[Lingtyp] Kinship systems that distinguish age but not gender

David Gil gil at shh.mpg.de
Fri Jul 21 13:26:24 UTC 2017

Apologies to everyone, but some of what I said in previous postings 
about sibling terms in the languages of Indonesia turns out to be 

I had said that Minangkabau and other languages possess the following 

younger sibling
older sister
older brother

In fact, I neglected to take into account a fourth term, older sibling, 
which results in the following system

younger sibling
older sibling
older sister
older brother

So while the system still maintains the asymmetry whereby gender is only 
distinguished for older siblings, not for younger ones, the distinction 
is optional rather than obligatory.  Here are the amended text counts 
for Minangkabau and Jakarta Indonesian, with the older sibling term now 
thrown in to the mix:

591 - younger sibling
536 - older sibling
998 - older sister
1197 - older brother

Jakarta Indonesian
3050 - younger sibling
3982 - older sibling
749 - older sister
710 - older brother

So with older sibling now included, Jakarta Indonesian now falls into 
line with Minangkabau: in both languages, older siblings may be 
sex-differentiated while younger siblings aren't, and correspondingly, 
older siblings occur more frequently in texts than younger siblings.  
(The main difference between the two languages is that amongst older 
siblings, sex differentiation occurs relatively more frequently in 
Minangkabau than in Jakarta Indonesian.)

Apologies, once again, for the inaccuracy of the earlier postings. (I'm 
certainly learning a lot about the languages that I work on from this 

On 21/07/2017 14:36, David Gil wrote:
> Two unrelated comments on Martin's latest.
> First, I think that one can indeed argue that sex is less important 
> for cousins than for siblings.  One of several possible reasons:  
> Given a culture with nuclear families, limited bathroom facilities, 
> and modesty constraints governing cross-sex bathing, whether my 
> siblings were brothers or sisters would affect my daily life much more 
> than whether my cousins, who I only met once a month, were male or female.
> Secondly, some very rough and ready frequency counts from two 
> languages of Indonesia that distinguish gender for older siblings but 
> not younger ones:
> Minangkabau
> 591 - younger sibling
> 998 - older sister
> 1197 - older brother
> Jakarta Indonesian
> 3050 - younger sibling
> 749 - older sister
> 710 - older brother
> Minangkabau conforms to what I take to be Martin's generalization:  
> older siblings are more important than younger ones, and this is 
> reflected both in (a) a gender distinction, and (b) greater frequency, 
> a roughly 4:1 ratio.  However, Jakarta Indonesian exhibits a 
> conflicting pattern, in which younger siblings are referred to roughly 
> twice as frequently as both male and female older siblings together. 
> These differences could be due to differences between the languages, 
> or differences between the corpora, or both.  Lots more work needed 
> here ...
> On 21/07/2017 10:39, Martin Haspelmath wrote:
>> It is indeed an interesting suggestion (by Bingfu Lu) that sex 
>> neutralization in kinship terms is related to the importance of sex 
>> for observers. This factor may also explain that we often have 
>> sex-differentiated terms for domestic animals, but rarely for wild 
>> animals.
>> But the "importance" of sex differentiation is not easy to assess. As 
>> Greenberg notes, there is a tendency to neutralize sex also in more 
>> remote relationships (e.g. with cousins, where even English 
>> neutralizes, and with in-laws), and it is hard to argue, for example, 
>> that sex is less important in cousins than in siblings. So maybe 
>> frequency of use is a better explanation after all? Does anyone have 
>> frequency counts for 'younger sibling' and 'older sibling' terms? 
>> (And frequency counts for domestic as opposed to wild animals?)
>> I also have a comment on Maïa Ponsonnet's crictical remark concerning 
>> the term "universal":
>>> However, I wonder is calling such hypotheses "universals" too early 
>>> can create other problems. We may then omit to disqualify the 
>>> hypothesis, even after many, many counter-examples have been 
>>> provided. So we may end up postulating universality based on say, 10 
>>> cases, and 10 years later still be busy providing counter-examples 
>>> for what we still call a "(potential) universal" while say, 20 
>>> counter-examples, have already been provided.
>>> So perhaps calling it "hypothetical implication" may be safer?
>> The danger certainly exists that some claims become very famous and 
>> are repeated and believed even though there is no good evidence for 
>> them (e.g. that spinach contains a lot of iron).
>> But I feel that it is clear that every claim in science has the 
>> status of a hypothesis that is subject to potential disconfirmation. 
>> The differences reside in the amount of supporting evidence. The 
>> Konstanz Universals Archive <https://typo.uni-konstanz.de/archive/> 
>> is a great resource both for references to claims of universals and 
>> for the basis of the claims (thus, without reading Greenberg (1966), 
>> one can see that universal No 1656 is based on 120 languages).
>> Martin
>> On 21.07.17 01:16, bingfu Lu wrote:
>>> I agree with Martin’s bold claim.  It seems to be very natural in 
>>> the following senses.
>>> First, from the formal perspective, babies are very likely to be 
>>> neutralized in sex.  If there is a continuum of sex neutralization 
>>> from the point of being very young (babies) to the point of very 
>>> old, then, the younger section, which includes the babies, should be 
>>> more likely to be neutralized.
>>> Second,  from the perspective of linguistic iconicity, babies tend 
>>> to be sex-neutralized because their sex features are least 
>>> developing. And it is natural, the less sex-developing, the easier 
>>> to be sex-neutralized.
>>> According to the degrees of development in sex features, it might to 
>>> be predicted that there may be some languages where the very old 
>>> elders are neutralized in linguistic form, since very old elders are 
>>> sex-retrodegraded.
>>> In short, the sex neutralization is more likely when the sex 
>>> features are less strong and less important in age.
>>> ------------------------------------------------------------------------
>>> On Wednesday, July 19, 2017, 5:10:32 PM GMT+8, Martin Haspelmath 
>>> <haspelmath at shh.mpg.de> wrote:
>>> 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).
>>> Martin
>> -- 
>> Martin Haspelmath (haspelmath at shh.mpg.de)
>> Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History
>> Kahlaische Strasse 10	
>> D-07745 Jena
>> &
>> Leipzig University
>> IPF 141199
>> Nikolaistrasse 6-10
>> D-04109 Leipzig
>> _______________________________________________
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> -- 
> David Gil
> Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution
> Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History
> Kahlaische Strasse 10, 07745 Jena, Germany
> Email:gil at shh.mpg.de
> Office Phone (Germany): +49-3641686834
> Mobile Phone (Indonesia): +62-81281162816
> _______________________________________________
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David Gil

Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution
Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History
Kahlaische Strasse 10, 07745 Jena, Germany

Email: gil at shh.mpg.de
Office Phone (Germany): +49-3641686834
Mobile Phone (Indonesia): +62-81281162816

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