Are You My (Small) Mother? A Few Facts about Kinship

Photo courtesy of danivenn via Flickr

Have you ever had a friend from a different country invite you to her house and start introducing you to people like this?…

 “Here’s my sister Ambika. Oh, and this is my mother Mon Maya. And have you met my other mother Bishnu?”

 Your mind starts spinning with all the names, but what’s more confusing is the fact that everyone seems related to everyone else in some obscure way. Mother and…other mother? What does that mean? And after the seventh sister, you start wondering, Wait, is that really her sister? Or is she just saying that?

The names you give to relatives—mother, uncle, second cousin twice removed—are called kin terms, and the way you classify people into these terms are called your kinship terminology, or kinship system. Most of the world does NOT use the kinship system we’re used to in the United States. This makes for lots of fun (and lots of confusion!) during introductions.

Here are some more interesting facts about kinship systems:

–American Anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan developed the basic classifications for kinship terminology in 1871. He named each system after the first group he found using that system. Some common ones are the Hawaiian, Eskimo, Iroquois, and Omaha systems.

–In the United States, the majority of people use the ESKIMO system.

–In Nepali culture, if your mother has a sister, she is NOT called your aunt. The word for your mother’s older sister is literally translated “Big Mother.” And your mother’s younger sister? You guessed it: “Small Mother.”  

–In many kinship systems, there is no word for “cousin.” What those of us using the Eskimo system would call a male cousin would be called “brother” in much of the world, or even “nephew.” Believe it or not, in the Crow kinship system you’d call your cousin (your father’s sister’s son) your “father”!

So next time you find yourself shaking the hand of your friend’s thirteenth sister, know that nobody’s trying to fool you–they really are just one big happy family.

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