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Kinship terminology refers to the words used in a specific culture to describe a specific system of familial relationships. 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.

Societies in different parts of the world and using different languages may share the same basic terminology patterns; in such cases one can very easily translate the kinship terms of one language into another, although connotations may vary. But translators usually find it impossible to translate directly the kinship terms of a society that uses one system into the language of a society that uses a different system.

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 (for updates see Category:Kinship terminology), 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 kin 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 Western societies indicates a son of the same parent; thus, Western societies use the word "brother" as a descriptive term. But 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; Western 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 lump together relatives that the West classifies together. For example, some languages have no one word equivalent to "cousin", because different terms refer to mother's sister's children and to father's sister's children.

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

  • Hawaiian kinship: the most classificatory; only distinguishes between sex and generation.
  • Sudanese kinship: the most descriptive; no two relatives share the same term.
  • Eskimo: has both classificatory and descriptive terms; in addition to sex and generation, 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.
  • Iroquois: has both classificatory and descriptive terms; in addition to sex and generation, also distinguishes between siblings of opposite sexes in the parental generation. Siblings of the same sex class as blood relatives, but siblings of the opposite sex count as relatives by marriage. Thus, one calls one's mother's sister "mother", and one's father's brother "father"; however, one refers to one's mother's brother as "father-in-law", and to one's father's sister as "mother-in-law".
  • Crow: like Iroquois, but further distinguishes between mother's side and 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.
  • Omaha: like Iroquois, but further distinguishes between mother's side and 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.

Relative age

Some languages, such as Chinese (see Chinese kinship), Japanese, and Hungarian, add another dimension to some relations: relative age. There exist, for example, different words for "older brother" and "younger brother". Thus, although Westerners may "naturally" agree with Morgan in seeing the term "brother" as descriptive rather than classificatory, speakers of these languages might disagree.

Identification of Alternating generations

Other languages, such as Chiricahua, use the same terms of address for alternating generations. So, a Chiricahua child (male or female) calls her paternal grandmother -ch’iné and likewise this grandmother will call her son's child -ch’iné. Terms that recognize alternating generations and the prohibition of marriage within one's own set of alternate generation relatives (0, +/-2, +/-4, +/-6 etc.) are common in Australian Aboriginal kinship.

Relative age and Identification of Alternating generations

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.

Discovery of Dravidian kinship terminology

Floyd Lounsbury (1964) discovered a seventh, "Dravidian" type of terminological system that had been confused with Iroquois in Morgan’s typology of kin-term systems because both systems distinguish relatives by marriage from relatives by descent, although both are classificatory categories rather than based on biological descent. Kay (1967), Scheffler (1971), and Tjon Sie Fat (1981) gave variant criteria for Dravidian classificatory logic, but 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. 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 in from kin relations and terminologies employed by Europeans.

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.

  • B = Brother
  • C = Child(ren)
  • D = Daughter
  • F = Father
  • GC = Grandchild(ren)
  • GP = Grandparent(s)
  • P = Parent
  • S = Son
  • Z = Sister
  • W = Wife
  • H = Husband
  • SP = Spouse
  • LA = In-law
  • SI = Sibling
  • M = Mother
  • (m.s.) = male speaking
  • (f.s.) = female speaking


  • 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.
  • Kay, P. (1967). On the multiplicity of cross/parallel distinctions. American Anthropologist 69: 83-85.
  • Lounsbury, F. 1964. A formal account of the Crow- and Omaha type kinship terminology, in Explorations in cultural anthropology. Edited by W. Goodenough. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • 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.
  • Tjon Sie Fat, Franklin E. 1981. More Complex Formulae of Generalized Exchange. Current Anthropology 22(4): 377-399.

See also

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