Wednesday, June 3, 2009

What the Titanic taught me about English kinship terms

A few days ago, on May 31st 2009, the last Titanic survivor, Millvina Dean, died at her care home in Ashurst, Hampshire (England). She was also the youngest passenger aboard the ship, which sank on April 15th, 1912. Millvina Dean was 9 weeks old at the time.

It wasn't until the movie "Titanic" came out in 1997 that I learned of a distant relative's harrowing tale aboard the ship. I was 19, and the news was a matter of fascination for a while, and then became an anecdote after that. The kind of thing you mentioned to people at a party, if it came up. I was gloriously – and obnoxiously – smack dab in the middle of my own range of perception.

This week's news of Millvina Dean's death, and the Titanic's passing from living memory, prompted me to re-investigate my connection to the Titanic. After some internet searches, a conversation with my mother, and some searching through a seemingly endless stack of memorabilia I've amassed over the years, I was not only able to find out a name and backtrack my way up the family tree, but I also uncovered this newspaper article (which I scanned and uploaded to Google Docs), and this claim form.

This process of personal investigation has been both cathartic and inspiring. It has connected me to a past that is more alive to me today than ever before. I am able to look at this from a much improved viewpoint than the static, 1-dimensional vantage of a self-absorbed teenager. What I didn't see then is revealing to me now.

A short narrative such as the Fall River Evening Herald piece is bound to contain some notable sociolinguistic phenomenon. In fact, it is a treasure and artifact as much as anything lost and then found from the bottom of a sea. An article is a relic that not only has the age and antiquity of its cohorts, but also the ability to speak its story to us in style and register, not a day unchanged since 1912. These pages have magnitudes upon metas of things to tell us.

I could probably ramble a thesis on analysis of an article, but I'll just cherrypick a few choice bits for here. I found it interesting that the author introduced and ended the article with assessments of Ms. Bassani's appearance:
From the opening paragraph:
"One of the survivors of the ill-fated White Star Liner Titanic, which was wrecked in collision with a huge iceberg on the morning of April 15 off the coast of new Foundland, is Miss Albina Bassani, a pretty young Italian woman, who arrived in this city yesterday morning and is now at the home of her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Anthony Bassani, 241 London Street."

From the closing paragraph:
"Miss Bassani is a young woman of prepossessing appearance. She has a quantity of jet black hair which was neatly and becomingly arranged, bright brown eyes and pleasing features which were enhanced by a good complexion. She speaks English fluently. She is the second eldest daughter of her parents. Mr. Bassani is a piano-maker by occupation."
My how times have changed! We don't print people's street addresses in the paper anymore.

I also found this passage particularly interesting, paying attention to lexical choices and subtle semantic shifts as compared to American English today:
"When we reached this deck there was scarcely anybody to be seen. One of the officers came hurrying toward us and told us to hurry below and put on lifebelts. We were greatly surprised and alarmed, and hastened to do his bidding."
It is important to note that Albina Bassini was a non-native English speaker. Additionally, the author of the Herald article is unknown, so it cannot be determined if the typos and punctuation variations are the result of errors, re-typings, or are reflective of the style of the time.

Another thing I found particularly salient (yet tangential and somewhat banal in content comparison) is a quirk about English kinship terms. I had never noticed this before now:

The sister of your great grandmother is your great, great aunt.

That's right. There is a uneven distribution of greats in the chain of command. This is a byproduct of the logical progression:

Your mother's sister is your aunt.
Your mother's mother is your grandmother.
Your grandmother's sister is your great aunt.
Your grandmother's mother is your great grandmother.
Your great grandmother's sister is your great, great aunt.

This got me to thinking about kinship terms in general. If this one had slipped past me, then others were sure to be lurking unnoticed yet as well. And indeed! The lack of gender distinction for cousins, but not for nephews/nieces and uncles/aunts is strange. And that there are non-gender specific terms for both parents and grandparents, but no general term for both your aunt and uncle together.

The various terms for step-children, step-parents, in-laws, same-sex couples, etc. are still a work in sociolinguistic progress. I run across this frequently when I make reference to my brother's ex-wife. She was a 'sister-in-law' to me when they were together, even though I wasn't the married one. Now of course, its completely inappropriate to refer to her as such. 'Sister' is marked as well. So her first name suffices, and a long explanation if necessary. Until there's confusion between her and someone of the same name. And so it goes.

All of this inquiry has gotten my curious about how these kinship quandaries are addressed in other languages. If you have something to add to this discussion, please feel free to chime in with your comment!

Also, if anybody has tips or suggestion on how to upload and link to a publicly viewable PDF, preferably using Google Docs, I'd love to learn how its done. If so, I can link to a better version of the Herald article.

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