Monthly Archives: December 2011

Kinship terms

Although the actual words to describe the relationships differ from language to language, the Numbami kinship system is fairly widespread, not just among indigenous peoples in Papua New Guinea and Australia, but also in South India and across North America. In North American terms, Numbami kinship terminology can be classified as of the Iroquois type.

One of the major classificatory criteria of such a system is whether a chain of relationships crosses sex lines or stays within the same sex. For instance, siblings of the same sex (parallel siblings) are distinguished according to whether they are elder or younger than oneself. Siblings of the opposite sex (cross-siblings) are not. Similarly, one’s father’s brothers and mother’s sisters (parallel siblings) are distinguished according to whether they are elder or younger than the respective parent, and their children (parallel cousins) are classified as either elder or younger parallel siblings in accordance with the relative age of their parents.

In contrast, relative age is not regularly distinguished for relatives linked across sex lines, such as one’s father’s sister’s children or mother’s brother’s children (cross-cousins). This lack of age-ranking among cross-cousins may help explain why the gode-lu-gode (‘cousin-to-cousin’) relationship is considered the most open and easygoing among kin relationships.

Numbami kinship terms also show unique morphology. The suffix -(e)we (from ewa ‘female’) marks specifically female equivalents in male–female pairs of terms. And the female suffix also preserves a few older traces of possessive suffixes that used to mark kin terms (and body parts) in a pattern that is very widespread in Oceanic languages, but generally eroded to varying degrees in the Huon Gulf languages of PNG. These traces of older possessive suffixes are discussed below.

amba ‘great-grandfather’
ambanewe ‘great-grandmother’

tumbuna ‘grandson, grandfather’
tumbunewe ‘granddaughter, grandmother’

tama ‘father’ (somewhat archaic or technical in usage)
tina ‘mother’ (somewhat archaic or metaphorical in usage)

mama ‘father’ (both referential and vocative)
awa ‘mother’ (both referential and vocative)

mama bamo ‘father’s elder brother, mother’s elder sister’s spouse’
awa bamo ‘mother’s elder sister, father’s elder brother’s spouse’

mama kae ‘father’s younger brother, mother’s younger sister’s spouse’
awa kae ‘mother’s younger sister, father’s younger brother’s spouse’

sika ‘elder (usually male) parallel sibling (father’s elder brother’s son or mother’s elder sister’s son)’
sikanewe ‘elder female parallel sibling (father’s elder brother’s daughter or mother’s younger sister’s daughter)’

kapa ‘younger (usu. male) parallel sibling (father’s younger brother’s son or mother’s younger sister’s son)’
kapowe ‘younger female parallel sibling (father’s younger brother’s daughter or mother’s younger sister’s daughter)’

lu ‘cross-sibling (woman’s brother or male parallel cousin)’
lunewe ‘female cross-sibling (man’s sister or female parallel cousin)’

gode ‘cross-cousin (mother’s brother’s or father’s sister’s child, usu. male)’
godenewe ‘female cross-cousin (mother’s brother’s or father’s sister’s daughter)’

asowa ‘spouse (husband or wife)’
asosika ‘spouse of one’s elder parallel sibling’
asokapa ‘spouse of one’s younger parallel sibling’

iwa ‘spouse’s (usu. wife’s) cross-sibling’ (TP tambu)
iwanewe ‘husband’s cross-sibling’
kolamundu ‘cross-sibling’s spouse’ (TP tambu)

wowa ‘uncle (mother’s brother or father’s sister’s husband)’
wawe ‘aunt (father’s sister or mother’s brother’s wife)’

natu ‘offspring, son (of self or parallel sibling)’
natunewe ‘daughter (of self or parallel sibling)’

tamota ‘nephew (son of cross-sibling or cross-cousin)’
tamotewe ‘niece (daughter of cross-sibling or cross-cousin)’

In Numbami, possessive suffixes have been lost everywhere except on a handful of kin terms. (They are eroded, but somewhat better preserved in Jabêm and even better preserved in Iwal.) Even where the suffixes survive, however, they only distinguish the person, not the number, of the possessor. They are also highly variable in actual usage, and almost always redundant because the possessor is also marked by a full pronoun. (The only exceptions are a few vocatives, like tumbu-gi-to ‘my collective grandsons’). If one is ever unsure about which form to use, the safest choice seems to be -n-ewe, which used to signal a 3rd-person singular possessor.

Compare the following:

nanggi lu ‘my (usu. male) cross-sibling’
anami lu ‘your (usu. male) cross-sibling’
ena lu ‘her (usu. male) cross-sibling’

nanggi lunggewe/lunewe ‘my female cross-sibling’
anami lumewe/lunewe ‘your female cross-sibling’
ena lunewe ‘his female cross-sibling’

nanggi gode ‘my (usu. male) cross-cousin’
anami gode ‘your (usu. male) cross-cousin’
ena gode ‘his/her (usu. male) cross-cousin’

nanggi godenewe/godenggewe ‘my female cross-cousin’
anami godenewe/godemewe ‘your female cross-cousin’
ena godenewe ‘his/her female cross-cousin’

NOTE: The formerly 3rd-person suffix -n- also shows up in a few body-part compounds, as in tanga-n-owa ‘ear(hole)’, nisi-n-owa ‘nose(hole)’, tai-n-owa ‘arse(hole)’ and the words for male and female genitals, all of which are external body parts whose holes perform vital bodily functions!


Filed under vocabulary