A brief history of English kinship terminology

In modern standard English, the following basic kinship terms exist:

father, mother, uncle, aunt, cousin, brother, sister, nephew, niece, husband, wife, son, daughter.

Phrases consisting of multiple words and terms which are regularly derived from more basic words via prefixes like grand- or great- or suffixes like -in-law are not included in this list. cousin is included here on the basis of its sense of ‘first cousin, i.e. uncle or aunt’s child’, not its sense of ‘relative who is not a direct ancestor or descendant’. Gender-neutral terms like parent, sibling, spouse and child are not included because, when the gender of the referent is known, it is always preferable to use a gender-specific term in English, so these terms are not as basic as the gender-specific terms.

The English kinship terminology system is a perfect example of an Eskimo kinship terminology system. Eskimo kinship terminology is the kind of terminology expected in a bilateral society, where no distinction is made between patrilineal and matrilineal ancestry and where the emphasis is on the nuclear family.

In Old English, the system was different. Here are the basic kinship terms of Old English (from the Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary):

fæder ‘father’, fædera ‘paternal uncle’, faþu ‘paternal aunt’, mōdor ‘mother’, ēam ‘uncle, esp. maternal’, mōdriġe ‘aunt, esp. maternal’, brōþor ‘brother, sweostor ‘sister’, nefa ‘nephew, grandson’, nift ‘niece, granddaughter’, swēor ‘father-in-law’, sweġer ‘mother-in-law’, tācor ‘husband’s brother’, sunu ‘son’, snoru ‘daughter-in-law’, dōhtor ‘daughter’, āþum ‘son-in-law, sister’s husband’.

Note that the precise meanings of the Old English kinship terms are difficult to identify, because the historical evidence is often incomplete, and also there was probably variation over time and space. So there might be some more obscure words, and additional senses to the words listed above, that have not been listed here. The above list, therefore, should be taken as a close but not exact approximation of the Old English kinship terminology system. With this caveat in mind, the following differences from modern standard English can be observed.

  • A distinction is made between paternal and maternal uncles and aunts. There were specific terms for paternal uncles and aunts, fædera and faþu respectively. The other two terms, ēam and mōdriġe, appear to have not referred exclusively to maternal uncles and aunts respectively but they were chiefly used in this sense.
  • The terms nefa and nift, chiefly meaning ‘nephew’ and ‘niece’ respectively, could also be used in the sense of ‘grandson’ or ‘granddaughter’, respectively. Note that unlike the terms for uncles and aunts, maternal and paternal nieces and nephews were not distinguished, although it was possible to use more specific derived terms like brōþordōhtor ‘brother’s daughter’.
  • It’s hard to find information on the Old English terminology for cousins; it seems that it isn’t well-attested, and people disagree about what distinctions where drawn. So I haven’t included any of it here. But according to Bosworth-Toller swēor ‘father-in-law’ could be used to refer to male cousins of some kind and mōdriġe ‘maternal aunt’ could be used to refer to female cousins of some kind. The use of swēor to mean ‘cousin’ is especially interesting because it may indicate that the Anglo-Saxons practised some kind of cousin marriage.
  • Like many languages, Old English lacked basic terms for ‘husband’ and ‘wife’; the words for ‘man’ and ‘woman’, wer or ceorl and wīf or cwēn respectively, were used instead).
  • Old English had basic terms for ‘father-in-law’ and ‘mother-in-law’: swēor and sweġer respectively. It also had basic terms for ‘son-in-law’ and ‘daughter-in-law’: āþum and snoru. However, āþum had an additional meaning of ‘sister’s husband’, and in this sense it translates modern standard English brother-in-law. But brother-in-law can also mean ‘husband’s brother’, and Old English had an entirely distinct word for this sense: tācor. As for ‘sister-in-law’, Old English does not appear to have had any basic terms for this, whether in the sense of ‘wife’s sister’ or ‘brother’s wife’.

The Old English kinship system does not fit neatly into any of Morgan’s classifications. It resembles the Eskimo kinship terminology of modern standard English in that paternal and maternal nephews and nieces are not distinguished; however, it does make a distinction between paternal and maternal uncles and aunts which is more typical of a Sudanese kinship terminology system. The Old English system might be seen as a system in a state of transition between a Sudanese system and an Eskimo system. The nonexistence of a basic term for ‘wife’s sister’ and the existence of a basic term for ‘husband’s brother’ might be taken as an indication that Old English society was patrilocal.

The Proto-Germanic kinship terminology system is of course even more difficult to know about, because the language is not attested in writing. However, based on the evidence of the older Germanic languages (Gothic, Old Norse, Old English, Old Frisian, Old Saxon, Old Dutch and Old High German), we can reconstruct an approximation of the system. The following list is based on information in Lehmann (2005-2007), A Grammar of Proto-Germanic and Ringe (2006), From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic.

*fadēr ‘father’ (c.f. Goth. fadar, ON faðir, OHG fater), *mōdēr ‘mother’ (c.f. Goth. mōdar, ON móðir, OHG muoter), *nefō̄ ‘nephew, grandson’ (c.f. ON nefe, OHG nevo), *niftiz ‘niece, granddaughter’ (c.f. ON nipt, OHG nift), *brōþēr ‘brother’ (c.f. Goth. brōþar, ON bróðir, OHG bruoder), *swestēr ‘sister’ (c.f. Goth. swistar, ON systir, OHG swester), *swehuraz ‘father-in-law’ (c.f. Old Swedish svēr, OHG swehur), *swegrū ‘mother-in-law’ (c.f. Goth. swaíhra, ON sværa, OHG swigar), *taikuraz ‘husband’s brother’ (c.f. OHG zeihhur), *sunuz ‘son’ (c.f. Goth. sunus, ON sunr, OHG sunu), *snuzō ‘daughter-in-law’ (c.f. OHG snura), *duhtēr ‘daughter’ (c.f. Goth. daúhtar, ON dóttir, OHG tohter), *aiþumaz ‘son-in-law, brother-in-law’ (c.f. OHG eidum).

Note that in Gothic, there were two other words for ‘father’ and ‘mother’ besides fadar and mōdar: atta and áiþei. The first of these has a PIE ancestor, *átta (c.f. Greek átta, Latin atta, both respectful terms of address for elderly men, and Hittite attas ‘father’). Ringe (2006) reconstructs *attō̄ for Proto-Germanic. However, áiþei is of unknown origin. The resemblance to *aiþaz ‘oath’ (which has a cognate in Old Irish ōeth, but no other Indo-European cognates, so it is probably a loanword from an unknown language that entered both Celtic and Germanic) is suggestive, but it could also be entirely unrelated. áiþei may also be related to *aiþumaz, which is also of unknown origin; it has no known cognates in any non-Germanic Indo-European languages, or indeed in any non-West Germanic language.

There were probably terms for uncles, aunts and cousins in Proto-Germanic as well, but they are difficult to reconstruct. On the basis of OE ēam and OHG ōheim we can reconstruct Proto-West Germanic *auhaimaz ‘maternal uncle’. This appears to be a contraction of a compound *awahaimaz formed from *awaz ‘uncle, grandfather’ (< Proto-Indo-European *h₂éwh₂os) + *haimaz ‘home’. But this is a strange compound, because compounds in the modern Germanic languages and in Proto-Indo-European are head-final (for example, elephant shrew refers to shrews that are like elephants, not elephants that are like shrews). An *awahaimaz is a kind of uncle, so this compound appears to be head-initial. I have no idea why this is the case. The choice of this compound to denote the maternal uncle is also interesting. If *awahaimaz is interpreted as ‘uncle who lives in the same home’ that suggests that the Proto-West Germanic speakers actually had a matrilocal society. In a patrilocal society, wives move into their husband’s homes after marriage, leaving their brothers behind, so people tend to live in extended families with their paternal uncles rather than their maternal uncles. This might seem strange, because it is pretty clear that later Germanic society and earlier Proto-Indo-European society was patrilocal. But there is, in fact, a theory that societies in the process of state formation tend to pass through a temporary matrilocal stage. For more on this, see my post on Tumblr about matrilocal societies.

There are other indications that Proto-Germanic preserved a reflex of *h₂éwh₂os (maybe *awaz?). Old Norse had the words afi ‘grandmother’ and amma ‘grandmother’; amma is probably a nursery word, but Lehmann says afi is a reflexes of *h₂éwh₂os (although I don’t know why the word has -f- rather than -v-). Apparently a dative singular form awōn ‘grandmother’ is attested from Gothic, too, which would correspond to nominative singular *awō. This might be the descendant of a feminine derivative, *awō (< PIE *h₂éwh₂ah₂, if it goes back as far as that), of *awaz in Proto-Germanic.

What about the other Old English words for uncles and aunts? Well, all of them lack cognates outside of West Germanic. fædera and mōdriġe are clearly derivatives of the words for ‘father’ and ‘mother’ respectively; they were probably originally adjectives meaning ‘paternal, i.e. of a father’ and ‘maternal, i.e. of a mother’ respectively. faþu also seems to be some kind of derivative of the word for ‘father’, although I don’t know what process would turn *fadēr into *faþō. Note the apparent Verner’s Law alternation!

Old English had a word mǣġ ‘relative’, which is not a kinship term has defined here. Its cognate in Old High German, māg, also means ‘relative’. However, in Old Norse mágr was a general term meaning ‘male relative by marriage, i.e. son-in-law, brother-in-law, father-in-law’, and in Gothic mēgs meant ‘son-in-law’ specifically. This word has no cognates in other Indo-European languages, and it is possible that was a kinship term with the ON or Goth. meaning in Proto-Germanic; then again ‘relative’ might just as well be the original meaning, especially if *aiþumaz is Proto-Germanic.

As for Proto-Indo-European, there is even more uncertainty than with Proto-Germanic, but the following kinship terms can be reconstructed.

*ph₂tḗr ‘father’ (c.f. Tocharian B pācer, Sanskrit pitā́, Old Armenian hayr, Greek patḗr, Latin pater, Old Irish athair), *máh₂tēr ‘mother’ (c.f. Tocharian B mācer, Sanskrit mātā́, Old Armenian mayr, Greek mḗtēr, Lithuanian mótė, Old Church Slavonic mati, Latin māter, Old Irish máthair), *h₂éwh₂os ‘grandfather’ (c.f. Hittite ḫūḫḫas, Old Armenian haw, Latin avus), *bráh₂tēr ‘brother’ (c.f. Sanskrit bhrātā́, Old Armenian ełbayr, Greek phrátēr, Lithuanian brólis, Old Church Slavonic bratrŭ, Latin frāter, Old Irish bráthair), *swésōr ‘sister’ (c.f. Tocharian B ṣer, Sanskrit śvasā́, Lithuanian sesuõ, Old Church Slavonic sestra, Latin soror, Old Irish siur), *swéḱuros ‘father-in-law’ (c.f. Sanskrit śvaśura, Greek hekurós, Albanian vjehërr, Old Church Slavonic svekrŭ ‘husband’s father’, Latin socer), *sweḱrúh₂ ‘mother-in-law’ (c.f. Sanskrit śvaśrū́s, Greek hekurā́, Old Church Slavonic svekry, Latin socrus), *dayhₐwḗr ‘husband’s brother’ (c.f. Sanskrit devā́, , Old Armenian taygr, Greek daḗr, Old Church Slavonic děverĭ, Latin lēvir), *yénh₂tēr ‘husband’s brother’s wife’ (c.f. Sanskrit yā́tṛ, Greek enátēr, Lithuanian jéntė, Old Church Slavonic jętry), *ǵh₂lōws ‘husband’s sister’ (c.f. Greek gálōs ‘sister-in-law’, Old Church Slavonic zŭlŭva ‘husband’s sister’, Latin glōs ‘husband’s sister’), *suHnús / *suHyús ‘son’ (c.f. Tocharian B soy, Sanskrit sūnú, Greek huiús, Lithuanian sūnùs, Old Church Slavonic synŭ), *népōts ‘grandson’ (c.f. Sanskrit nápāt, Greek anepsiós ‘cousin’, Albanian nip ‘grandson, nephew’, Old Church Slavonic netijĭ ‘nephew’, Latin nepōs ‘grandson, nephew’, Old Irish nïa ‘sororal nephew’), *snusós ‘daughter-in-law’ (c.f. Sanskrit snuṣā́, Old Armenian nu, Greek nuós, Latin nurus), *dʰugh₂tḗr ‘daughter’ (c.f. Tocharian B tkācer, Sanskrit duhitā́, Old Armenian dustr, Greek thugátēr, Lithuanian duktė̃, Old Church Slavonic dŭšti)

There were probably feminine counterparts to *h₂éwh₂os and *népōts in Proto-Indo-European, but they were formed as derivatives of the masculine terms. There are numerous indications that the society of the Proto-Indo-European speakers was patrilocal: swéḱuros seems to have referred to a husband’s father only, not a wife’s father, there is a basic term for ‘husband’s brother’s wife’ but not ‘husband’s sister’s wife’, and it is uncertain whether there are reconstructable basic PIE terms for ‘wife’s brother’ or ‘wife’s sister’.

It looks to me like the evidence of kinship terminology suggests that English-speakers and their linguistic ancestors have been patrilocal for most of their history. That said, as mentioned above, Proto-Germanic *awahaimaz suggests that there might have been a short matrilocal period around the Proto-Germanic period. This is far from conclusive evidence on its own, but there are also clues that the Germanic peoples might have been to some degree matrilocal (or avunculocal) from Tacitus’s Germania, and if the Harris-Divale theory of matrilocality being related to external warfare during state formation is correct, this would be a prediction of that theory.


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