Thursday, August 11, 2011

Outdated Language and Relationships - Vocabulary

Once upon a time, all boys and girls automatically met (or were matched) somewhere between the ages of 16-20, got married, and lived happily (or not) ever after.  Needless to say, those days are over, replaced by divorced once or multiple times, latch key kids, being single to 30, 40, or more, and even two father or mother households. Life is not so simple anymore.
Many languages, alas, are behind the time.  For example, English has a nice pair of words: girlfriend and boyfriend.  These are very adequate words until somewhere around 30 when the “boy” has a pot belly, expanding face, and a salary higher than the father while the “girl” may be a high-level executive who has already given birth.  They are clearly not “16 going on 17” as the song says.
So, faced with this challenge, English has come with plethora of alternative words.  There is the more adult versions lady friend and male friend.  There is gender and relation ambiguous partner (the one I am currently using) or, slightly more specific, life partner.  For invitations that want to ignore legal status issues, significant others includes everybody.  I feel obliged to mention She-who-must-be-obeyed, although I would never actually use it. 
The problem with all these terms, many of them quite appropriate, is that the speaker has to think which is the most politically correct to use.  They all have some gender/legal status/age context.
Contrast this with approach taken by Hebrew.  There, we have חבר [haver] and  חברה [havera], which mean simply friend, masculine and female.  The voice inflexion and context let you know how friendly they are, but that really isn’t your business, is it?  Older couples can use the terms בן זוג   and בת זוג  [ben zug / bat zug], which means male and female of the pair, a bit like spouse without the requirement of marriage.  The beauty of these words is that there no connotation of age or status, just stating the essential: friendship and togetherness.  Those are never outdated.
I would be interested in knowing how other languages deal with the older friendships.

My next post will be at the end of the month.

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