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A holds the 'sibling-in-law' relation to B only in the case when:

(1) A is a sibling of C and C is married to B; or
(2) A is married to C and C is a sibling of B.

What is common to (1) and (2) is that they both involve a complex relation, i.e. a relation composed of two relations, is a sibling of and is married to, but that one is substituted for the other, keeping their arguments constant. But then one may wonders why use a single notion i.e. 'sibling-in-law' (as is the cas in at least English, French, Italian, and countless natural languages) to refer to individuals when it makes quite a difference to those individuals' identity, whether the order of two subrelations is (1) or (2).

Hence this question: Is there a plausible hypothesis as to why many natural languages mark no lexical distinction between sibling-in-law as determined by (1) and sibling-in-law determined by (2)? And does it even make sense to assign sibling-in-law what seems to be a disjunctive meaning, i.e. either (1) or (2)? Are there known examples of the same phenomenon in the category of common nouns denoting individuals?

edit: I just noticed that some dictionaries add another condition, (3): A has a spouse who has a sibling who has a spouse B. This does not affect the point or the question above.

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    It seems that there is a whole set of ambiguous family relations, because to be 'precise' people would have to specify which parent's parent (for a grandparent), which sibling's child (for a cousin), etc. Are these distinct from your interest? – Jeremy Needle Jul 19 '18 at 21:10
  • What do you mean by "same phenomenon"? For example, is non-marking of maternal aunt vs. paternal aunt the same kind of thing? – user6726 Jul 19 '18 at 21:51
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    "when it makes quite a difference to those individuals' identity, whether the order of two subrelations is (1) or (2)" Who says that it does make such a difference? – curiousdannii Jul 19 '18 at 23:20
  • @curiousdannii The speakers of languages which do differentiate (1) and (2). Which makes this a question about cultural anthropology. – Nick Nicholas Jul 20 '18 at 2:37
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    @MrNyc My point is that what you see as disjunctive and nondisjunctive is culturally determined, and while there is formal ambiguity between 1 and 2, you have not demonstrated that for someone from an Anglo culture that 1 and 2 constitute "quite a difference to those individuals' identity" as you say in the question. The ambiguity doesn't matter because the difference isn't seen as very relevant in the Anglo culture. – curiousdannii Jul 20 '18 at 13:38
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The expression of family relations does not occur in a social vacuum: it is tied up with the cultural norms surrounding those relations.

If you live in a society where the dominant norm is the nuclear family, then the distinction between (1) and (2) is socially fine print: as an adult, you interact with a sister and her husband as a nuclear unit, and with your wife's sister and her husband as another nuclear unit. The difference between (1) and (2) has little consequence.

But the norm for the majority of societies has been https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patrilocal_residence. The gender of the in-law makes a huge difference as to where they fit in with you socially: the brothers stay in the household, the sisters moved to their husbands' household.

In Greece, there is a stigma to being a soɣambros, someone who is more closely associated with his father in-law's household than his father's (soɣambros < "in-house brother-in-law"). It is no surprise that the language acting as a vehicle for such a society would differentiate between a ɣambros (1) and a badzanakis (2).


I note that OP has also asked:

And does it even make sense to assign sibling-in-law what seems to be a disjunctive meaning, i.e. either (1) or (2)? Are there known examples of the same phenomenon in the category of common nouns denoting individuals?

Family relations which English would regard as utterly disjunctive are certainly unified in Australian Aboriginal kinship systems. For example, taking examples that have made it into variants of Aboriginal English:

In south-east Queensland, daughter is used to refer to any woman of one's great-grandparents' generation. This is due to the cyclical nature of traditional kinship systems and mirrors usage in many Australian languages.

Father and mother include any relative of one's parents' generation, such as uncles, aunts, their own cousins and in-laws.

Son can refer to any male of the next generation, such as nephews, just as daughter can refer to any female of the next generation, including nieces.

For that matter, the large number of languages which differentiate parallel cousins from cross-cousins, paternal cousins from maternal cousins, or first cousins from second cousins, would regard the English use of cousin as just as disjunctive. (Similar points have already been made by other commenters. And I don't think it is defensible to claim that "any female of the next generation from X" is any more disjunctive than "any female that X has sired or given birth to." As that definition shows, even "parent" is disjunctive.)

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  • Thanks for this answer, I do appreciate the example from Greek which I didn't know about. I completely agree that the question of the importance of distinguishing at the lexical level between (1) and (2) is a question of cultural anthropology. But there is another part of the question which falls in the scope of applied semantics: are there other examples of essentially disjunctive common nouns for individuals? If not, isn't it a remarkable exception? – MrNycticorax Jul 20 '18 at 11:55
  • ps: by 'essentially disjunctive' I mean whose meaning cannot be formally analysed except by using a disjunction (or any truth-functional operators to the same effect). – MrNycticorax Jul 20 '18 at 11:58
  • Hate to say it, O Crow of the Night, but I think disjunctive meanings are commonplace (although of course that depends on the predicates you use in your formal analysis; but how can it not?) Trivial example: "x is approximately 5" can be analysed as the disjunction "slightly more than 5 or slightly less than 5". Is that analysis really so different from "x is sibling ° married y or x is married ° sibling y"? – Nick Nicholas Jul 20 '18 at 16:07
  • Oh, I've added more to my answer, to deal with your question "Are there known examples of the same phenomenon in the category of common nouns denoting individuals?" – Nick Nicholas Jul 20 '18 at 16:20
  • I anticipated this objection, kind Sir, when I wrote category of common nouns denoting individuals. Thanks for your edition to your initial answer; will reply when I have time. – MrNycticorax Jul 20 '18 at 17:17

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