything, David Graeber and David Wengrow also mention how family refers to “everyone under the domestic authority” and that the word “domestic” similarly ties into understandings of domination. This was an idea that was already built into the Latin language during Ancient Roman times, when the words familia and domus were both used to denote the family unit in society, but at that time familia “could refer to both persons and property.”
English isn’t the only language that associates family with domestication, but this idea of enslavement doesn’t always carry over. In both Eastern and Western Armenian, the word for family, ընտանիք (untanik’), comes from the word “տուն“:”house”. The word for domestic, ընտանի (untani), is also rooted in the word for “house,” deviating from an English understanding of the word rooted in ownership. And in this instance, both concepts of domestication and family are centered not on the notion of hierarchical ownership, but on the idea of the building that houses the family.
The fundamental representation of family comes from everyone being under one roof. Through the home, and by association the roof, the family is created. Even the word roof in Armenian, տանիք (tanik’), bears a strong resemblance to the word for family and also comes from the word for house.
This connection between family and domestication can also be found in East Asian languages, with an even more literal invocation of the roof. The Vietnamese word for family is gia đình, and according to Vietnamese linguist Dr. Trịnh Hữu Tuệ, “gia đình” is a loan word from Chinese. When written in Chinese as 家 庭, family becomes a construction of gia, which means house, and đình, which translates to court or front yard. Meanwhile, 家 , house, is written through a construction of 宀 and 豕, which puts together roof and pig, so the idea of family is rooted in the idea of a house, which is itself rooted in the idea of a roof and domesticated animals.
While the English word domestic also comes from the idea of a house, it’s interesting to consider the inclusion of enslavement into the English-language signifier of family, rather than maintaining the house and roof as central concepts. And while domination and domestication are tied together in the English-language, that association isn’t innate and doesn’t necessarily carry over to other languages.
This means that the idea of domestication isn’t inherently one of domination, but by incorporating it as such, the English language lifts up the idea of domination as the foundational relationship with the natural world, instead of an interaction based on development or change. And because domination is hierarchical, this understanding allows humans to install themselves at the top of the hierarchy without a second thought, rather than recognizing ourselves as but one interaction in a much larger network.
This idea of family coming out of the notion of cohabitation, with a comparatively more expansive understanding, can be seen in the Tohono Oʼodham language, spoken by the people of the Tohono Oʼodham Nation. According to Tohono O’odham poet and linguist Dr. Ofelia Zepeda, We:m Ki:kam is the most commonly used term to describe “spouse, those who live with you, family.” Ronald Geronimo, O’odham Language Center Co-Director, also defines We:m Ki:kam more generally as “those that live together.”
This idea of cohabitation being intrinsic to the idea of a family can be found in the construction of the word We:m Ki:kam itself, in that We:m means “together,” Ki: means “house” and “live,” and kam appears when discussing people. As a result, the idea of family is contained not only within marital relations, but within an idea of a community. And although the idea of a literal roof is weakened, the idea of family remains contained in a togetherness, whether in a single house or several in a village.
While the English word for family has transformed over the centuries, the Yorùbá word for family, ẹbí, has seemingly existed in its current form as long as the language has been, according to Nigerian linguist Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún. The Yorùbá word ẹbí translates to ‘we (who) give birth to,” which moves the idea of family away from enslavement, cohabitation, and domestication towards an understanding of growth and reproduction. And the multiplication in the Yorùbá word is actually two-fold.
Not only is the idea of family centered on the multiplication of the family, through the act of giving birth, but the word itself is formed through the two words ẹ and bí. While bí is the verb for giving birth to, ẹ is used both as an “honorific for someone with whom we don’t have a familiar relationship” as well as a plural marker to signify a multitude of people. As a result, ẹbí begins to express “a multitude multiplying,” and this multiplication is brought forth through a larger community. It is through this community that the individual may find their agency.
Dr. Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí writes in The Invention of Woman that “in precolonial Yorùbáland, the rights of the individual derived from group membership,” an expression of Dr. John Mbiti’s saying “We are, therefore I am.” And the Yorùbá language isn’t alone in underlining the notion of multiplication and reproduction within the idea of family. It can similarly be found in Slavic languages, like the Bulgarian word for family, семейство (semeĭstvo), which comes from the word семена meaning “seed.”
In some languages, it becomes impossible to even discuss languages without mentioning the concept of family, for even in describing linguistic relationships in English we resort to calling it a “language family.” This is the case in Armenian as well, whose Լեզվաընտանիք similarly translates to language family, but comparatively in Vietnamese, ngữ hệ translates more closely to “language system.” But in terms of evolutionary linguistic entanglements, the previously mentioned languages are currently described as having little in common. Armenian and English are both part of the Indo-European language family, but Armenian is its own independent branch. Tohono Oʼodham belongs to the Uto-Aztecan language family, based in western North America.
In East Asia, Vietnamese belongs to the Mon-Khmer family, and Chinese to the Sino-Tibetan language family. Meanwhile, Yoruba is classified as part of the Niger–Congo language family, but this is based less on linguistic evolution, since it represents an unproven “hypothesis of genealogical relationship,” and is used merely as a “referential label for a group of over 1,500 languages,” making it the largest language group in the world. Comparatively, Indo-European contains less than 500 languages. But how could we understand a “language family” if we were to open up our own understanding of family? Would expanding our understanding of linguistic evolutions reveal new relations and interactions between languages across the globe?
As it stands, linguistic evolutions are determined by the notion of a common ancestor as well as phonological, morphological, and syntactical resemblances. But if we open up the idea of family to multiple interpretations, linguistic relationships can also expand past the mere appearance of a language into an investigation of interpretations and meaning. If two languages separated by continents share numerous words with similar interpretations, surely this is just as linguistically significant as two local languages with similar appearances.
Comparative linguistics, or comparative philology, is the subset of the linguistics field that looks at different languages at the same time. But often, these comparisons occur within a language family rather than across language families. In On the Origin of Languages, published in 1994, linguist Dr. Merritt Ruhlen was one of the first among English-language writers to suggest that “contrary to the almost universal belief that linguistic families such as Indo-European, Uralic, Dravidian, Sino-Tibetan, Austronesian, Australian, etc., share no recognizable cognates, there are in fact numerous etymological connections among the world’s languages.” Instead of insisting on a single interpretation, the awareness of multiplicity allows for a variety of understandings to coexist.
At the end of the day, what difference does it make if one’s idea of family is rooted in servitude, cohabitation, multiplication, or something completely different? Does the root of a word influence its present understanding? Not always, but it’s naive to assume that cultures are entirely unaffected by their linguistic evolutions.
It’s not difficult to draw a line, for example, between the cultures that linguistically associate family with cohabitation and those that culturally stress the importance of keeping family physically close, ideally under a single roof. Among Armenians, the idea of a family being contained under one roof is actualized by the fact that within Armenia, there isn’t a normalized notion of moving out when one has reached a certain age.
People continue living with their parents until they get married, and even then it’s rare for them to subsequently get a house of their own. Instead, the married couple will often move into one of the parental homes, keeping the family contained under a pre-established roof. Even important decisions, including marriage proposals, the naming of grandchildren, and divorce, are ones that the entire family makes together, sometimes even with the extended family.
In the 2nd century, Numidian novelist Apuleius wrote that “fifteen free men make a people, fifteen slaves make a family, and fifteen prisoners make a jail.” This mentality scarcely evolved over the following millennium and medieval historian Dr. David Herlihy concludes in Women, Family and Society in Medieval Europe that the English word family “in its original sense thus implied an authoritarian structure and hierarchical order founded on but not limited to relations of marriage and parenthood.” He also extends this understanding to the Latin word “pater,” meaning father, which also designates “the holder of authority.” This understanding of the Latin familia as enslaved property persisted through the medieval period, and medieval writers such as Thomas Aquinas would designate the household in Latin as “familia domestica.”
But as Latin’s hold over Europe weakened and vernaculars proliferated as written languages during the end of the Middle Ages, it’s interesting to note that some English-speakers in England chose to push the Latin word for family rather than allowing the Old English words to evolve in the lexicon. And while the exact reason for the replacement of the word is unclear, the mid-15th century timing of the replacement correlates with the economic shift into mercantilism, and subsequently capitalism. This could be a coincidence, or it could suggest a conscious desire to further normalize the concept of enslavement.
Understanding this linguistic entanglement can be useful in recognizing the limitations of family as something neither innately good nor bad but as something that we create through a variety of relationships. It’s easy to insist that etymology is entirely relevant or entirely irrelevant, but the real influence may be much more subtle. By forgetting that language is created, we risk allowing the influence of language to become absolute, to bind us in a particular perception that we forget is our own invention.
As a result, when one talks about expanding the understanding of family, one has to be mindful of the fact that even this understanding is one of many, and expansion itself is variable. If family can be communicated in a variety of ways, then it’s possible for family to be created in a variety of ways as well. And by expanding our linguistic understanding of family, it becomes possible to simultaneously expand our understand of family. Otherwise, by maintaining a singular understanding of family, we end up limiting the potential of human relationships by insisting that there is only one correct representation.
Even when talking about the concept of family values, the first thing to recognize is that the concept of family itself is already multiple and variable. In the journal Ethnolinguistics, cultural linguist Dr. Farzad Sharifian examined this by looking at the understanding of family in Aboriginal English and Anglo-Australian English, noting that the understanding of family in Aboriginal English reflects a much more expansive understanding of family.
By expanding the linguistic understanding of family, our expectations of family may also begin to break down. And as people create their own forms of families, our expectations and understandings of what a family is may also begin to shift as we realize the potential of human relationships.
By recognizing that the idea of family is constructed, it becomes possible to create families in all manner of ways. Rather than limiting family to a hierarchical construction, a family can be created through different cooperative relationships that offer support to one another in a variety of ways.
For many queer people, friendships are already seen as families by providing the social support that their first families never did. And by moving past the idea of domination and obligation and instead expanding the idea of community, the support provided by a family and the agency of its members can take on more importance than the idea of merely being bound together by biological or marital ties.
All of these examples and investigations are by no means an exhaustive look at the varying etymologies of “family” across languages. But hopefully, they underline not only the plurality with which the concept of family may be communicated, but the plurality through which everything is communicated. No idea is bound by a single iteration and by restricting ourselves to such an understanding, we only do ourselves a disservice.