Cultures around the world use language in richly varied ways to form and define social relationships, hierarchies, and maintain a sense of order. One example of a linguistic practice that seems incredibly challenging and opaque to many Western folks is popularly referred to as “mother-in-law” speech. Bryant Rousseau recently gave a pretty decent overview of what this means in the NY Times, in an article called “Talking to In-Laws Can Be Hard. In Some Languages, It’s Impossible“.
As the article quickly illustrates, it’s less interesting to note that there are specific cultural restrictions on how, or even whether, you are allowed to speak to your spouse’s parents, and that where such restrictions exist they are often applied in gendered ways. What’s more interesting is the fairly widespread practice that extends this restriction to saying the names of in-laws, or even to names that sound like those names – possibly forbidding pronunciation of the same root, or the same opening syllable, or even the same first sounds (the article says “letters”, but that is, of course, an example of literacy-based thinking that doesn’t accurately describe what the author intends). Although the article uses the fear of in-laws as an amusing framing device, name taboos aren’t limited to the names of in-laws – they may even prohibit married women from using their own husbands’ names, or forbid the use of deceased people’s names, or insist that particularly powerful individuals should not be named (as the title of this post indicates, this idea has crept in to English speaking popular literature). To an extent, we can even see this avoidance in our own Anglo North American systems for encoding respect – we restrict the use of first names, for example, and ask that honorifics (Mr. Somethingorother, Dr. Soandso) be used as a substitution.
With any situation of taboo words, there are strategies people use to communicate their meanings that don’t require them to break restrictions. Sometimes this involves simple substitutions, sometimes it involves borrowing from neighbouring languages – it always involves creative practices that allow the speaker to say what they mean without violating norms.
Rousseau’s article does a good job describing the range of such practices in different contexts, but to my mind gives short shrift to the most interesting element of all – why do these practices exist? In other words, what’s the social function of name taboos, and what is being accomplished with the acts of avoidance and substitution that affected speakers use? By focusing only on in-laws, he emphasizes the relationship between these taboos and the expression of respectful deference, but shame and social consequences aren’t the only possible reasons for avoidance. Think again of He Who Shall Not Be Named – in the wizarding world, naming that person is an act that risks giving him power in a literal sense, helping him to be reconstituted into a physical form. These kinds of magical consequences and invocations may also be among the reasons for avoiding certain names.
While certainly oversimplifying, the idea that names carry exceptional power is a robust enough cross cultural pattern that we can make a few generalizations about why it happens and what it tells us about language. First, we use avoidance to define specific relationships, and because personal names refer to specific individuals, this category of word is especially ripe for exploitation in this regard. Second, there is a relatively common pattern that sees power expressed through the use of the particular sounds, not in relation to the meaning those sounds refer to. This is why you see items that are phonetically associated with the taboo names also restricted, but not, generally speaking, semantically associated ones (and in fact, it’s those semantic and descriptive connections that speakers draw on for substitutions). Even though “He Who Shall Not Be Named” has come, in the Potterverse, to function as a referent to one particular individual, and thus indicate the exact same meaning, Harry still shocks everyone by defiantly choosing to utter the synonymous sounds Voldemort. Finally, the practice of taboo avoidance works to performatively create, reinforce, and structure the meaning and nature of power in multiple senses of the word, including social hierarchy, spiritual distance, and, well, magic.
Language is central to the maintenance of order in given cultural worlds, including both appropriate expectations for behaviour in certain relationships and deeply-rooted spiritual meanings connected to the boundary between life and death, the protection of health and well-being, and the bringing into being of desired effects (or the avoidance of undesired ones). It’s not just about your in-laws – not being named can be an enormous form of power.
(For those with academic access, several examples and some of the analysis used here come from the following article: Fleming, L. (2011) “Name Taboos and Rigid Performativity” Anthropological Quarterly 84 (1):141-164