In everyday Somali speech, it’s fairly common for people to address a stranger (non-relative) as ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ (Huuno/Walaal(o)/(A)baayo/(A)boowe). It’s a traditional practice which is relatively ubiquitous and most likely the norm in many cultures, right?
But you know what’s really interesting? In the Somali tradition, it’s extremely common for soon-to-wed/married Somali couples to continue calling their spouse-to-be/spouse ‘huuno’, ‘walaal’ or ‘abaayo/aboowe’. The only difference is that the original neutral meaning becomes one of intimate endearment and respect. A weak comparable example would be Brits’ usage of the term ‘love’ where it’s socially acceptable for them to address strangers as ‘love’ or ‘dear’ but suddenly bears an affectionate tone when used by couples. Still, not the same.
So… what other cultures adopt kinship terms to speak of lovers’ intimacy? My initial guess was Arab cultures, but even they don’t use it. We only recently started adopting Arabic words of endearment. No, we have to go back several thousands of years, to Somalis’ distant relatives: the ancient Egyptians.
You see, in ancient Egypt, it was fairly common for soon-to-wed to call each other ‘my brother’ or ‘my sister’. Even after marriage, the husband continuous to call his wife ‘sonit’ (sister). For centuries, modern historians mistakenly assumed that ancient Egyptians were engaged in sibling-marriage. This was true for royal families who married their siblings and even their children, but it was prohibited for the common folk. In the end, this family language use to speak of couples’ intimacy died down as a result of Egypt’s cultural Arabisation.
It can also be found in modern-day Korean culture whereby soon-to-wed and married couples call each other ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ but this is more of a recent phenomenon and not one that is rooted in ancient Korean tradition.
Historically, during times of peace, exogamous marriage was the traditional and strategic norm in the Somali society. This means that marrying outside your clan was the preferred option and was the custom. I couldn’t find any literature on whether commoners in ancient Egypt practised exogamous marriage but in the Somali context, I’ve a strong feeling that there is some correlation between marrying outside your clan and family language usage as terms of endearment for married couples but have no evidence for it — so just a guess. Nonetheless, interesting as hell. Does anyone know any other cultures that use these terms for married couples?