Kinship terminology

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Kinship terminology is the system used in languages to refer to the persons to whom an individual is related through kinship. Different societies classify kinship relations differently and therefore use different systems of kinship terminology; for example, some languages distinguish between consanguine and affinal uncles ( i.e. the brothers of one's parents and the husbands of the sisters of one's parents, respectively), whereas others have only one word to refer to both a father and his brothers. Kinship terminologies include the terms of address used in different languages or communities for different relatives and the terms of reference used to identify the relationship of these relatives to ego or to each other.


Historical view

Anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan (1818–1881) performed the first survey of kinship terminologies in use around the world. Though much of his work is now considered dated, he argued that kinship terminologies reflect different sets of distinctions. For example, most kinship terminologies distinguish between sexes (the difference between a brother and a sister) and between generations (the difference between a child and a parent). Moreover, he argued, kinship terminologies distinguish between relatives by blood and marriage (although recently some anthropologists have argued that many societies define kinship in terms other than blood).

However, Morgan also observed that different languages (and, by extension, societies) organize these distinctions differently. He proposed to describe kinship terms and terminologies as either descriptive or classificatory. When a descriptive term is used, it can only represent one type of relationship between two people, while a classificatory term represents one of many different types of relationships. For example, the word brother in English-speaking societies indicates a son of the same parent; thus, English-speaking societies use the word brother as a descriptive term. A person's male first cousin could be the mother's brother's son, mother's sister's son, father's brother's son, father's sister's son, and so on; English-speaking societies therefore use the word cousin as a classificatory term.

Morgan discovered that a descriptive term in one society can become a classificatory term in another society. For example, in some societies, one would refer to many different people as "mother" (the woman who gave birth to oneself, as well as her sister and husband's sister, and also one's father's sister). Moreover, some societies do not group together relatives which the English-speaking societies classify together. For example, some languages have no one-word equivalent to cousin, because different terms refer to one's mother's sister's children and to one's father's sister's children.

Six basic patterns of kinship

Armed with these different terms, Morgan identified six basic patterns of kinship terminologies:

Charts of the six systems. Kinship Systems vertical.svg
Charts of the six systems.

Hawaiian kinship

  • Hawaiian kinship: the most classificatory; only distinguishes between sex and generation. Thus, siblings and cousins are not distinguished (the same terms are used for both types of relatives).

Sudanese kinship

  • Sudanese kinship: the most descriptive; no two types of relatives share the same term. Siblings are distinguished from cousins, and different terms are used for each type of cousin (i.e. father's brother's children, father's sister's children, mother's sister's children and mother's brother's children).

Eskimo kinship

  • Eskimo kinship: has both classificatory and descriptive terms; in addition to sex and generation, it also distinguishes between lineal relatives (those related directly by a line of descent) and collateral relatives (those related by blood, but not directly in the line of descent). Lineal relatives have highly descriptive terms; collateral relatives have highly classificatory terms. Thus, siblings are distinguished from cousins, while all types of cousins are grouped together. The system of English-language kinship terms falls into the Eskimo type.

Iroquois kinship and its variations

  • Iroquois kinship: has both classificatory and descriptive terms; in addition to sex and generation, it also distinguishes between siblings of opposite sexes in the parental generation. A genealogical relationship traced through a pair of siblings of the same sex is classed as a blood relationship, but one traced though a pair of siblings of the opposite sex can be considered an in-law relationship. In other words, siblings are grouped together with parallel cousins, while separate terms are used for cross-cousins. Also, one calls one's mother's sister "mother" and one's father's brother "father". However, one refers to one's mother's brother and one's father's sister by separate terms (often the terms for father-in-law and mother-in-law, since cross-cousins can be preferential marriage partners).
  • The basic principles of Crow and Omaha terminologies are symmetrical and opposite, with Crow systems having a matrilineal emphasis and Omaha systems a patrilineal emphasis.

Crow kinship

  • Crow kinship: like Iroquois, but further distinguishes between one's mother's side and one's father's side. Relatives on the mother's side of the family have more descriptive terms, and relatives on the father's side have more classificatory terms. Thus, Crow kinship is like Iroquois kinship, with the addition that a number of relatives belonging to one's father's matrilineage are grouped together, ignoring generational differences, so that the same term is used for both one's father's sister and one's father's sister's daughter, etc.

Omaha kinship

  • Omaha kinship: like Iroquois, but further distinguishes between one's mother's side and one's father's side. Relatives on the mother's side of the family have more classificatory terms, and relatives on the father's side have more descriptive terms. Thus, Omaha kinship is like Iroquois, with the addition that a number of relatives belonging to one's mother's patrilineage are grouped together, ignoring generational differences, so that the same term is used for both one's mother's brother and one's mother's brother's son, etc.

Tri-relational kin-terms

A unique set of kin-terms common in some Australian Aboriginal languages languages are tri-relational—also called triangular, ternary, triadic and shared kin-terms—which encapsulate a set of relations between three distinct entities. Broadly, there are two kinds of tri-relational kin-terms. The more common is a Dual Propositus Tri-relational Kin-term which has one referent whose relationship is defined with respect to two anchor points (propositi) and from which the relation between the two propositi can be inferred. The less common are Tri-relational Dyadic Terms which reference a pair of related entities which (i.e. this dyad) is in some way to single propositus.

The Bi-relational and Tri-relational meanings of the word nakurrng in Bininj Gun-Wok. Trirelational.jpg
The Bi-relational and Tri-relational meanings of the word nakurrng in Bininj Gun-Wok.

Dual Propositus Tri-relational Kin-terms

Terms of this type can be found in Murrinh-patha and Bininj Gun-Wok. The speaker and the addressee form two distinct propositi (P) who have unique relations to the referent (R). An example in Murrinh-patha is the term yilamarna. This term refers to the speaker's brother, who is also the uncle of the addressee; it is therefore also encoded in this term that the addressee is the child of the speaker. The term could be elaborated thus:

In Bininj Gun-Wok, the kin-term nakurrng can be either a regular (i.e. bi-relational) or tri-relational kin-term depending on the context. In the case in the illustration, the difference marked by the position of the possessive pronoun ke which either marks the addressee as the sole propositus or allows for a tri-relational interpretation:

Tri-relational Dyadic Terms

In this kind of tri-relation, two referents (R1,R2) form a dyad via some relation (commonly marriage), and this dyad is in turn related to the speaker (the propositus) in some way. An example of a tri-relational dyadic term can be found in Gooniyandi. [1] Marralangi one way of referring to a husband and wife pair is specific to when either the husband or the wife is the opposite-sex sibling of the speaker. The denotation of marralangi is thus:


Group/dyadic kin terms and pronouns

Dyadic Kin-terms

Australian Aboriginal languages tend to have extensive vocabularies for denoting kin-relations, including for referring to and addressing dyads and groups based on their relation to one another and/or to the speaker. For example, see below the complete inventory of group kin-terms in Bardi [3] (note that some but not all of these are assessed with respect to the speaker as well and may thus be considered tri-relational dyadic terms:

Bardi Dyadic Kin-terms
TermEnglish EquivalentKin Denoted
aalabomen’s and women’s childrenmC + wC
aalagalaggroup of children with their fathermC + F
aalamalarrman’s wife and his childrenW + mC
alabalbrothers and sisters-in-lawHZ + WB etc
jaalbolacousins and brothersFZC + B (etc)
birriigaarramother and her brotherM + MB (+MZ)
birriirrmoorroo‘aunties’M + FZ
irrmoorrgooloofather and his sisterF + FZ
birriibomother and her childrenM + wC
oombarnborlasame generation ‘brothers’B + B, FBS + FBS, etc
marrirborlasame generation ‘sisters’Z + Z
irrmoorrgoolfather with his siblingsF + FB + FZ
gaarragooloounclesF + MB
goligamardagrandmothersFM + MM
galoogaloongoordoograndfathersFF + FF
jamoogamardagrandparentsMF + MM
nyamigamardagrandparentsMF + MM
gamardajamoograndparentsMM + MF
injalala cross cousins MBS + MBD, FZS + FSD (etc)
galoongoordinyarrgrandparents and grandchildrenFF + FFB + FFZ (etc), FF + SC (etc)
golinyarrgrandmother and grandchildrenFM + MFZ + FMB (etc); FM + SC (etc)
jamoonyarrgrandmother and grandchildrenMF + MFB (etc); MF + DC (etc)
gamardanyarrgrandmother with her grandchildrenMM + DC
aloorambarrwife’s parents and their daughter-in-lawWM + WMB
oorambarrWMB + WMBB
anymanoonoomothers-in-lawDHM + SWM
oranganin-lawsHM + SW
oomarloomarl(a)man with wife’s brothersZH + WB

The size of this dyadic kin-term inventory is not atypical of Australian languages. Though smaller, the Dyirbal dyadic kin-term inventory is also extensive (e and y stand for elder and younger): [4]

Dyirbal Dyadic Kin-terms
TermKin Denoted










ngaybirr / mulbaH+W





In Murrinh-patha, nonsingular pronouns are differentiated not only by the gender makeup of the group, but also by the members' interrelation. If the members are in a sibling-like relation, a third pronoun (SIB) will be chosen distinct from the Masculine (MASC) and Feminine/Neuter (FEM). [5]

Relative age

Some languages, such as Kannada, Telugu, Tamil, Turkish, Sinhalese, Chinese (see Chinese kinship), Japanese, Korean, Khmer, Malayalam, Vietnamese, Tagalog (Filipino), Hungarian, Bulgarian, Nepalese, and Nahuatl add another dimension to some relations: relative age. Rather than one term for "brother", there exist, for example, different words for "older brother" and "younger brother". In Tamil, an older male sibling is referred to as Annan and a younger male sibling as Thambi, whereas older and younger female siblings are called Akka and Thangai respectively. Languages which distinguish relative age may not have non-age relative kinship terms at all. In Vietnamese, all younger siblings are referred to with the ungendered term 'em', whereas older siblings are distinguished by sex: "Anh" for males and "Chi" for females.

Identification of alternating generations

Other languages, such as Chiricahua, use the same terms of address for alternating generations. So Chiricahua children (male or female) call their paternal grandmother -ch’iné, and likewise this grandmother will call her son's children -ch’iné. Similar features are seen also in Huichol, [6] [7] some descendant languages of Proto-Austronesian (e.g. Fordata, [8] Kei, [9] and Yamdena [10] ), [11] Bislama, [12] and Usarufa. [13] Terms that recognize alternating generations and the prohibition of marriage within one's own set of alternate generation relatives (0, ±2, ±4, etc.) are common in Australian Aboriginal kinship.

The relative age and alternating-generations systems are combined in some languages. For instance, Tagalog borrows the relative age system of the Chinese kinship and follows the generation system of kinship. Philippine kinship distinguishes between generation, age and in some cases, gender.


Floyd Lounsbury described [14] a possible seventh, Dravidian, type of terminological system; there is on-going discussion on whether this system is a sub-type of Iroquois or whether it is a distinct system that had been conflated with Iroquois in Morgan’s typology of kin-term systems. Both systems distinguish relatives by marriage from relatives by descent, although both are classificatory categories rather than being based on biological descent. The basic idea is that of applying an even/odd distinction to relatives that takes into account the gender of every linking relative for ego’s kin relation to any given person. A MFBD(C), for example, is a mother’s father’s brother’s daughter’s child. If each female link (M,D) is assigned a 0 and each male (F,B) a 1, the number of 1s is either even or odd; in this case, even. However, variant criteria exist. [15] [16] [17] In a Dravidian system with a patrilineal modulo-2 counting system, marriage is prohibited with this relative, and a marriageable relative must be modulo-2 odd. There exists also a version of this logic with a matrilineal bias. Discoveries of systems that use modulo-2 logic, as in South Asia, Australia, and many other parts of the world, marked a major advance in the understanding of kinship terminologies that differ from kin relations and terminologies employed by Europeans.

The Dravidian kinship system involves selective cousinhood. One's father's brother's children and one's mother's sister's children are not cousins but brothers and sisters one step removed. They are considered consanguineous (pangali in Tamil), and marriage with them is strictly forbidden as incestuous. However, one's father's sister's children and one's mother's brother's children are considered cousins and potential mates (muraicherugu in Tamil). Marriages between such cousins are allowed and encouraged. There is a clear distinction between cross cousins, who are one's true cousins and parallel cousins, who are, in fact, siblings.

Like Iroquois people, Dravidians use the same words to refer to their father's sister and mother-in-law (atthai in Tamil and atthe in Kannada) and their mother's brother and father-in-law (maamaa in Tamil and maava in Kannada). In Kannada, distinction between these relationships may be made because sodara is added before atthe and maava to specifically refer to one's father's sister and mother's brother respectively, although this term is not used in direct address. In Tamil, however, only one's mother's brother is captioned with thaai before maamaa because of the honor accorded this relationship.

Abbreviations for genealogical relationships

The genealogical terminology used in many genealogical charts describes relatives of the subject in question. Using the abbreviations below, genealogical relationships may be distinguished by single or compound relationships, such as BC for a brother's children, MBD for a mother's brother's daughter, and so forth.

See also

Related Research Articles

Kinship Human relationship term; web of social relationships that form an important part of the lives of most humans in most societies; form of social connection

In anthropology, kinship is the web of social relationships that form an important part of the lives of all humans in all societies, although its exact meanings even within this discipline are often debated. Anthropologist Robin Fox states that "the study of kinship is the study of what man does with these basic facts of life – mating, gestation, parenthood, socialization, siblingship etc." Human society is unique, he argues, in that we are "working with the same raw material as exists in the animal world, but [we] can conceptualize and categorize it to serve social ends." These social ends include the socialization of children and the formation of basic economic, political and religious groups.

Iroquois kinship is a kinship system named after the Haudenosaunee people that were previously known as Iroquois and whose kinship system was the first one described to use this particular type of system. Identified by Lewis Henry Morgan in his 1871 work Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family, the Iroquois system is one of the six major kinship systems.

Eskimo kinship or Inuit kinship is a category of kinship used to define family organization in anthropology. Identified by Lewis Henry Morgan in his 1871 work Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family, the Eskimo system was one of six major kinship systems.

Hawaiian kinship, also referred to as the generational system, is a kinship system used to define family. Identified by Lewis H. Morgan in his 1871 work Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family, the Hawaiian system is one of the six major kinship systems.

Crow kinship is a kinship system used to define family. Identified by Lewis Henry Morgan in his 1871 work Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family, the Crow system is one of the six major kinship systems.

Omaha kinship is the system of terms and relationships used to define family in Omaha tribal culture. Identified by Lewis Henry Morgan in his 1871 work Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family, the Omaha system is one of the six major kinship systems which he identified internationally.

Sudanese kinship, also referred to as the descriptive system, is a kinship system used to define family. Identified by Lewis Henry Morgan in his 1871 work Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family, the Sudanese system is one of the six major kinship systems.

In discussing consanguineal kinship in anthropology, a parallel cousin or ortho-cousin is a cousin from a parent's same-sex sibling, while a cross-cousin is from a parent's opposite-sex sibling. Thus, a parallel cousin is the child of the father's brother or of the mother's sister, while a cross-cousin is the child of the mother's brother or of the father's sister. Where there are unilineal descent groups in a society, one's parallel cousins on one or both sides will belong to one's own descent group, while cross-cousins will not.

Chinese kinship

The Chinese kinship system is classified as a "Sudanese" or "descriptive" system for the definition of family. Identified by Lewis Henry Morgan in his 1871 work Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family, the Sudanese system is one of the six major kinship systems together with Eskimo, Hawaiian, Iroquois, Crow, and Omaha.

The term ethnotaxonomy refers either to that subdiscipline within ethnology which studies the taxonomic systems defined and used by individual ethnic groups, or to the operative individual taxonomy itself, which is the object of the ethnologist's immediate study.

Family group of people affiliated by consanguinity, affinity, or co-residence

In human society, family is a group of people related either by consanguinity or affinity. The purpose of families is to maintain the well-being of its members and of society. Ideally, families would offer predictability, structure, and safety as members mature and participate in the community. In most societies, it is within families that children acquire socialization for life outside the family. Additionally, as the basic unit for meeting the basic needs of its members, it provides a sense of boundaries for performing tasks in a safe environment, ideally builds a person into a functional adult, transmits culture, and ensures continuity of humankind with precedents of knowledge.

Philippine kinship uses the generational system in kinship terminology to define family. It is one of the more simple classificatory systems of kinship. One's genetic relationship or bloodline is often overridden by the desire to show proper respect that is due in the Philippine culture to age and the nature of the relationship, which are considered more important.

In the lineal kinship system used in the English-speaking world, a niece or nephew is a child of the subject's sibling or sibling-in-law. The converse relationship, the relationship from the niece or nephew's perspective, is that of an aunt or uncle. A niece is female, while a nephew is male, with the term nibling used in place of the gender specific niece and nephew in some specialist literature.

Irish kinship is a system of kinship terminology which shows a bifurcate collateral pattern. This system is used by a minority of people living in the Gaeltacht regions of Ireland. Irish kinship terminology varies from English kinship as it focuses on gender and generation, with less emphasis on differentiating lineal vs. collateral.

Dyadic kinship terms are kinship terms in a few languages that express the relationship between individuals as they relate one to the other. In English, there are a few set phrases for such situations, such as "they are father and son", but there is not a single dyadic term that can be used the way "they are cousins" can; even the latter is not truly dyadic, as it does not necessarily mean that they are cousins to each other. The few, and uncommon, English dyadic terms involve in-laws: co-mothers-in-law, co-fathers-in-law, co-brothers-in-law, co-sisters-in-law, co-grandmothers, and co-grandfathers.

Aboriginal Australian kinship are the systems of law governing social interaction, particularly marriage, in traditional Australian Aboriginal cultures. It is an integral part of the culture of every Aboriginal group across Australia.

<i>Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family</i>

Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family is an 1871 book written by Lewis Henry Morgan and published by the Smithsonian Institution. It is considered foundational for the discipline of anthropology and particularly for the study of human kinship. It was the culmination of decades of research into the variety of kinship terminologies in the world conducted partly through fieldwork and partly through a global survey of kinship terminologies in the languages and cultures of the world.

The Burmese kinship system is a fairly complex system used to define family in the Burmese language. In the Burmese kinship system:

Sesotho – the language of the Basotho ethnic group of South Africa and Lesotho – has a complex system of kinship terms which may be classified to fall under the Iroquois kinship pattern. The complex terminology rules are necessitated in part by the traditional promotion of certain forms of cousin marriage among the Bantu peoples of sub-Saharan Africa. Most of the terms used have common reconstructed Proto-Bantu roots.

Variations in the number of lexical categories across the languages is a notable idea in cultural anthropology. A former study on "color terms" explores such variations. Brent Berlin and Paul Kay (1969) argued that these qualitative and quantitative differences can be organized into a coherent hierarchy. As far as kinship terms are concerned, the variation is not found as an hierarchical organization, but as a result of conditions or constraints. That is to say, the number of kinship terms varies across the languages because of sociocultural conditions or constraints on the biological traits.


Inline citations

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  2. Skin, kin and clan : the dynamics of social categories in Indigenous Australia. McConvell, Patrick,, Kelly, Piers,, Lacrampe, Sébastien,, Australian National University Press. Acton, A.C.T. ISBN   978-1-76046-164-5. OCLC   1031832109.CS1 maint: others (link)
  3. Bowern, Claire, 1977- (2013). A grammar of Bardi. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton. ISBN   978-3-11-027818-7. OCLC   848086054.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  4. Dixon, R. M. W. 1989. The Dyirbal Kinship System. Oceania. [Wiley, Oceania Publications, University of Sydney] 59(4). 245–268.
  5. Walsh, Michael James. 1976. The Muɹinypata Language of Northern Australia. The Australian National University.
  6. Myerhoff, Barbara G. (1974). Peyote Hunt: The Sacred Journey of the Huichol Indians. Ithaca: Cornell, University Press. p. 66.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  7. Schaefer, Stacy and Peter T. Furst (eds.) (1996). People of the Peyote: Huichol Indian History, Religion & Survival, p. 529. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. ISBN   0-8263-1905-X
  8. Drabbe, P. (1932a). Woordenboek der Fordaatsche taal (in Dutch). Bandoeng: A. C. Nix. p. 103.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  9. Geurtjens, H. (1921). Woordenlijst der Keieesche taal. Verhandelingen van het Bataviaasch Genootschap van Kunsten en Wetenschappen (in Dutch). The Hague: Nijhoff. pp. 29, 134.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  10. Drabbe, P. (1932b). Woordenboek der Jamdeensche taal (in Dutch). Bandoeng: A. C. Nix. p. 26.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  11. Blust, Robert (1979). "Proto-Western Malayo-Polynesian vocatives". Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde. Leiden. 135 (2/3): 205–251. doi: 10.1163/22134379-90002556 .CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  12. Crowley, Terry (2003). A new Bislama dictionary. 2nd ed., pp. 28, 356. Suva, Fiji: Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific; Vila, Vanuatu: Pacific Languages Unit, University of the South Pacific. ISBN   982-02-0362-7
  13. Bee, Darlene (1965). Usarufa: a descriptive grammar [PhD Dissertation, Indiana University, Bloomington, USA], iii + 203 pp. Reprint, in Howard McKaughan (ed.) The Languages of the Eastern Family of the East New Guinea Highland Stock, pp. 225323. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1973. ISBN   0-295-95132-X
  14. Lounsbury, Floyd G. (1964), "A Formal Account of the Crow- and Omaha-Type Kinship Terminologies", in Ward H. Goodenough (ed.), Explorations in Cultural Anthropology: Essays in Honor of George Peter Murdock, New York: McGraw-Hill, pp. 351–393
  15. Kay, P. (1967). "On the multiplicity of cross/parallel distinctions". American Anthropologist 69: 83–85
  16. Scheffler, H. W. 1971. "Dravidian-Iroquois: The Melanesian evidence", Anthropology in Oceania. Edited by L. R. Hiatt and E. Jayawardena, pp. 231–54. Sydney: Angus and Robertson.
  17. Tjon Sie Fat, Franklin E. 1981. "More Complex Formulae of Generalized Exchange". Current Anthropology 22(4): 377–399.

Sources referenced

  • Murdock, G. P. (1949). Social Structure. New York: Macmillan.
  • Kryukov, M. V. (1968). Historical Interpretation of Kinship Terminology. Moscow: Institute of Ethnography, USSR Academy of Sciences.
  • Pasternak, B. (1976). Introduction to Kinship and Social Organization. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  • Pasternak, B., Ember, M., & Ember, C. (1997). Sex, Gender, and Kinship: A Cross-Cultural Perspective. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  • Saxena, R. T. (2012). A Sociolinguistic Study of Hindi and Telugu Kinship Terminology- Variations in the Number of Kinship Terms across the Languages: Linguistic, Social and Anthropological Perspectives. Germany: LAP Lambert Academic Publishing. A Sociolinguistic Study of Hindi and Telugu Kinship Terminology / 978-3-659-28451-9 / 9783659284519 / 3659284513