Kinship Distinctions According to Generation
“Kinship distinctions according to generation” refers to linguistic distinctions between kin who are of the same generation and those who are in the generations above or below you. These distinctions exist, to some extent, in all languages. For example, in English, we distinguish three basic generations of kin: ego’s (or the speakers) generation, brother, sister, and cousin; the generation above ego, mother, father, aunt, and uncle; and the generation below ego – son, daughter, niece, and nephew. To refer to other generations, we can append the prefix “great-” or “grand-” to these basic terms. These generations are often referred to as G+1 for the parental generation, G0 for ego’s generation, and G−1 for the generation of ego’s children. This system is extensible, so G+2 would refer to ego’s grandparental generation.
Generational distinctions are found to some extent in all languages and are one of Héritier’s “first fundamental laws of kinship” (Hage 1997). Since kinship systems are largely focused on reproduction and dependency, it is natural to distinguish carers from those who are being cared for (Greenberg et al. 1978). It is also common to make more distinctions in the descending generation, or generation below, than in the ascending generation (the generation above); however this is not the case in English.
Generational distinctions are arbitrary, as people within a society are born and die continuously, and not in distinct sets (Parkin 1997). Equally, men (and to some extent women) can have children over a long time span, meaning kinship ties may often be at odds to what is commonly thought of as generations, people of similar age. For example, if a grandfather has a son after the birth of a grandchild, this child’s uncle will be younger than them. Kinship distinctions according to generation, then, could be more accurately described as genealogical distinctions, as they are more directly related to links between relatives than relative ages.
An interesting generational feature, exemplified by the Kariera of North Western Australia, is that of alternating generations (Parkin 1997). This is where kinterms are repeated across generations, often at G+2 and G−2. This would mean that the terms used for grandparents are the same as those used for grandchildren. Alternating generations have also been observed between G+1 and G−1 or between ego’s generation and some members of G+2 or G−2. Explaining why this feature occurs has long been a puzzle for anthropologists. Possible explanations for why this feature occurs are symmetric prescriptive marriage or a belief in grandparent-grandchild reincarnation (Hage 1999). However, there is no consensus on the sociological explanation of alternating generations.
There are some special cases where generational distinctions do not occur, and kinterms cover multiple genealogical levels. This is called the skewing principle or generational skewing (Godelier 2012). An example of this is when people in G0 are treated as or at least categorized as G+1 relatives or higher. This famously occurs in Crow and Omaha systems. These systems are strongly tied to societies that prioritize matrilineal or patrilineal descent patterns (Keesing 1975). Crow societies are associated with matrilineality and use a classificatory term for brother’s son, mother’s brother’s son, and mother’s mother’s brother’s son (Stone 2014). All of these relatives are outside of the matriline and grouped together, using a term that could be broadly interpreted as “son’s of men in my matriline.” Similarly, within Crow, there will be one term for father’s sister, father’s sister’s daughter, and father’s sister’s daughter’s daughter or “women of father’s matriline.” Omaha is the patrilineal equivalent of Crow and tends to use a classificatory term for sister’s son, father’s sister’s son, father’s father’s sister’s son, or “son’s of women in my patriline.” However, there is no consensus on why this principle exists, as it does not appear to solely depend on lineage patterns.
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