I’m familiar with words for relations within the large extended Indian families, the single word that expresses whether your grandmother is from your father’s or mother’s side, the clear difference between your father’s elder or younger brother, the lack of such a differentiation for his female siblings, the lack of differentiation between an older sibling and cousin of the same sex, and so on. When we got married, and The Family and I slowly learned these words in another Indian language, we also found the interesting occasional differences. For us these relations are living and important, they affect our social ties.
When I started learning Chinese I was not surprised that there is an equal variety of words for elder and younger sisters and brothers, for uncles and aunts, based on the order of their births, for grandparents. But in China these are linguistic fossils. For two generations there have been no siblings. A lost taxi driver in Wuhan will call out Meimei (meaning younger sister) to a passing woman to stop and ask for directions, in startling contrast to one in Kolkata who will call out Didi (meaning older sister). But these are synthetic uses. Very few in China have siblings: gege, didi, meimei, jiejie, or uncles and aunts: bobo, jiujiu, guzhang, gugu, yima, or cousins. On the other hand, walking in a park you will keep hearing the words yeye, gonggong, nainai, laolao as children call out to their grandparents. Changing the structure of families is a genuine cultural revolution, a complete break with China’s own past. But language is tenacious, the fossils of these relations remain.