Kin Naming Systems: Part 1
All societies have standard kinship names for specific categories of relatives. For example, both ego's father's sister (FaSi) and mother's sister (MoSi) in the diagram below would be referred to as ego's aunt by most North Americans. Ego obviously knows the difference between the aunts, but it is not important to assign distinct terms of reference for them.
Different cultures often have very dissimilar reference terms for relatives. For instance, some cultures refer to the person in the diagram above labeled MoSi (aunt in North America) as ego's mother. She is treated the same way as the biological mother (who is also referred to as mother) for kinship related matters. They both have the same responsibilities and expectations in regards to ego. Such kin terms are valuable clues to the nature of a kinship system in a society as well as to the social statuses and roles of kinsmen. Anthropologists have discovered that there are only six basic kin naming patterns or systems used by almost all of the thousands of cultures in the world. They are referred to as the Eskimo, Hawaiian, Sudanese, Omaha, Crow, and Iroquois systems.
The most common kin naming pattern in North America and Europe today is known as the Eskimo system. Members of the nuclear family are given terms of reference based only on their gender and generation (in the diagram below 1 = father, 2 = mother, 5 = brother, and 6 = sister). No other relative is referred to by any of these terms.
Aunts and uncles are distinguished from parents in the Eskimo system and separated only by gender (3 = aunt and 4 = uncle). The spouses of aunts and uncles may also be given these kin terms. All cousins are lumped together (7 = cousin). No kinship distinction is made between uncles, aunts, and cousins with regard to side of the family. For instance, there is no kin term for aunts on the mother's side of the family in contrast to those on the father's side--they are all called aunt.
The Eskimo kin naming system is found mainly in societies that use the bilateral principle of descent and that strongly emphasize the nuclear family over more distant kinsmen. Both ego's mother's and father's collateral relatives are considered equally important. That is to say, no distinction is made between relatives on the mother's and father's side of the family. This is reflected in the kin names. Despite the fact that some relatives are lumped together with the same linguistic terms in the Eskimo and other kin naming systems, people do make distinctions between them as unique individuals. For instance, you would make a distinction between your uncle John and your uncle Pete by using their first names along with the kinship term.
The Eskimo system is one of the simplest, despite the fact that it is found among some of the most technologically complex societies. It is also found among hunters and gatherers living in harsh environments, such as the Inuit, or Eskimo. In both of these extremes, the common denominator for the Eskimo kin naming system is an economy that forces the nuclear family to be mostly independent. The Eskimo system is used today by about 10% of the world's societies.
The least complex kin naming pattern is found in the Hawaiian system. The nuclear family is de-emphasized. Relatives within the extended family are distinguished only by generation and gender. This results in just four different terms of reference. Ego's father and all male relatives in his generation have the same kin name (1). Likewise, ego's mother and all female relatives in her generation are referred to by the same kin term (2).
Similarly, all brothers and male cousins are linked by giving them the same kin term (3). Sisters and all female cousins are also referred to by the same term (4). Not surprisingly, marriage of cousins is generally forbidden since they are treated like brothers and sisters.
The Hawaiian terminological system is used by about a third of the world's societies, though they are relatively small ones. It is found widely in the islands of Polynesia where it is usually associated with ambilineal descent. Since both sides of the family are treated equally, an individual's choice of ancestral line to trace is less biased.
Polynesian woman from Tonga
At the opposite extreme in complexity is the Sudanese system. Most kinsmen are not lumped together under the same terms of reference. Each category of relative is given a distinct term based on genealogical distance from ego and on the side of the family. There can be eight different cousin terms, all of whom are distinguished from ego's brother and sister.
The Sudanese system is found in Sudan, Turkey, and some other societies with patrilineal descent and considerable social complexity. The fine distinctions made between kinsmen mirrors the society's desire to distinguish people on the basis of class, occupation, and political power.
This page was last updated on Wednesday, June 28, 2006.
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