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Why do Chinese and Hindi have more terms for relatives than English does?

Linguistics Asked by shaunakde on January 2, 2022

I was thinking about labels we assign family members (like cousin, grand mother etc.) and it struck me that in my native language of Hindi, we have different labels for maternal and paternal family members. For example, your maternal grandmother is a "naani", while your paternal grandmother is a "daadi". This feature isn’t present in the English language, and you’d probably refer to both as your "grandmother".

Similarly there in Chinese there is also specificity for elder and younger brother ("Didi", and "Gege"). However, I’ve not seen such specific family position labels in English (or Italian).

I was wondering if this feature has developed because both China and India have joint-family oriented societies, and thus it is more efficient to have unique words for each member. More specifically however, I was wondering if there was any research done in this topic.

I tried my best to search for the answer. But researching this topic has proven more challenging then I expected. Besides, I don’t think I have the vocabulary or linguistics knowledge to even begin clearly describing my question or search for the right keywords.

Here are some relevant links I found:

  1. https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english-chinese/brother
  2. https://en.wikiversity.org/wiki/Bengali_Language/Family
  3. https://www.w3.org/International/questions/qa-personal-names

I apologize in advance for the broad nature, and my lack of ability in being able to cleanly explain my question.

2 Answers

Kinship terms tend to reflect past social structures. Thus Chinese maintains a sharp distinction between relatives on the mother's side (cognates) and relatives on the father's side (agnates) because the religious and legal concept of a family was traditionally based on male descent. (A wife formally left her father's family and became part of her husband's, even to the point of sacrificing to her husband's ancestors.) Therefore it was important to distinguish agnates from cognates.

Traditional Confucian teaching was also very hierarchical. A wife was subordinate to her husband, a sister was subordinate to her brothers, and elder brothers held authority over younger brothers. Therefore there are separate terms for older and younger brothers, older and younger male cousins, etc.

Answered by yutu on January 2, 2022

Such features have nothing to do with cultures being more or less "family-oriented", but may reveal something about social structure. Numerous societies distinguish relatives based on whether the person is on your maternal versus paternal line. For example, in Logoori, the word translated as "uncle", koozá refers to the male siblings of your mother but not the male siblings of your father. The word translated as "aunt", séénge, refers to the female siblings of your father but not the female siblings of your mother. You refer to your paternal uncles as "father" and your maternal aunts as "mother", hence "my fathers" and "my mothers" is not as marked as it is in English. However, this distinction stops with your parents, so there is no difference between maternal and paternal grandfathers, or grandmothers. The distinction between matrilineal and patrilineal societies is important, but not all-determining, in studying kinship systems. The study of kinship systems is a well-studied area of anthropology and linguistics.

Answered by user6726 on January 2, 2022

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