What A Word Can Say About Your Family

Our words and our thoughts are interconnected. I've been reading up on a fascinating little concept called "linguistic relativity." Broadly, it is the notion that our languages influence the ways we see the world. (Here's a short YouTube video, if you're interested.)

What got me thinking about linguistic relativity was this article on Huff Post Latino Voices entitled 7 (More) Spanish Words That Have No Direct English Translation. The first word in the list was consuegro/consuegra, the parents of one's son or daughter-in-law.

On one of my first visits to Guatemala, I met my sister-in-law's mother-in-law. She was introduced as family - my family. I love this concept! I think the fact that the word consuegros exists in Spanish alludes to the inclusion of in-laws in a more robust way than we typically foster in the U.S.

I could be wrong since this is my only marriage experience, but I feel like many parents of U.S. couples don't necessarily interact much after the wedding festivities. Because my in-laws were not able to get visas to attend our wedding, my parents flew down with us one Christmas to meet and visit. Since then, my mom and mother-in-law exchange gifts, ask about each other, and occasionally video chat when we are visiting one set. It's a beautiful relationship, in my opinion.

So I have been trying to broaden my definition of family to include more and more people. I don't think you can go wrong with that philosophy. And since I don't know the English words for these relationships (do they exist???), maybe I will make up my own...

Other favorites from Huff Po's list? The attention given to socialization around food. There's buen provecho, on of my favorite Spanish phrases which basically means "Enjoy your meal!" However, it is also said when leaving the table after eating, so I consider it also a form of "Thank you for dinner!"

And don't forget sobremesa (from the original piece), describing the period of conversation at the table once food is finished. Again, related to the lens of linguistic relativity, you could argue that food and social meals have a much more central role in Spanish culture. And the vocabulary reflects it!

Finally, I'll close with pena ajena, to be embarrassed for someone else. This is basically why I can hardly survive stand-up comedy. I'm so afraid the person won't be funny I nearly break out in hives on their behalf. I need this word! What does it say about culture? It could relate to the more collectivist nature of Latino cultures, or perhaps not.

Linguist relativity is apparently a contested topic in linguistic circles. (Who knew?) In my opinion, the interaction between language and culture seem unavoidable. But I'm interested to learn more and to hear what you think!
What do you think? Have you seen culture and words interact? Do any of the words from the Huffington Post article stand out to you?
Image credit: Jack Fussell


  1. This is super interesting! I'm definitely with you about pena ajena and the stand up comedians. It's so stressful! Haha. And I love buen provecho! It will always remind me of my Costa Rican host dad saying it before every meal--it definitely communicates warmth and community.
    I find it interesting that this is contested in linguistic circles. At face value, it seems logical that words that exist in some languages but not others would indicate a need for that word and therefore its importance. Definitely an interesting topic!

  2. I agree with you. In what I was reading, it seems to be a bit of the "chicken and the egg" situation. Does the value inspire the words or do the words shape the values? Very interesting.

  3. I am constantly so blessed by the relationship I have with my in-laws. I can NEVER complain about them. And it's so awesome that they get along so well with my parents. We have actually taken at least 3 extended family trips together that I can think of right now. It makes planning a logistical nightmare, but otherwise everyone gets along really well. So awesome!

  4. That's so wonderful! I am in the middle of planning a trip with multiple family members. Yes, logistics can be a little wild, but the time together should be sweet!


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