[Lingtyp] Kinship systems that distinguish age but not gender

Alexander Coupe ARCoupe at ntu.edu.sg
Wed Jul 19 09:17:39 UTC 2017

Here’s another one for that database:

Mongsen Ao has a bound root (that takes a relational noun prefix tə-) for 'older sibling', e.g. /tə-ti/, and another for ‘younger sibling’ e.g. /tə-nu/. Neither distinguishes gender.


From: Lingtyp <lingtyp-bounces at listserv.linguistlist.org<mailto:lingtyp-bounces at listserv.linguistlist.org>> on behalf of Martin Haspelmath <haspelmath at shh.mpg.de<mailto:haspelmath at shh.mpg.de>>
Date: Wednesday, 19 July 2017 at 11:07 AM
To: "lingtyp at listserv.linguistlist.org<mailto:lingtyp at listserv.linguistlist.org>" <lingtyp at listserv.linguistlist.org<mailto:lingtyp at listserv.linguistlist.org>>
Subject: Re: [Lingtyp] Kinship systems that distinguish age but not gender

On the basis of Turkish (kardeş) and Minangkabau (adiak), which neutralize the sex distinction in the younger sibling term, one could propose the following universal:

"If a language makes a distinction between elder and younger siblings and neutralizes sex only in one type, then it neutralizes in younger siblings."

This may seem bold, but I think that such bold formulations are productive in that they are likely to elicit responses from language specialists whose language goes against the generalization. (And if the bold generalization makes it into print somewhere, then one can even write an abstract on the basis of one's data and argue against a previous claim.)

Now it so happens that a claim very similar to the one above has already been made, on p. 76-77 in Greenberg's chapter "Universals of kinship terminology", which is Chapter five of his most important work:

Greenberg, Joseph H. 1966. Language universals, with special reference to feature hierarchies. The Hague: Mouton.

Greenberg formulates the generalization in terms of one kind of kinship being "marked", the other "unmarked". "Marked" features tend to be neutralized, so saying that younger siblings are "marked" amounts to the same as the above claim. (In my view of things, this would mean that some kinds of kinship features are more frequently used than others.)

(Greenberg also says somewhere that masculine/male is unmarked, so he probably predicts that female terms ternd to be neuralized for age, thus answering Siva Kalyan's question.)

So there are a lot of interesting predictions that could be tested if someone finally made a comprehensive world-wide database on kinship terms (I think some people near Hedvig are working on this).


On 19.07.17 10:50, David Gil wrote:
Matt beat me to it on Malay/Indonesian!  I would just like to add that while many (most?) varieties that I am familiar with work the way Matt describes, some exhibit an asymmetry in which elder siblings are distinguished for gender while younger ones are not.  This pattern is also evident in closely-related Minangkabau:

adiak - 'younger sibling'
uda - 'elder brother'
uni - 'elder sister'

And I suspect that it is common in other languages of the region.

On 19/07/2017 10:40, Matthew Carroll wrote:
Hi Guys

What about Indonesian/Malay? kakak/adik for elder/younger sibling respectively.


On Wed, Jul 19, 2017 at 9:31 AM, Hedvig Skirgård <hedvig.skirgard at gmail.com<mailto:hedvig.skirgard at gmail.com>> wrote:

Does anyone know of a language that has a distinction in the kinship system for age of referent (younger/older) without also having a distinction for gender of referent? For example, a language that marks siblings as being younger or older to ego without reference to being sister or brother.

The hypothesis is that this doesn't happen/is very rare. We'd like to know if you've come across any examples of this.

I'm asking for my friend Alex (cc:ed) who is not on the list. Please direct any responses or comments to her.


Tōfā soifua,

Hedvig Skirgård

PhD Candidate
The Wellsprings of Linguistic Diversity

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School of Culture, History and Language
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