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4.5. The ‘Family’ Concept in Dictionaries

While previous chapters mostly explain the ‘family’ concept from a social viewpoint, this chapter provides a more linguistic approach; it aims to demonstrate how our perception changed through time and how the effect of sociocultural factors on the ‘family’ concept is reflected in the language we use. Therefore, what follows is an inspection of several dictionaries, providing an insight into the evolution of the concept of ‘family’.

In order to serve their purpose, dictionaries need to adjust to the sociocultural context of their era. In other words, language is learned in social contexts (see also Günther 2016, 113) and is consequently transmitted into dictionaries. Therefore, dictionaries can serve as a reflection of a nation's mindset, beliefs, and overall language use. How a dictionary defines a word to a large extent corresponds to its users' understanding and usage of words and concepts. This is why comparing dictionaries with different years of publication could be useful for the analysis of the concept ‘family’; it shows us how the concept's meaning underwent slight alterations that potentially contributed to differences in the mentality of the nation in question and vice versa, i.e. how the nation's mentality mirrored in the language. Furthermore, comparing dictionaries from different languages can also reveal some cultural differences between different-speaking nations. This chapter thus includes an analysis of some English, Slovenian, and Croatian dictionaries originating from different years. This analysis serves as an indicator of how society molds language and how language adapts to cultural, political, and other social factors of its time.

36 Family

Since the language of a nation is connected to its world view (see also Koerner 2000, 1), dictionaries could provide an insight into their users' perspective and understanding of concepts. How people create the prototype for the concept 'family' depends on many sociocultural factors; language being one of them. By examining dictionary entries for the word 'family', we can discover how this concept was perceived in different times and places.

Even though dictionaries are not necessarily the exact reflection of their users' perception and mindset, they do present, at least to a certain extent, what kind of meaning and implication was linguistically imposed on the speakers of the language in question. Therefore, what follows is a list of some 'family' entries from various dictionaries that differ in their publication year and language.

When it comes to English dictionaries, the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (1978, 394) defines family as “any group of people related by blood or marriage, esp. a group of 2 grown-ups and their children”; the Webster's New World Dictionary (1986, 505) defines it as “all the people living in the same house; household” and as “a social unit consisting of parents and the children they rear”; the Oxford Enyclopedic English Dictionary (1991, 887) provides a slightly broader definition by describing it as “a set of parents and children, or of relations, living together or not”; the Webster’s Enyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language (1996, 514) defines it as “parents and their children, whether dwelling together or not”, “any group of persons closely related by blood as parents, children, uncles, aunts, and cousins” and “a group of persons who form a household under one head, including parents, children, servants, etc.” Furthermore, the Collins English Dictionary (2000, 555) gives a more specific definition that fails to take into account relatives, such as cousins, aunts, uncles, etc. - “a primary social group consisting of parents and their offspring, the principal function of which is provision for its members”. The Penguin Dictionary (2006, 499)


provides a more neutral definition – “a group of related people living together; esp. a group comprising one set of parents, or a single parent, and their children”. We can notice, however, that this definition mentions single parents as well, which suggests the rise of single-parent families in that time and also points to a shift in the categorial structure of ‘family’.

While analyzing a few Slovenian dictionaries, I have stumbled upon similar definitions to the ones offered in English dictionaries. Perhaps the most general definition is provided by the Leksikon Sova (2006, 233), in which a family is defined as a group of people based on kinship. Slovar slovenskega knjižnega jezika (2010, 176), however, gives a more narrow definition by describing ‘family’ as a married couple with or without children. Furthermore, some older Slovenian and Croatian dictionaries, such as the Leksikoni Cankarjeve založbe (1979, 74-75) and Enciklopedija leksikografskog zavoda (1969, 236-237) also link the term

‘family’ to blood and marriage-related ties.

How we use language affects our perception, and thus our creation of prototypes. This is why the definitions mentioned above help us understand how most speakers of these languages perceive the concept of family, and ultimately how they create the prototype for this concept.

However, to analyze this concept in more depth, examining other kinship definitions could be useful as well, hence the following analysis.


While the word ‘father’ is in most dictionaries described as the ‘male parent’ (2000, 559), and is thus not controversial nor thought-provoking enough for me to analyze it in more depth, the definitions for the word ‘mother’ contain some debatable features.

In most dictionaries I have examined, the word ‘mother’ is defined as the ‘female parent’ and as the one that can give birth to a child (1978, 710). These definitions, however, lack some aspects of motherhood, i.e. they fail to incorporate transgender women, women that are


medically not able to give birth and/or women who adopt their child(ren) since they are not perceived as a prototypical representation of a mother. For example, in the Collins English Dictionary (2000, 1014), a mother is described as “a female who has given birth to offspring”. Another similar example can be found in the Croatian dictionary Rječnik hrvatskog jezika (2000, 564), where a mother is described as a woman that gave birth to a child or children. This dictionary provides a narrow definition for the word ‘woman/wife’ as well (žena = woman and/or wife) by describing this word as a human being that can give birth to children (2000, 1442). I have, however, stumbled upon a more open definition by reading through Goddard and Wierzbicka (2014, 32), who initially make a distinction between ‘men’ and ‘women’ based on the capacity of giving birth - “inside the body of someone of this kind can be for some time a living body of a child”, but later on make a note that “the explication in no way implies that an individual woman who cannot have children is not a woman” (Goddard and Wierzbicka, 2014, 32).


When it comes to ‘marriage’, this word is mostly described as a union between a man and a woman. The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (1978, 667) defines marriage as

“the union of a man and woman by a ceremony in law”; the Webster's New World Dictionary (1986, 869) defines it as a “relation between husband and wife”; the Oxford Enyclopedic English Dictionary (1991, 887) limits the definition even more by describing it as “the legal union of a man and a woman in order to live together and often to have children”; the Webster’s Enyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language (1996, 1179) defines it as “the social institution under which a man and a woman establish their decision to live as husband and wife by legal commitments, religious ceremonies, etc.”; the Collins English Dictionary (2000, 953) describes it as “the state or relationship of being husband and wife”;

The Penguin English Dictionary (2006, 852) defines it as “the state of being husband and


wife or the mutual relation it represents”. We could say that these definitions mirror the marriage laws of their time and of the countries in which that language is spoken. This is probably why the most recent edition of The Oxford Learner’s Dictionary (2021) describes marriage as “the legal relationship between two people who are married to each other”, rather than constricting the definition to opposite-sex couples only. Such a linguistic shift is a reflection of socio-political changes regarding marriage law and same-sex marriage, which is now legal in some countries, such as the United States and the United Kingdom. Therefore, it is highly likely that the concept of marriage was influenced by language, which had for many years, as seen in the examples above, suggested that the prototype for the category ‘marriage’

is a heterosexual marriage. More modern definitions thus imply a shift in the prototypical representation of marriage, by making it more inclusive of all types of couples, regardless of their sex.

Additional support for the claim that our perception and language change through time is provided in the following chapter, which offers a practical examination of sociocultural effects on the creation of the ‘family’ category and its prototype.