Avoidance speech is a group of sociolinguistic phenomena in which a restricted speech style must be used in the presence of, or in reference to, certain relatives. Avoidance language is found in many Australian aboriginal languages, Austronesian languages as well as some North American languages, Highland East Cushitic languages and Bantu languages.

 In Australian Aboriginal languages, avoidance speech is tied closely to kinship systems in which certain relatives are considered taboo. Although the relatives that avoidance speech refers to differs from tribe to tribe, typically there is an avoidance relationship between a man and his mother and law, and a woman and her father in law.

Avoidance speech styles used with taboo relative are often known as ‘mother-in-law languages’. However, avoidance speech is not actually a separate language, but separate lexical sets (groups of words) with the same grammar and phonology. The taboo lexical set will have one or more correspondence with the everyday set, so when the conventional everyday word cannot be used due to the avoidance customs, it can be swapped out for a different one. For example, in the Australian Aboriginal language of Dyribal, the avoidance speech has just one word you can use for all lizards and iguanas (jijan), whilst the everyday language differentiates between many different types. With Guugu Yimidhirr, another Australian Aboriginal language, the avoidance speech verb “bali-l” (meaning travel) covers several everyday verbs meaning “go”, “walk”, “crawl”, “paddle”, “float”, “sail”, “drift” and “limp along”, which is useful when avoidance speech forbids the use of any of the everyday verbs. 

Yvonne Treis, a linguist at a French research institute, Languages and Cultures of Sub-Saharan Africa, notes that in the  Kambaata language of Ethiopia, some married woman follow balishsha, a rule that forbids them from using words hat begin with the same syllable as the name of their father-in-law, or mother-in-law.  Naturally, this rule complicates conversation, but there are work arounds to make communication possible. Certain basic words in the vocabulary come in synonymous pairs. Treis states “One is the normal term, used by everybody; one is the term used by women who are not allowed to say that word”. Another way to avoid using forbidden words is to use euphemisms. For example, if the word “ox” is taboo, the wife may instead refer to “the one who ploughs”.

Avoidance speech is also practiced by speakers of some Bantu languages of southern Africa, including Xhoza and Zulu. In these languages, married women are forbidden from using their father-in-law’s name, or any word that has the same root or similar sound. Bantu speakers often get around this restriction by borrowing synonyms from other languages spoken nearby. Some linguists think this is how click consonants found their way into Bantu speak: in words borrowed from Khoisan languages, which use click sounds extensively.

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