In one of my German language learning books there is an exercise that involves filling on a family tree (der Stammbaum – Oma, Opa, Mutter, Vater, Schwester, Bruder, Nichte, Neffe, Cousine, Cousin, Enkelkind) and while completing it, I noticed both how relationships between words in other languages may stand out in ways that they do not in our own and how we use relationship words to talk about languages.
The first ‘aha’ came from reflecting on:
die Verwandtschaft – die Verwandte – verwandt
“relationship” – “relatives” – “related”
I was already familiar with die Verwandte from previous lessons but die Verwandtschaft – “relationship” or “kinship” or “affinity” or “relatives” – was new. And as I looked at it, I had a blinding flash of the obvious, namely “relationship” is related (pun intended) to other words in English like “relative” and “related.” I had never really thought about how saying “I’m in a relationship” means in some sense “This person is my relative” because I guess I tend to see “relatives” as givens – you are born into them – and “relationships” as choices. This narrative makes sense as I grew up with my biological parents and my biological siblings around me. At the same time, as the child of divorced parents and a step-parent myself, I’m surprised by my own surprise when seeing the way these words form a family (yes, sorry, another pun).
Which brings me to the other thought that this Stammbaum exercise prompted, the use of kin terms to describe language. We say that German and English come from the same “family.” We talk about our “mother tongue” or unsere Muttersprache. These metaphors feel normal and safe to English (and I’m going to guess German) speakers. What about the case where two languages don’t come from the same family, though? Does this encourage us to see the speakers of those languages as more different or perhaps even less than, just as we might forgive something in a family member that wouldn’t be acceptable in an acquaintance? Could such metaphors engender the belief that we might not ever be able to understand each other because the relationship between speaking and thinking seems so tight? Moreover, think about how language enforces power (think of Animal Farm or 1984): some mother tongues have been wiped out as speakers were prevented from using them, economic opportunities may be restricted to speakers of particular languages, exercising the right to vote may be made more difficult by creating literacy tests. Like in many families, the German-speaking context perhaps offers an example of how family members may also face particularly bad treatment – there is a close relationship between German and Yiddish