Language and reality perception:
Language has a way of coming up on you blind side.  If you had asked me a few weeks ago how many kinds of time there were in the English language I would have said that there are more than you really need.  There is “I run,” which is present time and “I am running, ” which is present progressive time.  You don’t really need both, do you?  And there is past and future, each with its progressive and there are things that were completed in the past or will be completed in the future or are conditional on something else happening.  It’s all very familiar and logical.  Then I found an article (Marshmallows and Rösti(graben) SCIENCE vol. 339 no. 61115 January 4, 2013 page 11) that gave me pause.

In English there is not such a clear distinction between present and future.  You can say, “I am going to town as we speak,” and you can say, “I am going to town tomorrow.”  The time of the action is different.  The form of the verb is the same.

Well dumb old me.  I should have noticed that. 

The article goes on to say that French is different.  There is no ambiguity in time in French.  Well I knew that, that’s because I had been told that French was more logical, not that I noticed it myself.  But at least I could use the idea.  I was once strolling along a sidewalk in Paris (don’t you hate name droppers) with a young woman who noticed a store named, (I am a polylingual bad speller, so I hope this is right) “Il etait un temp,” “There Was a Time.”  She asked me what it meant.   I gave her the literal interpretation, but something seemed amiss.  When we say “there was a time” in English we mean something in a past.  Generally we mean a condition that held for some significant space of time within the past, but in French that wouldn’t quite fly.  French means what it says, and if there was a time in the past that was not the same as the time we are going through now, then it is out of continuity.  That means the particular events don’t connect because there is more than one time frame.  The light dawned.  I said, “It means once upon a time.”  We went in.  It was indeed a children’s store. 

The article says that since the German language, like English, doesn’t make the precise logical distinction between present and future that French does, that for German speakers the future is already happening and not so for the French.  Hence, they aver, German speakers save more because the future is more nearly real.

I would have guessed it would go the other way.  But they have the data and I don’t.

But when it comes to kinship I really do see a problem because of language limitations.  Recently my nephew told me a joke that I needn’t repeat, although it was very funny, and when I laughed his son asked why.  The mother said, “You don’t marry cousins.”

Somewhere my French affinity started toying with the sentence and I thought that I have siblings, ancestors and potentially I could have descendants.  Marrying any of them would raise eyebrows at the very least.  My ancestors often had siblings, and my siblings have descendants.  None of those are really available either.  In English everybody else is a cousin.  I mean every human who lives, lived or will live.  We’re all cousins, first, second, third and so forth and once, twice, three times and so forth removed perhaps but all cousins.  We share an ancestor somewhere up there but long before we get to the slime of the primordial ooze.  In fact we are related as cousins along innumerable lines, all of us.  For naming purposes you choose the closest connection, but we are cousins over and over again. 

You can’t marry anybody but a cousin. 

Some places first cousins are forbidden.  Some places they are expected as spouses.  But we don’t have a formal word for kissing cousins.  So generally we take, unfortunately, the position that if you know your relationship you are forbidden to marry.  That would be “inbreeding.”  Ooo.  Bad.

And generally, and falsely, it’s thought that the less the degree of kinship the better.  Our language fails us.

I formulate it like this:
1) Incest, parents offspring or siblings.  Forbidden with good reason.
2) First cousins.  Probably all right occasionally but don’t persist for generation after generation.  I call this inbreeding.  It seems to be survivable but so far as I know will ultimately cause problems with inbreeding depression.  But there are a couple of things to be said in its defense.  For one, reduced fertility will tend toward having a stable population size.  That’s obviously a good thing in the long run.  Secondly any ill effects are completely removed by a single generation of choosing a mate less kin.  I do run into the opinion that interpersonal violence and corruption are more frequent in such societies, but that is not my line of thought.  I am talking only biology.  Not only are first cousin marriages preferred in some societies, but it may be more specific.  The father’s brothers daughter may be the choice for a man. 
3) Third or fourth cousins.  That is what Patrick Bateson would call optimal outbreeding.  It produces the most grandchildren, according to the Icelandic study.  Optimal outbreeding could be defined as going with kinship out as far as I think fourth cousin.  At any rate Robin Fox has determined the degree of kinship in traditional societies.  If the degree falls below a certain floor the tribe will split.  Any social problems attendant upon inbreeding would be ameliorated and any health problems.  The down side of optimal outbreeding is lots of babies, more than are needed.  That is an inherently unstable situation.
4) The hardest to figure and the least regarded of all: what I regard as balanced outbreeding, maintaining consanguinity at a level that is just right.  It’s probably around sixth or seventh cousin.  Again there is likely, so I am assured, to be greater community spirit, essentially no increase in health problems and a stable population.  Unfortunately there is no term at all for this degree of kinship.  I can’t even swear I have a good idea of what it is.
5) Frank oubreeding.  That would mean consistently choosing mates that are unrelated to the point where the society will eventually die.  I recon it’s out at ninth or tenth cousin. 
6) Miscegenation.  That is defined as marrying someone of a different “race.”  It’s not a term I have much use for.  I just think of it as thousandth cousin or greater.  So far as I know no two people are related as distantly as two thousandth cousin.  So far as I know there is no fertility difference between marrying tenth cousin or thousandth cousin.  One wonders if the word could be lugged in to apply to closer degrees of kinship, say anything that would qualify as frank outbreeding, but the term has a history and is emotionally charged, so it’s probably better just to drop it unless one day some issue does come up, in which case I’m sure it’s written down somewhere.

So that’s how I put it together.  I have trouble keeping it all straight even having an interest.  Obviously the lack of proper terminology is a serious limit on almost everybody’s thinking.

There have been 59 visitors since the new stats.

Home page