Definition of Kinship Terms

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Kinship terms are words used in a speech community to identify relationships between individuals in a family (or a kinship unit). This is also called kinship terminology.

A classification of persons related through kinship in a particular language or culture is called a kinship system.

Examples and Observations

  • "Bailey was the greatest person in the world. And the fact that he was my brother, and I had no sisters to share him with, was such good fortune that it made me want to live a Christian life just to show God that I was grateful."
    (Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Random House, 1969)
  • "Two years later a note arrived from one of her daughters relating that Tata had died in childbirth. It was with one of Tata's sons who'd moved to Omaha that Rocco went to live when he was eighteen. And when, six years later, he'd moved to Ohio with a cousin's cousin's guarantee of a steel-mill job, which was never to materialize, he'd promised himself this single luxury, once two or three years of careful saving had passed: to go to Niagara Falls."
    (Salvatore Scibona, The End. Graywolf Press, 2008)
  • "My Mom was an illegal alien, born out of wedlock in Mexico . . .. Once I told a neighbor her husband wasn't my real father. I didn't know I wasn't supposed to say this. I was sorry I embarrassed her. I didn't even care about my real father much, only saw him a couple of days a year, but the only times my mother's husbands were 'fathers' were when others made that assumption."
    (Dagoberto Gilb, "Mi Mommy." Grove Press, 2003)

Lexicalized Categories

"Some of the clearest examples of lexicalized categories are words used to refer to people who are members of the same family, or kinship terms. All languages have kinship terms (e.g. brother, mother, grandmother), but they don't all put family members into categories in the same way. In some languages, the equivalent of the word father is used not only for 'male parent,' but also for 'male parent's brother.' In English, we use the word uncle for this other type of individual. We have lexicalized the distinction between the two concepts. Yet we also use the same word (uncle) for 'female parent's brother.' That distinction isn't lexicalized in English, but it is in other languages."
(George Yule, The Study of Language, 5th ed. Cambridge University Press, 2014)

Kinship Terms in Sociolinguistics

"One of the attractions that kinship systems have for investigators is that these factors are fairly readily ascertainable. You can, therefore, relate them with considerable confidence to the actual words that people use to describe a particular kin relationship.

"There may be certain difficulties, of course. You can ask a particular person what he or she calls others who have known relationships to that person, for example, that person’s father (Fa), or mother’s brother (MoBr), or mother’s sister’s husband (MoSiHu), in an attempt to show how individuals employ various terms, but without trying to specify anything concerning the semantic composition of those terms: for example, in English, both your father’s father (FaFa) and your mother’s father (MoFa) are called grandfather, but that term includes another term, father. You will find, too, in English that your brother’s wife’s father (BrWiFa) cannot be referred to directly; brother’s wife’s father (or sister-in-law’s father) is a circumlocution rather than the kind of term that is of interest in kinship terminology."
(Ronald Wardhaugh, An Introduction to Sociolinguistics, 6th ed. Wiley-Blackwell, 2010)

More Difficulties

"[T[he English kinship term 'father' is defined to imply a particular biological relationship. Yet in an actual case the term may be used when the biological relationship is not in fact present."
(Austin L. Hughes, Evolution and Human Kinship. Oxford University Press, 1988)

Kinship Terms in Indian English

"It is not uncommon to hear the term cousin sister or cousin brother, a common mistake that Indian speakers of English make since they are unable to say just 'cousin,' which would be too vague since it does not distinguish gender."
(Nandita Chaudhary, "Mothers, Fathers, and Parents." Semiotic Rotations: Modes of Meanings in Cultural Worlds, ed. by Sunhee Kim Gertz, Jaan Valsiner, and Jean-Paul Breaux. Information Age Publishing, 2007)
"With Indian roots myself, I was, perhaps, more aware of the power of family here than in other Asian countries where it was no less suffocating or strong. . . . . I was amused to find that the Indians had smuggled into English such terms as 'co-brother' (to designate one's sister-in-law's brother) and 'cousin brother' (to denote the sex of a first cousin, and, better yet, to draw the cousin as close as a brother). In some of the local languages, the terms were even more precisely defined, with separate words for a father's elder and younger brothers and special terms for uncles on one's mother's and one's father's side, as well as words to distinguish between mother's sisters and uncle's wives, blood uncles and uncles by marriage. Though India had a hunger for absolutes, it swarmed with relatives; before long, everyone came to seem related to everyone else."
(Pico Iyer, Video Night in Kathmandu: And Other Reports from the Not-So-Far East. Vintage, 1989)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition of Kinship Terms." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Definition of Kinship Terms. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition of Kinship Terms." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).