17 March 2011

Who's Your Mother?

Just as in Shona culture one may call more than one person baba, father, so one may call more than one person amai*, mother. In the same way that all brothers of one's biological father are addressed as baba, so one's biological mother and her sisters are addressed as amai. Similarly, elder sisters of one's biological mother are referred to as amaiguru or maiguru. and younger sisters are referred to as amainini or mainini in the same way that elder brothers of one's biological father are referred to as baba mukuru and younger brothers are referred to as baba munini or baba mudiki.

This way of expressing family relationships is very logical and makes clear where in the hierarchical family structure every member of the family fits. Each time one speaks to or about one's parents and/or their siblings, that person's location and responsibilities within the family structure are identified and reinforced. This will become clearer as names for other family members are discussed.

*In most Bantu languages the word for mother is mama. Shona tends to use amai, sometimes shortened to simply mai. It is interesting that the Portuguese word for mother is mai. With the definite article it becomes a mai. Could this use of the Portuguese expression for mother in Shona be related to the contact between early Portuguese explorers and and the Monomutapa, ruler of the 16th century kingdom from which modern Shona people are descended? I'm sure some scholar has researched this issue. Said scholar has yet to reveal himself or the results of his research to me. Maybe some day.

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