Tag Archives: anthropology

Emics and etics


Many non-linguists probably don’t know that linguists use the words “phonetics” and “phonology” to refer to two quite different subjects. There is, admittedly, a considerable degree of interconnection between the two subjects, but most of the time the difference is reasonably stark. The best way to describe the respective subjects is by an example. Many of the languages of the world make use of speech sounds which are known as lateral approximants. The Latin letter L is dedicated to representing such sounds. In English, lateral approximants appear at the start of words like “laugh” and “lion” (and, indeed, “lateral”), in the middle of words like “pillow” and “bulk”, and at the end of words like “tell” and “saddle”. The exact sound of the lateral approximants in these words varies to a considerable degree from utterance to utterance, due to factors such as intonation, the chosen volume and the simple fact that people do not replicate precisely the same physical actions every time they utter a sound. It also varies from speaker to speaker—different people have different voices. The term “lateral approximant” therefore refers not to a particular acoustic signal but to an abstract category including some but not all acoustic signals1. The way language works makes it inevitable that when we talk about speech sounds, we talk about these abstract categories of acoustic signals rather than the particular acoustic signals themselves. This point about “lateral approximant” being an abstract category is not directly relevant to the phonetics-phonology distinction, but I bring it up because it will help clarify things later.

One specific kind of variation in the sounds of speech is especially interesting to linguists. The pronunciation of a sound such as a lateral approximant can be affected by the surrounding sounds. The differences produced thus have the potential be regular and systematic in the sense that they are reproduced from utterance to utterance: after all, the same sequence of sounds exists in each utterance. The term for this kind of variation in particular is “allophony”. A particularly stark example of allophony is exhibited by English lateral approximants2 (which is why I chose to talk about this kind of sound in particular). Before other consonants and at the end of a word (such as in “bulk”, “tell” and “saddle”), they are pronounced one way; elsewhere (such as in “laugh”, “lion” and “pillow”), they are pronounced another way. When they are pronounced in the former way, English lateral approximants are referred to as “dark Ls”, and when they are pronounced in the latter way, they are referred to as “clear Ls”. The IPA has symbols for each pronunciation: dark L is [ɫ], clear L is [l]. If you don’t already know a lot about linguistics, it’s quite likely that you never noticed that this variation existed before, even though, as may be apparent to you now that I have drawn your attention to it, the difference is quite large. You never needed to notice it, because in the English language, the distinction between clear and dark L is never used to distinguish words. That is, there are no pairs of words which consist of the same sequence of speech sounds, except that one of them has a dark L in the same position that the other has a clear L. It is therefore convenient to treat clear L and dark L as the same sound, at least when we are talking about English. We can use the simpler of the two symbols, /l/, to represent this sound, but we add slashes rather than brackets around the symbol in order to make clear that the boundary of the category of acoustic signals referred to by /l/ is determined here by the distinctions the English language (or whatever language we are talking about) makes use of in order distinguish its words from each other. It is reasonable to suppose that the concept of /l/ does actually exist in the minds of speakers of English (and that separate concepts for clear L and dark L do not exist in their minds). But even if this were not the case, the concept of /l/ would still be useful for descriptive purposes. The name for this kind of concept is “phoneme”.

There are in fact languages in which the distinction between clear L and dark L is used to distinguish words. Russian is one of them. The word мел ‘chalk’ is pronounced like “Mel”, but with a dark L. The word мель ‘shallow’ is pronounced like “Mel”, but with a clear L. For this reason, Russian is said to have an /l/ phoneme, which is spelt ль, and a /ɫ/ phoneme, which is spelt л. Note that, despite the notation, the Russian /l/ is not the same as the English /l/, any more than the Russian /ɫ/ is the same as the English /l/: the two Russian phonemes correspond to a single, more general phoneme in English.

The crucial, defining property of phonemes is that they are abstract categories of acoustic signals whose boundaries are determined by the distinctions that a particular language makes use of. They are defined in opposition to abstract categories of acoustic signals in general, whose boundaries are not necessarily determined by the distinctions a particular language makes use of; they may be determined by the distinctions a linguist finds interesting to make, for example. Such categories are referred to by the words “sound” or (in my experience, less commonly) “phone”; it has always seemed to me that “phonete” would be the most appropriate word, but nobody uses that one. In the jargon of Less Wrong, the distinction can be conveyed by saying that phonemes carve reality at the joints (for a particular language’s purposes), while sounds in general don’t necessarily do the same.

It can be helpful to shift the viewpoint a little and consider the set of all the phonemes of a particular language. This set is always finite (this is a cross-linguistic universal). One can consider the space of all conceivable acoustic signals that might be produced by a speaker of the language. The set of phonemes constitutes a particular partition of this space into a finite number of parts, and speakers of the language do not make use of any of the differences within each part when processing speech3. The parts under this partition are represented by symbols surrounded by slashes. If you choose to partition the space in a different way for some reason, you need to represent the parts by symbols surrounded by square brackets.

One final point which I want to stress is that both phonemes and sounds in general are abstract categories! People (including me, when I’m not thinking carefully enough) often describe the distinction as something along the lines of “phonemes are abstract categories of sounds”, and this can be interpreted in a way that makes it a true statement, more or less, but it doesn’t constitute an exhaustive definition: the things we refer to as “sounds” in practice are abstract categories of sounds too, so phonemes are a particular kind of abstract category of sounds.

Anyway, the difference between phonetics and phonology is this: phonetics is about sounds in general (“phonetes”), phonology is about phonemes. Or to put it another way, phonology specifically studies the categorizations of acoustic signals that make sense with respect to particular languages, and phonetics studies speech sounds under other categorizations. For example, investigation of how common it is for lateral approximants to appear in speech in both clear and dark forms comes under phonetics. But once you start investigating in addition how common it is for clear L and dark L constitute separate phonemes, you’ve got into phonology.


The concept of the distinction between phonetics and phonology can be generalised. It has proved especially fruitful in the field of anthropology.

The first person to make the analogy was a man called Kenneth Pike. As you might imagine, he was both an anthropologist and a linguist. He was quite an interesting man, actually. According to Wikipedia, he was “the foremost figure in the history of SIL” (that slightly controversial organization, the Summer Institute of Linguistics). He also invented a (non-naturalistic) conlang called Kalaba-X. And he used to give what were called “monolingual demonstrations”, where he would work with a speaker of a language unknown to him and attempt to analyze it as far as he could without having known anything about it previously, all before an audience.

Anyway, Kenneth Pike thought that it was helpful to distinguish two different approaches to studying human culture, which he called the emic and etic approaches. The emic approach is analogous to phonology. The etic approach is analogous to phonetics. The anthropologist Marvin Harris later adopted the concept and made it critical to his theory of human culture, which he called “cultural materialism”. Harris made use of the concept in a somewhat different way than Pike originally did. If you want to see Pike’s side of things, you could look at this interview with him, which contains the following amusing illustration of the extent of their differences:

[…] it took me months and months and months to try to understand Harris. Would you like to know how I got started talking with Harris? I was in Spain at the request of some philosophers and spoke there on the relationship of language to the world (Pike 1987). Afterwards they told me that Harris had been there three months previously lecturing. When they invited me, they had sent me some articles with some references to the etics and emics of Harris. That is precisely why they had invited me. Harris had said that he wished he could talk to Pike.

So later we invited Harris to Norman [Oklahoma] to lecture. I asked him to arrive at least a day early so that we could talk privately before the lecture. So we spent four hours talking prior to the lecture. Tom Headland then met him at an AAA meeting and arranged the meeting and we both agreed.

We had a difficult time trying to understand each other. We each spoke 20 minutes, with 10 minutes for reply by the other. Later, we saw each other’s materials so that before publication we could revise our own materials after having read the comments. The commentators could also revise their materials after having read the revisions of our revisions. So we had maximum time to try to understand each other. Even so, every so often I still get a little perplexed.

I have read some of Harris’s work but none of Pike’s, so my discussion is going to be informed by his conception of the emic and etic approaches in particular. Let’s begin with an illustrative example, like the one I used in part I of this post. This example is taken from Harris’s book Cultural Materialism, published in 1979.

While doing fieldwork in the southern Indian state of Kerala, Harris observed that the sex ratio among the cattle owned by farmers there was highly skewed in favour of females: for every hundred female cattle there were only sixty-seven male cattle. The farmers, when asked about this, vehemently denied having killed the excess males, as expected given the Hindu prohibition against killing cattle. They instead attributed the difference to an innate propensity towards sickness among male cattle. When they were asked why this propensity existed, some of them replied that the male cattle ate less than the females. When they were asked again why the male cattle ate less than the females, some replied that they were given less time to suck on their mother’s teats. However, there are other states in India, such as Uttar Pradesh, where the sex ratio is skewed the other way: there are more than two oxen for every cow. Moreover, these states are precisely those where the ecological and economic situation is such that there is a relatively large need for traction animals, such as oxen. Suspicious, isn’t it? What seems to be happening is that, despite the Hindu prohibition against killing cattle, the farmers of Kerala take active steps to ensure that male calves drink less milk than their sisters4.

By taking these actions, the farmers cause the male calves to die, when they otherwise would survive. Therefore, there is a sense in which their action can be called “killing”. But the crucial point is that if we call the action “killing”, then we are making use of a categorization which is etic rather than emic. That is, it is not a categorization which makes sense on the terms of the culture of the Keralan farmers. These farmers’ concept of killing does not include neglecting to feed male calves properly5. It is just the same as how the Russian /l/ covers a smaller range of acoustic signals than the English /l/. The contradiction between Hindu custom and what actually takes place must be understood in this light: it is only an apparent contradiction, because, from the emic perspective, the farmers are not doing any killing of cattle.

Note that this is not to say that the Keralan farmers would be able to get away with openly slaughtering the cattle, say, by slitting their throats with knives. The concept of “killing” is not infinitely malleable. In the same way, no language that I know of considers both [p] and [l] to be the part of the same phoneme. All we are saying here is that the extent of variation in emic categorizations is constrained to some degree by the properties of the things they categorize. In describing these constraints we make use of categorizations that are chosen for their usefulness for this descriptive purpose, and not for their coincidence with categorizations that are used by a particular culture. Such categorizations are by definition etic. This means that if the extent of emic variation is sufficiently constrained, the distinction between emic and etic becomes redundant, because all cultures will essentially categorize things the same way, and this categorization can be perfectly well understood from an etic perspective. In most areas of human culture, however, there are considerable degrees of freedom in categorization and therefore the emic-etic distinction is very helpful in understanding cross-cultural variation.

The Keralan cattle sex ratio example is an especially striking one, but another example given by Harris in the same book is, I think, more illustrative of just how helpful the emic-etic distinction can be. In Brazil, Harris collected data on the number of people living in households. But doing this required a more complicated methodology than just asking people from different households, “How many people live here?” The culture of Harris’ informants was such that they did not consider their servants members of their households, even when they were permanent residents there. And for whatever purpose he was collecting the data, Harris found it more useful to consider these servants as household members. He therefore had to ask extra questions to get information about the numbers of servants, in order to make use of an etic categorization of his own that was different from the emic categorization of his Brazilian informants. It is easy to see how not heeding this kind of thing could lead to confusion: if, for example, you collected data on the number of people in households across both Brazil and some other country in which live-in servants were counted as household members, only asking, “How many people live here?”, and used that inference to make conclusions about, say, the amount of food that the average household consumed in both countries, then these conclusions could be grossly wrong, and the data would be meaningless in that sense.

This is connected with another important consideration. One of the things which gives the social sciences a rather different epistemic flavour from the natural sciences is the ubiquitous use of concepts which are rather slippery and vaguely defined: “status”, “role”, “social class”, “tribe”, “state”, “family”, “religion”, etc. Social scientists regularly try to make these definitions more precise (that is, to “operationalize” them), but they do this in a peculiar way: it is rare for a particular operationalization to actually become accepted as the one, true definition of the concept at this level of precision, or for two different operationalizations to be given different names so that researchers can from then one treat them as separate concepts. Indeed, I think a lot of social scientists might agree that it is more useful to leave these concepts vaguely defined and use the operationalizations appropriate to the circumstances. Why is this the case? The crucial factor may be that in the social sciences, the distinction between emics and etics comes into play. Social scientists often need to talk about “status”, “tribe”, “state”, “religion”, etc. as emic concepts; that is, as conceptualised by particular cultures. Different cultures have different ideas of what these concepts are, and hence different operationalizations are appropriate for different cultures. Having a common word for each of these different operationalizations is still useful as a way of emphasizing the similarity between them (and perhaps their common origin, in some sense). And it doesn’t cause too much confusion, because the sense of the word in a particular context can be inferred from the culture being talked about in that context. It’s only when one needs to make use of etic concepts that are similar to these emic concepts that the potential for confusion becomes large. One thing that might be useful in the social sciences is to reserve some words for the emic approach and others for the etic approach. For example, we might reserve “caste” as the word for social strata as conceptualized by particular cultures6 and “class” as the word for social strata as conceptualized in other ways.

To summarize: in order to understand a culture, one must understand the concepts which the culture’s members understand their experience in terms of. Emic approaches to culture work with these concepts only. On the other hand, etic approaches to culture may work with alternative conceptual systems which clash with that of the culture being studied. The two approaches are not rivals; they lead to insights about different things and at the same time complement each other, just as phonetics and phonology are not in conflict, and are different subfields of linguistics yet at the same time are closely interconnected.

  1. ^ By using the word “category” I don’t mean to imply that membership in the category is categorical, as in a mathematical set (i.e. that every acoustic signal is either a lateral approximant or not, and there is never any need for further clarification). The category may be radial: it may be the case that one particular acoustic signal or set of acoustic signals is maximally lateral approximant-like, and acoustic signals which are less similar to these central examples are less lateral approximant-like. Or it may have some other, more complicated structure.
  2. ^ Some dialects don’t exhibit this allophony—Welsh English sometimes has clear L everywhere, and certain American English dialects have dark L everywhere. So if you can’t see this distinction in your own speech after reading the rest of the paragraph this footnote is attached to, that may be why.
  3. ^ This isn’t quite true: for example, you might notice that somebody keeps pronouncing clear L where they should pronounce dark L and conclude on that basis that they must be Welsh or foreign. You may do this subconsciously, even if you don’t know about the distinction between clear L and dark L. (The subconscious understanding of allophonic variation patterns is a large part of why people find it difficult to imitate other accents than their own: they see the problem in others, but not in themselves. Conversely, understanding phonetics and phonology is the secret to being able to imitate accents like a boss.)
  4. ^ Harris does not go into very much detail about this example. There are some things I’d like to know more about, such as why this stark difference in demand for traction animals exists between different Indian states, and how exactly the farmers are supposed to ensure that the male cattle are fed less. If anyone reading this knows of some resources that would be helpful, I encourage you to point me to them.
  5. ^ Of course, there may be a certain level or style of neglect for which it would be regarded as killing; but the means by which the differential sex ratio is produced is certainly not considered to be killing.
  6. ^ Or subcultures, of course. Basically everything that is being said here about the analysis of cultures can also be applied to more finely-grained divisions within cultures.

The mystery of Proto-Germanic *awahaimaz ‘maternal uncle’

From Old English ēam ‘uncle, esp. maternal’ and Old High German ōheim ‘maternal uncle’ we can reconstruct Proto-West Germanic *auhaimaz ‘maternal uncle’. (PWGmc *au becomes OE ēa, and PWGmc *h is lost in voiced environments in OE with contraction of resulting vowel sequences, while in OHG PWGmc *au and *ai become ei and ou respectively in most positions, but *au becomes ō before dental consonants, r and h.) This word looks like a compound consisting of a dependent noun stem *aw- and a head noun *haimaz.

The head noun is readily identifiable as the PGmc word *haimaz ‘home’ (cf. Goth. haims ‘village’, ON heimr ‘home, world’, OE hām, OHG heim; the ‘village’ sense is also attested in place names in the NWGmc languages), which does not (AFAIK) have direct cognates in other IE languages, but it can be derived from a formation *ḱóymos ‘resting place’ from the verbal root *ḱey- ‘lie down’ (cf. Skt śete ‘(s)he is lying down’, Gk keîtai ‘(s)he is lying down’). As for the dependent noun stem, it appears to be the same one seen in Goth. awō ‘grandmother’; presumably its meaning was ‘grandparent’, or ‘grandfather’ given that non-gender-specific IE stems used to form kinship terminology tend to refer to males by default. The stem would have been *awa- in PGmc, which became *aw- in PWGmc after the loss of word-final low vowels that occured in the WGmc languages. There are cognates outside of Gmc too; PGmc *awa- would be the regular outcome of PIE *h₂áwh₂o- ‘grandfather’, which is widely attested, via reflexes of the noun *h₂áwh₂os formed directly from this stem (cf. Hitt. ḫuḫḫas, Toch. B āwe, Arm. hav, Lat. avus ‘grandfather, ancestor’), via reflexes of the adjective *h₂áwh₂yos (cf. OIr. aue ‘grandson, descendant’, Serbo-Croat. ȕjāk ‘maternal uncle’ [with a dimunitive suffix -ak]), and via n-stem reflexes of some form or other (cf. Lith. avýnas ‘maternal uncle’, Lat. avunculus ‘maternal uncle’ [with a dimunitive suffix -culus], OIr. amnair ‘maternal uncle’ [with the ending of athair ‘father’]; also Goth. awō itself, which has the gen. sg. awōns). As we can see from these reflexes, it wasn’t uncommon for derivatives of *h₂áwh₂o- to come to mean ‘maternal uncle’. This is probably due to the fact that in strongly patrilineal societies (and it is thought that PIE society was strongly patrilineal), there is a tendency for kinship terms to conflate members of different generations who are relatives on the mother’s side. Note also that the parallel conflation of nephews with grandchildren is widely attested in IE, and from Gothic and Slavic there is evidence that the conflation was originally with sororal nephews, specifically.

Now, something is very weird about this compound noun (PGmc *awahaimaz, PWGmc *auhaimaz). The two constituent nouns in a compound noun don’t usually have an equal relationship. Generally, one of them can be identified as the head noun, and the other can be identified as the dependent noun; the compound is used to refer to things that can be described as the head noun, but have some more specific attribute, not implied by the head noun itself, described (or often only vaguely alluded to) by the dependent noun. For example, in English, a blackbird is a bird which is black, and a football is a ball which you kick with your feet. Generally, in English and the other Germanic languages, and in PIE itself, compounds like this (which are called determinative compounds) are head-final, that is, the head noun is the second noun in the compound, and the first noun is dependent. But it seems unlikely that a compound whose head was *haimaz, and which therefore referred to a kind of home, would have ended up meaning ‘maternal uncle’. Instead, it seems that the head of *awahaimaz has to be *awa-, the first noun in the compound—unlike every other PGmc compound I’m aware of.

Furthermore, even if we assume *awahaimaz was a head-initial compound meaning ‘home-uncle’ or something like that, it’s still unclear what the dependent noun *haimaz is meant to indicate here. In a patrilocal society, wives live in the home owned by their husband’s family after marriage. Hence, the members of one’s extended family who live in the same home may include one’s paternal uncles, but it does not include one’s maternal uncles (because one’s mother has come from a different home, where she lived before getting married). It would therefore make more sense for paternal uncles to be referred to as ‘home-uncles’, rather than maternal uncles. We know that the Gmc peoples were patrilocal in historical times and we are reasonably sure that the speakers of PIE were patrilocal. It’s possible that PGmc speakers passed through a temporary matrilocal stage, in which case the compound would make more sense, perhaps. But if it was common for people to live along with their paternal or maternal uncles along with their parents, it is quite likely that these uncles would have been referred to as ‘father’ or by some transparent derivative of that term; after all, they would have served a similar role, and such conflations are known to be common in strongly unilineal (that is, either patrilineal or matrilineal) societies. So I don’t think this is a totally convincing explanation; and it doesn’t explain the fact that the compound is head-initial in any case.

Anyway, I don’t have a solution to this mystery. I just thought it was worth pointing out.

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.

Some facts about gender

One of the most interesting phenomena found in languages is gender. In its linguistic sense, gender refers to the phenomenon where nouns are divided into a number of different classes which can be distinguished due to the fact that words associated with nouns, like pronouns, determiners, adjectives and verbs, often appear in different forms depending on the gender of the nouns they are associated with (this is called gender agreement). For example, in German the word for ‘the’ is der when it is attached to masculine nouns like Mann ‘man’, die when it is attached to feminine nouns like Frau ‘women’ and das when it is attached to neuter nouns like Kind ‘child’. The main reason gender is such an interesting phenomenon is probably that is not at all obvious why it exists. Language is generally thought of as a means of communication, but it is hard to see how gender systems aid communication. Even if there might be some benefits, any explanation has to account for the high prevalence of gender systems in languages worldwide: in the WALS‘s sample 112 out of 257 languages, about 44%, make some kind of distinction between two or more genders.

Something people aren’t always aware of is that English has gender as well. In fact, it has three genders, like German: masculine, feminine and neuter. Admittedly, there are two differences between the gender system of English and the gender systems of languages like French and German which make gender a less prominent phenomenon in English.

Firstly, in English, gender agreement only occurs with pronouns. The words he, she and it are used to refer to males, females and non-gendered things, respectively, and using the wrong pronoun for a given referent is considered grammatically incorrect.1 On the other hand, in French and German gender agreement also occurs with determiners and adjectives, and in written French, and in both spoken and written Russian gender agreement also occurs with verbs. Languages like English where gender agreement only occurs with pronouns are said to have pronominal gender systems. But promoninal gender systems are gender systems nonetheless. Remember above I said that only 44% of the languages in the WALS’s sample distinguish two or more genders: well, English and other languages are counted among that 44%, so a majority—56%—of the languages in the sample show no gender agreement, not even in pronouns. In fact, pronominal gender systems are quite rare, and it is likely that most of them are the result of not-quite-complete loss of an original, more extensive gender system. This is certainly the case for English. I think it’s quite possible that in the future, English will lose the last vestiges of its gender system as people switch to using they to refer to people without regard to gender in all circumstances, as they already tend to do when the gender of a person is unknown.

Secondly, English gender assignment corresponds almost exactly to the meaning of the referent. Perhaps the only exception is that ships are often referred to as she, but even this is optional. On the other hand, in French and German there are many things which do not have a gender but are classified as masculine or feminine. It’s not the case that speakers of these languages define gender in a different way from English speakers: French people do not actually think that curtains are male and tables are female, even though they say un rideau, not *une rideau and une table, not *un table. And in German, Gardine ‘curtain’ is feminine and Tisch ‘table’ is masculine, so it seems unlikely that the choice of genders for these objects is based on any inherent association of them with masculinity or femininity given that two neighbouring peoples sharing similar cultures have made the assignments in two completely different ways. The French and German masculine and feminine genders just contain a lot of other things besides males and females. In fact, in German, there is an example which goes the other way. Mädchen ‘girl’ should be feminine given the meaning2, but it is actually neuter: Germans say das Mädchen, rather than *die Mädchen.3

There is, however, an important difference between the assignment of Mädchen to the neuter gender and the assignment of Tisch and Gardine to the masculine and feminine genders respectively. The reason Mädchen is neuter is that it it is formed from the word Magd ‘maiden’ by adding the dimunitive suffix -chen, and there is a rule in German that says that every word formed by adding the suffix -chen is neuter. Many German suffixes are associated with a particular gender; for example, nouns in -heit, -keit and -schaft are always feminine, and nouns in -lein (which is another dimunitive suffix) are always neuter. The associations of these suffixes with particular genders constitute a rule which overrides the rule that every word that refers to males is masculine and every word that refers to females is feminine. So, in German gender assignment is determined by (at least) two rules, which are applied in sequence.

  1. If the noun is formed with the suffixes -heit, -keit or -schaft, assign it to the feminine gender, and if the noun is formed with the suffixes -chen or -lein, assign it to the neuter gender. (Note: there are other suffixes which should be mentioned in this rule, as well, but I’m not intending to precisely describe German gender assignment here, just to show you the general outline of how the system works.)
  2. If the noun refers to males, assign it to the masculine gender. If the noun refers to females, assign it to the feminine gender.

Note that the first rule is formal in nature (it refers to how the words are formed) while the second rule is semantic in nature (it refers to what the words mean). The existence of formal rules is responsible for another way in which English gender assignment is different from French and German assignment. In English, gender is a property of referents, not of the nouns themselves. But in French and German, gender is more a property of the nouns themselves. In these languages, it is possible for the same thing to be referred to by two different nouns of different genders. For example, in French, the word vélo is masculine and the word bicyclette is feminine; this is because bicyclette ends in the feminine dimunitive suffix -ette.

These rules are not sufficient to assign every German noun to a gender. Of course, this is not meant to be a complete list. But there is an interesting question here: can a list of rules based on formal and semantic factors account for the gender assignment of every noun in German? Or are there some words whose gender assignment is simply arbitrary?

If you have any knowledge of German, you might find it hard to believe that gender assignment is not mostly arbitrary. People who know French would probably also expect gender assignment in that language to also be mostly arbitrary. However, quite a few studies have been carried out which have shown that gender in French is mostly predictable via phonological rules: that is, rules that take into account the sound of the word. For example Tucker, Lambert & Rigault (1977) found that 94% of French nouns ending in the sound /ʒ/ (such as ménage ‘housekeeping’) are masculine. There are exceptions: orange ‘orange’ is feminine. But by using rules like this, Tucker, Lambert & Rigault were able to correctly determine the genders of 85% of the nouns in the Petit Larousse, a famous French dictionary. Since they did not take into account semantic (i.e. relating the meanings of words) and morphological (i.e. relating to the composition of words from prefixes, suffixes, etc.) factors, and the phonological rules they found could probably be made more accurate, it is quite likely that the vast majority of French nouns are predictably gendered. Given this surprising result, it is possible that a lot more of German assignment is predictable than you might think. Köpcke & Zubin (1984) were able to find a large amount of regularity using similar techniques, although the rules appear to be more complex than the rules in French. Of course, the more complex the assignment rules are, the less useful they are for prediction because it is difficult for learners to remember them all and apply them quickly. There is no bright line between gender being hard to predict and gender being completely unpredictable, since if you just have one rule for every word in the language saying “this word is masculine / feminine / neuter”, then that is still a set of rules. The conclusion I would draw from results like those of Tucker, Lambert & Rigault is that French and German gender is more predictable than you might think, even though it is often not fully predictable in practice.

Few gender systems have been studied as much as the French and German gender systems have, so it is possible that we might find languages that have significantly more unpredictable gender assignment rules. But it would be surprising, since predictable assignment rules are a lot more convenient for learners. I think it’s more likely that in all languages that distinguish different genders, gender assignment is to a large degree predictable.

Another interesting example of a language with apparently unpredictable gender assignment is Ojibwa. In Ojibwa there are two genders which are called the animate and inanimate genders. These genders have nothing to do with sex (the word gender comes from the French word genre, which just means type; it can refer to any kind of distinction between nouns that is reflected in agreement). Nouns that denote people, animals, trees or supernatural beings are always animate. Most other nouns are inanimate. But there is a fairly large group of nouns that seem like they should be in the inanimate gender, but are actually animate. These include ekoːn ‘snow’, enank ‘star’, esseːmaː ‘tobacco’, mentaːmin ‘maize’, meskomin ‘raspberry’ and ekkikk ‘kettle’ (Bloomfield 1957). Now, some of these might be explainable as resulting from differences in which things are considered to possess a gender. For example, it is very common, cross-linguistically and cross-culturally, for celestial bodies such as stars to be identified with supernatural beings, who have a gender. And given that trees are considered animate in Ojibwa, it’s possible that other plants like tobacco and maize might be considered animate as well. But other examples like ekoːn ‘snow’ being animate are harder to explain. There is no generally-accepted explanation for the composition of the Ojibwa animate gender, but Black-Rogers (1982) has an interesting one. According to Black-Rogers, the Ojibwa lack a clear distinction between natural and supernatural abilities. They believe that even fairly mundane activities like beadwork are only possible because of powers that have been granted to humans via supernatural means. Inanimate objects, in particular, may be sources of power. Different speakers may disagree as to which objects have power, and power may be considered to come from different sources at different times. Black-Rogers proposed that when an object is considered to be a source of power speakers start assigning it to the animate gender. She was able to explain many of the problematic animate nouns by this means. For those she wasn’t able to explain, she suggests that objects assigned to the animate gender tend to stay there, so there may be animate nouns which refer to objects that were formerly considered to be sources of power, but no longer are today. So Ojibwa gender assignment is to some extent arbitrary from a synchronic perspective, but in diachronic perspective it can be completely explained by semantic factors. Black-Rogers’s explanation may or may not be true, but I brought up the example to show you that highly unpredictable gender assignments can also be influenced mainly by semantic factors, rather than by formal factors as in the case of French and German.

Another interesting question about gender is whether there are any languages where gender assignment is determined entirely by formal factors, so that semantic factors are irrelevant. Now, it’s true that in many languages formal rules can almost entirely predict gender assignment. In Hausa, for example, there is a very simple rule: nouns ending in -aa are feminine, and all other nouns are masculine. There are some exceptions to the rule, but they are few in number. However, semantic factors are not irrelevant. If they were, then we would not expect nouns referring to males to be masculine and nouns referring to females to be feminine, because there is no reason why nouns referring to females should end in -aa but other nouns should not. In fact, the vast majority of nouns referring to females end in -aa and are feminine. Historically, the correlation between the feminine gender and the -aa suffix did not exist, or was less strong. What happened was that a suffix -nyàa was used to form nouns denoting females, and this resulted in -aa being associated with nouns denoting females, so that all such nouns ended up having the suffix -aa added to them.

Hausa gender, then, is not determined only by formal factors, and in fact it seems that there are no languages where gender is determined only by formal factors. In general, gender distinctions seem to always be fundamentally based on semantic rules of the form “all nouns with meanings of type A are assigned to gender X” (so the gender X contains all nouns of type A, but not necessarily only nouns of type A). These rules give each gender an initial set of nouns called its “semantic core”. Then semantic associations and formal rules are sufficient to assign the vast majority of remaining nouns to one of the genders, and they may shift nouns within the semantic core of one gender to a different gender as well.

So, I’ve talked a bit about about gender assignment and the interaction between formal and semantic factors here, but there are lots more interesting things to talk about with respect to gender in languages, such as: what kind of distinctions tend to be drawn? Male vs. female, animate vs. inanimate are very common—any others? What can borrowings tell us about gender assignment? What can we say about nouns which appear to have characteristics of multiple genders (like German Mädchen)? How do gender systems develop and change over time? How are gender systems acquired by language learners? If you’re interested, I recommend Gender (1991) by Greville Corbett. This post is based on the first few chapters of that book.


  1. ^ There is a known phenomenon where English speakers sometimes refer to things that would normally be referred to by it by he or she instead; for example a teenage boy told a surfer, referring to a wave: “Catch her at her height!” (Corbett 1991). But this occurs only in particular circumstances; it is clearly the usual pronoun used to refer to these things.
  2. ^ It is common, cross-linguistically and cross-culturally, for children to be non-gendered, and indeed Kind ‘child’ is neuter; however, Junge ‘boy’, and its older synonym Knabe are both masculine, so we would expect Mädchen to be feminine in parallel.
  3. ^ However, in colloquial German pronouns often agree with Mädchen as if it was feminine: Kennst du das Mädchen? Nein, ich kenne sie nicht, not … kenne es nicht.


Black-Rogers, Mary B. 1982. Algonquian Gender Revisited: Animate Nouns and Ojibwa ‘Power’ – an Impasse? Papers in Linguistics 15. 59-76.

Bloomfield, Leonard. 1957. Eastern Ojibwa: Grammatical Sketch, Texts and Word List. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Corbett, G. G. 1991. Gender. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Köpcke, K. M. & Zubin, D. 1984. Sechs Prinzipien für die Genuszuweisung im Deutschen: Ein Beitrag zur natürlichen Klassifikation. Linguistische Berichte 93: 26-50.

Tucker, G. R., Lambert, W. E., & Rigault A. A. 1977. The French speaker’s skill with grammatical gender: An example of rule-governed behavior. The Hague: Mouton de Gruyter.

The origin of war (summary of Cannibals and Kings by Marvin Harris, chapter 4)

Previously: Chapter 2.

I meant to write about Chapter 3 next, which is about the origin of agriculture. Basically, Harris thinks that the origin of agriculture is ultimately a result of the climate change that occured at the end of the Ice Age; but the exact causal sequence is complicated, and it varies depending on which region you’re talking about. I was struggling to write a post about it, so instead I’m going to write about Chapter 4, which is about the origin of warfare. I might write something on Chapter 3 later.

Why do people wage war against each other? In order to start answering this question we first have to understand that warfare is a phenomenon that has varied significantly in its nature across time and space. Different kinds of wars may happen for different reasons. We also have to understand that there is a difference between proximal and distal causes. The First World War happened, in one sense, because of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and yet most people who ask why the First World War started are not satisfied with this answer, because on its own it does not explain why the archduke was assassinated nor why his assassination caused a war. In general, when one asks “why does X happen?” and one receives the answer “because Y” there remain two questions about the cause of X—“why Y?” and “why does Y cause X?”. Y is the more proximal cause here, while the cause of Y and the cause of the fact that Y causes Y are the more distal causes. There is a temptation with questions of causation to think in terms of trying to find a first cause, but there is a sense in which first causes do not exist; everything is caused by something else. Yet it is possible to get to a stage where the remaining distal causes are already understood, or can be taken for granted; at that point you can say that the question has been answered. A lot of literature has been written by historians to try to get us to that point with the question of what caused the First World War. However, I’m not going to discuss this literature very much here, because even the causes identified in this literature are too proximal; they are the causes of one specific war, while the question at hand is the cause of war in general. And the First World War is a very atypical example of a war. In fact, all wars between states are atypical, in a certain sense, so the causes of these wars are not going to be the main focus of our discussion. States have only existed for the last few thousand years. But behaviorally modern humans have existed for at least 30,000 years. For most of that time, all human societies had a foraging mode of substance and were organised into bands1. It is only in the last 10,000 years that societies started to emerge that had a farming mode of subsistence and were organised into tribes, chiefdoms or states, and for much of this time these societies were a minority. So out of all the societies that have ever existed, most have been organised into foraging bands. Therefore, let’s start by examining the causes of warfare between foraging bands specifically.

At this point we have to note that there is some dispute over whether warfare is characteristic of forager societies. The dispute has a long history; Hobbes famously argued that humanity’s “state of nature” was a “war of all against all”, while Rousseau argued for the opposite. Nobody denies that there are forager societies today which wage war. But there are also some forager societies which have never been observed waging war, such as the Andaman Islanders, the Yahgan of Patagonia and the Semai of Malaysia. These are a minority of forager societies today, but some anthropologists believe that during the Palaeolithic, all forager societies were like this, and the modern forager societies which wage war acquired the practice due to contact with farmers. Marvin Harris is not one of those anthropologists. He thinks warfare is a very old phenomenon. The dispute is to some extent politically charged, because those with anti-war inclinations would like to believe that the prospensity towards warfare is not innate to the human species. Of course, even if humanity did have some innate prospensity towards warfare that wouldn’t necessarily mean it couldn’t be suppressed by culture. In any case, the question of how old warfare is as a phenomenon is a factual one, to be settled by facts.

Unfortunately, there is no strong evidence for any stance when it comes to Palaeolithic warfare. We certainly don’t find obvious giveaways, like the walls, towers and moats of Jericho, or the Talheim Death Pit; none of the cave paintings depict warfare. Plenty of skeletons have been found showing signs of trauma, but this is not unambiguous evidence; the trauma could have been caused by hunting accidents, or one-off incidents that were not part of an organised campaign of violence, or it could have been inflicted after death (the Manus people of New Guinea, for example, sever their dead relatives’ heads to use as keepsakes, while the Fore people, also of New Guinea, used to smash holes in their dead relatives’ skulls in order to eat their brains).

Harris admits that warfare was probably less frequent and less deadly in the Palaeolithic. Forager societies are mobile, so there is less need for conflict over territory (although it might still arise when there is no new land to escape to that is sufficiently fertile). There is also less sense of shared identity and hence less potential for xenophobia. Bands are small units, with less than 100 individuals each, so members of different bands have to intermarry to avoid inbreeding, and people often move between bands, perhaps accompanied by relatives within the band, to meet up with relatives outside of the band. Recorded instances of wars between forager bands are perhaps best described not as wars between bands, but as the sum of one-on-one fights between members of different bands who decide to resolve their individual disputes. In order to illustrate this, let’s have a look at one example of such a war that was recorded by C. W. Hart and Arnold Pilling in the late 1920s. This war took place between two bands of Australian aboriginals who lived on the Tiwi Islands in northern Australia, the Tiklauila-Rangwila and Mandiiumbula bands. The original account is not available to me, but here’s Harris’s retelling of it:

The Tiklauila-Rangwila men were the instigators. They painted themselves white, formed a war party and advised the Mandiiumbula of their intentions. A time was set for a meeting. When the two groups had gathered, both sides exchanged a few insults and agreed to meet formally in an open space where there was plenty of room. As night fell … individuals from the two groups exchanged visits, since the war parties included relatives on both sides and no one regarded every member of the other group as an enemy. At dawn the two groups lined up on opposite sides of the clearing. Hostilities began with some old men shouting out their grievances at one another. Two or three individuals were singled out for special attention.

Hence when spears began to be thrown, they were thrown by individuals for reasons based on individual disputes.

Since the old men did most of the spear throwing, marksmanship tended to be highly inaccurate.

Not infrequently the person hit was some innocent non-combatant or one of the screaming old women who weaved through the fighting men, yelling obscenities at everybody, and whose reflexes for dodging spears were not as fast as those of the men … As soon as somebody was wounded, even a seemingly irrelevant old crone, fighting stopped immediately until the implications of this new incident could be assessed by both sides.

Harris thinks that a typical war between forager bands in the Palaeolithic would have been much like this war among the Tiwi people. It would have arisen as a result of individual disputes when people who shared disputes against members of the same band decided to team up with each other. That would have been the proximal cause of these wars. Yet the question remains: why did these disputes need to be resolved by violence?

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not expecting that foragers wouldn’t have resorted to violence when it was advantageous for them. (Although there are forager societies which appear to have had a philosophy of complete non-violence, such as the Moriori of the Chatham Islands; unfortunately such societies tend to be selected against for obvious reasons—look up what happened to the Moriori.) But war between forager bands is immensely costly, perhaps more so for the societies involved than war between states. Remember, forager bands are small. And war disproportionately affects the stronger members of the band, the adult males, who make the biggest contribution to the band’s continued survival. Note also the mention in the above account of the Tiwi war of the fact that the Tiklauila-Rangwila and Mandiiumbula war parties included relatives on both sides. These people were trying to kill their own relatives, and other people who they regularly interacted with. It wasn’t like a war between states were the two parties can dehumanize each other.

Why couldn’t the Tiklauila-Rangwila men have resolved their grievances by engaging in some kind of ritualised mock combat? Of course, we don’t know how serious these grievances were, and killing has a finality which no other method of conflict resolution can rival—but it would be rash to assume that war was the only thing which would work. In fact, this was apparently how the Moriori resolved their conflicts.

Why might this kind of warfare happen? Let’s try and think of some possible reasons.

  1. The need to foster solidarity. By working together to fight an external enemy, groups that wage war increase their internal cohesion and hence their capability for survival.
  2. The need for entertainment. Groups might start wars just because their members enjoy it. (OK, this might sound a little ridiculous to people brought up in the modern Western cultural tradition which tends to hammer home the “war is hell” message, but in other cultures war is glorified. If you haven’t been in a war, how do you know what it’s really like? And if you have been in a war and not enjoyed it, might others have had a different experience?)
  3. The need to satisfy an innate “urge to kill”. Humans, or perhaps just human males specifically, have an instinct which compels them to kill others, which has evolved in the usual way via natural selection; for whatever reason, humans with an inclination towards violence have proved more reproductively successful. Of course it is possible to suppress and moderate this innate drive, just as is possible with other innate drives (people go on hunger strikes, and die from them, for example), but it remains present and manifests itself in the absence of mitigation.
  4. The desire to control more resources.

The last explanation here, that war occurs when political units compete over resources, might strike you as the most sensible one here, and it probably is the main explanation for wars between states. But does it work as an explanation of the Tiwi war? If wars between forager bands are waged for this reason, we would expect wars to often result in one band gaining resources at the expense of the other band. The ethnographic evidence, however, suggests otherwise. Victorious warriors certainly gain social status, and sometimes they gain women which they have kidnapped from the enemy, but often they return only with trophies, such as the severed heads of the men they have slain. After all, these societies do not have the capability to store food or other valuables in large quantities. Territorial expansion is out of the question; bands are mobile, so they lack territory in the first place, and besides they lack the organisational capability to subjugate a population and extract tribute from it. And as we have seen from Chapter 2, forager societies control their population growth, so they would have no need for more Lebensraum most of the time. Of course forager societies would not have always been completely successful at maintaining a constant population, so perhaps wars would occur for reasons of Lebensraum sometimes, but it would not be the main cause of war.

So, perhaps one of the other three explanations given above is more appropriate? Well, let’s have a look at them one-by-one.

Harris’s main problem with the solidarity explanation is that it needs to be accompanied with an explanation of why, out of all the ways a group could increase its sense of togetherness, warfare would be favoured over other methods which do not suffer from the rather significant costs associated with warfare. Is it so difficult to foster intragroup solidarity? In modern Western societies, sport seems to be able to do this to a considerable degree. Maybe it doesn’t work as well as warfare would, but it’s not clear—and warfare doesn’t just need to be better at fostering intragroup solidarity than sport, it needs to be so much better that it is worth the cost. Nobody has been able to show that this is the case, and without that the solidarity explanation has no explanatory power.

As for entertainment: well, I tried to convince you above that it’s not totally obvious that war isn’t fun, but after a careful look at the evidence it seems fair to conclude that war really isn’t fun. Of course societies tend to bombard their members with messages telling them that war is a blast (and not just literally), or, failing that, that killing people somehow makes you a better, more noble person—dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, right? But the very fact that the message has to be hammered home so much kind of gives away that this attitude towards war is far from natural. Humans don’t need these societal messages to get them to do things they enjoy doing; in fact there are some things that humans enjoy very much and do very frequently even when the society they live in is constantly telling them that it makes them a bad person. Everybody knows about the conscientious objectors during the two World Wars. What you might not know is that their equivalents existed even in many pre-state societies which waged war. The Crow Indians, for example, allowed adult males to avoid fighting as long as they dressed themselves in women’s clothing and worked as servants to the warriors. Even the notoriously warlike Yanomamo of the Amazon rainforest have to prepare themselves for battles by taking drugs and performing special rituals. So this explanation, too, is not convincing.

The “killer instinct” explanation suffers from the same problem. If humans have an innate urge to kill people, why is it so hard to get them to do it? In any case, why would such an innate urge be maintained by natural selection in the first place? The cause which the instinct explanation names is too proximal.

So if none of these explanations are satisfactory, what is Harris’s explanation?

I mentioned above how warfare could occur due to the need of bands for Lebensraum after population growth, but this would be a rare occurence. But a related reason why war would be beneficial would be the fact that war helps decrease the average population density in a region. Obviously, the prospect of war is good motivation for bands to try and stay away from each other. In fact, the threat of attack might encourage bands to stay away entirely from certain regions where they would be especially vulnerable. In this way “no man’s lands” are created, and these might be crucial to ensuring that foragers do not deplete the supply of the animals and plants that they consume.

But Harris doesn’t think these are the only benefits of war. He also claims that war helped foragers to control their population growth. On the face of it, this claim might seem strange because the direct effect of war is mainly to reduce the number of adult males in the population. But as long as the amount of adult women remains more or less constant, the rate of population growth will remain the same, especially in openly polygynous societies. (Not all forager societies are polygynous, but the more warlike societies tend to be more polygynous, according to Harris.)

Harris’s answer is that warfare is part of a kind of package of practices which mutually reinforce each other and serve to control population growth, so that forager populations remain within the carrying capacity of their environment. These three practices are female infanticide, warfare and male supremacy (i.e., patriarchy).

Female infanticide, of course, directly limits the rate of population growth. That was the topic of Chapter 2. But female infanticide is costly for the mother. Not necessarily in moral terms, because cultures vary greatly in how they view the morality of infanticide. But pregnancy isn’t easy, and it is not hard to see why mothers would be reluctant to kill their newborn babies after going through all that effort. And it’s not just mothers who suffer the costs, because the whole band has to work together to supply the extra food needed to feed the developing baby (or the newborn baby, since infanticide can occur by neglect, not just by direct killing).

Harris proposes (as we’ll see when we get to the next chapter) that foragers’ reliance on the strongest members of their societies, the adult males, for military purposes is the cause of the development of male supremacist institutions and practices. One of these male supremacist practises is the favouring of male babies over female ones, and this encourages female infanticide. Female infanticide would be favoured to some extent already because of its effect on population growth, but male supremacy makes it possible for it to be favoured to a greater extent, resulting in a greater effect on population growth.

Even if you don’t find this causal link illuminating (it is elaborated upon in the next chapter), Harris points to evidence that it holds up. William Divale studied a number of band and tribe societies for which census records were available covering the time when the society was pacified by the occupying state. He found that the ratio of boys less than 14 years old to girls in the same age bracket was significantly higher (128:100, on average) before pacification than after it (the average figure for societies less than 25 years post-pacification was 113:100, and after 25 years it dropped to 106:100, more or less the global average, which was 105:100 when Harris wrote the book but is 107:100 today). The figures are restricted to this age bracket for the obvious reason that when these boys grew up, many of them were killed in battle, so that the sex ratio among the adults in the unpacified societies was actually more or less exactly equal, and it actually became more skewed towards boys after pacification.

So, in summary: according to Marvin Harris, the practice of warfare facilitates the survival of forager societies because it encourages the dispersal of bands and the creation of no man’s lands where the animals and plants that they feed on can take refuge, and also because it facilitates the development of male supremacist institutions and practices; in particular, it encourages female infanticide, which limits population growth and thereby prevents the resources in the environment from being depleted.


  1. ^ Anthropologists classify societies via their extent of organisation into four types, going from least to most complex: bands, tribes, chiefdoms and states.