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214 Kinship Expressions and Terms
Kinship Expressions and Terms
J G Heath, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, USA
ß 2006 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
All languages have expressions that can be glossed
‘father,’ ‘wife,’ ‘brother-in-law,’ etc., covering consanguineal, spousal, and affinal categories. However, from
the beginning of serious cross-cultural study, it has been
apparent that societies differ in the kinship categories
used. To facilitate comparison, an ‘etic grid’ is necessary; namely, an open-ended universe of kin-types, such
as ‘father’s sister,’ corresponding to the denotata of
the infinitely expansible possessive construction seemingly found in all languages. The minimal nuclear components are parent (Pa), child (Ch), and spouse (Sp), a
combinatory algorithm (PaPaSp ¼ parent’s parent’s
spouse), and cross-cutting features, including sex of
referent (Ch þ female ¼ daughter), sex of linking relative (male linking relative þ Ch þ female ¼ man’s
daughter), and relative age within a generation
(PaSb þ senior ¼ senior sibling). The initial linking relative (e.g., you in your father) is referred to as ‘ego’ or
In practice, most anthropologists and linguists operate with atomic categories based on a prototypical set
of flesh-and-blood nuclear family members: Fa(ther),
Mo(ther), Br(other), Si(ster), So(n), Da(ughter), Wi(fe),
and Hu(sband). Combinations are then of the type
FaMoBrWi (father’s mother’s brother’s wife).
This grid permits analysis of the denotational scope
of each kin term and, ultimately the entire system, by
identifying the complete set of kin-types onto which
the term maps. Some terms, such as English mother
and brother, denote unique kin-types. Others, such as
English uncle, correspond semantically to finite sets
of kin-types. However, in languages with ‘classificatory’ kin-term systems, each such term maps onto
an unbounded set of kin-types. With such languages,
a common approach is to generate the more complex
kin-types from simpler ones by expansion rules that
link kin-types closer to propositus, with kin-types
in the denoted set farther away; doing so entails
converse reduction rules that go from complex to
simple types. If in a system the term for MoBrDa
expands to include MoMoBrDaDa, then conversely,
MoMoBrDaDa reduces terminologically to MoBrDa;
they are both denoted by the same term in such a
system of terms.
Kinship Systems
Ideally, one can elicit the kinship system of a previously unstudied language by sitting down with an
informant for a few hours, presenting a reasonable
range of kin-types (perhaps using the informant’s actual kin), and recording the corresponding kin terms.
A great milestone in kinship study, still widely mined
for data, was Morgan’s (1870) analytical compendium of term/kin-type mappings from American Indian
languages based on detailed questionnaires filled out
by local correspondents (Trautmann, 1987). In interdisciplinary museum expeditions, such as those led by
Alfred Haddon in the South Pacific in the first decades of the 20th century, it was common to include an
anthropologist who would rapidly record the ‘social
structure’ – that is, the kinship terminology – of each
tribe visited in this fashion.
The resulting systems were taken as reflecting
synchronic native models of how the societies
worked, with particular reference to matriliny versus
partriliny and to such issues as bigamous marriage
involving sibling groups. However, because kin-term
systems were often mismatched with observable social practices, ethnologists inferred that the kin terms
could reflect social structures from an earlier age
that were preserved in linguistic formaldehyde. Evolutionary models were later dismissed in favor of
synchronic interpretations, first by early functionalstructuralists (e.g., Radcliffe-Brown, 1924, 1950),
and later by high structuralists (Lévi-Strauss, 1949)
under the influence of linguistic structuralism. In recent decades, anthropology has become heavily
concerned with historical processes, which has been
reflected in a revival of interest in the evolution of
kinship systems (Dole, 1972).
As an example of kinship typology, consider
the three male kin-types: Fa, FaBr, and MoBr. The
following four groupings are attested: (1) all three
terminologically distinct (Sudanese systems); (2) Fa
versus {FaBr, MoBr} (Eskimo systems, as in English),
emphasizing the distinction between direct and collateral lines; (3) {Fa, FaBr} versus MoBr (Iroquois
systems), known technically as bifurcate merging,
merging same-sex siblings; and (4) all three merged
into one category (Hawaiian systems), emphasizing
generation. A hypothetical fifth system with (Fa,
MoBr) terminologically distinguished from FaBr is
unknown. The treatment of female kin-types Mo,
MoSi, and FaSi is almost always parallel within a
given system type; for example, Iroquois systems
distinguish {Mo, MoSi} from FaSi. Usually (but not
always), parental-generation kin-types that are
merged terminologically as referents are also undifferentiated as linking relatives. For example, the child
of an uncle (whether MoBr or FaBr) is cousin in
Kinship Expressions and Terms 215
Two initially baffling systems show the same (bifurcate merging) cuts as Iroquois among the six primary parental-generation kin-types, but skew their
extensions to lower generations. Crow systems have
a matrilineal skewing rule by which SiSo or
(woman’s) So is terminologically merged with Fa;
note that (ego’s) Fa and SiSo are in the same matrilineal descent group, which differs from ego’s own.
Omaha systems have a structurally similar patrilineal
skewing rule; for example, merging MoBrDa with
Mo, both of whom are in ego’s Mo’s patrilineal
descent group.
Meaning of Kin Terms
One is naturally drawn to seek explanations for this
cross-linguistic variation in the form of correlation
with cross-cultural differences in social practices.
However, doing so turns out to be more difficult
than it seems. To begin with, there are at least four
social parameters that might be considered: (1) society-wide descent groups (matrilineal or patrilineal),
including binary divisions (moieties); (2) marriage
rules; (3) postnuptial residence (e.g., with the father
of the bride); and (4) inheritance (e.g., from father
to son). Unfortunately, these social phenomena operate at different levels and are often nuanced and
negotiable, rather than binaristic and rigid. Although
the parameters may sometimes converge (e.g., patrilineal descent, patrilocal residence, father-to-son
inheritance), there are many cases where they do not.
The structural-functional interpretation of ‘‘a kinship
system as a working system linking human beings
together in an orderly arrangement of interactions’’
(Radcliffe-Brown, 1950) has been plagued by evidence that certain kin terms lump together kin-types
associated with quite different behaviors and
affective relations.
Yet, it seems reasonable to suppose that kin-term
semantics and prevailing sociocultural practices are
not unrelated. For example, the fact that Americans
have unique terms for parents, but lump the siblings
of these parents (and even the spouses of these siblings) together as aunt and uncle, correlates with the
autonomy of the nuclear family in this society.
Likewise, societies that have well-developed descent
systems and, say, a formalized levirate by which orphaned children are adopted by a brother of the
deceased father, are good candidates for systems
with Fa ¼ FaBr (distinct from MoBr).
The suggestive but imperfect correlations between
terminology and sociocultural practices have led
to deep divisions among anthropologists as to what
kin terms ‘mean.’ At one pole are exponents of formal kinship semantics, who argue that kin terms
constitute autonomous formal systems, decomposable into nuclear primitives and expansion/reduction
rules as sketched above. One of the founders of this
approach, Floyd Lounsbury, demonstrated that this
generative model provided the first accurate analysis
of Morgan’s Crow- and Omaha-type data, permitting
the identification of previously unsuspected parametric variants within both (1956, 1964a, 1964b).
He showed that previous attempts to explain these
systems using sociocultural correlations were empirically inaccurate beyond the simplest kin-types.
Lounsbury’s model was later extended by Harold
Scheffler to Australian Aboriginal and other difficult
systems (1971, 1978).
The modularity of this approach was countered
by other anthropologists who argued that sociocultural contextualization was needed. The most
outspoken critic, David Schneider (1968, 1984),
questioned the core assumption of the formalists;
that is, universal concepts of marriage and procreation (or conception) as the foundation of nuclear
basic kin-types (for assessments, see Feinberg and
Ottenheimer, 2001). For Schneider, kinship systems
are based on subjective and therefore culture-specific
concepts; for example, Americans have a distinctive
notion of blood at the center of their kinship system. Schneider and others emphasized the ways different cultures recognize paternity (and even
maternity), citing the widespread nonbiological uses
of kinship concepts (e.g., father as applied to God, to
George Washington, or to priests), and arguing that
anthropologists must discover these concepts through
sensitive participant-observation. Similar attacks on
universal ‘marriage’ were launched by British anthropologists (Needham, 1971).
Ethnographic complications include spirit-child
conception, god-parents, compadres and comadres,
co-spouses, ex-spouses, adoption, step-kin, namesake
relationships, formal renunciation of genealogical relationships, and tightly knit brotherhoods and sisterhoods. Recent phenomena (gay marriage, artificial
insemination, test-tube babies, surrogate mothers,
and cloning) add further layers of complexity.
Cognitive Semantics
Cognitive anthropologists and linguists have grappled with tensions between extralinguistic conceptual
structure and lexical categories (Miller and JohnsonLaird, 1976), and have of course reexamined kinship among other domains. Prototype theory has
been influential, but no clear consensus on kinship
semantics has emerged.
Hirshfeld (1984) argued that a formalist model
based on genealogical primitives is inconsistent with
216 Kinship Expressions and Terms
cognitive theories of meaning. He dismissed the claim
that nongenealogical uses of kin terms are (experienced by natives as) metaphorical and pointed out
that the time-bound acts of insemination and childbearing fail to account for the enduring nature of
kinship bonds. He suggested that normative attributions of parent-child physical resemblance play a
key role.
Anna Wierzbicka’s theoretical program emphasized
a small number of universal lexical primitives, from
which the meaning of other lexical items is derived.
Addressing kinship (1992), she identified MOTHER,
FATHER, HUSBAND, and WIFE as primitives. She
partially accepted the argument that the two parental
categories are universal, based on cross-cultural
recognition of paternal as well as maternal roles in
Read (1984) argued that American kinship terminology can be modeled as a modular algebraic system
independent of its linkage to concrete kin categories
(such as kin-types).
Linguistic Studies
Anthropologists have long been aware of terminological reductions and shifts from referential to vocative
forms of kinship, generally interpreting them as
pragmatic skewings of vocatives. Linguists have now
brought out much deeper language-internal complexity. There may be several coexisting subsets of
nouns: referential terms (father), vocatives (hey
Dad!), deceased kin (my late uncle), bereaved kin
(orphan), terms for nonhumans, and dyadic derivatives (mother-Dyad ¼ a mother and her child). In
some languages, these subsystems have their own
suppletive terms and/or make different semantic
cuts. For example, English orphan, widow, and
widower are a defective set of bereaved kin terms;
some languages have additional terms with glosses
like ‘bereaved MoBr.’ Tubatulabal (California) has a
suffix roughly glossable ‘last surviving X’ (X ¼ e.g.,
Br; Voegelin, 1935).
Broad kinship relations among two or more referents may be encoded in nonsingular pronouns.
Dalabon (Australia) has two forms for each dual
pronominal, as in ‘they(Dual)-went,’ depending on
whether the two referents are ‘harmonic’ based primarily on generation sets (Alpher, 1982; cf. Koch,
1982 on Kaytej).
One semantic type of kinship verb is glossable ‘X
calls Y ‘‘mother’’’ (cf. Don’t ‘‘mother’’ me!). Another
is glossable ‘X mothers Y,’ where (depending on the
language) X is any of Y’s (classificatory) mothers, X is
Y’s actual (prototypical) mother, or X behaves like a
mother to Y. Sometimes at least certain ‘referential
kin terms’ are morphological verbs or relative clauses
(Amith and Smith-Stark, 1994; Evans, 2000). Even
in other languages, the precise semantics of such
verbs as ‘bear/sire (child)’ clarifies the conceptual
foundations of kinship.
Whenever speaker S and addressee A are both
related to a referent R, there is a choice between
egocentric (‘my . . .’) and altercentric (‘your . . .’) perspectives. Actual usage may be controlled by pragmatic principles, but these can be intricate (Merlan,
1982). The forced choice between the two perspectives is obviated in some Australian languages in
which ‘triangular’ kin terms simultaneously specify
S’s and A’s relationships to R (Laughren, 1982;
Merlan, 1989).
Special registers can be associated with speech to
(or in the presence of) particular kin: bawdy registers for ‘joking relationships’ or respectful registers
used in the presence of senior affines. These registers may have extensive vocabularies, including suppletive kin terms, thereby usually making a reduced
set of distinctions (Dixon, 1971). The same applies
for registers associated with male initiation rites
(Hale, 1982).
Kinship categories may be associated with body
parts. In this case, touching the body part may replace
the spoken term, in isolation, or timed to fill a ‘slot’
in an utterance (Heath, 1982). These kin/body associations are metonymic, alluding to stereotypical
behaviors (carrying in the womb, carrying piggyback, sleeping thigh to thigh, averting one’s eye).
The fact that carrying in the womb is treated as
just one among several bodily interactions suggests
that the sharp distinction between ‘genealogical/
biological’ and ‘affective/behavioral’ levels of meaning in anthropological kinship studies may be
See also: Cognitive Anthropology; Identity in Sociocultural
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ß 2006 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
General Background
Kinyarwanda, the national language of Rwanda is
probably, after Swahili the second largest spoken
language in the Bantu group. It is a sister dialect of
Kirundi, the national language of Burundi, and Giha,
another dialect spoken in Tanzania. Despite the genocide that took place, taking the lives of more than 1
million Tutsi, it is spoken by perhaps more than 20
million people. Rwanda has approximately 9 million
people right now, Burundi has approximately 7 million, but besides the Giha speakers there are also ethnic
Banyarwanda in Southern Uganda in the Kigezi district
known as Bafumbira. Other Kinyarwanda speakers are
Banyamulenge in Southern Kivu, ethnic Banyarwanda
in Masisi, and Rutshuro in Northern Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Kinyarwanda belongs to
the interlacustrine (Great Lakes) Bantu languages.
Writing System
Although Kinyarwanda has both long vowels and
short vowels as well as high tones or no tones on
syllables, the official orthography does not mark