The terminology of kinship, that is, the terms we use to name our kin, is one of the most important areas of study in the social anthropology of kinship. Kinship terminology is a message carrier, concurrently reflecting and determining social behavior.
Kinship refers to social relationships that may or may not coincide with biological ones. The terms of kinship can, indeed, correspond to true kinship, with social relationships coinciding with the biological ones (consanguinity or affinity). When social relationships only simulate biological ones, the term we use is pseudo-kinship or fictitious kinship. The third type of kinship is a special form of fictitious kinship created through a ritual, such as godparenthood, adoption, or fraternization. The terms of pseudo-, fictitious, and ritual kinship are identical to the ones of real or true kinship.
Terms of Address and Terms of Reference
Independent of the category of kinship, we divide terms that describe related individuals into terms of address and terms of reference. Terms of address are the ones we use from birth (.Ego) to address our kin, such as “Mum” or “Dad.” Terms of reference are the ones we use to refer to our kin in the third party: “my mother,” or “my father.” As these examples demonstrate, terms of address and terms of reference may be identical. Our use of kinship terms depends on how familiar we are with the relatives involved and the ages and genders of these relatives. Both terms of address and terms of reference exist only with respect to one another: “father” or “mother” implies there is a “son” or “daughter” and vice versa.
Classificatory Terms—Kinship Systems
Based on earlier work by both L. H. Morgan and G. P. Murdock, we now use six categories to classify systems of kinship: Eskimo, Hawaiian, Iroquois, Sudan, Crow, and Omaha. The main criterion for classifying a system is how the Ego uses the same term for different relatives. For instance, the kinship system of Western societies belongs to the Eskimo group, where the brothers of the parents are “uncles” and their sisters, “aunts.” In contrast, in societies belonging to the Hawaiian group of classification, the same people are “fathers” and “mothers,” respectively. Using the same term for different relatives entails a significant similarity in the behavior of Ego toward them, for example, the possibility of marriage.
Descriptive terms number but a few: father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister, husband, wife. To eliminate any chance of confusion, we use each of these terms or a combination to describe only one relative. In the kinship systems of Western societies, individuals use descriptive terms wherever specific terms for each and every relative do not exist. For example, uncles from both the father’s and the mother’s side are not distinguished from the other; both are uncles. We can make the distinction because of descriptive terminology: father’s brother and mother’s brother.
In the Dinka and the Shilluk in Sudan, a special term-phrase exists for the relatives that Western societies call uncles and aunts: brother/sister of mother/ father. Sudanese call every cousin daughter/son of brother/sister of mother/father.
Anthropologists invented abbreviated terms for methodological reasons, namely, simplicity and clarity. In both French and English, where fundamental terms of kinship are morphologically unlike each other, we can achieve what anthropologists envisioned. In English, the abbreviations of the terms of kinship consist of the first letter (or sometimes the first two letters) of the terms:
- B: Brother
- F: Father
- M: Mother
- So: Son
- D: Daughter
- H: Husband
- Si: Sister
- W: Wife
The abbreviated terms of kinship allow us to refer to relatives in ways that would be impossible using the particular terms of kinship in each society. For example, the abbreviation “MBD” refers to an individual’s mother’s brother’s daughter, what the Ego would call “sister” in the Hawaiian system.
Fictitious, Ritual, and Pseudo-Kinship Terminology
We may use terms of real kinship in social relationships that result from fictitious or ritual kinship. For instance, children who have been breastfed by the same mother are siblings in many societies, but there is usually a more exact definition of this relationship: foster siblings. We may also use similar terms, such as godfather-father in English or vëllam-vëlla (blood brother-brother) in the archiac dialect of Albania called Arvanitika.
We may use terms of kinship metaphorically in cases where neither real, fictitious, nor ritual kinship is in place. For example, the inhabitants of the villages Didima, Karakassi, and Loukaïti (in Peloponnesus, Greece) address each other as cousin, referencing their reminiscence of a common ancestry, even when that relationship is distant.
Throughout Greece, the same term is used as a sign of familiarity between nonrelatives in a manner similar to the use of “friend” in English. The term KovpndpoZ (pronounced koubâros) that denotes the person necessary to accomplish a marriage, as well as the godfather, is used much in the same way. As a sign of respect, younger people and especially children may address adults as uncle or aunt and address the elderly as grandfather or grandmother.
Monks and other believers in the Christian church address each other as brothers and sisters, a practice with roots in the belief that all Christians are children of a “parental” God. Members of various organized groups, including religious groups or guilds, have also adopted terms of kinship and may call themselves brotherhoods. Examples of these are the Confréries in France and Belgium, whose name comes from con + frère, which translates as jointly + brother, such as the Confrérie des Brasseurs as a brotherhood for the brewers.
Whenever we require mutual support, we might use terms of kinship. For instance, we might call a more experienced co-worker who guides and instructs a newcomer in the workplace a godfather or godmother. Likewise, student families, such as those found in the colleges of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, are composed of freshmen children and their co-student parents, more senior students who assume a guiding role.
- Augé, M. (Ed.). (1975). Initiation au vocabulaire de la parenté. Les domaines de la parenté (pp. 7-57). Paris: Maspero.
- Fox, R. (1984). Kinship and marriage: An anthropological perspective. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin.
- Murdock, G. P. (1949). Social structure. New York: Macmillan.