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LINGUIST List 21.1038

Wed Mar 03 2010

Qs: Etymology and Cultural Connotations of the Word 'Aunt'

Editor for this issue: Danielle St. Jean <daniellelinguistlist.org>

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        1.    Rose Martelli, Etymology and Cultural Connotations of the Word 'Aunt'

Message 1: Etymology and Cultural Connotations of the Word 'Aunt'
Date: 02-Mar-2010
From: Rose Martelli <rosemartelligmail.com>
Subject: Etymology and Cultural Connotations of the Word 'Aunt'
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I am working as a researcher and ghostwriter on an upcoming book
from HarperStudio that will be a sort of parenting guide for the non-
parent - aunts, godmothers, moms' best friends, etc. who wish to take a
meaningful role in a child's upbringing. While most of the book will
contain how-to info, we will be discussing aunt-hood in its sociocultural
context as well.

Towards that end, I am looking for a source who might speak to the
following questions about the etymology of 'aunt.' If this is you, please
drop me a line.

We will be giving proper credit and acknowledgments in the book to
whomever we use as sources, the particulars of which would be
solidified during the editing/layout phase.

The questions are below:

- Some languages don't have a word for aunt. Would you say this is
necessarily an example of aunts being devalued in those cultures?
What are the usual thoughts, in the realm of linguistics, about what the
absence of a word or term signifies culturally?

- In the English language - particularly in the American and especially
the British cultures - there is often a negative connotation associated
with the word 'aunt,' even when it's used to describe something other
than a parent's sibling. (For example, the British sneeringly referring to
the BBC as 'Auntie Beeb' because of its didacticism and fuddy-
duddyness.) Are there examples in other languages and/or cultures of
the word 'aunt' either being distinctly negative or positive in

- In my research, I have read that most European languages use words
for 'aunt' derived from the Greek 'tethis' or the Latin 'amita' or 'tata' and
that the latter two, at least, mean 'rearer.' Yet an aunt is defined as
being a nonparent; why the discrepancy?

- Is there any definitive answer to how one should pronounce 'aunt': as
'ant' or 'ont'? Is there any sort of popular hypothesis out there as to
why both pronunciations became equally acceptable - or, do you have
a personal theory about it? Is the difference in pronunciation traced to
certain parts of the world?

- Uncles have an adjective that stems from their title: 'avuncular,' which
has positive connotations of kindness, geniality and indulgence. Is
there a word out there that is the equivalent for 'aunt'? (I've read that
'nanny' is considered to have stemmed from aunt, or at least that
they share the same roots.)

Many thanks for your time and attention.

- Rose Martelli

Linguistic Field(s): Anthropological Linguistics
                            Historical Linguistics

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