Some Australian Aboriginal languages mark the avoidance taboo on mothers-in-law with special forms of their language. This is called mother-in-law language or avoidance language.

Among the Gamilaraay of Australia, until about 1895, a man could address his mother-in-law only indirectly, by going half way to her camp then facing away and shouting so that all his wife's relatives could hear. The Gamilaraay word for mother-in-law is buyal in the Namoi River dialect, or garrimaay in the Barwon River dialect.

The Dyirbal language has a special dialect called Jalnguy for use in the presence of one's mother-in-law.

A Mother-in-law: The Innocent Bystander of Divorce

I wonder about her sometimes - does she think of me? Well, how could she not, for we lived together for five years, and for the most part, a peaceful co-existence it was. And then the guilt starts to gnaw at me. Sometimes, it doesn't gnaw so much as persistently nip at my heels, like a particularly annoying sort of lapdog that has a constant need for attention. And at other times, I summon up all the indignation I can muster at the fact that I was the perfect daughter-in-law for those five years and that she should at least be grateful for that. But for the most part, I avoid thinking about her, and let her fall into one of those endless fissures that opened up in the barren strip-mined landscape of an alien planet that used to be my marriage.

Images of her fleetingly occupy a small corner of my awareness on those rare days when I will allow myself the indulgence of delving into my distant past. I like to think of her swaying, unsteady walk as she ambled her way through the two miles around the lake most mornings. And her "deer caught in the headlights" look that He and I used to joke about on the rare days that we could fill the space between us with laughter. I've thought about the sarees we used to share and her annoying habit of leaving empty coffee mugs around the house. I remember the lively banter between her and my mother during vacations, when I paid lip-service to their friendship while secretly internalizing the unspoken tension between them that could only be given voice in jest.

It strikes me as odd that although we shared the most companionable of relationships, filled with warmth and mutual respect, I always find myself drawn to picking through my memories to find the ones where I can summon up some anger or resentment towards her. "Its not her fault really!", I tell myself, and yet some part of me wants someone, anyone, other than me, to bear the blame for the disintegration of a marriage that has now been broken for longer than it ever held together.

I resent the woman who gave birth to the man I divorced, because I no longer feel attached to all the ways that I have felt about him - crush, attraction, delight, excitement, longing, admiration, awe, repulsion, contempt, anger, regret, guilt, shame, forgiveness - and find myself at ease with him and our past. And although I feel none of those feelings for him, some of the feelings still havent found a way to work themselves out, and the only representative of all that stood between us, is her dreaded "in-law" status. I use her "in-law-ness" as a repository for all the failings of my previous husband and his inability to see me for the woman I was, and I resent my mother-in-law for she presents herself as a convenient placeholder for my mother and her interfering ways. And most of all, I allow myself to resent her, because it allows me to continue this unfortunate and endless game of hide and seek that I play with my locked-up memories, when they come chasing after me late at night on anniversaries and birthdays.

Like an innocent bystander whose life is irrevocably transformed by bearing witness to human tragedy, the woman who could have been the grandmother of my children, has paid a heavy price for playing house with me. It is a debt I can never repay and one that I now carry with gratitude, because her long silence and continued absence from my life is filled with such palpable grace.

Moth"er-in-law` (?), n.

The mother of one's husband or wife.


© Webster 1913.

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