Friday, November 24, 2006

Cross-cultural kinship terms

In Thursday's Intercultural Communication class, we discussed the different functions of language covered in our textbook. One part of the discussion that was particularly interesting to me was when we compared Chinese and English kinship terms and saw how the use of kinship terms in Chinese affects how English kinship terms are interpreted.

We found, for instance, that if I said, "My uncle is a farmer", students felt a need to specify in their minds whether that uncle was on my father's side or mother's side, and whether the uncle was older or younger than my parent. (Some students automatically thought in terms of a father's brother, but one student said she was closer to her mother's side of the family, so thought in terms of a mother's brother.) Students were also a bit surprised when I suggested that if I said the same sentence to a native speaker of English, that person might (but probably wouldn't) ask if I meant my father's or my mother's brother, and most likely wouldn't wonder about whether or not the uncle was older or younger than my parent.

The powerful role of kinship terms is also discussed in "The Cultural Connotations and Communicative Functions of Chinese Kinship Terms" (American Communication Journal 3.3 [2000]). Shaorong Huang and Wenshan Jia argue that there are three main communicative functions served by kinship terms in Chinese:

  1. They serve a "linking function," in that they serve as a way of connecting individuals to their social groups. Huang and Jia point out--as we did in class--that kinship terms are not just used among family members, but are also used to address non-family members.
  2. They serve a "mentation function"--meaning that they are involved in stimulating "the development of higher mental processes."
    For instance, when a child addresses her maternal grandfather by the kinship term of [外祖父] "wai zu fu," she may at least understand, or try to understand, the following: 1) she has a family relation with the old man, but the old man does not live in her family; 2) as a senior member, the old man has certain power over her, and she must respect and obey him; and 3) comparing with her paternal grandfather, this man is less powerful and less strict with her behavior. The single kinship term works as a stimulus in the child's mind to help the child go through a complicated cognitive process.
  3. They serve a "regulatory function" because use of kinship terms "helps individuals regulate their personal behavior in speech communication."

I'm not sure I agree with everything they say in this article (for instance, they imply a uniqueness for the Chinese family system that I'm not sure about--our textbook suggests that Indian kinship terms are also quite complicated). But the points I cited above extend what we were discussing on Thursday about how kinship terms fit into both the naming and the interactional functions of language.

(cross-posted, with slight adjustments, to the ICC course blog)

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