Are They Brothers?

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

An enlightening conversation showing where Benjamin is in his (re)acquisition of Spanish:

Margarita:  ¿Son hermanos?

Benjamin:  No, because Chucho is a boy and Jaquelina is a girl.

Me:  Are they brother and sister?

Benjamin:  Yes.

Clearly, he understood the Spanish question, but filtered through an English mindset, where hermanos equals brothers but not the brother-sister relationship.

This got me to thinking about the Zapotec sibling terms and how in a way they are closer to the English than the Spanish.  In both English and Zapotec, distinctions are made between brothers, brother and sister, and sisters.  Spanish collapses the first two groups, as shown below:

Zapotec English Spanish
male-male ¿Naacanà bettsi’? Are they brothers? ¿Son hermanos?
male-female ¿Naacanà daana? Are they brother and sister? ¿Son hermanos?
female-female ¿Naacanà yhiila? Are they sisters? ¿Son hermanas?

Zapotec and English keep these three relationships distinct (in certain contexts).  But while English has to rely on the circumlocution brother and sister, Zapotec is more efficient using a single word, daana, to encode the brother-sister relationship.  And because it has that term, it generally keeps the brother-sister relationship distinct.  So a man may talk about ca bettsi’nì ‘his brothers’ and a woman about ca yhiilanì ‘her sisters’, but he talks about ca daananì ‘his sisters’, and she talks about ca daananì ‘her brothers’.



  1. Fun stuff. In English we do have sibling, too, though I don’t know if I ever use that word myself in speech.

    • Hey Brook, is that you? Anyhoo, ‘sibling’ would be another possibility, collapsing all three relationships. (But it wouldn’t have fit on my table). Interestingly, because of the way Spanish works, it always has a cover term for both males and females, where English and Zapotec may not have them: So, we have to say aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, for example, and MacZ would be forced to use aunt and uncle as well, although we do have gender neutral terms like cousins and grandchildren, and MacZ has some, like ‘child’ where gender-neutral is the default. Sibling I guess falls into this latter group as does spouse. Conversely though in Spanish there doesn’t seem to be a good way to tease apart male-male relationships vs. male-female ones. I mean, how would I ask how many brothers do you have or how many uncles, meaning only the male relatives, not female ones?

      • Yeah, it’s me. Can’t wait to see more great data from Benjamin. 🙂

  2. And how about D? Has she retained her Spanish?

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