Kinship terminology

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, 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

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 and between generations. Moreover, he argued, kinship terminologies distinguish between relatives by blood and marriage.
However, Morgan also observed that different languages 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". 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:

Hawaiian kinship

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 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 is in some way to single propositus.
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 who have unique relations to the referent. 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 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 form a dyad via some relation, and this dyad is in turn related to the speaker in some way. An example of a tri-relational dyadic term can be found in Gooniyandi. 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:

Dyadic Kin-terms

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 birriigaarramother and her brotherM + MB birriirrmoorroo‘aunties’M + FZirrmoorrgooloofather and his sisterF + FZbirriibomother and her childrenM + wCoombarnborlasame generation ‘brothers’B + B, FBS + FBS, etcmarrirborlasame generation ‘sisters’Z + Zirrmoorrgoolfather with his siblingsF + FB + FZgaarragooloounclesF + MBgoligamardagrandmothersFM + MMgaloogaloongoordoograndfathersFF + FFjamoogamardagrandparentsMF + MMnyamigamardagrandparentsMF + MMgamardajamoograndparentsMM + MFinjalalacross cousinsMBS + MBD, FZS + FSD galoongoordinyarrgrandparents and grandchildrenFF + FFB + FFZ, FF + SC golinyarrgrandmother and grandchildrenFM + MFZ + FMB ; FM + SC jamoonyarrgrandmother and grandchildrenMF + MFB ; MF + DC gamardanyarrgrandmother with her grandchildrenMM + DCaloorambarrwife’s parents and their daughter-in-lawWM + WMBoorambarrWMB + WMBBanymanoonoomothers-in-lawDHM + SWMoranganin-lawsHM + SWoomarloomarlman 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 :
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 will be chosen distinct from the Masculine and Feminine/Neuter.

Relative age

Some languages, such as Kannada, Telugu, Tamil, Turkish, Sinhalese, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Khmer, Malayalam, Vietnamese, Tagalog, 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 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, some descendant languages of Proto-Austronesian, Bislama, and Usarufa. Terms that recognize alternating generations and the prohibition of marriage within one's own set of alternate generation relatives 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 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, for example, is a mother’s father’s brother’s daughter’s child. If each female link is assigned a 0 and each male a 1, the number of 1s is either even or odd; in this case, even. However, variant criteria exist. 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, 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. 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 and their mother's brother and father-in-law. 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.