How Specific Are You? – Kinship Terminology across Cultures

“I saw your sister and your uncle yesterday!” Oh, really? Great, but was it my younger sister or my elder one? Or do you mean my cousin? And, by the way, which of my uncles: my mum’s brother or my dad’s? Actually, it could also be the husband of my mum’s sister! Can you please be more specific? I know, it’s not your fault, the kinship terminology of the English language is quite limited.

Languages use different systems of terminology to refer to the individuals a person is related to, due to their unique classification of kinship relations. Since the topic is too complicated to be explored thoroughly in an article like this, I don’t intend to go into much detail. Instead, I will just pick out a few interesting aspects and compare the way they appear in different languages and cultures.

howtoresearchfamilytreearticle

“And who was HE, grandma?” “Erm… a relative!” (Photo source: Tesco Living)

Let me start with my favourite: siblings. English-speaking societies use the words ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ to refer to this type of relative. As you can see, the terminology distinguishes between sexes and generations, but there is no reference to relative age at all. To show you what I mean by this, let us compare the English system to that of my native language, Hungarian:

In Hungarian, any sibling (regardless of sex, relative age etc.) can be referred to as “testvér”. The word, however, is much more commonly used than the English term “sibling”. It has two more variations: “fiútestvér” and “lánytestvér”, which mark the gender of the person – although these are not as popular as the general term. Hungarian can also mark whether the relative is younger or older than the person we are comparing him or her to: a younger brother would be an “öcs”, an older brother is called a “báty”, a younger sister can be referred to as a “húg” and an older one is a “nővér”. These four words are normally used in the genitive case, e.g. “öcsém” (“my younger brother”) or “bátyánk” (“our elder brother”).

And the possibilities are endless. Some languages distinguish between siblings by age, but not by gender. In Thai, for example, an elder sibling is called a พี่ (pii), whereas a younger one is a น้อง (nawng) – according to Wikipedia. Let me have a go at summarising what we have discussed so far. The four Hungarian words could even be placed in a matrix, as the two genders (male and female) and the two relative ages (younger or older) combine to form the four different variations – each one represented by a separate word. English-speakers may add adjectives to mark relative age, while Thai-speakers may find it necessary to use additional adjectives that mark the sibling’s gender, in some circumstances.

Of course, some languages are capable of making this even more complicated. For instance, there are a number of facts you need to be aware of before you can say ‘uncle’ or ‘aunt’ in Bengali. If we go back to the roots we’ll find that the whole system is built on the idea which we have just talked about:

An elder brother is Dada (দাদা), elder sister is Didi (দিদি), while the younger brother is Bhai (ভাই) and younger sister, Bon (বোন). (Wikipedia)

And this is the point when it gets extremely hard to follow:

Father’s elder brothers are called Jethu (জ্যাঠা) while younger brothers are called Kaku (কাকু). Their wives are called Jethi-ma (জেঠি-মা) and Kaki-ma (কাকি-মা), respectively. Father’s sister is called Pisi (পিসি), mother’s sister is Maasi (মাসি). Mother’s brother is called Mama (মামা) and his wife, Maami (মামি). English would just use Uncle and Aunt.

So you may now be wondering if the friend “talking” to me at the beginning of this article saw my Didi with my Jethu or my Bon with my Mama yesterday. It could even be my Kaku or my Maasi’s husband, since they count as my uncles too, don’t they?

Some of you may now be thinking that Thai and Bengali are two incredibly strange languages. However, we must also make a mention of German, Danish, Tamil, Punjabi, Turkish, Chinese and so on… their terminology is just as ‘strange’ as that of the languages I’ve talked about so far. With the help of Wikipedia, I can confidently state that they all distinguish between maternal uncle (mother’s brother), paternal uncle (father’s brother) and affinal uncle (parent’s sister’s husband). In Thai, our favourite, there are separate words for “mother’s younger brother”, “father’s elder brother” etc. Although it may take forever for a language-learner to become familiar with these, we must admit there’s quite a bit of logic behind it. The level of distinction we apply for uncles and aunts should be the same as what we use for siblings. In English, for example, the words for siblings only indicate gender. And verily, ‘uncle’ and ‘aunt’ are different in nothing but their gender! Regardless of all this, it would be a thoughtless decision to rely on this little observation. The ever so complicated Thai terminology includes only one genderless word to describe all nieces, nephews and grandchildren: หลาน (laan). Anyway, the ‘matrix’ of Thai and Bengali terms is precisely explained on Wikipedia using the example of yet another complicated language, Arabic:

Arabic contains separate words for “mother’s brother” خال (Khāl) and “father’s brother” عم (‘Amm). The closest translation into English is “uncle”, which gives no indication as to lineage, whether maternal or paternal. Similarly, in Arabic, there are specific words for the father’s sister and the mother’s sister, خالة (Khala(h)) and عمة (‘Amma(h)), respectively.

Please keep reading, there isn’t much left! Not long ago I had a conversation with a friend of mine, in which I stated that my Nan speaks three languages. A few minutes later – after the topic had changed – I made a mention of my Nan, saying that she finds it hard to communicate in England as she only speaks Hungarian. At this point my friend declared that I must have made a mistake when I said my Grandmother was trilingual. If we were talking in Swedish, I could easily avoid the misunderstanding. I could say that my “mormor” (maternal grandmother) speaks three languages, whereas my “farmor” (paternal grandmother) only knows one. And, by the way, in Norway I’m not simply a “grandson”. If I ever find myself learning Norwegian, I must regard myself as my Mormor’s “dattersønn” and my Farmor’s “sønnesønn”.

The above may be quite difficult for our minds to process. But, believe it or not, some people find it hard to understand that my parent’s mother is a ‘grandmother’ and for her I am a ‘grandson’. In Chiricahua (a language spoken by some tribes in Oklahoma and New Mexico), alternating generations are addressed by the same terms. Wikipedia informs us about the following:

Other languages, such as Chiricahua, use the same terms of address for alternating generations. So a Chiricahua child (male or female) calls their paternal grandmother -ch’iné, and likewise this grandmother will call her son’s child -ch’iné.

Before starting this article I promised myself that I will not make any mention of cousins, nieces and nephews because of their rather complicated system of terminology, so I will gladly keep this promise. Instead, I’ll talk a bit about in-laws. Let me warn you: Russian has over fifteen words to cover relations by marriage – so we’d better start with English! From my father’s perspective, my (affinal) uncle would be a ‘brother-in-law’: his sister’s husband. But how about his wife’s sister’s husband? He calls him his ‘sógor’, which is the exact Hungarian equivalent of the English word ‘brother-in-law’. However, Wikipedia states that, as opposed to American English, British English does not consider this variation strictly correct. So what would my spouse’s sister’s husband be called here, in England? (Well, nothing, since I do not have a spouse – but let’s stick to the example!) This problem would not occur in languages such as Serbian, Bosnian, Yiddish and Bengali. Wikipedia tells us the following:

Serbian and Bosnian have specific terms for relations by marriage. For example, a “sister-in-law” can be a “snaha/snaja” (brother’s wife, though also family-member’s wife in general), “zaova” (husband’s sister), “svastika” (wife’s sister) or “jetrva” (husband’s brother’s wife). A “brother-in-law” can be a “zet” (sister’s husband, or family-member’s husband in general), “djever/dever” (husband’s brother), “šurak/šurjak” (wife’s brother) or “badžanak/pašenog” (wife’s sister’s husband). Likewise, the term “prijatelj” (same as “makhatunim” in Yiddish, which also translates as “friend”) is also used. Bengali has a number of in-law words. For example, Boudi (elder brother’s wife), Shaali (wife’s sister), Shaala (wife’s younger brother), Sambandhi (wife’s elder brother/Shaali’s husband), Bhaasur (husband’s elder brother), Deor (husband’s younger brother), Nanad (husband’s sister), Jaa (husband’s brother’s wife), etc.

In Hungarian, one of my grandmothers can refer to my other grandmother as her “nász” or “nászasszony” (son’s/daughter’s mother-in-law). I’m not entirely sure if such term exists in English, but I can confidently say that if it does, I have never heard it being used. I know I relied way too much on Wikipedia when doing my research for this post, but let me share another interesting quote, this time about Yiddish:

If Harry marries Sally, then in Yiddish, Harry’s father is the “mekhutn” of Sally’s father; each mother is the “makheteyneste” of the other. In Romanian, they are “cuscri”. In Bengali, both fathers are Beayi and mothers, Beyan.

Now we know that Hungarian isn’t the only language to have thought of this special relationship. In fact, I’m sure that several cultures have realised throughout the centuries that saying “my son’s wife’s mother” or “my daughter’s father-in-law” is not very convenient. But can we group languages according to their patterns of kinship terminology? You have probably realised that Hungarian and Yiddish have a similar system, and so do Serbian and Bengali. They’re from different families, I know, but there seems to be a pattern. Lewis Henry Morgan, an American anthropologist and social theorist who was well known for his work on kinship and social structure in the 19th century, performed a survey on kinship terminologies around the world. Eventually, he came up with six basic patterns which fit most known languages: Hawaiian, Sudanese, Eskimo, Iroquois, Crow and Omaha kinship. Languages that belong to the ‘Hawaiian’ pattern of kinship terminology, for example, do not distinguish between siblings and cousins, thus often causing some misunderstandings among speakers. In contrast, Sudanese kinship is the most descriptive, “no two types of relatives share the same term.” (Wikipedia) Yes, “our favourites”! Each type of cousin, uncle, aunt, nephew and niece has a special term.

I’m finished. I hope that I was able to find the balance between the amount of detail included and the article’s clarity. If not, I apologise, as my great interest in the subject seems to have been a disadvantage. And now I have to go because my “Bà Nội” (paternal grandmother, in Vietnamese) said that her “dattersønn” (Norwegian for daughter’s son, or simply grandson) – in other words, my “brat cioteczny” (the Polish word for son of an aunt; a type of cousin) – is expected to return home today. Anyway, enjoy the summer!

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14 thoughts on “How Specific Are You? – Kinship Terminology across Cultures

  1. This is a great article and one which resonates very deeply within me, since I do speak languages with familial terminologies that are vastly different from their Indo-European counterparts. For example, in Indonesian, the gender of your sibling doesn’t really matter as much as their age in relation to you (which is the complete opposite in most Romance languages, and of course, English!). Your adik can mean your little sister or brother, but it emphasises that fact that they’re younger than you, for example.

    And since my father is from Hong Kong, I am very persuaded to send in this video just for laughs, so you can see what the Cantonese family tree is like (a Mandarin original is also posted, but the Cantonese version is more entertaining in my opinion!)

    Have a glance and tell me what you think about it!:

    • Thank you very much for this interesting comment! So I guess Indonesian and Thai would fall into the same group of kinship terminologies, as Thai is also known to distinguish between siblings on the basis of relative age, while keeping the terms genderless. When speaking or writing in Indonesian, do you ever add an adjective to the word with the intention of marking the person’s sex, the way English-speakers often add a descriptive word such as “younger” and “elder” (or sometimes “little” and “big”) to the kinship term in order to indicate their age relative to the speaker’s? Also, thanks a lot for sharing this video, I’ll have to make sure that everyone in my family gets to watch it because it really is an funny representation of the system… and a remarkable source of information too! In my opinion, the Cantonese version is somewhat like a parody of the original Mandarin edition. By this I mean that the Cantonese video was purposely made to be very fast and very hard to follow, whereas the Mandarin one is perfectly understandable. I managed to pick out an amazing detail from this one: “If you’re female, then your sister’s son is your 姨甥 (yí shēng), but if you’re a man, then your sister’s son is your 外甥 (wài shēng). If you’re female, then your sister’s daughter is your 姨甥女 (yí sheng nǚ), but if you’re a man, then your sister’s daughter is your 外甥女 (wài sheng nǚ).” A shout-out to all my readers who followed my little analysis of more and more “complicated” systems of kinship terminology: THIS is the number one, no doubt! What has my gender got to do with how I should call my sorosal nephew? So anyway, thank you again. I’ve looked at their other videos too, and I have to admit they’re incredible!

      • Hi Bálint,
        I just read your post, and interestingly, I just posted a writing on Indonesian kinship terminology on http://bit.ly/2909ya1
        Answering your question above, Indonesians do use adjectival “laki-laki” (male) and “perempuan” (female) to some kinship terms but not all. I hope my post can answer the question well. 🙂

        Cheers,
        Richard

  2. So interesting! As a young person, you maybe didn’t look into the relationships formed by marriage. Russian has different terms for “wife’s mother” (Тёща) and “husband’s mother” (Свекровь), daughter’s husband (Зять) and son’s wife (Невестка). Wife’s sisters and husband’s brothers all have words, thought they’re rare these days.

    How do the languages you mention deal with these sorts of relationships? Russian is as complicated as I’ve seen, though many of the words aren’t used commonly any more.

    • Sorry for the late reply, I seem to be quite busy nowadays. Thanks a lot for sharing this piece of information, I’m amazed by the numerous special characteristics of Russian grammar, especially this one! Interestingly, my father does not remember these terms from his advanced Russian courses and claims that such relatives were referred to as “wife’s mother”, “son’s wife” etc. by the textbooks – perhaps in order to avoid the unnecessary confusion that they could cause for language-learners? Since the majority of these words are not in everyday use, I think it is totally acceptable for a course to simplify the kinship terminology of the target language. He also told me that uncles and aunts had to be called “wife’s brother”, “sister’s husband” etc. Do you think this method was taught to them due to the lack of general terms? I have made a little research regarding general terminology for such relations in Russian and found that the words “Дядя” and “Тетя” can be used for “uncle” and “aunt” respectively. But are they really neutral? If they are, how is it possible that the more specific terms have not been replaced by these two throughout the decades?

      I mean that, as vocabulary becomes simpler with time, we could expect these complicated terms to be abandoned and replaced by the two words above. In Hungarian (I always use this one as my example, I know), it seems that only the most indispensable of the specific names have remained present: the kinship term for “son’s wife” is “meny”, whereas a “daughter’s husband” would be called a “vő”. However, there is no difference between a “wife’s mother” and a “husband’s mother”: all mother-in-laws and father-in-laws are referred to as “anyós” and “após” respectively. I am glad that you are interested in this subject, so am I! Please have a look at Jasmine’s comment from last Friday and my response to it, as the matter we were discussing is quite entertaining – yet still relevant to the topic. Thank you again for the comment!

      • I think your father was learning colloquial Russian, as I did. Those in-laws terms are rare nowadays. You only hear them in villages, except the common ones for mother-in-law and father-in-law.

  3. Interesting.

    I just posted some pictures of my Grandmother and Grandfather in Facebook and I placed a comment in Spanish, English and Esperanto, and it reflects somewhat the differences in how we refer to our kinship. This was the post:

    en: My grandmother, Elena Collazo
    es: Mi abuela materna, Elena Collazo
    eo: Mia avino, Elena Collazo.

    Note that in Spanish I have an easy way that it is from “my mother’s side” in a single word, unlike English that I had to write “my mother’s side” :), in this case “materna” in Spanish conveys the same message in a compact way.

    Spanish and Esperanto share a lot because, unlike English, you can state gender.
    Example:

    en: cousin
    eo: nevo/nevino
    es: primo/prima

    but determining which side, it’s not as easy as grandmother, the use of the adjective “materna” does not apply to them. My hypotesis is because a cousin is a kinship by the relationship of your mother with your aunt, but your cousins are not directly related, unlike your grandmother. Still, they can be distinguished in Spanish by using “de parte de madre” (mother’s side), for example.

    At least in English you can distinguish your direct kinship with the use of distinct words, while in Spanish and Esperanto, you just adjust the gender indicator.

    en: sister/brother (probably from German because the words are very similar)
    eo: fratino/fratto
    es: hermana/hermano

    I owe you LFN. 🙂

    • Thank you for your comment, and sorry for the late reply! You have just highlighted the fact that the difference between kinship terminologies lies in not only the amount of detail, but the morphology of the terms as well. Esperanto, for instance, can only mark gender – and it does so by using the suffix “-in”, as in “avino” or “nevino”, to indicate femaleness. Similarly, Spanish-speakers use the words “abuelo” and “abuela” for “grandfather” and “grandmother” respectively, with the intention of showing the relative’s sex. So in both cases, the word root does not change. In contrast, a grandmother in Modern Greek would be called a “γιαγιά”, whereas a grandfather is most commonly known as a “παππούς”. In English, the prefix “grand-” is followed by the kinship term “mother” or “father” (parent), depending on gender. But that’s another story!

      However, I am quite surprised by your translation of “grandmother” and “avino” as “abuela materna”. Is the use of such adjectives popular among Spanish-speakers? I mean that it is generally unnecessary to say “maternal grandmother” in English or “patrina avino” in Esperanto (unless the circumstances require it), while this amount of detail may be common in Spanish. This issue may be considered one of those aspects that I thought about when deciding to use the rhetorical question “How specific are you?” in the title. And also, this is what I mean by the morphology of the terms. Clearly, this isn’t a unique word root, its a noun with an adjective. Please have a look at my response to Jasmine’s comment on this post, in which I share my thoughts about how the descriptive words “younger” and “elder” are used in English to indicate something (relative age) that the language is incapable of expressing in one single term. With this in mind, I have to disagree with you on your statement that we must say “on my mother’s side” in English while the Spanish can add the adjective “materna”, as the vocabulary of the English language does include the words “maternal” and “paternal”: borrowings from the Romance languages which are used specifically for the purpose of making such distinctions.

      In my opinion, you’re hypothesis is right. A cousin cannot be “maternal” because the relationship is not direct (whereas in the case of grandparents, it is). Interestingly, in English you may use the words “affinal”, “consanguine” etc. to mark the type of an uncle or aunt, despite the fact that the relationship itself is quite ambiguous (is it direct or indirect, or dependent on type?). As I’ve discussed in the article above, many languages have separate words for each of the variations (mother’s brother, sister’s husband, father’s younger sister etc.), but this is slightly off the topic of descriptive adjectives. The use of distinct words for male and female siblings in English, German and most other Germanic languages does seem like an advantage, but – as a big fan of Romance grammar – I’d prefer a simple and regular suffix to serve as the gender indicator. Grasias denova!

      • I’d have to disagree with this. As a native English speaker, I’d easily (even often) refer to my cousins, and less often aunts and uncles, as being “maternal” and “paternal” (although, given then they live in different countries, it’s easier to refer to them as “English cousins” and “Australian cousins” – but I’ve been known to say “my paternal cousins who live in England…”). However, most English-speakers wouldn’t understand what you meant if you referred to cousins as being “affinal” or “consanguine”.

  4. Actually, it is possible to make most of those distinctions in English, but it involves a lot of adjectives and gets very confusing very quickly. For example, I could talk about “my paternal third-cousin-in-law twice removed”, in which case it would be my paternal grandparent’s cousin-in-law… I think. (The -removed bit refers to how many generations separate you – once removed is the parents’ generation, twice-removed is the grandparents’ generation – and the ordinal refers to how far they are from you horizontally on the family tree – first-cousins share a grandparent, second-cousins share a great-grandparent, and so on). In the somewhat more closely-related realm, you can quite easily have a “maternal grandmother” or a “paternal aunt”.

    But then you still run into the problem of not knowing whether a cousin is male or female. (I could talk about “my younger cousin”, but you wouldn’t know if said younger cousin were male or female. I would also be unable to say whether s/he is related to me through my father or my mother without using a qualify, such as “my younger cousin on my mother’s side”. If I said “my younger maternal cousin”, it would imply that I have only two maternal cousins and this is the younger of them. “My maternal younger cousin” just sounds weird. I could, however, say “my maternal cousin”, but then you wouldn’t whether s/he were older or younger.) And, as you can see, you get confused VERY easily.

    Most of the languages I know differentiate familial relationships in much the same way. Of course, most of them differentiate male or female cousins (primo/prima, Kusin/Kusine, cousin/cousine), but they aren’t radically different. Except for Gaelic, where aunts and uncle are both more specific and more complicated – my maternal uncle is my màthair-bràthair (mother-brother) while my paternal aunt is my àthair-phuithar (father-sister). And you still don’t differentiate as to which side a grandparent is related to you on – a grandmother is still a “seanmhàthair” regardless of whether they’re an àthair-mhàthair or a màthair-mhàthair.

    My family had great fun when we learnt Korean because of all the different words for relatives. We went through a phase where my (younger) sister referred to me as “onna” and I called her “yodongseng”.

  5. Dear Readers, Robertodole has unintentionally linked my article ‘Verbal profanity around the world‘ to this one, so please have a look at his comments for more about Japanese and its various ways of addressing our family members. Believe me, it’s not as easy as one would assume – should you miss out an affix and you’ll find your effort being rewarded with a slap!

  6. Pingback: Best of 2013 – The 15 most popular articles of the year | I wish to be a polyglot!

  7. Hi, I’m a korean girl. This post is very exciting to me.
    When I talked with Belgian Friends in English, we talked about our families. We used so many youngr, elder, little and big. I was impressed to see it after talking about it.
    I also talked with my french friend in English. I said “I’m going to my grand mother’s house”. And she said “You did go your grand mother’s house yesterday!”. Yes, I didn’t say “There is my mother’s mother’s house or my father’s mother’s house.”In korean, we call the former as ‘외할머니’ and the letter as ‘할머니’. ‘외’ means mother’s side. ‘외할머니’ is a compound word!
    As someone said above, we call elder sister as ‘언니'(when you are a girl) or as ‘누나'(when you are a boy). Additionally, we call older brother as ‘오빠'(when you are a girl) or as ‘형'(when you are a boy). Younger sister is called ‘여동생’ and younger brother is called ‘남동생’ whatever you are a girl or boy. ‘여’ means girl and ‘남’ means boy. So they are also compound words like ‘외할머니’!
    I don’t know my English was well. Ask me if you have question!

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