The list of concepts that translate universally across all cultures is smaller than you might think. The concept of a “family” is one such cultural universal. However, the way family relationships are described varies, sometimes significantly. For example, in Hawaiian, the same words are used to indicate siblings and cousins, whereas obviously in English we make a distinction between the two. ‘
How did these different kinship terms develop? Obviously, cultural factors like family structure and marriage play a role. However, one thing has always been a bit of a mystery: even the most specific systems of kinship leave many potential types of family relationships undescribed. After researchers from the University of Berkeley and Carnegie Mellon University analyzed kinship terms from 566 different languages, they concluded that this was because, when it comes to describing relationships, each society must strike a balance between simplicity and usefulness.
As Charles Kemp of Carnegie Mellon explained in Science Daily:
“A kinship system with one word referring to all relatives in a family tree would be very simple but not terribly useful for picking out specific individuals. On the other hand, a system with a different word for each family member is much more complicated but very useful for referring to specific relatives. If you look at the kinship systems in the languages of the world, you can’t make them simpler without making them less useful, and you can’t make them more useful without making them more complicated. There is a trade-off between these two explanatory principles.”
And thank heavens for that, because I admit I get lost already at family reunions, trying to tell the difference between second cousins, cousins once removed, etc.
The cool thing about these findings is that they are more broadly applicable; as Science Daily writes,
“Ultimately, then, the work may lead to a general theory of how different languages carve the world up into categories.”
Can you think of any interesting kinship terms in another language that don’t have an English equivalent? Share them in the comments!