The language we use to describe our family members can tell us a lot about our society and its values, according to ANU expert Sam Passmore.

If all families are quirky, so is the language we use to talk about them.  

The terms for our siblings, cousins or grandparents — from the standard “grandad” to more creative “fun-pa” — aren’t just a sign of the closeness (or otherwise) of ties and affection. This language can tell us a lot about our society and its values.  

Anthropologists like Dr Sam Passmore from The Australian National University believe if we look closely, language can help us understand the true diversity of kinship – or the organisation of family – which can influence everything from who we live with to how wealth is inherited.  

“These words for family members tell us about much more than individual families. They show how speakers and signers of different languages group relatives together, allowing us to ask questions about why variation occurs,” Passmore says.  

The terms we use for family members can tell us more about our society. Photo: Yakobchuk Olena/stock.adobe.com

“People have always collected this kind of language. But we wanted to compile it all in one place to make it easy for people to use.” 

Passmore and his collaborators have created Kinbank, a giant database of kinship terms from more than 1,100 languages around the word, which was recently released through the free to access journal PLOS ONE

Brother from another mother

The terms for siblings and cousins they’ve collected are a perfect example of just how varied kinship language can be. 

“In English, we use the terms brother and sister, but this is actually only the third most common way of labelling siblings,” Passmore says. 

“The most commons way is to use four sibling categories, like in Japanese. They have different terms for older brother (ani), younger brother (omōto), elder sister (ane), and younger sister (imōto). 

“The second most common system is to distinguish by age. Then you have cultures that group all cousins and siblings under a single category. The Samoan term uso is used by males to refer to male siblings or cousins, or a woman to talk about their sisters or female cousins.”  

Of course, this language can morph into new words entirely as it is adapted by people in different settings. The slang offshoot of uso, “uce”, recently hit the mainstream in Australia thanks to the hit TV show Bump, and is taking on a life of its own.   

Passmore hopes Kinbank will help spark some of those bigger conversations about cultural diversity. 

In Japanese culture, terms for siblings are categorised by age. Photo: Rawpixel.com/stock.adobe.com

“Our aim is that it will provide a starting point to get people thinking: This is how we use kinship language in my family, but do you do it that way? And how does this language affect my life?” 

Another example is the term for father also applying to mother’s brother in some societies. 

“So how would your life be different if you were raised by your mother’s brother rather than your biological father?,” Passmore asks. “You can imagine how life would be vastly different if we had that kind of kinship structure in Australia – and it does exist.” 

M is for more than mother 

The team behind Kinbank also wanted to use the data to test some hypotheses about sounds in family language. For example, do most languages use variations of “mama” to refer to mothers? 

It turns out about 770 languages have a term for either mother or father that starts with the sound “m”. 

“Researchers have previously thought languages are more likely to associate sounds starting with an “m” followed by a vowel with mothers, because it’s similar to the sounds babies often make when breastfeeding,” Passmore says.  

“But we found 41 per cent of “m” parent terms referred to father, most of them coming from languages across New Guinea or Australia.  

“Through Kinbank we are getting a much more complex picture of what’s really happening.”  

Passmore is quick to point out that even though 1,156 languages is a lot to work with, it’s only about 15 per cent of all languages currently spoken around the world. 

“Kinbank has room to expand, making it a valuable resource for endangered languages and the intangible cultural heritage they can hold,” he says. 

Weasel words for women

Along the way the researchers also collected their favourite kinship terminology facts. 

Amongst Balto-Slavic languages, the complicated relationship between women and their in-laws has been expressed in language. In the past, the term for daughter-in-law in Bulgarian and Serbo-Croatian was the same as for weasel. And in Lithuanian, the word for weasel is the same as sister-in-law.  

“The reason behind this relationship is unclear, but might have something to do with old folk tales discouraging adulterous relationships with female-in-laws,” Passmore says.  

Moving from rebukes to respect, it is common in some languages for women show regard for their in-laws by avoiding the use of their names. However, in Datooga (a language spoken in Tanzania), women not only avoid the use of their in-laws names, but also all similar sounding words.  

Kinbank is a collaborative project between The Australian National University, the University of Bristol, the Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi, and the University of Helsinki.  

You can access all the data online at http://www.kinbank.net/ 

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