Culture and Kinship Language

Authored by: David B. Kronenfeld

The Routledge Handbook of Language and Culture

Print publication date:  December  2014
Online publication date:  December  2014

Print ISBN: 9780415527019
eBook ISBN: 9781315793993
Adobe ISBN: 9781317743187


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Kinship provides one particularly useful domain for the examination of language and thought relations. There are several advantages it offers, as well as at least one drawback. First, and maybe most importantly, anthropologists and linguists have much clearer analytic control of denotative meaning, connotative associations, and figurative extension than for almost any other domain. This control includes both terminological contrast (i.e. ‘an uncle as opposed to, for instance, a father’) and reference (i.e., ‘how do you tell if someone actually is an uncle’), Second, we have extensive presentations and analyses of the social and cultural structures and forms (including groups, legal rights, behavioural obligations, and so forth) with which different kinds of kinship terminologies are associated. Third, there now exists some collection of systematic data patterns of actual behavior among kinsfolk that can be directly compared with patterns of terminological usage. Fourth, both kinship terminologies and patterned (and socially enjoined) relations among kin are universal and universally important – all cultures have them. Fifth, anthropologists and others have been collecting and publishing systematic data on kinship terminologies, groups, and rights for over 150 years. The one clear drawback is that denotative reference – almost uniquely – is defined by relative products (such as ‘uncle’ is a ‘parent’s brother’) rather than directly by features (a ‘table’ is a flat surface on which one places things that typically rests on legs and typically falls within a certain size range, depending on what kind of a table it is) and that, thus, kinterms are binary (one is ‘someone’s uncle’ vs. simply ‘an uncle’) whereas most other terms are unary (it is simply ‘a table’). Connotative associations and figurative extension for kinship terms seem more like what is common for other domains.

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