Posts Tagged ‘personal names’

Gender Neutralization in Kinship Terms: Putting the Swedish Experiment in Perspective

Friday, April 13th, 2012

Sweden is going through another “sexual revolution.” Traditional gender roles and stereotypes have been so thoroughly challenged in all spheres of life (politics, labor laws, advertising, clothing, sports – you name it) that time has come for change the lexicon and the grammar of the Swedish language.








The linguistic devices that are affected by a societal shift to gender-neutrality are personal names, pronouns and, potentially, kinship terms. There are currently 170 legally recognized unisex names in Sweden. Swedish parents are increasingly likely to give a girl a traditional boy’s name and a boy a traditional girl’s name. The online version of the country’s National Encyclopedia now contains a new pronoun hen defined as a gender-neutral personal pronoun instead of han ‘he’ and hon ‘she’. It’s kinship terms’ turn now and a male writer, Jasper Lundqvist, is publishing a gender neutral book for children (see above) called “Kivi och monsterhund” (Kivi and monster dog). This book is full of neologisms such as mappor, pammor (instead of gender-specific mammor ‘mothers’ and pappor ‘fathers’), morbroster (from morbror ‘uncle, mother’s brother’ and moster ‘aunt, mother’s sister’) and bröstrar (from bröder ‘brothers’, and systrar ‘sisters’).

Time will show how sticky these new kinship terms, personals names and the pronoun hen are, but, in at least two ways, these changes are systematic.

First, there’s a tendency for kinship terms and personal names to develop similar gender marking. In Spanish, gender-specific affixes affect both kinship terms and personal names in a patterned fashion (comp. Mario/Maria and hermano ‘brother’/hermana ‘sister’).

Second, many Swedish kinship terms are already highly compounded, descriptive and artificial, being juxtapositions of simple kinship terms (e.g., farbror ‘father’s brother’, morbror ‘mother’s brother’). The portmanteau formations such as mappor don’t seem to come out of the blue in a pure response to sociopolitical forces related to gender; rather they could qualify as changes originating in the internal structure of the kinship terminology or at least as changes heavily constrained by it.

Third, kinship terminologies show a global trend toward progressive expulsion of Ego Gender and Speaker Gender (see The Genius of Kinship). This can clearly be seen in sibling terminologies where the progressive removal of Ego Gender and Relative Age results in the dramatic simplification of sibling sets (Swedish systar and broder, just like their cognates in other Indo-European languages, are already heavily simplified sets). If we look at the opposite pole of terminological elaboration of sibling sets (and concomitantly at the geographically opposite side of the globe from Sweden), we find that societies differentiating their siblings in linguistically complex ways also exhibit a similar concern with gender segregation in siblings’ roles, outward appearance and behaviors. As reported by Garcilaso de la Vega (Royal Commentaries of the Incas. Austin and London, 1966, 4, 2, 211) about the colonial Incas, boys and girls were supposed to strictly adhere to the proper usage of kinship terms marked by Ego Gender, otherwise boys would become girls and girls would become boys.

While a Swedish toy catalog (see above, left) is experimenting with showing a boy pushing a pink stroller to appeal to gender-neutral parents, the Incas of colonial times were busy enforcing the opposite – the strict segregation of gender outfits and behaviors through language from an early age. The two behaviors are apparently associated or consistent with two radically different ways of manifesting gender in kinship terms because saying is being.

It’s possible that the reason why gender dynamics in society correlate so intricately with gender indexing in kinship terms, pronouns and personal names is because it’s precisely in these classes of language items that ontology impinges upon language.

Via Slate and Transparent Language.

Kinship Terms and Naming Taboos: Oroch

Friday, April 13th, 2012

Among the Altaic-speaking Oroch (Orochi) in eastern Siberia, personal names are subject to various pragmatic restrictions. Personal names can’t be duplicated or pronounced loudly, and they shouldn’t be used when cursing somebody or an evil spirit would harm the name-bearer. Kinship terms are not subject to any taboos and can be used freely. Parents can use personal names to address their children but even in this case there is a special set of birth-order terms to refer to children that’s used alongside names.

Source: Startsev A. F. “Nomenklatura rodstva,” in Istoriia i kultura orochei. St. Petersburg, 2001, p. 28 (in Russian).

It appears that cross-linguistically kinship terms, unlike personal names, are not subject to speech taboos. It’s also noteworthy that, by being taboo-free, kinship terms function as substitutes for personal names and, as such, approach the function of pronouns (Russian mestoimenie, lit. ‘name substitute’). The difference between kinship terms as name substitutes and pronouns is that kinship terms index deictically not the Speaker (vocative terms do), but the Name-Bearer.

Generational Reversal in Names and Kinship Terms

Tuesday, April 10th, 2012

Lucy Mair in “Marriage and Family in the Dedza District of Nyasaland,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 81 (1-2), 1951, (p. 103) reports on the pragmatic functioning of descent names among Bantu-speaking Ngoni and Cewa.

Not only are they used vocatively, as one would expect, in the respect register but also, conversely, in playful address to small children. Typically, cross-linguistically, older and younger relatives are treated differently: older relatives are addressed using respectful forms, while younger children are addressed using familiar forms. For instance, children can often be addressed by their personal names, while they in turn must use kinship terms when addressing adults. But there’s a known property to kinship terms whereby in some cultures (Arabic, Georgian, Hopi, see The Genius of Kinship, pp. 156-157, for a more complete roster) adults and children within the same family reverse their normative kinship terms in direct address to each other, so that a child becomes “father,” “mother,” “grandfather,” “grandmother,” “uncle,” or “aunt” to a corresponding adult, and the other way around. It seems that among the Ngoni the use of a descent name in playful interactions with children belongs to the same category of pragmatic phenomena. It may function as an educational device, so that children learn descent names from an early age, or as a restricted relaxation of verbal prescription and taboos in specialized playful contexts.

Kinship and Naming: A Note about Warao

Wednesday, April 4th, 2012

In his doctoral dissertation (The Warao: A Study in Microevolution.  University of California – Los Angeles, available online from HRAF), Mark Fleischman (pp. 65-66) reports on the centrality of kinship terms among the Warao:


“In small village groupings ego is unlikely to have much contact with very distant relatives. The social interdigitation of people living closely with one another would lead naturally to a greater complexity of terminology for people within the group. This specificity of kinship terminology within a small village group would negate any need for proper names for individuals, since, in most instances, the kinship term used by ego would show which individual he is addressing or talking about. Knowledge on the part of the others of all of ego’s relatives is necessary under these circumstances. Such information would be difficult to maintain in large living groups, or in groups where people are distantly, if at all, related. The Warao conform to the above expectations, and prior to missionary contact placed little importance on proper names.”


One of the key features of personal names is their referential precision. They are capable of referring to one individual and one individual only. The important point in the Warao quote above is that in small populations kinship terms possess greater specificity over personal names. It’s also noteworthy that Fleischman identifies the reason for why small populations often exhibit unusual complexity of their kinship categories and why complexity is not always of recent origin. This is the point I made in “The Genius of Kinship” when I postulated that Murdock’s “Complexly Differentiated Sibling Type” represents an evolutionary archaism and not a recent development. In a situation when other linguistic domains, such as personal names, numbers or pronouns, may be suppressed and underdifferentiated because of the lack of a strong functional need for these classifications, kinship terminological systems acquire a greater prominence as they take over some of the functions of those other linguistic domains.